The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, May 31, 2013

Red Dawn (2012)

Unnecessary Remake No. 1,839, and away we go. Released in 1984, Red Dawn is a classic flick that is a pretty good example of what a really good and oh so bad 1980s movie can be. So 28 years later, enough time has passed. Right? Let's remake it for no apparent reason other than money!!! Brace yourself for 2012's painfully bad Red Dawn.

The world, she is a-changing as a heavily militarized North Korea and Russia begin to take advantage of a struggling economy in Asia, Europe and eventually across the world. American troops are being deployed internationally, leaving the states vulnerable to attack. In Spokane, U.S. Army soldier Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth) is home on leave visiting his family when the U.S. is actually attacked and invaded by North Korean forces. As parachutes rain down and planes unleash bomb after bomb, Jed manages to escape into the mountains with his younger brother, Matt (Josh Peck), and a small group of teenagers. At first, Jed's crew is content to just hide in the mountains and survive, but the North Koreans come looking for them, including killing Jed and Matt's father (Brett Cullen) right in front of them. Using his military training, Jed teaches them how to shoot, fight and kill (DRAMA!), taking the attack to the North Koreans. America! Wolverines!

This movie was doomed a bit from the start. It was actually filmed in 2009 and originally scheduled to be released in 2010. Studio problems and backing wreaked havoc, and ta-da! It was released in November 2012 to awful reviews and a pretty lukewarm response at the box office. The biggest issue is that there's absolutely no point to the movie in the least. The 1984 original was timely (if cheesy), dealing with very current issues at the end of the Cold War. A Russian invasion of the states? Far-fetched, sure, but still creepy. Well now we're having issues with North Koreans (originally written in the script as the Chinese, dropped so it could be released in China. Yeah money!) so they invade? If you're going to do a remake, pick a lousy movie that needs to be remade. If you're just doing it for the sake of doing it ($), then at least throw something new at us! Try a tweak here, a twist there. Nice work director Dan Bradley.

The 2012 remake starts off interestingly enough. The invasion scene is pretty cool, unsettling and exciting as paratroopers descend from the sky on a lazy Saturday morning. Jed and Matt head for the hills amid chaos in Spokane, gunshots and explosions all around them. From there, it degenerates into one cliched, overdone scene after another. All characterization has been stripped away -- making the original look like a masterpiece in character study -- to the point where Jed's crew of spunky resistance fighters are a faceless, nameless sea of teenage mediocrity. More than that, it's just stupid. How is an entire North Korean army not able to find a group of teenagers hiding in the mountains? Do they not have technology available to them? How do the Wolverines manage to sneak in and out of heavily guarded Spokane pretty much at will?

I'll get the minor positives out of the way here. Not yet a star when the movie was made in 2010, Hemsworth is a solid lead. The script does him no favors, but he's very watchable, making the most of his poorly written part that requires him to be gruff and squint. In a too little, too late part, Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Sgt. Andrew Tanner, a Marine sent to work with the Wolverines and help take down a North Korean secret weapon. It's a wasted part -- around 10-15 minutes actually on-screen -- but a nice tweak on the Powers Boothe part in the original Red Dawn. Will Yun Lee plays Captain Cho, the North Korean district commander who says six words and glares at Hemsworth's Jed from afar with a menacing look. No background (or dialogue for that matter) or humanization, just foreboding looks.

One part almost single-handedly ruins the movie, and that honor goes to Peck as Matt Eckert. A former Nickelodeon star on Drake and Josh. All grown up and thinned out, Peck delivers a truly awful performance. Something seems to be going on with his eyes that ends up being distracting in a big way. Mostly though, he smiles awkwardly, mumbles a lot, growls in a scratchy voice when he's loud enough to understand and pouts like an 8-year old. Oh, and as for the iconic 'Wolverines!' cry, it's never explained, just screamed. It's the high school mascot, but they just assume we know that having seen the original. The other Wolverines include Josh Hutcherson so full of hate -- kinda -- because his parents are dead, Hemsworth love interest Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas as Matt's girlfriend, Connor Cruise as the mayor's son, Edwin Hodge as Matt's black friend, and Alyssa Diaz and Julian Alcaraz as out of town teenagers.

I figured if nothing else the action would be good here, and it ain't bad to be fair. It ain't good though either. While exciting, much of it is edited so quickly and features the handheld running camera routine that cripples just about any action movie ever. With a movie that's just 93 minutes long, everything is stripped down to a bare minimum. Background, characters, actual human interaction, it all gets tossed out the window. This was an awful movie. Go back to the original. Patrick Swayze is cooler than ever.

Red Dawn (2012): */****      

Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Name is Nobody

The truth of the wild west was that it was a particularly nasty place. Of all the sheriffs, marshals, cowboys, bandits, gunfighters and hired guns that gained infamy -- good or bad -- in the years following the Civil War, I feel safe saying very few got to choose their ending. Many died bloody in horrifically violent fashion. It's a simple theme of countless westerns; choosing how you go out, how you die when your time is up. Among other things, it's a theme that makes up the best parts of 1973's My Name is Nobody.

A famous gunfighter who's gained notoriety wherever he goes, Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) has decided to leave his infamous reputation behind him. It's 1899, and the west that he knew is becoming a thing of the past. His plan is simple; buy a ticket on a ship in New Orleans and sail away to Europe where no one knows him or his own past. That's his plan at least. On the trail, he keeps meeting a younger gunfighter known simply as Nobody (Terence Hill) who has his own plans for Beauregard. He's followed Beauregard's busy and checkered past and finding out that he intends to retire, wants him to do otherwise in glorious, bloody fashion. Nobody wants Jack to face off against the infamous Wild Bunch, a gang of 150 killers and gunmen, stamping his name in the history books.

From director Tonino Valerii, 'Nobody' is one weird revisionist-comedy-spaghetti western. It is based on a story idea from spaghetti western directing legend Sergio Leone, and there are rumors/reports that he even directed some scenes here. It is both equal parts goofy, slapstick comedy and some really poignant scenes about the closing days of the wild west. Often times, it plays almost like a tribute to the western genre, both American and spaghetti westerns. On the other hand, it creates its own identity while still paying tribute. Composer Ennio Morricone's score borrows liberally from his previous scores -- most notably Fonda's Frank Theme in Once Upon a Time in the West -- and even uses samples of Wagner's Valkyrie score (listen HERE) for the Wild Bunch theme. Give the main theme a try HERE, a little lighter in theme and tone. The locations, the music, the obvious love of the genre, it's all there.

Using a familiar western pairing of the experienced, veteran gunfighter and the young up-start looking to make a name for himself, 'Nobody' again takes something familiar and makes it different while still working. Fonda is the veteran gunfighter, his Jack Beauregard having simply outlived the era that made him a known name. He just wants to retire, leave the name behind, and more importantly the target painted squarely on his back. Hill's mysterious Nobody isn't going to allow it, wanting his hero to go out in a blaze of glory. He may not want to allow it, but he never forces Jack to do anything, just keeps on talking and talking, trying to convince him to follow the path he should take. They have a great dynamic; Fonda amused at first by Nobody, Hill with an ever-present smile on his face. Nothing is ever spelled out, but there's almost a protecting angel aura hanging over him. However it's interpreted, it's two good parts.

Either Fonda or Hill is in almost every scene, but 'Nobody' has an interesting, even surprising supporting cast. Jean Martin plays Sullivan, a mine owner in business with the Wild Bunch to distribute his stolen gold (an odd, unnecessary storyline). Familiar American faces R.G. Armstrong, Geoffrey Lewis, Steve Kanaly and Leo Gordon make quick appearances as various gunfighters gunning with and gunning for Jack. Among several familiar spaghetti western faces look for Mario Brega and Benito Stefanelli among others.

The biggest thing preventing this tribute western is a self-indulgent streak right up its back. I like Hill a lot as an actor, but I've never been a huge fan of his overly comedic parts. His Trinity westerns are infamous for a slapstick comedy that typically divides fans into the love/hate department. The first 80 minutes here give Hill plenty of chances -- far too many -- to show off that physical ability. One scene has Nobody in a bar seeing if he can chug booze/beer, throw the glass over his shoulder and shoot it before it hits the ground. Watch it HERE. While interesting in itself, it just goes on too long. Then there's the sped-up fight scenes, Hill slapping opponents over and over again before they can draw a gun on him. These are all things that could be funny/worthwhile in small doses, but it just goes on too long here.

The saving grace here is the final 30 minutes, a pretty perfect finale that helps the movie end on quite the high note. Nobody finally gets Jack to believe in his Wild Bunch shootout, an artsy, well-done sequence that pits Jack against the small army of gunmen on an open prairie. The follow-up is even better and offers a solid twist as Jack and Nobody end up in New Orleans. No spoilers here, but it works well. The highlight though is Jack's letter to Nobody about the changing times, what to look out for, and how the world and wild west has changed. It's a simple, eloquent ending that manages to wrap up on quite the freeze frame. The movie in its entirety is a mixed bag, but I loved it when it works.

My Name is Nobody (1973): ***/****  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Quiz Show

Everyone loves a good game show, don't they? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jeopardy, The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, Deal or No Deal, they're all entertaining, bringing millions of viewers in. There's always something shady though -- to me at least -- about a lot of game shows. Some seem far too easy, others just the opposite and far too difficult. Let the conspiracy theories fly when whopping amounts of money are involved. Based on a true story, 1994's Quiz Show jumps right into some backstage shenanigans.

Starring on one of 1950 TVs most popular shows, Twenty One, New Yorker Herb Stempel (John Turturro) is on a huge hot streak, having won the trivia show and advanced in six straight weeks with thousands of dollars of winnings. His ratings have plateaued though, and the studio wants a new winning contestant, forcing Herb to answer a question incorrectly as he faces personable, good-looking Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes). A very intelligent man and trivia whiz himself, Van Doren goes on a crazy streak, winning week after week and making the money to boot, American audiences falling for him instantly and catapulting him to stardom. Watching the show though, a Congressional lawyer/investigator Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) is suspicious of what's going on, smelling some sort of fix or conspiracy. He couldn't be right, could he?

From director Robert Redford, this 1994 film received almost unanimous support from critics and fans, even earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay (no wins). It is based off the true story of the game show Twenty One, a highly popular television game show that caused a scandal when it was revealed contestants were coached and/or given answers. The end result is a highly polished, well told story that features a great cast and a well-written script that is easy to appreciate. In the end unfortunately, something is missing that keeps it from being a classic. I liked it, but as the movie moves along I liked it a little less. More on that later.

With a deep cast assembled, the main focus nonetheless remains on three characters; Morrow's Goodwin, Fiennes' Van Doren and Turturro's Stempel. Three young, talented actors all bring these real life individuals to life, not just cardboard cutouts of real people. I thought Turturro should have gotten the Best Supporting Actor nod, but that instead went to screen vet Paul Scofield as Van Doren's father. Turtorro's Herb is quirky to say the least, a man with seemingly infinite knowledge who resents what was taken away from him and wants to gain some fame in the aftermath. As his replacement, Fiennes is smooth, suave and likable as Van Doren, the contestant who questions the morals of what they're doing but eventually goes along with it. The actor without much of a following, Morrow too does a fine job as Goodwin, a dogged investigator who stops at nothing to get truth and answers when he senses something amiss. It's a good trio to lead the way.

Along with Scofield as Van Doren's father, 'Quiz' is almost showing off with its talented cast. David Paymer and Hank Azaria are an excellent team together in their sliminess, Dan Enright and Albert Freedman, the Twenty One executive and his assistant who head the behind the scenes corruption on the show (with some higher studio "encouragement"). Christopher McDonald is good in a smaller part as Jack Barry, the smooth, popular host of Twenty One. Also look for Mira Sorvino as Goodwin's wife, and director turned actor Martin Scorsese as an advertising executive who more than has his say in how contestants perform (i.e. = who advances and who doesn't). As well, there's a handful of parts for actors who would become recognizable faces on film and television in the coming years. Check out the cast listing or give it a watch and see who you can spot.

One other aspect worth mentioning is the attention to detail. Everything from the clothes and wardrobe to the haircuts and cars, furniture and decor, sets to dialogue, it feels like we've been transported to the 1950s. Everyone almost always seems to be smoking a cigarette/cigar in a nice little touch too. More than the look though, we get a sense of what 1950s America and television was like. We see families surrounding TVs to catch the latest installment of their favorite shows. Quite a departure from the 6,000 channels available to most viewers now, huh? We see news spreading at a different pace -- no Twitter, Facebook, e-mail -- and an innocence balancing out with a more sinister reasoning with dollars as the bottom line. It's the little things.

So enough with the positives. It clocks in at 133 minutes, and from the 60-minute mark on, it feels long. Very long. Movies almost solely dependent on talking, dialogue and a script are tricky. The dialogue and acting is all good here with a lot of talent putting it all together, but it feels repetitive, even slow-moving in long stretches. I won't say self indulgent, but it's awful close. When the tension and drama should be ratcheted up during the Congressional hearings, I'd already lost interest. So much time is spent on the relationship between Goodwin and Van Doren that it takes away from the natural drama of the situation. It's still a good movie, but the issues here definitely affected the final ranking, tearing it down a notch.

Quiz Show (1994): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Way, Way Back

I think we can all agree that growing up just sucks sometimes. The awkwardness of high school, friends, crushes, it all adds up to one big old hellish time in most people's lives. Mine was pristine and perfect so I've got that going for me. Coming of age stories translate well (always have, imagine they always will) to the big screen. This is an early review for a flick scheduled for release later this summer, 2013's The Way, Way Back.

Traveling with his mom, Pam (Toni Collette), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), awkward 14-year old Duncan (Liam James) is less than excited about what his summer holds. Trent owns a beach house on the East Coast in a seaside town that always attracts huge summer crowds, and he's invited Pam and Duncan to stay with him and his daughter for an extended visit. Still trying to figure out exactly who he is as a teenager, Duncan doesn't like Trent in the least and struggles to go along with the very social environment all around him. He's quiet, awkward in social situations, but he's a smart kid just the same. One day, an exploring Duncan meets Owen (Sam Rockwell), the slacker but well-meaning owner of a local successful water park. Never one to form a fast friendship, Duncan nonetheless gets along with Owen immediately. Maybe this summer vacation won't be so bad after all.

Coming of age stories deserve a whole genre unto themselves, and that's meant as a good thing. With films like Stand By Me to Almost Famous, Sixteen Candles to The Sandlot and many others, it's a familiar genre. Again, that's a good thing. Directors, co-writers and co-stars Nat Faxon and Jim Rash team up and do it all here, and they do it all really well. I loved this movie. It is that rare movie that is content to be itself. It never tries to be something else. It is quite content being a smart, well-written, well thought out, entertaining, funny, dramatic emotionally effective flick. They filmed along the Massachusetts coast in three different cities, giving the story a realistic backdrop. It's summer vacation, but not quite what we've seen before. Composer Rob Simonsen's score is appropriately low-key, soft and natural with a little bit of quirky indie comedy/emo mindset.

We see this summer through the eyes of 14-year old Duncan, a shy, quiet kid who's still dealing with the effects of his parents' divorce a couple years down the road. Just 16 years old, James does a great job with the part. He gets the teenage angst down without being annoying, and makes a sympathetic character who's believable and actually looks and acts....like a teenager. He especially doesn't like Carell's Trent (much more on that later), wants his mom to stand up for herself, and in the meantime, doesn't plan on spending anymore time with them than he has to. We get to see him opening up to Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), a pretty girl vacationing next door and similarly from a divorced family. Courtesy of Rockwell's Owen, we see him opening up in general for the better. Kudos to Mr. James though. In an age of 29-year old actors playing teenagers, James shows a knack for making a personable, likable character who you're truly rooting for.

In his summer misadventures, Duncan finds solace at a crappy water park that's a time capsule to the 1980s (with a solid running joke there). He meets adults who he bonds with, finds a community that is welcoming of who he is, encouraging him to be himself while also branching out. I love Rockwell in just about anything he does, and this is one of his best parts. As Owen, he plays the type of friend that every kid should have. Is it a somewhat obvious part? Yes, you're supposed to like him. His motor-mouthed, work-avoiding, always ready with a joke tendencies brings this character to life though. The genuine friendship/dynamic that develops between him and Duncan is pitch perfect, authentic in a way script writers dream of achieving. It's not a father-son, brother-brother relationship, but instead a little of both. Mostly though, they're just friends, and that's all Duncan needs.

The movie runs just 96 minutes (I would have loved a longer version, but as is, it's pretty perfect) and puts all the talents of its very talented ensemble cast on display beyond James and Rockwell. Collette does a good job as Pam, Duncan's mom who's struggling with her own post-divorce life. Carell is an incredible asshole as Trent, Pam's year-long boyfriend who identifies Duncan as a '3' on a scale of 1-to-10. A despicable character, one you hate immediately. Amanda Peet and Rob Corddry play Joan and Kip, a married couple and summer friends' of Trent who are always ready for a party. Allison Janney plays Betty, Trent's over-bearing but generally well-meaning neighbor and Susanna's divorced mom. No filter here with Betty, just brutal honesty with no censor, especially with her son, Peter (River Alexander), and his wandering eye...literally. Also look for Zoe Levin as Trent's dramatic, very-teenage teenage daughter.

And then there's the crew at Water Wizz park that Duncan meets. Beyond Owen, look for Maya Rudolph as Caitlyn, a supervisor who goes up and down with Owen, writer-director-star Faxon as Roddy, Owen's longtime friend, co-worker and expert slide operator (see it, it'll come together), and writer-director-star Rash as Lewis, the germaphobe, mousy shack operator who's always one day away from leaving the job and the park.

The more I think about this movie, the more I like it. I loved the look of it, sunny and sandy. As I mentioned before, the Massachusetts beachfront ends up being an additional character. Anyone who's ever been on vacation in a lake/oceanfront setting has seen little summer towns like this. Loved the music, loved the characters, the humor and the laughs, the drama and the reality of it. I especially liked the ending, everyone ending up right where they should be. This flick doesn't come out until July 5th so you've got a couple months to wait, but it's more than worth that wait. Who wants to go see it with me?

The Way, Way Back (2013): ****/**** 

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Devil's Brigade

In tribute to all our veterans, here's a Memorial Day review. As a movie fan, Memorial Day was a huge weekend for me growing up. I looked forward to watching old war movies on TNT in round-the-clock marathons, WWII flicks that are some of my favorites like The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes and an underrated classic and one of my all-time favorites, 1968's The Devil's Brigade.

It's 1942 and with World War II very much yet to be decided, Lt. Colonel Robert Frederick (William Holden) has been summoned to a staff meeting in England. Even though he has no combat experience, Frederick is being given command of a new unit, the First Special Service Force. Their ultimate mission is still to be decided but the Colonel prepares for the training that awaits his brigade that consists of a crack unit of well-trained Canadian troops commanded by Dunkirk veteran Maj. Alan Crown (Cliff Robertson) and an unruly, misfit group of American troops headed by the similarly unruly Maj. Cliff Bricker (Vince Edwards). The two sides bristle immediately, but training continues. If Frederick can manage to keep his men together, their services are very much needed, including a dangerous mission on the Italian front.

From veteran director Andrew McLaglen, 'Brigade' is based on a real-life military unit, the First Special Service Force. Released just a year after The Dirty Dozen, it bears some striking similarities, but it more than capably carves out its own niche in war movie department. It is one of the great men-on-a-mission movies, and that's saying something considering the late 1960s were rampant with them. McLaglen filmed on location in Italy for much of the second half of the movie, giving an authentic look and feel to the proceedings as the Brigade goes into battle. Composer Alex North turns in a gem of a soundtrack, his theme for the Brigade (listen HERE) one that you'll be whistling for days. The main theme is a highlight, but North specializes in the quieter, darker and more sinister moments leading up to the battle in the finale.

More of a workmanlike director than an auteur, McLaglen specialized in movies like this with impressive casts of male stars. This 1968 WWII flick is loaded with star power. As Colonel Frederick, Holden doesn't get a flashy part, but he leads the way just the same. His officer wants to prove himself while also proving how capable his men are too. The best part in the film goes to Robertson as Maj. Crown, an intelligent, well-spoken and brutally capable officer who survived the Dunkirk disaster. It is a smart, underplayed role, and he steals every scene he's in. As his American counterpart, Edwards too is very solid. His Maj. Bricker is blunt and without a filter, a scrounger and hustler with the best of them. Also look for Dana Andrews, Michael Rennie and Carroll O'Connor as American generals, all making cameo appearances.

Ah, yes, and then there's the rest of the cast. If the star power above wasn't enough, McLaglen assembles a deep, talented cast of tough guys to fill out the ranks of the brigade. Leading the American contingent, look for Claude Akins, Andrew Prine, Richard Jaeckel, Luke Askew, Tom Troupe, Bill Fletcher and Tom Stern. For the Canadian half of the Brigade, watch out for Jack Watson, Harry Carey Jr., Jeremy Slate, Richard Dawson and Jean-Paul Vignon. It's cool just seeing all these recognizable faces here together, some leaving more of an impression than others. Jaeckel as Omar Greco, an acrobat trying to escape but finding a home instead, especially stands out as does Akins as Rocky, the American bully, Prine as Ransom, a smart misfit, Watson as Peacock, the tough but gentlemanly Canadian and Slate as O'Neill, the hand-to-hand combat instructor.

I think it's the cast that separates the movie from so many other solid WWII movies. It's a familiar formula here; introduce everyone, train them, have them put their differences aside following some male bonding and then unleash them on the enemy. The male bonding comes courtesy of a barroom brawl (watch HERE) with some rowdy lumberjacks, a great scene. The script is ideal in its ability to let these tough guys be tough guys. It's fun, natural with chemistry and features some great one-liners. Other highlights include Slate's introduction in a showdown with Akins (watch HERE), a 30-mile hike where the rivalry develops further, and many others. Moral of the story is this, we need these parts to be effective for the second half of the movie to truly work. And you bet it does.

The last hour follows the Brigade as it enters combat. Required to prove themselves and their ability, Frederick leads a patrol behind the lines to a heavily guarded Italian town crawling with Germans. It's a lighter action scene, but memorable just the same. The best part though is in the finale, the Brigade ordered to attack the apparently impenetrable Mount la Difensa (where the Service Force really made a name for themselves), a mountain garrisoned by German infantry and heavy armor. First, they must scale a sheer cliff-face to mount a surprise attack on the garrison. It is a great action sequence, McLaglen filming in the trenches and dugouts as the Brigade begins their assault. We always know where the battle is, where it's going, and the sheer scale of it. When the casualties do come (and they do, quickly and with some surprises), it makes this extended battle sequence that much more effective emotionally.

This has always been one of my favorites, and I seem to pick something new up with each passing viewing (I'm guessing I'm somewhere between 20 and 30). This time? The darkness late, Frederick greeting his men as they prepare for battle. North's score goes dark, Dawson explaining "Haven't you ever heard a man say goodbye?" It's an eerie, uncomfortable moment. Spot-on too, considering the Brigade sustained 77% casualties in the coming battle. 'Brigade' doesn't have the reputation of so many other WWII movies of the time, but it deserves some attention. A hidden gem.

The Devil's Brigade (1968): ****/****
* Rewrite of June 2010 review

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Hangover Part III

While I liked 2011's The Hangover Part II, I can admit it was far from the most original story. I liked it almost in spite of itself. It was inevitable, wasn't it? In the age of the unnecessary sequels, it was only a matter of time before there was another follow-up. Naturally, I was a little concerned/suspicious/wary of a second sequel, but I've invested this much time so one more movie wouldn't kill me. And away we go with 2013's The Hangover Part III.

It's been two years since the hijinks in Bangkok, and the Wolfpack has moved on....for the most part. Alan (Zach Galifianakis) has hit a bit of a rough patch and gone off his meds. His family and friends are worried about him though and manage to convince him to go to a quasi-rehab center in Arizona. Well, that's the plan at least. With Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) along for the ride, the quartet heads out to bring Alan to the facility only to be stopped in the middle of the desert by a revenge-seeking gangster, Marshall (John Goodman). Years ago, Marshall had a costly run-in with a certain Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). Marshall threatens to kill Doug unless the group can bring Chow to him. Recently escaped from a high security prison in Thailand, Chow won't make it easy though. From Tijuana to Las Vegas, the Wolfpack has one last adventure.

Have you made it to the third paragraph of this review? Congratulations! I imagine most people know/knew prior to starting this review whether or not they were going to seek this sequel out. Did you like The Hangover (a classic) and The Hangover Part II (meh but entertaining)? Then you'll like this movie. It is simple as that. Don't expect anything hugely groundbreaking, just good, solid laughs with characters we've come to like a lot by this third movie.

My biggest worry heading into this sequel from director Todd Phillips (the first two Hangovers, Old School, Due Date) was that....well, that it would be the same movie I'd seen twice before. I came away from Hangover 2 liking it, but feeling ashamed I liked it because it was literally the same movie as the first with Bangkok replacing Las Vegas. Thankfully, Phillips and script co-writer Craig Mazin didn't go for 'same old, same old' here, and the movie benefits greatly from it. There's no literal hangover here. The crew doesn't wake up after a night of debauchery and partying and have to find out how they got to that point. Instead, we get some background with Jeong's Chow, Goodman's Marshall, the Wolfpack and some $42 million in gold bars (just go with it). It's a little forced, but it's different.

Drinking, drugs, debauchery and everything else aside, I came back to the movie because of the cast. Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis are perfect together. Phil the smarmy, confident, good-looking guy, Helms the tortured demon-possessed quasi-normal guy, and Alan the all-around, off-the-wall screwball. Put those weird differences in personality together, and you've got a perfectly cast comedy trio. What they get into gets crazier and crazier, but 'Part III' is just better if you go along with it. Alan has an epic man crush on Phil who just wants to get Doug back while Stu resents everything about what they've gotten themselves into. Oh, and Bartha returns in a part that has to be painful for him. He's there, then gone, then back, then gone again as the story requires.

The best supporting part goes to Jeong though as Leslie Chow, international thief and all-around nut bag. The character is the definition of unpredictable. At different points, he sings karaoke to Johnny Cash's Hurt, pretends to be a dog and eats dog food, parachutes off Caesar's Palace, escapes from a high security prison, and steals a hidden cache of gold. Goodman too is a welcome presence as Marshall, the mobster who wants nothing but revenge on Chow. Also new, Melissa McCarthy is a scene-stealer as Cassie, a pawn shop owner who takes a shine to Alan. Heather Graham as Jade the stripper and Mike Epps as Black Doug also return from the first flick. And last but not least, yes, we see 4-year old Carlos, a really good scene between him and Alan.

There's that something missing that would have made this sequel really special, but I can't put my finger on it. It's missing a certain energy, and at 100 minutes feels a tad rushed. With all the craziness, it never slows down and wraps up rather quickly/abruptly. None of this is a movie-killer, but it does prevent it from reaching that full potential. It's really good stuff that could have been great. And according to cast and crew, this will be the final Hangover movie. That's the right decision. Now that said, stick around for the credits. It's the perfect final scene, bringing everything full circle with one good surprise after another. A worthy finale to a series that had its ups and downs but one that's definitely finishing out strong.

The Hangover Part III (2013): ***/****

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Revolt at Fort Laramie

As the Civil War started in 1861, the U.S. Army was faced with a difficult task. Units were composed of men from both the Northern and Southern states, leaving Southern soldiers to decide if they remain loyal to the oath they took to the U.S. Army or if they remain loyal to their home states. A pretty standard but enjoyable B-western, 1957's Revolt at Fort Laramie jumps right in with that premise, albeit in the west, not in the east.

At isolated Fort Laramie in the west, Major Seth Bradner (John Dehner) is facing an Indian uprising. Sioux chief Red Cloud (Eddie Little Sky) has signed a treaty with the army and government, but he hasn't received his gold payment in exchange yet for signing the treaty. Among his command is Capt. James Tenslip (Gregg Palmer), an experienced Indian fighter who is a more than worthy second in command. But as the commands readies to deal with the Indian uprising, a new issue arises. Back east, tensions are rising between the North and the South until finally Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Bradner's command is now squarely divided between Confederates and Union men. Now, Bradner and Tenslip must try and hold their command together long enough to deal with the Sioux uprising, but the Civil War might not give them enough time.

Director Lesley Selander specialized in B-westerns in the 1950s, small scale flicks that were typically limited by smallish budgets and casts. If you're introducing someone to the western genre, a flick like this probably isn't the best jumping off point. Nothing jumps off the screen that screams 'CLASSIC!' They're solid, self-contained westerns that are familiar but always entertaining. This one has some obvious flaws, like the Moab Desert being a pretty if ill-suited stand-in for the prairies and plains of Wyoming, the Dakotas and Montana. The score is unspectacular, and the set is even familiar to a recent review here and another Telander-directed western, Tomahawk Trail. I'm probably not doing a solid job here selling this movie, but it's one that is definitely for die-hard western fans. At 73 minutes, it doesn't stay long enough to be a bad flick.

The casting is okay here, but it doesn't have much in the way of star power.....as in, any star power. Dehner gets top billing, but he's relegated to a background part that doesn't give him much to do. His Maj. Bradner is from a Southern state, and as commander of Fort Laramie finds himself in quite the sticky situation. Loyal to the army or to the South? Palmer is pretty vanilla as Capt. Tenslip, his 2nd in command, who's also engaged to Bradner's shrill niece, Melissa (Frances Helm). Any disgustingly sweet scene between Tenslip and Melissa can be pretty painful. In an odd bit of casting, Don Gordon plays Jean Salignac, a half-breed scout working for the cavalry with both French and Indian blood. His accent alone is something else. Robert Keys is underused as Sgt. Darrach, the ringleader of the Southern men at the fort.

The North vs. South dynamic provides some cool moments, but it never quite delivers like I hoped it would. A cool scene has the Southerners singing Dixie when the Northerners join in with John Brown's Body. The rivalry is more than just a rivalry, two sides full of hate because of something going on thousands of miles away. Throw in an Indian uprising, a small treasure in gold, and an outnumbered cavalry troop, and we've got ourselves an interesting predicament. More than just its B-movie status, there's something missing to make it particularly memorable. Also look for Harry Dean Stanton in an uncredited part as Rinty, one of the Confederates in the garrison.

With a movie wrapping up in 75 minutes, there isn't a lot of time or space for any fluff. Okay, not entirely true, all the romance is fluff, but there's also some solid action to balance it out. The opener has a patrol intervening on an Indian attack on a payroll wagon, and a later scene has cavalry traveling down the river on rafts as Indians attack from the riverbank. The highlight though is the finale as an immense Sioux war party surrounds retreating cavalry, the wagons circling up to defend themselves. Not a great western, maybe not even a good one, but I liked it just enough to give it a mild recommendation.

Revolt at Fort Laramie (1957): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hell Drivers

Driving a gravel truck doesn't seem like a real exciting basis for a tense dramatic action film, does it? Nah, I didn't think so. With an impressive cast of future stars, 1957's Hell Drivers manages to prove me wrong in a big way. Driving a gravel truck for high stakes! Let's do this!

An ex-con looking for work, Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) manages to find a job with Hawlett's Trucking Company. The job sounds simple enough; transporting truckloads of gravel from one location to another 12 miles away. There's a catch though. The small fleet of truck drivers compete on a daily basis to see who can make the most runs with a minimum number of runs required. The end result is a drive at breakneck speeds around a twisting, winding course where safety is a secondary thought. Tom just wants to do a job and make some money, but he immediately clashes with Red (Patrick McGoohan), the fleet foreman and resident champ that no one can touch. Tom tries to avoid the macho head games, avoid the confrontation and do his job, but Red isn't going to allow it.

The Music Box Theatre recently had a screening of this realistic, dark drama from director Cy Endfield which I, of course, was not able to go to. Thanks you On Demand for having it hidden away, allowing me to catch up with it! 'Drivers' has a low-budget, ultra-realistic feel that plays like a documentary more than a feature film. Filmed in a grainy black and white, that dreary English sky never looked so....dreary? I know, I'm a master wordsmith. It's a nasty, unpleasant, me-first world presented here. If a little predictable at times, it's still a movie I enjoyed a lot.

What originally caught my attention here was the casting, an impressive list of actors who would go on to bigger and better things in the coming years. An underrated actor who never quite got his due, Baker is an ideal star. It's not your typical hero role for a 1957 flick. He's quiet, a man of few words but resolute in his word and genuinely trying to put his checkered criminal past (talked about, no actual details) behind him. However, he's also not one to take any crap from a rival. The weaker parts of the story have Baker's Tom interacting with Lucy (Peggy Cummins), Hawlett's secretary, who's involved with another driver but likes Tom just the same. Again, it's not your typical lovey-dovey relationship -- far from it and thankfully so -- but these scenes take away from the real focus of the story, the epically dangerous truck driving.

Baker is a good start, but 'Drivers' is far from done. McGoohan is a crazy presence as Red, the almost primal main rival for Baker's Tom. With his crazy eyes, wild, bushy eyebrows and ripped up leather vest, he looks like he'd like to eat his rivals, not just beat them. Herbert Lom is a scene-stealer as Gino, a former Italian P.O.W. who decided to stay in England after WWII. A gentleman with some brains, he bonds quickly with Tom, forming a fast friendship. Oh, there's more. The Hawlett drivers include Sean Connery, Sid James, Gordon Jackson, Alfie Bass, Wensley Pithey and George Murcell. Also look for Wilfrid Lawson as Ed, Hawlett's mechanic who also tests potential drivers' ability (watch Baker's test HERE). There's even small parts for David McCallum as Jimmy, Tommy's younger brother, and Jill Ireland as a waitress at the restaurant all the drivers eat at. 

A movie called 'Hell Drivers' about truck drivers transporting gravel certainly didn't sound like the most exciting background for a story, but Enfield's script (along with documentarian John Kruse) keeps things moving. The footage of the trucks driving along the roads has obviously been sped up, but it's still pretty cool. These big lorries roaring down the country roads, zipping in and around traffic, shortcuts through fields and quarries, it all ends up being solid action. A straightforward, enjoyable dramatic story with a more than worthwhile cast. Definitely seek this one out.

Hell Drivers (1957): ***/****

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Revolt of the Slaves

Anyone who's read more than a review or two of mine has most likely seen I'm kinda a big fan of spaghetti westerns, a new genre that audiences around the world ate up. But before the spaghetti westerns hit their craze in the 1960s, a different genre had already captivated audiences, the sword and sandal epic, like 1960's The Revolt of the Slaves.

It's been 300 years since the death of Jesus, and Christianity continues to spread throughout the Roman Empire, forcing the emperor, Massimiano (Dario Moreno), to take action. At the home of one powerful Roman, a new slave, Vibio (Lang Jeffries), has been purchased who shows a lot of fire and refusal to be kept down. He's caught the eye of his owner's daughter, Fabiola (Rhonda Fleming), for good and bad. She's intrigued by this mysterious new slave who isn't afraid of her or any refusal to do what she says. Vibio is actually a Christian too, caught up in the new religious movement. Both Vibio and Fabiola find themselves caught up in the fighting when Fabiola's younger sister, Agnese (Wandisa Guida), joins the Christianity movement while also catching the eye of the head of the Roman secret police.

Unavailable to watch on VHS or DVD -- that I could find at least -- this sword and sandals epic from director Nunzio Malasomma aired recently on Turner Classic Movies in a very clean, good-looking widescreen print. So many of these Italian sword and sandal epics have a stigma of being cheesy, cheap and goofy, but some money was clearly spent on this 1960 flick. The sets are impressive in scale, the wardrobe and costuming definitely aiding the cause as well. When the story does venture outside, the Italian countryside provides a fresh change of scenery, and composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino's score is solid as well.

A lot of the little things definitely lean toward the positive here, but in the process, the story gets left by the wayside. To say the story drifts is generous and polite. People talk and scheme, Christians meet, Christians run, Romans pursue, and then we start over again. Rinse, lather and repeat. We see the same chases repeatedly, the same discussions and arguments, and needless to say, it gets tedious almost immediately. It finishes up in 102 minutes, but 'Revolt' feels significantly longer. The premise is there, the makings of a good script, but it never comes together quite like you'd want.

Much of that involves the actors. As far as star power goes.......well, there isn't any. Jeffries doesn't have much in the way of personality on the big screen, a bit of a problem when you're the leading man. The one name I recognized coming in, Fleming is all right as heroine of sorts Fabiola. The character is interesting, but there's something special missing. It also seems that mostly Fleming was cast for her physical talents, dressed up in a variety of low-cut and tight outfits. In that department, she comes up aces. The most interesting character is unfortunately a supporting part that disappears for long stretches, Sebastian (Ettore Manni), a Roman prefect at the head of his legion forced to hide the fact he's a Christian. A movie from his perspective would have been far more interesting if you ask me. Also worth mentioning is Fabio (Gino Cervi), Fabiola's father, Cervino (Serge Gainsbourg), the effeminate, snaky head of the Roman secret police, Valerio (Fernando Rey), a suitor of Agnese's, and Tertulio (Antonio Casas), a prisoner converting to Christianity.

The meandering, drifting story does feature a handful of fun if hokey-looking action scenes. Very, very choreographed hand-to-hand combat sequences are pretty goofy as stunt men wait to take punches and then fall dramatically. The highlight though is the finale in a mini-Colosseum, Christians tortured and killed by the bunch in all sorts of inventive ways. Underneath the arena floor, Vibio and his fighters battle with the African troops favored by the secret police. As for the cop-out ending, well, that's best left untouched. Good action, exciting stuff, and it just comes too late to be of much use.

Revolt of the Slaves (1960): **/****

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die

I seem to have checkered pasts when it comes to tracking down hard-to-find movies that I really want to see. On first effort, something goes wrong; cable goes out, recording the wrong film/time, ninjas....that sort of thing. I actually saw this 1972 spaghetti western two years ago via Netflix streaming, but it was the heavily edited 92-minute version. It aired recently on MGM HD and was listed at the much longer, less-edited 111 minute version. Well, point to you MGM, you fooled me. It was the 92-minute version, but here's the review just the same, 1972's A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die.

It's early in the Civil War and as the fighting picks up in the Southwest, Colonel Pembroke (James Coburn), a disgraced Union officer, is looking for vengeance. He has been labeled a coward and a traitor for surrendering Fort Holman, a key position in the territory, to the Confederates without a shot fired. Now, he's got a plan to exact his revenge on the man who took the fort from him, a Confederate major named Ward (Telly Savalas). A frontal assault on the mountaintop fortress would be suicide so he intends to take the fort back on a nearly suicidal commando mission. Commanders won't grant him any troops so instead he ends up with a small squad of convicts, seven men he saves from the gallows, including a man from his past, Eli (Bud Spencer). His odds seem slim as his convicts squad seems more interested in killing him than completing the mission, but heavily guarded and fortified Fort Holman awaits.

It's pretty obvious watching the heavily-edited 92-minute version of this spaghetti western from director Tonino Valerii that some important and major portions of the story were edited. Much of the 20-to-25 minutes that were cut (lengths vary depending on sources) were from an opening prologue that establish how Pembroke and Eli meet in the war-torn Southwest. Instead, we get a dropped-in opening that actually gives away much of the ending. Ta-da, then we're back to the beginning -- sort of -- and away we go with the mission. At different times, the story does feel disjointed, out of sorts, a little rushed and at ends. Can I think of anymore cliches? Nah, that's good for now. The longer version was released on DVD via Wild East, but that DVD is currently worth $190 at Amazon so I don't see a viewing happening any time soon so for now, the heavily-edited version it is!

Now take the rest of what I'm about to write with a grain of salt. I love spaghetti westerns, and I love men-on-a-mission movies. So with that said, is this movie especially good? Nope, but I still liked it a lot. Obviously with the Civil War setting, this isn't your typical gunfighters and bandits spaghetti western. The Civil War background certainly adds a nice touch to a familiar genre. 'Reason' is also aided by some familiar locations from movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and others. The best use though is the fortress from El Condor, here as Confederate garrison Fort Holman. It appears gigantic and imposing, a fortress that's impossible to take down. It's a good-looking western, and the score from Riz Ortolani is a little schizophrenic but pretty cool. Give it a sample HERE with the main theme.

If the basic storyline sounds familiar, it should. It's a not subtle rip-off of 1967's The Dirty Dozen and countless other convicts turned commandos flick. Coburn is solid but nothing special as the revenge-seeking Pembroke, his backstory giving him a sympathetic edge, but he's mailing it in here. Spencer is the star, given more screentime and providing more interest in general. Savalas is given absolutely nothing to do in an appearance that is little more than a cameo. Pembroke's convict commandos lack the star power, basically a unique group of murderers/rapists/thieves and deserters that include Spencher's Eli, Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the Union NCO, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), a murdering muleskinner, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a deserter and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a thief who doomed 30 Union soldiers with a bad deal, and a half-breed Apache (Joseph Persaud). The group reminded me of a similar convict crew in 1969's Play Dirty, unique faces with no real background who are meant to be picked off one-by-one. Cool group just the same.

Spaghetti western fans going in shouldn't expect much in the way of action or violence the first 50 minutes or so. If you're looking for a positive, it's this; they were saving all the action for the last 40 minutes!!! Pembroke and his convict commandos make their play attacking Fort Holman in an explosive finale that features an orgy of Gatling guns, explosions and some impressive stuntwork. Like the movie itself, it's a lot of fun. Yes, stupid fun with a whole lot of flaws, but fun just the same. Oh, and the name is one of the coolest ever.

A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die (1972): ***/****

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The In-Laws

I can think of a lot of different types of buddy movies. Westerns like Butch and Sundance, cop flicks like 48 Hours and Lethal Weapon, even straight comedies like Silver Streak and The Odd Couple. I'll watch them in basically any variety with any cast. There's just something appealing about the dynamic when handled correctly. So bandits, cops, oddball friends, how about in-laws? Not my first thought either, but 1979's The In-Laws is a gem.

Preparing for the wedding of his daughter (Penny Peyser), mild-mannered NYC dentist Sheldon Kornpett (Alan Arkin) is a little skeptical and worried to meet his future in-laws. Upon meeting them, Vince Ricardo (Peter Falk) and his wife (Arlene Golonka), Sheldon is less than impressed when Vince starts spouting off at dinner about all his experiences, even screaming at his son. He's worried about what his daughter may be getting into, but he's thrown for an even bigger loop when Vince shows up the next day at his Manhattan office. Vince needs some help recovering something from his office, but he can't go in. Trying to go along with the odd-sounding plan for the sake of his daughter, Sheldon goes along with it. What's Vince up to? As Sheldon finds out when two men start shooting at him, Vince is a C.I.A. agent caught up in a plot to recover two U.S. currency engraving plates. Uh-oh, weird in-laws just got weirder.

My only real exposure to this movie was a vague recollection of a vaguely remembered 2003 remake that I never saw. Long story short? It didn't look good. I've been in a rut on Netflix so when I stumbled across it via an actor's search (being a movie reviewer is hard work I tell you!) I jumped. This comedy from director Arthur Hiller can officially be called a slump-buster. I loved this movie. It was perfection in its subtlety and when it's funny, it's hilarious. All I'm trying to figure out now is why it doesn't have more notoriety, more popularity? And what have I come up with? I've got ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. It doesn't rewrite the genre -- but few comedies do -- and doesn't rely on anything dirty, sexy or violent. Oh, and there's little if any cursing. So anyways, that mystery is still to be solved. I for one, loved it.

How this 1979 comedy slipped through the cracks for me is another mystery. Alan Arkin and Peter Falk are two of my all-time favorites so teaming the two of them up is like a fastball down the middle. It is a match made in heaven. What works so well is that both actors get a chance to play the straight man to the others' screw-up goofball. You just don't see that a lot as comedies usually pigeon-hole actors into one or the other. As Falk's Vince gets Arkin's Sheldon deeper and deeper into his highly dangerous C.I.A. mission, things get better and better. They have an easy-going perfection in their chemistry. Any scene they have together is spot-on, and that's a good thing when they're in virtually every scene together. Both Falk and Arkin are given their chances to shine, and neither Hollywood pro disappoints. Just a solid pairing that carries the movie.

With a few exceptions, a majority of the laughs here come from the kookiness going on more than the performances. It's that almost laid back, subtle goofiness between Arkin and Falk that works so well in the ridiculously stupid situations they find themselves in. Vince's reveal to Sheldon about his occupation in a crowded NYC deli really gets things going, the duo talking about a federal crime loud enough that everyone around them can hear clearly. Later as they disembark a plane in Honduras (don't ask), they come under fire from snipers. Experienced under fire, Vince yells "Serpentine, Shell! Serpentine!" in regards to how he should run so the snipers can't draw a bead on him. The line is great, Arkin's follow-up even better. Another highlight comes late as Vince and Sheldon race from hired killers, Vince saying "It's incomprehensible they took my license away! I'm a great driver!"

The goofiest and funniest is saved for last when the duo ends up at the villa of a Central American dictator, General Garcia (Richard Libertini), who's clearly a card or two short of a full deck. Case in point; he's drawn a face on his hand and talks to it....all the time. There's a great pay-off to this extended sequence, but it plays like the rest of the movie. The story and ever-escalating craziness is all sorts of nuts, but Arkin and Falk keep it grounded. Also look for Nancy Dussault as Sheldon's wife, Carol, and Ed Begley Jr. as Barry Lutz, a C.I.A. agent with an interesting reveal about Vince's background. Underrated comedy, one that's definitely worth seeking out.

The In-Laws (1979): *** 1/2 /**** 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

End of Watch

Being a police officer is one tough job, but I think there's one American city where it may be a titch bit worse, according to the movies that is. That city is Los Angeles where movies like Training Day, Colors, Dark Blue, Rampart, Street Kings portray a living hell of crime that police officers must deal with. Adding another name to the genre, here is 2012's End of Watch.

Partners since they graduated from the academy together, Los Angeles police officers Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavada (Michael Pena) are good at what they do, really good. As patrol officers, they're constantly working in the most violent, vicious parts of South Central, dealing with turf wars, arms dealing and rival gangsters. Beyond their partnership as police officers, the duo are best friends, bonded and extremely close through years of working together. As patrolmen, they feel somewhat limited though, questioning what they really accomplish from day-to-day. Working a routine shift though, Taylor and Zavada make a big bust featuring assault weapons and thousands of dollars hidden away. The day-to-day routine wears on them mentally as they see more and more of what people can do to each other, but with this seemingly normal stop, they may have stumbled into something deeper and far more sinister.

From director David Ayer, 'Watch' is interested in the reality of being a Los Angeles police officer. He cut his teeth on similarly dark-themed cop movies like Street Kings and Harsh Times while also writing Dark Blue, Training Day and S.W.A.T so in a way, he's created this Los Angeles cop sub-genre. Gyllenhaal's Brian is filming a short film for a class he's taking so he constantly carries a handheld camera while also attaching miniature cameras to both his and Miguel's uniform. We see the horrors of being a police officer from their point of view. We're on the ground with them, on patrol, in their car, making arrests. We see it all. It's an alarming, unsettling look at the life, one that in a film or real life, gives you an appreciation for what beat cops go through on a day-to-day basis.

The main dynamic here is between Gyllenhaal and Pena, and that's most definitely a good thing. These two young but experienced cops are the same age. So often, cop movies have a grizzled vet and an enthusiastic newbie, but that's not the case here. Taylor and Zavada are on the same page, are near similar milestones in their lives, and even their differences are able to bring them together. Ayer's script is ripe with those buddy moments, two brothers-in-arms busting each other mercilessly, the type of dialogue that flows naturally and effortlessly. It reflects a genuine friendship as two very talented, very skilled actors play off each other perfectly. Brutal realism aside, I thought the strongest part of the film is that relationship. Its a buddy relationship at its best. We watch, and it doesn't feel like acting, just the natural bull-shitting back and forth between two best friends who have been through the ringer together.

In a quasi-documentary format, 'Watch' follows our two lead officers closely, but we see all the aspects of their jobs and lives. The story is episodic, covering eight to nine months in a 109-minute movie. Taylor ends up marrying girlfriend Janet (Anna Kendrick), but we really only see two brief interactions between them before the marriage. We hear more as he talks with Zavada. We meet Miguel's wife, Gabby (Natalie Martinez), we meet fellow officers (menacing David Harbour, capable America Ferrera, and confident Cody Horn), superiors on the force (Frank Grillo and Jaime FitzSimons), and the gangsters, crooks and witnesses they meet from day to day.

The one thing that bothered me is both good and bad. Using the documentary style, there is a focus on handheld camera work. In small doses, that's a good thing. In bigger doses.....yeah, it's an issue. It becomes repetitive quickly, the act wearing thin quickly. The biggest problem is the counter. At times....at times, it does work because we are on the pavement with them. It's personal. It's emotional. It's hard-hitting. My other issue is a little more delicate. The story leans a little toward the cliched, even stereotypical in its portrayal of the gangland fighting between African American and Hispanic gangs. To a point, it's based in the truth to the real-life gangsters (I imagine at least, I've never been to South Central L.A.), but the portrayal was just too much for me, like Hispanic gangster Big Evil (Maurice Compte) explaining his nickname "My evil is big."

While the story leans in the episodic vein, the focus hones in on a more specific story in the final 45 minutes. Introduced early, we see Brian and Miguel get caught up in a drug cartel, one that doesn't appreciate any attention from two lowly, patrolling beat cops. The intensity and action gets ratcheted up, especially when the cartels go on the attack. It builds to an emotional ending, but one that disappoints at the same time because it doesn't go far enough. It almost does....almost...., but it goes for a safer ending. Still effective, just not as effective as it could have been. That said, the final scene is a gem, a great caper to an above average police story. Familiar at times but very good.

End of Watch (2012): *** 1/2 /****  

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Bullitt


Let's cut away all the fluffiness and cut right to the bone. Steve McQueen is maybe the coolest actor to ever work in Hollywood. An underrated actor who had an incredible on-screen presence, he had his biggest success and popularity in the late 1960s. The Cincinnati Kid, Nevada Smith, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sand Pebbles, all excellent parts in good to great films. Nowhere was McQueen more at his coolest than 1968's Bullitt.

A respected and hard-edged San Francisco detective, Frank Bullitt (McQueen) has been tasked with a somewhat dull but essential task from ambitious politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn). Prepping for a Senate hearing about a Mafia takedown, Chalmers has enlisted a key witness (Felice Orlandi), and Bullitt and two other detectives must babysit him over a weekend until the hearing. Instead, the witness is killed by two assassins, forcing Bullitt to find out what's going on. Something doesn't fit together as he examines the clues and evidence, but the pressure is on. Chalmers needs a scapegoat, and Bullitt seems like the perfect target to take the fall. Knowing he's been backed into a corner, Bullitt has an extremely limited window to find out exactly what's going on.

The late 1960s were one of the most influential periods in Hollywood history, changing the way films were made and more importantly, the stories that were told. From director Peter Yates, 'Bullitt' is a police/cop movie like none before it. It is a smart, stylish cop drama/thriller that for me, gets better with each viewing. For starters, it was filmed in San Francisco, setting the stage for Dirty Harry, McQ and a whole cop genre to move into the city. It is an ideal backdrop for the story; a polished, good-looking city that is nonetheless hiding secrets. The score from Lalo Schifrin is a good mix of quiet, soothing jazz and faster-paced, more traditional yet still exciting musical cues (listen HERE). The style in an almost documentary-like fashion reflects some of the French crime thrillers that I've really come to appreciate, giving 'Bullitt' a different edge more than just the same old, same old cops and robbers story.

That starts with Steve McQueen as Detective Frank Bullitt, a veteran cop who always gets the job done but usually how he wants to do it, not how he should do it. That basic write-up is as cliched as the countless cop movie stereotypes that have been done to death in the years since, but McQueen gives the lead performance a different edge. Never one for huge dialogue scenes, McQueen's Bullitt is a huge presence whenever he's on-screen. He does more with a look here or there than many actors could do with an entire monologue with the camera trained on them. There's a self-assured confidence in the part, a quietness about it too. Bullitt is an expert at what he does, but he's not interested in fame or accolades. He does it because he's really good, so good that he's become almost desensitized to the violence he sees on a daily basis. McQueen is cool, acts cool and looks cool (I have a way with words, don't I?).

Okay, so we've talked about the plot, Steve McQueen's badass-ness (is that a word?), and hhhmmm, what else? Oh, right, the cars. Some 45 years since its release, 'Bullitt' is still remembered fondly for an infamous car chase that opened the door for countless knockoffs, remakes and retries. Driving his 1968 Ford Mustang, McQueen pursues two assassins (driver Bill Hickman, killer Paul Genge) in, around and through San Fran, two muscle cars going at it for everything they're worth. Schifrin's soundtrack is left by the wayside, just the sounds of the two engines doing battle providing all the soundtrack that's needed. Looking back on it now, it isn't a flashy sequence, but it is clear how much it has influenced just about every movie car chase since. It is an extended sequence that runs about 10 minutes total (near the film's halfway point), one that will definitely get the adrenaline pumping.

Now sometimes at the expense of the film's style is the film's story. It took me three or four viewings to really get everything down just right. Not to throw this out there as a cop-out, but an understanding of the story isn't a must here. You watch for the style. Some reviewers/critics have an issue with the pacing, some point-blank stating that it's a boring movie. It isn't an action-packed movie, that's for sure. 'Bullitt' takes its time but always knows where it wants to go. A chase through a hospital is subtle and underplayed but incredibly full of tension, as is the finale at the San Francisco airport as Bullitt chases a suspect across runways in use. We see little departures into San Fran with Bullitt's girlfriend, Cathy (Jacqueline Bisset), on dates and at work, to Bullitt's apartment, to follow up with witnesses. It's rarely flashy, but there's something charming just the same about that assured style.

Backing McQueen up, Vaughn does what he does best; gentlemanly slimy to perfection. His Chalmers is smooth and suave, but he's really a snake waiting in the grass to strike. Don Gordon (a longtime, close friend of McQueen) is nicely cast as Delgetti, Bullitt's longtime partner with Simon Oakland and Norman Fell as their superiors. Also look for Robert Duvall in a small but key (and effective) part as a cab driver whose help Bullitt enlists as he tries to figure everything out. 

One of my favorites, an iconic flick from the 1960s, and one of Steve McQueen's all-time bests. Haven't seen it? What's wrong with you?!? Highly recommended.

Bullitt (1968): ****/****
Rewrite of November 2009 review

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry

Cars are pretty cool, huh? Yes, another sterling lead courtesy of Just Hit Play, and you're welcome. It's a simple truth though, one that the movie industry has believed in for years. My car can go faster than yours. What are you going to do about it? There's something primal and stupid about watching a souped-up car gunning it down the road, typically with cops or gangsters or any number of random bad guys on their trail. From the decade of the car movie, here comes another gem, 1974's Dirty Mary Crazy Larry.

A stock car driver who's never quite made it to the big time, Larry (Peter Fonda) is convinced all he needs is a car and the equipment to make it big but no one will back him. With his longtime friend and down-on-his-luck mechanic, Deke (Adam Roarke), Larry has a plan. The duo concocts a plan though, robbing a grocery store that just received its payroll in a tiny, backroads town. The job goes off smoothly....until they try to get away. Waiting inside their getaway car is Mary (Susan George), a one-night stand (at the time) of Larry's who secretly tagged along. With no way to get rid of her -- without her turning them in -- she tags along on the getaway. Their plan comes together nicely, even when the local police, led by ridiculously persistent Captain Franklin (Vic Morrow), catch wind of them and aren't far behind.

Made on the cheap and the definition of a B-movie that thrives in its cheapness, 'Crazy' is a gem of a car movie. From director John Hough, it makes no bones about what it is. This is a movie about badass, souped-up cars with V-8 engines going wheel-to-wheel on the open road. Are you interested in a movie with well thought-out characters that develop over time? A story with twists and turns and an Oscar-caliber script? You should probably check out a different movie. It clocks in at 93 minutes and never truly slows down. In the vein of Thunder Road, Bullitt, Smokey and the Bandit, Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop and many more car flicks, 'Crazy' more than belongs in the conversation.

This is a movie to watch the cars drive and drive ridiculously fast. It was filmed in the California countryside away from the big cities, including some great locations in and around the walnut groves in Stockton and Linden, California. I'm a sucker for any car movies, and while I didn't love all of this flick -- more on that later -- the appeal is obvious. We're talking the souped-up cars (Larry and Deke drive a 1966 Chevy Impala and later a 1969 Dodge Charger) doing battle with similarly souped-up police cars, and in the coolest development? The Charger going up against an obsessed Franklin in a police helicopter on an isolated road. All the driving stunts are impressive in their own right, but this extended sequence is something else. The helicopter looks to be flying at top speeds just feet -- maybe inches -- away from the Charger. Great story this is not, just sit back and admire the truly impressive stunt work and driving.

This is a fun movie, but there are stretches that tested even my limits. That issue comes from the title characters. A rebel icon of the 1960s and 1970s, Peter Fonda is and always will be pretty cool. Playing crazy Larry though, he's just annoying. His character is hard to like even a little, and the cocky stock car driver gets old quick, especially his cackling laughter. Unfortunately, he's not the most annoying person here. That title belongs to Susan George as Dirty Mary. Around because the movie requires some eye candy and little else, Mary is beyond shrill. Larry affectionately calls her 'Dingleberry' after their magical one-night together so clearly it's a classic movie romance on par with Casablanca. George does look good, rocking low-rise jeans and a denim bikini top, but the shrillness is unreal, and the character's down right stupid.

That's all unfortunate because when Fonda's Larry and Roarke's Deke are together, we've got a good thing going. I especially liked Roarke as mechanic Deke, an expert in everything motor and gearhead. He just wants to get away with the money and is less than appreciative of Mary tagging along on the getaway. Even he grows a little tired of Larry's act though. A star of biker flicks, Roarke was my favorite actor here. As Capt. Franklin, Morrow continues to establish himself as the face of the evil Establishment, just like Bad News Bears. It's a funny part though, a cop who doesn't care about rules or appearances, just catching the bad guy. Also look for Kenneth Tobey as Donahue, Franklin's by-the-book superior, and Eugene Daniels as Hank, one of Franklin's cops who gets his hands on a police interceptor with a cranked-up V-8 engine.

The movie is a hot mess overall. Larry and Deke take the grocery store owner (an uncredited Roddy McDowall) captive, holding his family hostage at their home while they pull off the robbery. Unsympathetic characters to say the least, but thankfully that rights itself a little bit. Sure, there are flaws a-plenty here in this cult classic, but it's fun throughout. Enjoy it, and don't blink or you'll miss the shocker of an ending.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974): ***/****  

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Fast and the Furious (1955)

No, not that Fast and the Furious unfortunately. This B-movie from 1955 named The Fast and the Furious has no relation other than its title to the successful drag racing-fast car-cool action franchise that will release its sixth film in theaters this May. Nope, this one is just a lousy, dull B-movie made on the cheap that just doesn't have much going for it.

Wrong accused of murder, Frank Webster (John Ireland) is on the run. He claims he's innocent, but he's wanted for the murder of a truck driver he was accused of driving off the road, the driver killed in the process. He's on the run in southern California, but when a vigilante-like trucker asks too many questions, he becomes desperate, kidnapping race car driver Connie Adair (Dorothy Malone). With the beautiful captive/hostage along for the ride in her souped-up racing jalopy, Webster must come up with a plan to evade the police. His best option is what Connie was on her way to, a road race that briefly crosses into Mexico. Posing as a race car driver, Webster tries to get in, but his chances seem slim, and Connie isn't going to make it easy on him.

Aired in late March as part of a Turner Classic Movies theme night, 'Furious' caught my attention because I'll watch just about any racing/car movie. It was lightly recommended to me via Netflix, but because it runs just 74-minutes, I didn't want to waste a rental on such a short movie (my worries were well-founded by the way). It sounded pretty cheesy, but in that 1950s cornball cheesy way that can be appealing. I was wrong. It's not entertaining and just doesn't have anything worth recommending. In other words, this isn't going to be too long of a review. It stunk, and that's all.

Working with Edward Sampson, star and co-director Ireland were at the helm of this one that's also produced and written by B-movie master Roger Corman. It was made on the cheap, and it looks it, but that's far from the biggest problem here. The story itself is ridiculous, and the issues are hamstrung even more by the miniscule budget. An "epic manhunt" is meant to corner and capture Ireland's Webster, but they don't have a picture of him anywhere to distribute? He's stopped by cops who even when they question him don't realize he's a wanted fugitive. And a road race is the best way out of the country? Yes, I know, it's a way to get some cool racing footage into an otherwise pretty pointless story, but come on, show a little effort. Cheap is one thing, downright dumb another. Much of the driving scenes are aided by some horrifically cheap, out of place green-screen scenes where Ireland is in a studio while the background flies by behind him. Yeah, cheapness!

If there is a positive, and I'm straining for one at this point, it is the racing footage. We get to see some cool 1950s race cars in action. 'Fast' filmed in the California hills, and the racing scenes are pretty cool with some impressive crowds providing a somewhat realistic backdrop. That's about it. Fast cars are cool.

Then there's the acting, Ireland and Malone spending much of the time delivering some of the worst, most truly stilted dialogue I've ever heard. Because the story requires it, they fall in love with each other sometime after a hungry Malone is offered food on a picnic from the cantankerous, annoyed Ireland. I'm totally serious there. He steals food for a picnic, and she falls for him. Then, Connie spends the rest of the movie trying to convince Webster to turn himself in and prove his innocence. But NO! He's got to escape to Mexico via a popular road race! Yes, an inexperienced driver handling himself in a road race. Uh, I'm out of things to rip about this movie, and I've said too much already. Bad, badder and baddest.

The Fast and the Furious (1955): */****

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Crime Wave

I've been thinking about this for three days now since I watched 1954's Crime Wave, and I've got nothing. I really do try to come up with interesting intros to the reviews, even taking some pride in it. I'm stumped here though so let's cut to the chase. A film noir with a solid cast and director, I liked this movie a lot. Good enough? Yeah, let's get going.

In the dead of night in Los Angeles, three escaped convicts led by Doc Penny (Ted de Corsia) rob a gas station, grabbing $130, but as they make their getaway, an investigating police officer on patrol gets in their way and is callously gunned down. The news spreads through police departments/offices throughout the city, and in minutes, a huge manhunt led by Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) is under way. The city is all but shut down in hopes of capturing the trio, but they seem to have disappeared. Sims and the police start to investigate where they could be hiding with Sims thinking they've holed up somewhere with an ex-con. Suspect No. 1? An ex-con named Steve Lacey (Gene Lacey) who Sims put away years ago and has supposedly gone clean. Time is running out though, and there's a chance that maybe the crooks slipped away, the murder going unresolved.

I come away more and more impressed with the entire genre of film noir flicks the more I'm introduced to them. I was always aware of the more well-known, well respected noirs, but as I try to review more and more reviews, I'm finding more and more worthwhile entries to the genre. This one from director Andre de Toth is one that doesn't get much in the way of recognition, but it's everything that's right about the genre. It was filmed on location in Los Angeles, Burbank and Glendale, its shadowy streets, alleys and neighborhoods providing a backdrop to the story. It looks great, and it doesn't waste any time with its 75-minute running time. Cops, crooks, and those caught in the middle. Hard to mess up that formula, but de Toth does a great, workmanlike job here.

Early on in 'Crime,' I thought I was watching a quasi-remake of Jules Dassin's 1948 noir The Naked City. That film plays almost like a documentary of how the cops handle the investigation following a crime. Seeing both the police perspective and that of the crooks on the run, 'Crime' is similar in its portrayal. We see suspects brought in for questioning, the police searching for clues, following any leads that might lead to bringing the cop killers to justice. The story takes an interesting, even surprising turn in the second half, focusing more on Nelson's Steve and his troubles. He's moved on from his criminal past, marrying Ellen (Phyllis Kirk), a woman who accepts what he was but loves him for what he is now. This goes down the more traditional route in its noir roots, Steve, Sims and the police, and Doc and the crooks all converging on a collision course.

As far as casting goes, 'Crime' lacks the star power of more well-known film noirs, but I liked the cast. Hayden especially stands out as Lt. Sims, a veteran police officer who's seen just about everything the streets have to offer. Early on, he's so driven -- even obsessed -- I thought the story might have him develop into the bad guy. As the villain, de Corsia is appropriately greasy/slimy with a young Charles Bronson (listed as Buchinsky) and Nedrick Young as his convict cohorts. Jay Novello plays a doctor and ex-con who accidentally killed a patient, now working as a vet who gets caught up in the manhunt while the uncredited duo of Timothy Carey and Jim Hayward as two other ex-cons brought into Doc's plan. Dub Taylor makes a quick appearance as the gas station attendant while Hank Worden plays Steve's trusting boss.  

Not too much analysis required here. It's a good film noir with a solid story, good casting and quick-moving pacing. Not a hugely well known film noir, but one I enjoyed a lot. Oh, and 1950s Los Angeles looks pretty cool. It almost feels like Joe Friday should come in to assist on the investigation.

Crime Wave (1954): ***/****