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, August 30, 2013

Side Effects

It's hard to walk away when you're at the top of your game. That's what made director Steven Soderbergh's comments about an early retirement so ridiculously surprising. He said that following his directing duties on Magic Mike, Behind the Candelabra, and 2013's Side Effects that he would retire from directing to focus on his painting. Since, Soderbergh has backed off those statements, but if it's his last feature film, Side Effects is a good one to close on. 

Having been convicted of insider trading, Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) has served a four-year sentence and is being released, reuniting him with his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), of five years who waited for him the whole time. So many years apart though, Emily is worried about seeing her husband again. His prior arrest ripped away their lives completely, forcing her to move back to NYC, and now she's worried about starting all over again as her depression starts to kick in. Going through breakdowns and emotions she can't quite explain, Emily turns to a new psychiatrist, Dr. Jon Banks (Jude Law), for help. He begins to treat the troubled young woman, seeing a difficult problem but one that can be dealt with and minimized. His treatments and recommendation have varying effects, forcing Emily to ask for a different anti-depressant, a new drug that's experienced good results. Can it help? Can it help make Emily the girl she used to be and wants to be again?

From Ocean's 11 to Traffic, Contagion to Haywire and just about every other movie he's done in between, Soderbergh is one of the more unique talents working in Hollywood. If he is leaving directing for good, Hollywood is a lot less talented and a lot less interesting without him. He does it here again, putting his own spin on a familiar genre, the thriller. Without giving too much away, I can also say that the plot description above isn't quite misleading, but it only begins to scratch the surface. More on that a little later though. That Soderbergh look; cold, muted and sterile is there. His camera angles are off-center and stationary, leaving the attention on his cast. As well, a deceptive trance-like score from composer Thomas Newman is a gem, a change of pace from his always solid scores but definitely something different. Soderbergh's familiar style is there, something we've come to expect from this very talented director's works.

What makes him more than just a flash in the pan director though is the style mixed with substance. I remember just watching the trailer to this flick before its theatrical release and even then being very confused. From a trailer! Working off a script from writer Scott Z. Burns, 'Effects' is made in the vein of a Hitchcock thriller, and I almost always intend that as a compliment. The mood is tense throughout, that tension building to almost unbearable levels at different points. With Newman's score, Soderbergh's subtle cinematography techniques, Burns' script works like a slow burn. The opening scene shows bloody tracks through an apartment and then immediately flashes back to three months earlier. While it is a story about pharmaceuticals and depression and diseases you can't see, it's also so much more. Things get thrown a big old curveball about the halfway point, and from there on in it is one twist and turn after another. It's definitely a movie that would be interesting to give a rewatch, but pay attention and you'll be fine.

From movie to movie, Soderbergh certainly gets his fair share of talented actors and actresses who want to work with him, sometimes to the point we keep seeing those folks showing up in multiple movies. Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mara is excellent as Emily, a 28-year old married woman struggling with the turns her life has taken. For the most part, she underplays the part with a few exceptions late. Like just about everyone else, Mara does a really good job keeping us guessing as an audience. I think the best performance from 'Effects' belongs to Jude Law who previously worked with Soderbergh in another gem, Contagion. An underrated actor in general in my opinion, Law as Dr. Banks is a scene-stealer. He thinks his relationship with Mara's Emily is going one way only to find out so much more is going on. Regardless, it is two excellent, movie-making performances from two talented individuals.

Who else? How about Soderbergh favorite Channing Tatum? Already having starred in Soderbergh's Magic Mike and Haywire (albeit briefly), Tatum makes it a trio here. Psych, it's not much of a performance, unfortunately because with recent roles Tatum has shown he can be quite the actor. Instead, he's relegated to eye candy status here, given nothing to do in a small role. Don't expect two hours of Tatum is all I'm saying. Rounding out the major parts is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Siebert, Emily's psychiatrist from her past who Banks turns to when he needs more information about his patient. It's a supporting part, but a key one just the same. Also look for Vinessa Shaw as Banks' wife, Dierdre.

From where I'm sitting, it's hard at this point to discuss too much more of the movie. This is definitely one that you need a clean slate going into so the less you know, the better. Here's what I can say. It's very stylish but there's an excellent twisting story to back it up. Very good cast, stylish, story, and it keeps you guessing. Well worth seeking out.

Side Effects (2013): ***/****

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Imitation General

When I hear the name Red Buttons, I think of movies. Yes, he was also a Broadway performer and stand-up comedian, but I'm most aware of him for his film roles, like in The Longest Day, Hatari!, and The Poseidon Adventure. Not given many leading roles, Buttons was a great second banana, typically playing a partner or sidekick, like 1958's Imitation General, an underrated WWII comedy.

It's 1944 in France following the successful D-Day invasion, but the fighting rages on. After a bloody battle between German and American forces, an American officer, Brigadier General Charles Lane (Kent Smith) is traveling across the battlefield in a jeep with his two longtime aides, Master Sgt. Murphy Savage (Glenn Ford) and Corporal Chan Derby (Buttons). Remnants of American forces are still in the area, but they're cut off and surrounded by German forces. Lane wants to organize the men, hoping that the sight of a general on the front lines energizes them and brings them together. It is a solid plan, Murphy and Derby going along with it, but Lane is killed saving Murphy from a German machine gun. What to do? The Germans are on all sides and prepping for a counterattack. Murphy does the only thing he can think of....and poses as General Lane, hoping to do exactly what the general had hoped, organizing the men to avoid a horrific, bloody route.

Here we go down this route again. Reading up on this generally forgotten WWII comedy when it appeared on TCM's schedule, I was skeptical of the movie. The Leonard Maltin review called it "a tepid, occasionally tasteless" comedy that "defeats its game cast." Ringing endorsement, huh? I'd never heard of it though prior to it popping up on TCM, and I wanted to give it a fair shot. Well, Mr. Maltin was wrong on this one if you ask me. From director George Marshall, 'Imitation' not surprisingly doesn't rewrite the genre. It's a WWII comedy after all. Any war movie that's a comedy -- and not a dark comedy like MASH or Catch-22 -- has to tread that fine line. War isn't naturally funny so playing it for goofy, physical laughs can be iffy. The premise here did sound pretty goofy, but I stuck with it and was rewarded in the end. It's good stuff, and I'm glad I gave it a fair shot.

A few days since I reviewed 1956's Ransom!, here comes a complete 180 from star Glenn Ford. An underrated actor in general, Ford was home in just about any role he ever did, action, drama or comedy. For me though, I watch him and like him best when he gets to show off some of his comedic chops, like he does here. It's not the laughs a comic would get, but laughs from a really underplayed line delivery. He has an ease about him in parts like this that makes him very likable. His Master Sgt. Murphy has genuinely good intentions here when he dons the general's stars and puts on the dead officer's helmet. It isn't glory he's after, just trying to prevent a battlefield route of an already beaten down army. There's just enough drama to pull it off, Ford's Murphy questioning if he's made the right decision. Oh, and he gets to woo a pretty French woman, Simone (Taina Elg), so that's nice. Those scenes are the movie's weakest points.

Playing almost like a buddy flick, 'Imitation' is at its deadpan funniest when Ford and Buttons are on-screen together. Their Murphy and Derby have been friends and fellow soldiers across North Africa into Sicily and finally into France. In other words, they know each other well, trust each other and have a genuine friendship. They show that friendship through a non-stop running dialogue that revolves around insults and in-jokes, the duo's lightning-quick delivery back and forth playing well. I liked both Ford and Buttons a lot here. In a too short appearance, Smith is very good too as General Lane. As for some of the other men bottled up in the Allied pocket of resistance are Cpl. Sellers (Dean Jones), a shell-shocked bookworm of a soldier, Pvt. Orville Hutchmeyer (Tige Andrews), an adversary of Murphy's and the only man around who can identify him as a fraud, and Lt. Clayton (John Wilder), a young NCO always putting his foot in his mouth around Murphy.

When the story focuses on Murphy and Simone at her bombed-out farmhouse, the story in an 88-minute long movie begins to drag a little bit. It's at its best when 'Imitation' heads out into the field. With the hills around Hollywood standing in for France, the big Cinemascope look plays well, especially filming in black and white. The action scenes are on a small scale, but that smallish scale doesn't hurt a thing. It's actually the better for it. As well, the scenes with Murphy frantically trying to hide from Hutchmeyer provide some genuine laughs too amidst all the chaos. The whole movie succeeds on that smaller scale. No cast and crew of thousands, no bigger picture of what's going on. Instead, we get an enjoyable WWII comedy that isn't obnoxiously stupid or at the other end of the spectrum, ridiculously dark and cynical. It's just a good old-fashioned comedy that I liked a lot.

Imitation General (1958): ***/****

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Forrest Gump

For some movies, it takes years for it to reach classic status, an accumulation of word of mouth, DVD sales, positive reviews. For others, it takes very little time, audiences flocking to see it in theaters like their lives depended on it. Released in 1994, Forrest Gump became an instant classic. Some 19 years later -- aaaahhhh! It's 19 years old!!! -- thanks to an insanely quotable script, great acting, and linear-story bending flashbacks and an almost non-stop replay on TV, it still is and still deserves its status.

Sitting on a park bench, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is waiting for his bus. A fellow waiting passenger sits down next to him, and Forrest strikes up a conversation. He starts to tell the story of his life dating back to all his childhood memories, all of them right up until the moment that brought him to this bus stop. Raised by a single mom, Mrs. Gump (Sally Field), in rural Alabama, Forrest has an IQ of just 75. He's not mentally challenged, just a little slow, but his lowish IQ isn't going to stop him. Growing up, he meets Jenny, a young girl from a broken home and instantly becomes friends. From kids to adults, Forrest wants nothing more than to be with Jenny (Robin Wright), but their lives seem to be on different paths. What does Forrest's hold? Living in one of the most turbulent times in American history, Forrest's life is destined to be a part of some of America's biggest historical events.

As I watched 'Forrest' last night, a terrifying thought raced through my head. How do I even begin to describe this movie's plot? It basically defies any one-paragraph description because it covers so much ground, introduces so many characters, and does so with a unique storytelling device. For the most part, the story is told via flashback, Forrest sitting on a park bench, talking to a variety of passengers over the course of a couple hours as he waits for his bus. The people come and go, but the story continues on. Then, in the last 30 minutes, Forrest's story takes a step forward as his reasoning for waiting for the bus comes to light. It is a unique device, but it works. The Oscar-winning script from Eric Roth is a gem, the flashbacks working flawlessly, not to mention some great asides -- Forrest's namesake, Lt. Dan's family's military "history" -- fitting in effortlessly. Throw in a soundtrack featuring music from The Doors to Jimi Hendrix and a whole lot of classic songs, and we've got quite the formula.

Where to start though? Well, I think Tom Hanks is a fair place to start. Coming off his Oscar win from 1993 for Philadelphia, Hanks followed it up with....another Oscar-winning performance. Hanks has a career of really good to great performances to his name, but for me, it's easy to peg this one as his best. It's remarkable what he does with the character, avoiding stereotypes and cliches in bringing Forrest to life. He gives him all these great little mannerisms from a walk to putting his hands high on his hips, his very pronounced speech patterns to his little, quick moves that you pick up on multiple viewings. Forrest's IQ is just 75, but he's not mentally challenged in the least. He is smart in many ways, but he's also fiercely loyal, honest to a fault and takes life in stride no matter what's thrown at him. Hanks is phenomenal. His line deliveries are perfect, his inflections bringing these lines to life with that perfect Southern drawl. It has to be one of the most beloved characters in film history, and Hanks deserves every single accolade he got for the part.

Without a doubt, this is Hanks' movie, but part of the fun and enjoyment is meeting all the people that Forrest meets in his life. Wright does a fine job as the love of Forrest's life, Jenny, a young woman who explores all the 1960s and 1970s can offer, sex, drugs and everything in between. With repeated viewings, I've come to like Jenny less and less -- Forrest deserves far better - but Wright makes the character a human being, commendable in itself. Field too is perfect, the ideal mother, a woman who does anything she can to provide for her son. Gary Sinise delivers a career-making performance as Lt. Dan Taylor, Forrest's commanding officer in Vietnam, a relationship that goes far beyond the battlefield. Mykelti Williamson does just the same as Benjamin Buford Blue, or simply, Bubba, Forrest's best friend he meets in basic training before heading to Vietnam together. Also look for a very young Haley Joel Osment (just six years old) in a key supporting role late in the movie.

What's remarkable about the story is how much ground in terms of character development and actual years it covers. Forrest is born in the late 1940s in Alabama so he grows up in the midst of the Civil Rights movement as the deep south goes through the definition of turbulent time. The story is obviously pretty episodic, following Forrest through all the different parts of his life. At different points, he goes to the University of Alabama as a football star, heads to Vietnam as a rifleman in the infantry, develops into one of the world's best ping pong players, becomes a shrimping boat captain, and runs across the United States multiple times among many other smaller things. He meets multiple presents including JFK and Nixon while also being involved in the Watergate scandal, the desegregation at the University of Alabama and meets everyone from a young Elvis Presley to John Lennon. Some cool CGI techniques actually insert Forrest into some footage from the 60s/70s, giving it all a sense of reality and authenticity as the years pass.

It has to be mentioned that this is a script that helped turn 'Forrest' into one of the most quotable movies of all time. Director Robert Zemeckis -- winner of the Oscar's best director that year -- has a gem, a movie with countless memorable scenes. Ask anyone who's seen this movie, and no doubt they can recite at least a handful of lines. Everything from 'Run, Forrest, rrrrrrun!' to 'Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get,' 'My name is Forrest, Forrest Gump' to 'That's all I have to say about that' and everything in between. It works and flows from scene to scene, unifying an episodic story that runs an always entertaining 142-minutes. The story never drags and instead races by, the two-plus hours going by in a flash.

Above all else, I keep coming back to Hanks' performance as Forrest Gump. I rewatched this movie in one viewing recently for the first time in years, and I liked the performance more than ever. He holds all the story together, drama, human emotion good and bad, action, comedy, romance, unifying it all. Forrest has a scene late with Wright's Jenny, talking about all the beauty the world has to offer, a sunset at sea in the Gulf of Mexico, the rain letting up in the Vietnam night, the sun rising in the desert mountains. He talks about the purpose of life, drifting along without a purpose or working toward a destiny. Forrest reasons that maybe life is somewhere in between, finding your own path. It's a beautiful monologue, perfect in its simple honesty. That's the movie. A moving, very emotional, very funny story with great performances and too many great moments to mention.

Forrest Gump (1994): ****/****

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

Let's give credit where it's due. Disney has done its best to make fairy tales at least moderately politically correct, but there's something that is often odd, unsettling and pretty uncomfortable about them. Weird to dulled down to....well, movies have gotten their greedy paws on the genre again, making them action movies? From Snow White to Jack and the Beanstalk, they're all ripe for the picking, like 2013's Jack the Giant Slayer.

Living in the kingdom of Cloister, a young farm boy, Jack (Nicholas Hoult), has grown up idolizing the legend of an ancient king, Erik, who saved the kingdom from the wrath of man-eating giants. Unfortunately, living with his uncle on his small farm in the countryside, Jack doesn't seem destined for any sort of heroic deeds or royal crown. Selling his uncle's horse though in town through an odd set of circumstances, Jack comes into possession of a bag of small beans....powerful beans (oh no!). That night, Jack is stunned to find the king's daughter, Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), on his doorstep, but in a driving rain, he loses the beans and they immediately sprout up, blasting away to the skies....with Isabelle in tow. The next morning with help from the king, his men, the Guardians, and the treacherous Lord Roderick (Stanley Tucci) along, Jack climbs up the immense beanstalk to the land between Heaven and Earth where the giants reside. Can they rescue Isabelle in time?

A solid performer at the box office upon its release this spring, 'Jack' earned almost $200,000,000 in theaters. It's easy to see why. It takes a familiar story -- Jack and the beanstalk -- and has some fun with it, injecting a whole lot of energy via lots o' action and cool characters. Getting it to theaters proved to be not to easy, but director Bryan Singer does a very capable job in the end. It's tightly paced, running an action-packed 114 minutes, and never gets too bogged down in any one scene or character. If there's flaws....and there's hard to have too much of an issue with them because we're onto the next scene with the snap of a finger! Composer John Ottman's score is a good one too, a big, booming fantastical score that fits in well with the non-stop action.

Box office success considered, it's all that more impressive because there isn't one huge headlining star here. There's no one that screams out "GOTTA see this!!!" Good actors just the same, but no sure thing. Start with Hoult, the young English actor who holds his own as the titular Jack. He's a teenager growing up, not some muscle-bound hero. Most importantly, Hoult's meek nerdiness plays well, and he's very likable. One of my favorite actors currently working, Ewan McGregor is clearly having some fun as Elmont, the captain of the king's guard, a tried and true and very capable warrior. The always fun, always reliable Ian McShane isn't given a ton to do as King Brahmwell, the aging ruler who worries for his daughter's well-being but must measure it against the well-being of the Kingdom and his people, but it's Ian McShane, just go with it. The same applies for Tucci, a great actor who makes the most of his part as the greedy, power-hungry Lord.

Playing the damsel in distress who...........gasp.......likes Jack (how could this be?!?), Tomlinson is decent as Isabelle, but she simply isn't given enough to do. Shallow guy mode, but she's a cute princess so that's good. Eddie Marsan plays Crawe, Elmont's fellow guard and a longtime friend, while Ewen Bremner is a solid backup villain as Wicke, Roderick's equally treacherous accomplice.

Enough with the positives, bring on the negatives! As fun as some of the characters are, you don't always feel especially connected to them. It's a fun, diverting script but the focus seems to be entirely on big, broad strokes of characters and the spectacle of what we're watching. Character development? Eh, overrated. My biggest concern (on top of those things) was what I'd seen in trailers, what appeared to be an overindulgence of computer-generated special effects. Yeah, I was spot-on there. While it was filmed in the English countryside, it never feels/looks like it. Just about every scene feels like a very polished, very at a distant CGI shot. It gets repetitive, and the giants look tolerable I suppose, but it's not the highest of quality CGI. Bill Nighy lends his voice talents to play General Fallon, the leader of the vengeful giants. For me at least, CGI is best used in small doses that fits in effortlessly with a story. Not the case here where basically the complete visual look of the movie depends on the CGI.

That said, I thought the movie was a lot of fun. The backstory of how the giants ended up in their purgatory above the clouds is pretty cool, and the adventures to said purgatory provide for some cool backdrops to the story. It's always fun, always exciting, and the finale with the giants descending on Cloister and Brahmwell's castle is quite the wrap-up. Sure, there are times I wish it connected a little more, giving us more investment in the characters or the story. 'Jack' can be a little heartless, feeling like we're watching from a distance at times, but I'm not going to get too analytical here. It's fun. Enjoy it, and DONE.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013): ***/****

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Charge at Feather River

Why are some movies remembered and others aren't? It can be the tiniest thing, something that lingers with audiences long after viewing. A childhood favorite of mine, seemingly always airing on TNT, is 1953's The Charge at Feather River. What's it got going for it? Well, two things, an early use of 3-D technology that works surprisingly well and an iconic death scene that's influenced everything from Indiana Jones to Star Wars.

In the months following the end of the Civil War, former Union soldier Miles Archer (Guy Madison) returns to a ruined ranch with no cattle. He's approached by the commander at the nearby fort to undertake a dangerous mission. The railroad is moving into Cheyenne territory, leaving one last chance to get back two sisters who have long been held prisoners of the Cheyenne. Archer is less than enthused to take on this suicide mission, but he takes it on just the same, bringing a capable sergeant, Baker (Frank Lovejoy), to help him command a squad of prisoners from the guardhouse. Archer's squad heads into Cheyenne territory, but they find that only one of the women, Anne (Helen Westcott), even wants to be rescued while the other, Jennie (Vera Miles), is engaged to a chief, Thunder Hawk. More surprises await on this dangerous mission, Archer working to protect himself from threats inside and out.

According to a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies, 'Charge' was the highest grossing western released in 1953. Not bad when you consider Shane, Hondo, and The Naked Spur were all released that year. It's nothing special as a western, but it is enjoyable throughout. Director Gordon Douglas' movie is a solid cavalry vs. Indians western, featuring some cool locations and a memorable score from composer Max Steiner (borrowing some from his They Died With Their Boots On score). Listen to Steiner's main theme HERE. Using a familiar theme of saving captives from raiding Indians (The Searchers, Major Dundee), it's a pretty good example of what a pretty straightforward B-western can be. Some cool characters, good action and musical score. It doesn't have to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable.

What was the appeal then? No doubt some of the success had to do with the original release being in 3-D. I've never been a fan of 3-D filming, gone on record far too many times with that, but there is a cheesy charm when it's handled right. Maybe it has something to do with the 1953 release as opposed to 2013, but it's fun to watch. At different points, we get arrows, tomahawks, spears and lances chucked directly at the camera. Right in the midst of a battle, it can be a fun, diverting gimmick. At one point late, Lovejoy's Sgt. Baker even spits tobacco juice right at the camera!!! Twice!!! Take that rattlesnake about to bite him! Go figure, but the 3-D technique works here pretty well.

Taking a break from his starring role on TV's Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Madison is his typical workmanlike self, a tried and true hero to lead the way in an impossible mission. He's never flashy, but he was a good hero in countless westerns like this. Lovejoy too is well-cast as Baker, the necessary sidekick and right hand man, given a rivalry with Pvt. Ryan (Steve Brodie), who was trying to make a move on Baker's wife. Westcott is okay as the quasi-love interest while Miles gets to villain it up as Jennie, the captive turned future Indian princess. Madison's Guardhouse Brigade includes Cullen (Dick Wesson), a drunken thief providing some comic relief, Johnson (Onslow Stevens), a journalist/artist along for the mission, Johnny (Ron Hagerthy), the kidnapped sisters' younger brother, the treacherous Morgan (Neville Brand), Smiley (Henry Kulky), the boozing private, Zebulon (Lane Chandler), a former Confederate cavalry officer, and Connors (James Brown), the capable soldier.     

It's a pretty straightforward formula once Archer and Co. get out on the mission road. We've got about 15-20 men on a dangerous mission in enemy territory. Who's going to make it, and who isn't? Various trials and tribulations are thrown at Archer's squad, providing some cool action scenes as they try and make it to safety with warring Indians seemingly all around them. The action is never on a large scale, but it's well put together, especially the finale with Thunder Hawk's war party closing in on all sides. What else to talk about? The scream of a certain Pvt. Wilhelm as he's hit with an arrow. Watch HERE. It is a scream that's been used in several movies since, including both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. Watch a compilation HERE. It's something little that helps make a good western particularly memorable. Solid western all-around.

The Charge at Feather River (1953): ***/****

Friday, August 23, 2013


In an age of remakes, sequels, prequels, series and what not, it can be fun sometimes to stumble across an original you didn't even know existed. I can't remember for sure if I saw 1996's Ransom as I was growing up, but I've always been aware of it if nothing else. Well, I can also say I wasn't aware of its predecessor, 1956's Ransom! Forty years apart, is it enough time between original and remake?

A very well-to-do executive of a vacuum cleaner company, Dave Stannard (Glenn Ford) has created quite a life for himself with his beautiful wife, Edith (Donna Reed) and eight-year old son, Andy (Bobby Clark). Their idyllic home life is broken up one day when Andy doesn't return home from school. His teacher tells Edith that a nurse took him from school that morning, claiming to go to the doctor's office. The doctor though has no knowledge of Andy's whereabouts, leaving Dave and Edith to fear for the worst. The call comes later that night....Andy has been kidnapped, and his kidnappers are asking for $500,000. With some help from the police, including Chief Backett (Robert Keith), Dave and Edith discuss what to do. Should they come up with the ransom? Do the police have any chance of catching the kidnappers? As they weigh their options though, Andy is more at risk with each passing hour.

I was really worried about this movie for about 10-15 minutes, worried to the point I was wavering over whether to stick with it. The opening 15 minutes presents that idyllic Leave It to Beaver/Happy Days family life that is so sugary sweet it's almost impossible to take. Andy is the precocious kid who's always up to some shenanigans, but goshdarnit! His parents love him! Aw shucks, he stole slats from all the beds in the house to build a fort?!? What a crazy kid! I'm assuming the goal early on was to show what a good life Dave has from his wife and son to his house to his highly successful job. The problem is, it's so aggressively happy that it made me laugh, and I'm betting that wasn't the goal here. If I'm wrong, so be it, but I don't think I am.

But because I like reviewing movies, I stuck with it, wanting to give it a fair shot. I'm glad I stuck with it. In a way that most 1950s just didn't seem capable of, 'Ransom' is dark in a way I would associate more with the late 1960s or throughout the 1970s. Director Alex Segal turns in quite the thriller, low-key in terms of action but very high strung in terms of the personal level, in terms of an emotional attachment to the situation. The scenes where Dave and Edith begin to put two and two together are unsettling to say the least, some odd, unanswered questions turning into every parent's worst fear, someone has taken their child. Segal films in black and white, much of his story relegated to indoor sets for the Stannard's house as the ransom/kidnapping and case develop.

Why does it work so well? Mostly, it's the personal involvement. Other than a brief shot from behind a kidnapper watching TV, we don't see the kidnappers in the least. We don't know how many there are, what their motivations are, what drove them to do this. It's a gutsy decision in telling a story, one that works because it puts the spotlight entirely on Dave and Edith and those helping them. One of my favorite actors, Ford does a fine job as Stannard, an everyman type of father who loves his family more than anything. He has a good chemistry with Reed (similarly very good), including an early scene I'm assuming is one of the earliest mentions of a "quickie" in movie history. Seriously, it's there. Mostly though, we see their disintegration as parents, as adults, their world crumbling around them. Edith loses it, Dave doing the same but trying to keep a hold on reality, anything that will help bring his son back. His plea on TV is an effective scene, probably the movie's most effective scene.

The rest of the cast is solid too. The cast benefits from Segal and the script from Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum showing how the community responds, from the police to the curious onlookers and everyone in between. Making his screen debut, Leslie Nielsen is very good as Charlie Telfer, the hardened journalist who has an in for the case and is allowed in the Stannard house. Juano Hernandez plays Jesse Chapman, the Stannard's longtime servant. He's called Uncle Jesse so just a little on the politically incorrect meter. Keith as Chief Backett is interesting because he's not just a pure cop. He's also worrying about his reelection coming up too. Ainslie Pryor plays Al, Dave's brother who begins to question his brother's thinking once the ransom demands are made. 

If you've watched any police shows since 1956, from Perry Mason to Law and Order and everything in between, you've no doubt seen at least a show or two dealing with ransom. What have we learned? Just because the family pays the ransom doesn't mean they'll be getting their loved one back. I'm guessing though that in 1956, this was a new concept for moviegoers. This information provides an interesting twist in the second half of the movie as Ford's Stannard learns the possibilities of what could happen. I wasn't sure exactly which ending this flick would go for, but it's a decent enough ending. It could have been one epic ending, but it works, capping off a tense, uncomfortable 1950s thriller.

Ransom! (1956): ***/****

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Salvatore Giuliano

Hero, outlaw, bandit, revolutionary, Robin Hood, all names to describe a historic figure who fought against the government or authority in some fashion. Depending on their motivations, tactics, techniques and ultimate goals, one and all of those descriptions can apply. As for their film stories, how are they portrayed? Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, and Salvatore Giuliano, an Italian bandit from the 1940s. Let's go with an Italian film of the same name, 1962's Salvatore Giuliano.

It's 1950 in a Sicilian town in the hills and a dead body has been found in an alleyway. Authorities identify the body as Salvatore Giuliano (Pietro Cammarata), an infamous bandit who has terrorized the countryside since late in WWII. In the wake of the Allied victory in Sicily, a power void was created with many different groups trying to grab that power. One group, the MIS, approaches Salvatore with an offer. Can he continue to cause the government and police as much trouble and chaos as possible? The Italian bandit takes up the offer, his group of bandits and gunmen wreaking havoc. The power is there, but one government change after another, one election after another, his group's desires aren't met, putting Salvatore on the outlaw path again. How does he end up dead in the alleyway? What led him to the situation that eventually led to his death?

Ready for a twist? Are you sure? The titular character, the one who was the only character mentioned in that plot a secondary, even minor character. By my count, he had maybe three lines, and those are simple orders to his men as they prepare for battle. He has little to no dialogue, has no real close-ups and is a key character in name only. It's what his name represents that's important. He's discussed in just about every scene, and we actually see him more as a corpse than a living human being. What's more surprising? How well it works. His name and the idea of his name becomes more than he ever could have hoped. The film from director Francesco Rosi obviously takes a favorable point of view upon Giuliano so his intentions, motivations and personal relationships become secondary to what his name actually means to the people. I would have never thought this would have worked, but it ends up working on just about all levels.

Filmed almost like a documentary -- a neo-realist documentary style according to the InterHighway -- 'Giuliano' can also be viewed and appreciated solely in terms of style. It is filmed in black and white, giving the story an eerie calmness throughout. Rosi films on location in Italy, the Italian countryside providing a criminally simplistic background that gives the story quite an air of authenticity. Also, Rosi and cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo shoots in a variety of fashions. The neo-realist style comes into play here with an almost complete lack of editing. Rosi and Di Venanzo set the camera up and let things go, long, interrupted shots that are a marvel to watch. We see scenes come together -- action or drama or both -- and the camera simply follows the action, countless extras walking in and out of frame as needed. It's less editing than just about any movie you'll see out there now, but by doing so much less in terms of filmmaking, they actually do a lot more. Again, it's crazy how well it works on a very simple, aesthetic level.

Actually delving into some story, there's actually more style to be discussed. The opening scene is an eerie, unsettling scene, police and investigators milling around Salvatore's bullet-riddled, bloody corpse just lying in the dirt in an alley. For starters, once we learn it's Salvatore, we know in a sense how the movie will end. Salvatore Giuliano will die. The rest of the story is told in a non-linear flashback style, scenes bouncing back and forth between Giuliano's rise to power (of sorts) and the fallout following his death. It's tough to keep up with -- reading Italian subtitles aside -- because there aren't very obvious transitions. Sometimes, it took me quite awhile to realize the story had bounced back and forth. You get into a rhythm, but it is an atypical story that definitely forces you to pay attention scene in and scene out.

Now, everything can't be perfect so here we go. The movie runs 125 minutes, and for the first 60-plus minutes, things are pretty perfect. I loved the first half of the movie. LOVED it. Then the bouncing story bounces forward, following the fallout of Salvatore's death including a trial as some of his men/followers, including right hand man and deputy, Gaspare Pisciotta (Frank Wolff), who may or may not have betrayed Salvatore. Wolff is one of two true actors in the film (and hams it up), along with Salvo Randone as the judge presiding over the trial, the rest of the roles being given to locals and peasants in the area while filming. The court sessions go on for too long, dragging on with screaming matches about principles, guilt and ideologies. It's the opposite of what's good about the first half, and the resolution just isn't satisfying enough for all the build-up.

This movie is one that has lots going on, most of it very good, some of it difficult to get through. Without having much knowledge of the Sicilian fight for freedom in the 1940s, it is a tough movie and story to keep up with. Lots of groups, lots of individuals with their own motivations, it's hard to know who is on what side when Salvatore, the Mafia, the changing governments, the police, and the Carabinieri (the national military) are discussed from scene to scene. There are flaws here and there, but for me, the strength and power of the first hour wins out. If it's a little heavy-handed at times, so be it -- ooh, Salvatore's dead body looks like Jesus! -- but when it works, it's a great example of the power of film.

Salvatore Giuliano (1962): ***/****

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Gangster Squad

I'm a simple guy when it comes to movie. Entertain me, and I'll be pleased. Not every movie needs to be some groundbreaking, never before seen story that rewrites how films are made. Take 2013's Gangster Squad. It has taken a ridiculous amount of heat because.....I have NO IDEA. It is familiar in a way, but it's stylish, entertaining and action-packed with a ridiculous, loaded cast. Screw all the Debbie Downers. I loved this movie.

It's 1949 in Los Angeles and former boxer turned gangster Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) is taking over the city bit by bit. Gambling, prostitution, drugs, Cohen is buying up cops, judges and politicians left and right as fast as he can. One of seemingly few clean cops, Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) is fed up with what he's seeing in a city he wants his family to grow up in. He's approached by the similarly clean police chief, Parker (Nick Nolte), with an offer; assemble a small crew of officers and take the war to Cohen. O'Mara's squad will work as their own separate unit, completely removed from the laws and rules that would typically limit officers. He puts his crew together, including roguish Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and goes to work, attacking casinos, bars and clubs all over the L.A. area. They immediately find success, but it's only a matter of time before Cohen figures out who's gunning for him. Can O'Mara's Gangster Squad take Cohen's illegal businesses out before he gets to them?

There is little to nothing I didn't like about this movie. Playing like a modern film noir, it's a gem of a flick. It plays like a mix of L.A. Confidential, The Untouchables and The Magnificent Seven. If you put those three movies together and can't get a winner, then you're doing something wrong. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, 30 Minutes or Less) is at the helm of a damn entertaining movie. It feels like a throwback film to the Hollywood glory days with a huge cast -- much, much more on that later -- to go with a well-written script, exciting, well-choreographed action and a story that never really slows down. More than anything, it is just F-U-N. That's all. There are good guys and bad guys, cops and gangsters, a femme fatale and not a damsel in distress. Is it so wrong for a movie to just be entertaining? I read a surprising amount of reviews that were highly critical of this movie. Maybe I missed something, but I loved it from beginning to end.

Watching the trailer for the first time last year, I have no doubt my eyes were as big as dinner plates. A movie about cops and gangsters in post-WWII L.A. already drew me in, but with this cast?!? It's a ridiculously deep, very talented cast. Because there is so much talent assembled, we're not talking in-depth character studies, but there isn't a weak part in the bunch. For starters, Josh Brolin as the hard-headed, stubborn O'Mara is a hero cop gem. A WWII veteran, he's sick of Cohen and his antics so given a chance to take him down a whole lot of notches, he jumps at the chance. He has a pregnant wife (Mireille Enos) weighing on his mind, but he wants to get the job done, on principle alone. Brolin is aided by Ryan Gosling as Wooters, the cop who sees what L.A. has become and just doesn't care too much, but he's given a reason to care while also getting the love interest, Grace (Emma Stone), Cohen's girl. Uh-oh, more issues!

The names already mentioned would be enough for most movies, but not this one. Penn gets to ham it up as real-life boxer turned gangster Mickey Cohen, sneering and intimidating his way into the part. This is an out-and-out villain, a bad guy you just love to hate and can't wait to see get taken down. Nolte makes the most of his smallish but effective part as Chief Parker, the chief of police who sends O'Mara on his dangerous, illegal mission. Also look for Sullivan Stapleton as Jack Whalen, a bookie and friend of Wooter's working in Cohen's organization (a supporting but excellent part), Holt McCallany as Lockwood, Cohen's bodyguard and enforcer, and Troy Garity as Wrevock, a hired killer working for Cohen.

Not surprisingly, a certain part of the cast caught my eye....O'Mara's Gangster Squad! Uh-oh, it's another men-on-a-mission movie! Assemble a crew of misfits and specialists and let them go to work. How can you lose? Brolin and Gosling are the stars, showing off that hero-sidekick chemistry that every group of specialists needs. But wait, there's more! Rounding out the crew/squad are Harris (Anthony Mackie), a specialist with gun or knife looking to clean up the streets of drugs, Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi), a WWII intelligence officer and expert in radio technology, Kennard (Robert Patrick), the veteran cop and part-Wild West lawman who favors a six-shooter, and Ramirez (Michael Pena), a young Mexican officer who's looked down upon by much of the rest of the force. It's a good group of some really solid actors, all comfortable and willing to take a supporting part to flesh out an impressive cast.

Originally supposed to be released in summer/fall 2012, 'Gangster' was pushed back for re-shoots following the Aurora shooting at a movie theater. What remains is still an action-packed movie that will appease most moviegoer's needs for some shoot 'em up action. The script never goes long without a gunfight or shoot out of some sort. A couple different sequences stand out, including a failed ambush in a busy street in Chinatown and the finale at Park Plaza Hotel especially leaving their mark. It's pistols and machine guns to aid the throwback feel with some pretty cool uses of slow-motion without going overboard. Bloody but not overly graphic, the action sequences are just another selling point.

It's hard to describe this movie without describing the style. The late 1940s (and heading into the 1950s) were an inherently cool time looking back on them. Cops and police officers wore a suit, tie and a hat. The cars were ridiculously cool, the streets even more so, and Fleischer and Co. took that to heart. Part of the appeal here is the look of the movie, like we were transported to 1949 Los Angeles. Just like a scene where O'Mara and crew walk away from the L.A. City Hall, there's a cool factor that's hard to touch or classify. It's stylish and cool....because it is. How about a montage of the Squad doing their work to big band music? It works. There is style on display in every scene whether it be the clothes and sets or the quick, speedily delivered dialogue. I liked everything about this movie and look forward to future and repeat viewings.

Gangster Squad (2013): ****/****  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Gray Lady Down

From World War II to the Cold War and everything in between, the submarine has become its own war movie genre. Up Periscope to Hunt for Red October and many others, it's quite the list. How about a sub-sub genre (pun intended)? The submarine in distress!!! A quasi-war movie, quasi-disaster flick, here we go with 1978's Gray Lady Down.

Awarded a promotion, Commander Paul Blanchard (Charlton Heston) is on his last patrol, bringing in the U.S.S. Neptune -- a nuclear submarine -- into port. In foggy conditions though in the Atlantic, the surfaced submarine is struck by a Norwegian freighter and sinks, falling over 1,400 feet below the surface. The Neptune manages to land on a ledge above the ocean floor, perched precariously and one slip-up away from sinking all the way to the bottom of the ocean. They manage to send out an S.O.S. though, and the U.S. Navy is quickly sending rescue ships and crews to the site, headed by specialist Captain Bennett (Stacy Keach). Time is running out though, and the surviving members of Neptune's crew have a limited amount of air. The mission is obviously extremely delicate, the Navy turning to an eccentric officer, Capt. Gates (David Carradine), with a specialized two-man sub to save the day. Can they do so in time?

My first thought when I stumbled across this movie was that it was based on a similar story, even sounding similar to a British war movie about a similar accident, Morning Departure. Nope, I was wrong. From director David Greene, 'Gray' is a disaster flick that doesn't play like a disaster flick. For me, that was a good thing. This isn't some natural calamity, no huge building on fire, no airplane trying to stay in the air. Instead, it feels like a war story that could be true. A horrific accident at sea? A group of survivors desperately holding out? An all-out effort by the Navy to rescue them? Yeah, I could totally buy that as being a true story. It plays well without pandering or being too obvious. There aren't a lot of stand-out examples of "Oh, drama! People are in danger!"

The danger is established and recognized throughout, but for me, it never felt really obvious. That's saying something considering the end-game here. The Neptune sinks several hundred feet below its crush depth, meaning that at any second the submarine could simply be ripped to pieces by the extreme pressure of the water. I can't think of too many worst ways to die than drowning near the bottom of the ocean. Making it worse, the Neptune was torn up nicely in the collision, forcing the survivors to band together in the parts of the sub that are still operational. Just inches and feet away though, the water pressure is beating away at the air-tight doors. Credit to composer Jerry Fielding for turning in a score that doesn't need to be in the forefront either. It is a solid, underplayed score that reveals itself in some key moments.

The one way 'Gray' does stick to its disaster flick roots is in the casting. It's not a huge A-list cast like Towering Inferno or Poseidon Adventure, but it's solid just the same. Mr. Disaster himself, Charlton Heston is a rock-solid lead. It's a quieter, less obvious part that Heston handles well, the sub commander trying to keep his men going while hiding his own worry, concern and guilt over the accident. Keach does a solid part in a more workmanlike role that simply doesn't give him much to do. It's Stacy Keach though, and that ain't a bad thing. As for Blanchard's crew, Ronny Cox is Cmdr. Samuelson, the Neptune's second-in-command who starts to question how things came about. Also look for Stephen McHattie as Murphy, the officer on watch who blames himself for the accident, a pre-Caddyshack Michael O'Keefe as the radioman, Hilly Hicks as Page, the medic, and more than a few other familiar faces. Rosemary Forsyth makes a quick cameo-like appearance as Blanchard's wife.  

The best part though goes to David Carradine as the eccentric Navy officer who doesn't have much use for authority in any form. His Capt. Gates has developed a two-man submersible with a hydraulic arm that can be used underwater. When the Neptune's escape hatch is blocked, Gates and his assistant, Mickey (Ned Beatty), are called in to remove the underwater debris. Gates isn't interested in protocol, orders and what should be done. He's more interested in getting the job done and rescuing the trapped men in the Neptune. It is a part and character we're supposed to like, but Carradine's roguish Navy officer handles it perfectly. Solid casting from top to bottom, Carradine rising to the top.

Sure, things get to be a little much by the end. How many different things can be thrown at this seemingly doomed submarine? It's one thing after another and all against a ticking clock getting close to its deadline. The tension gets ratcheted up throughout, especially when the Navy is finally able to use its Deep Submergence Rescue Vehile (DSRV) in conjunction with Gates' submersible. The final 45 minutes feature a couple pretty big surprises, including one shocker in the final scene that caught me by surprise. Critics and reviews ripped this one to pieces for any number of reasons, but I liked it. It's a solid, entertaining and pretty dramatic story that kept me interested throughout. Also, look for a pre-Superman Christopher Reeve making his screen debut.

Gray Lady Down (1978): ***/****

Monday, August 19, 2013


I like Jason Statham. I typically like him even if some of his movies are pretty bad. Even in the schlockiest of flicks, he's typically pretty cool, a badass action star who dispatches bad guys left and right. Can it be too much at times? It seems like we're seeing the same movie over and over again. I liked 2013's Parker, but it most definitely feels like 'been there, seen that.'

A professional thief with a unique code of thieving ethics, Parker (Statham) is a solid man to have on your team when trying to pull off a job. Through his well-connected father-in-law, Hurley (Nick Nolte), Parker accepts a job with four other thieves, men he hasn't worked with in the past. The job is successful as the crew takes down a packed cash room at the Ohio State Fair, but following the heist, the rest of the crew, including volatile Melander (Michael Chiklis), approaches Parker with an offer for a far more lucrative job. He doesn't like the sound of it and refuses, the team turning on him in the process, shooting him and leaving him for dead by the side of the road. Parker is seriously wounded, but he doesn't die, vowing to exact revenge on his betrayers. How to do it? Foul up the very job they had offered him.

From director Taylor Hackford and based off a Donald E. Weslake novel, 'Parker' is an enjoyable if unspectacular crime film. It isn't nearly as bad as some reviews make it out to be, nor is it as convoluted as some would lead you to believe. The story bounces around, never standing in one place too long and features solid amounts of action and shootouts, all capably done. I liked the cast, liked parts of the story, and what do I come away with? Meh, it was all right. For lack of a more descriptive wrap-up, 'Parker' is just sort of there. It doesn't jump off the screen and pull you in, doesn't have you at the edge of your seat as we wonder what's coming up next. 'Parker' is a well-made, capably done crime flick that still manages to be dull and more than a little lifeless.

It feels familiar which isn't always a bad thing, but this is a film that needed something more. Jason Statham fights and argues, mumbles and stares menacingly, beating the hell out of people as the story requires. As is so often the case, Statham is a more than suitable lead. As an action star, he has few rivals. His man of few words anti-hero is a seminal character in the action genre. Playing Parker, he does a solid job, his professional thief who has some Robin Hood-esque tactics. He lives by a code, taking what he's owed and nothing more, expecting his cohorts to work by the same code -- with varying results (crooks tend to be selfish and greedy, go figure). The only problem? We've seen this character in the Transporter series, the Crank series, Killer Elite, The Mechanic, The Expendables I and II, War, Safe and Blitz. Statham's good but a change of pace film couldn't hurt.

The rest of the cast is hit and miss. Jennifer Lopez is surprisingly pretty good as Leslie, a down on her luck Palm Beach real estate agent unknowingly brought into Parker's elaborate plan of revenge. She has a good chemistry with Statham and blends well with the story although the script does find a way to get her down to her bra and panties. Nolte is wasted, given little to do but growl his lines unfortunately. Chiklis is always an imposing presence but similarly given nothing to do with Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr. and Micah A. Hauptman as his fellow conniving crooks. Patti LuPone plays Ascencion, Leslie's nagging mother while Bobby Cannavale is a cop with eyes on Leslie, but nice eyes, not menacing "I'm a cop so you have to do what I say" eyes if that makes any sense. 

Beyond just saying the movie isn't good because it's too familiar, 'Parker' does have its flaws. The pacing can be frenetic at times, moving at breakneck speeds because it can, especially in the first hour. Plot advances without any real explanation or reality, just bouncing to bounce. As good as Lopez is, too much time is spent on her background and her money woes. In general, there's just too much going on with too many characters, twists and turns in a meandering story. The action is good, bloody and vicious, especially the finale as Parker's plan comes together and Statham's earlier scene with a hitman (Daniel Bernhardt) in a Palm Beach hotel room. Something is missing from the word 'go' though. Something doesn't translate. It is a decent enough time waster, but nothing more unfortunately.

Parker (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Comancheros

Following Texas' war for independence with Mexico in 1836, the expansive republic was on its own for government, economy and protection without help from outsiders. Who came to the forefront to help protect the fledgling republic? The Texas Rangers, and no, not the Major League Baseball team, instead a small group of law officers who patrolled Texas trying to protect its citizens. Recurring characters in the western genre, one of the best portrayals of the Rangers is 1961's The Comancheros.

It's 1843 when a Louisiana gambler, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), finds himself on the run following an accidental death in a duel. Regret heads for Texas but as he readies to disembark from the riverboat, he is instead arrested for murder by a Texas Ranger, Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne). The duel was fair by all accounts, but the dead man was the son of a powerful judge who wants vengeance. Intending to bring Regret back to Louisiana, Cutter instead finds himself working with the man. All through the territory, Comanche raiding parties are attacking one ranch and homestead after another. Cutter has long thought the Comanches are being led by a gang of white men who pull the strings, but he has no proof. Posing as a gunrunner and with Regret as his somewhat unwilling partner, Cutter heads into Comanche territory and finds just what he thought he would, a gang of drifters, bandits and killers -- Comancheros -- working with the Comanches. Can they get out alive?

The 1960s were a big time for John Wayne. He wasn't just a box office star, but by now after 30-plus years in the business, he was a screen legend. This was the decade where -- for better or worse -- he started playing himself more than meaty roles like The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His mindset changed some as he started to make movies that typically had one objective....please the audience. These were movies meant to entertain, movies the whole family could go see. They would revolve around action-packed stories, good casts of familiar faces, great locations and whistle-worthy scores, movies like this one, The Undefeated, Sons of Katie Elder, McLintock!, Donovan's Reef and Hatari. This is a prime example of that type of movie. It's fun, exciting and with a whole lot of action. A groundbreaking, innovative western? Nope, but as far as popcorn movies go, it's hard to beat.

This obviously isn't a comedy western, but it isn't as dark and downbeat as the plot description might imply. For me, the best thing going for 'Comancheros' has always been the pairing of Wayne and Whitman, an Odd Couple pairing that works extremely well. It almost plays like a buddy western movie, the resolute Ranger and the roguish gambler. Wayne especially gets to show off a comedic side that most of his movies just didn't allow. His backwoods Ranger mispronounces Monsieur as Mon-sewer, providing some good laughs throughout. Whitman too looks right at home alongside the Duke, the duo exchanging some great dialogue scenes together on the trail. It looks easy watching them. Regret is far from a veteran trailsman, but he picks it up quick. Cutter bristles at times with his prisoner's unique ways, but thrust into a do-or-die situation, they end up becoming unlikely friends. Two good lead performances for sure.

While the A-list names might not be there, 'Comancheros' offers a very solid cast, one all western fans should appreciate. Lee Marvin makes what amounts to a cameo as Tully Crow, a brutal, vicious Comanchero, stealing the show and providing some great moments with Wayne in their scenes together. The one weak point is Ina Balin as Pilar, a beautiful young woman who falls for Regret and vice versa. Her scenes are pretty painful, especially as she "analyzes" love. Nehemiah Persoff is similarly a scene-stealer as Graile, the handicapped, brutal leader of the Comancheros with Michael Ansara as his sadistic henchman, Amelung, and also look for Jack Elam as one of the Comancheros. As for the other Rangers, look for Bruce Cabot as Major Henry and Patrick Wayne as Tobe, a young ranger along on the mission into Comanchero territory. Also look for the beautiful Joan O'Brien as Melinda, a widow who cares deeply for Cutter (and maybe more...uh-oh!) with Wayne's daughter Aissa playing Melinda's daughter.  

Looking at the credits, Michael Curtiz is listed as the director, but Curtiz became sick during filming and was unable to complete the movie, dying soon after its release. Wayne stepped in and directed in uncredited fashion, finishing the movie. The story itself is pretty episodic, the first 45 minutes spent with the hunt and escape and hunt and escape between Regret and Cutter. It covers a lot of ground before the Comancheros are even introduced, but it's never dull and never really slows down. There actually isn't a ton of action, but what's there is enjoyable. What is noteworthy is a talented cast clearly having some fun with a story that's hard not to go along with. Also worth mentioning, Elmer Bernstein's memorable score, especially the theme. Listen to it HERE. Get your popcorn ready, sit back and enjoy this one.

The Comancheros (1961): ***/****

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Beast of Hollow Mountain

Growing up, one of my favorite movies was a combination of two of my favorite genres, a western and a science fiction, 1969's Valley of Gwangi. It tells the story of a prehistoric dinosaur that somehow survived to modern times and is now being hunted by a small group of rodeo cowboys. I loved the movie then and still do now in all its guilty pleasure charm. I had no idea that it was actually a loose remake of a 1950s MGM production, 1956's The Beast of Hollow Mountain, but I wasn't going to pass up a chance to see it.

It's around the early 1900s in Mexico with an American cowboy, Jim Ryan (Guy Madison), and Mexican cowboy Felipe (Carlos Rivas) working as partners on a small but successful cattle ranch. The partners are in trouble though as all their workers abandon their jobs, claiming that the ranch is cursed and a beast waits in the mountains to kill them all. Both Jim and Felipe think otherwise but can't prove it. A local rancher seeking more land, Enrique (Eduardo Noriega), would like nothing more than to drive the duo off their land, and he's got the plan in place to do just that. Running low on money and with no one willing to help them, Jim and Felipe have signed a contract to deliver some of their cattle to a needy buyer. That may be the least of their problems as the mythical creature in the mountains isn't a myth and is ready to strike.

I thought the Turner Classic Movies description had screwed me again upon first viewing here. The beast is only even hinted at once through the first hour, finally making his entrance at the 60-minute mark. Come on, creature features! The build-up can be a tad slow here, a pretty typical western story revolving around ranchers competing for who can be the most successful. A subplot among Madison's Jim, Noriega's jealous Enrique and Patricia Medina's Sarita is pretty slow with Sarita engaged to the fiery Enrique. Uh-oh, here comes that dreamy American cowboy! It's a tad on the slow to dull side, waiting too long in an 81-minute movie to introduce the titular character, in this case an allosaurus, a lone dinosaur (that we see at least) that managed to live on all these years.

Okay, so it's 1956 and computer generated images are years away. How then should a moderately budgeted film show a dinosaur? In stepped special effects legend Willis O'Brien to handle the shooting of a dinosaur, done here with a stop motion technique known as replacement animation. Sure, at times it looks pretty bad, but for the time it was made? It looks pretty impressive. The last 20 minutes of the movie plays like one bad chase, countless characters running from the beast that's finally revealed itself. Watch a big chunk of those scenes HERE. What it lacks in special effects polish that we might take for granted in this CGI-World, it makes up for in excitement and energy. It can be a slow-moving trial to get to this point, but the payoff with the dinosaur and one extended chase helps make it worthwhile.

Fans of the western genre will no doubt get a kick out of this one. 'Beast' was made by MGM Studios and was filmed in Cinerama, a filming technique that truly took advantage of a giant screen, filling the screen with shots of impressive scale and scope. Making that decision better is the choice to film on location in Mexico with some familiar locations popping up. If you've seen The Magnificent Seven, Vera Cruz, Bandido, The Wrath of God and many others I'm probably forgetting, you'll enjoy watching this movie. The story may lag at times, but on visual terms alone, it's worthwhile from beginning to end. The main location was in Tepoztlan, almost the entire movie shot outdoors away from indoor sets. Never a bad thing if you ask me.

Beyond Madison, almost the entire cast is Mexican actors who typically starred in Mexican films. Playing the archetypal western hero, Madison is solid as usual as Jimmy Ryan, an American cowboy trying to carve a life for himself far south into Mexico. If nothing else, he looks to be having a lot of fun, including Rivas in a decent supporting part as his partner, Felipe. Medina is eye candy and given little to do, Noriega a weak back-boned bad guy to go up against Madison, and Julio Villareal as Don Pedro, the local mayor trying to keep his territory in peace and in check. Another nod to The Magnificent Seven, but look for Mario Navarro as Panchito, a young Mexican boy trying to keep his tequila-loving father, Pancho (Pascual Garcia Pena) in check. Navarro played one of the three village boys who tries to look after Charles Bronson's Bernardo O'Reilly.

A mixed bag overall, worthwhile in the end if you can make it through a sluggish, too familiar first hour. Kinda difficult to find so jump if you really want to see it and get the chance.

The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Burglars

Well, give me credit. I'm timely every so whether I intended to be timely, that's a different story. A few days ago I reviewed an underrated film noir from 1957, The Burglar, only to find out I had also recorded another version of the same novel by author David Goodis. Well, it's alike in basic -- very basic -- storyline alone, going down a different route in 1971's The Burglars. It's plural this time!

Working with a small crew of thieves, a master crook named Azad (Jean-Paul Belmondo) pulls off an impossible job, robbing a wealthy Greek businessman (Jose Luis de Vilallonga) of a million dollar's worth of rare emeralds. The plan goes off without a hitch, or so Azad and the crew think. A suspicious police officer, Abel Zacharia (Omar Sharif), is onto them and knows what they're trying. His only issue becomes proving their guilt, finding them while they're carrying the emeralds. Azad is ready to make his getaway out of a Greek port, but the ship is undergoing maintenance and can't leave for five more days. Now, he must improvise, getting the persistent -- and dirty -- cop off his trail. Can the crew stay quiet and hidden away until they're ready to escape?

Okay, get the basic plot from Goodis' novel and then go with it. That's all this 1971 version really has to do with its source novel or its 1957 predecessor. Now that said, it isn't a bad thing. Director Henri Verneuil has a good film somewhere in his 120-minute movie, but it's finding that movie that proves difficult. Reading a plot description, I thought I was getting a hard boiled heist flick, and in doses, that's what it is. Without much of a transition, one scene will be brutally dark, the next oddly off the wall. Then, we get some weird aside at an "erotic club" followed by one of the craziest, best car chases I've ever seen in a film. While I liked 'Burglars,' I also thought it was far too schizophrenic to be a movie that received a straight-up positive review. When it works though, it really works. It's getting to that point.

The positives are pretty obvious, starting with Belmondo and Sharif as the two leads, the cat-and-mouse rivals. I've yet to be impressed with Belmondo -- I still don't get the appeal of Breathless -- in the films I've seen, but this performance is a gem. He sounds dubbed but apparently that's him (go figure). Most surprisingly though, he proves himself as an action star, handling his own stunts for the most part including a couple ridiculous stunts. He literally rides the side of a handful of buses on busy streets and later takes a rolling fall down the side of a hill with an almost sheer face. His character itself is pretty cool, a confident, slightly showy thief who thinks he has no rivals, always believing he can outsmart Sharif's cop if it comes down to it. That smartass smile/smirk plays well though, and I really liked what he did with the character.

 Doing a 180 from most of his hero performances, Sharif looks to be having a ball as the sinister, truly brutal cop, Abel Zacharia, looking to line his own pockets in "catching" Azad. At first glance, he appears to be a pretty normal cop but with each passing scene we learn the true depths of how far he'll go for a payday. Dyan Cannon plays Lena, a nude model and quasi-Playmate of sorts who catches Azad's eye and may be letting on more than she knows. Robert Hossein, Nicole Calfan and Renato Salvatori round out Azad's crew, none really given much to do with the spotlight on Belmondo and Sharif. 

Coupled with the tough guy leads, 'Burglars' manages to stand free of the crowd because of the action. A 13-minute car chase about 30 minutes into the movie is ridiculous to the point of being overindulgent. We're talking two cars that should have blown up miles and crashes ago still running and doing so smoothly. It gives us some solid new additions to the car chase sequence too, never a bad thing. Watch it HERE. When there is action, it's handled expertly, including another slightly lower key chase with Belmondo jumping from moving bus to moving bus (again, doing all his own stunts seemingly). Watch a really solid stunt montage HERE. There is a simple professionalism to these scenes that just works well. Not flashy, just efficiently effective. Oh, and composer Ennio Morricone turns in a quiet, understated gem of a soundtrack. Didn't see that coming, did you?

So anyhoo.....the movie does have some flaws. The opening heist sequence is so interested in the gory, boring and downright dull details of how they're pulling the job that any tension gets thrown out the window. What should be a great opening, building momentum is actually a hindrance to a story that ends up being pretty good. A later departure to Cannon's "erotic club" goes on far too long, and in general, too much time is spent with Cannon for a disappointing payoff late in the movie. It is a movie that could have been tightened up at several different points along the way. It's also trying to be funny, action-packed, slightly romantic, full of drama, and it just doesn't always work. In the end, it could have been a near classic, but as is, it's a very watchable heist movie with some pretty severe flaws. Give the movie a watch HERE at Youtube.

The Burglars (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Switch

For lack of a better, more well thought out description, sometimes all a movie needs to succeed, to pull audiences in is to have a gimmick. When it comes to comedies, the gimmick has to tread that fine line. A bunch of friends on a bachelor party weekend rediscovering what they did in Vegas via flashback? Good gimmick. A drunken man destroys his female friend's semen sample she was going to use to artificially inseminate herself and instead replaces it with his own? Oh goodness, what a horrifically contrived gimmick. Yep, 2010's The Switch.

Wally (Jason Bateman) and Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) have been friends for years following a couple dates that didn't go so well. Kassie is at a point in her life where she wants to have a kid, but she's had no luck finding the right guy and chooses to go to a sperm donor and be artificially inseminated. There's an issue. She does so at a 'Getting Pregnant' party, and a very drunk -- possibly high -- Wally accidentally destroys the semen sample. In a drunken stupor, he replaces the lost sample with his own, not even remembering what he did by the next morning. Some six years go by, Kassie moves from NYC and has a son, leaving Wally behind. She moves back to the city, giving Wally quite the shock. The boy is like him in every way right down to his neurotic, hypochondriac ways. It all starts to come together. Should he tell Kassie? How do you even tell someone that? Uh-oh, we've got a problem.

I almost didn't make it through this comedy. I try and give every movie I see a fair shot, but this one pushed the limits early on. The biggest reason? Well, it could be the horrifically awful gimmick that puts the story into motion, but it isn't. It's Bateman as Wally, an obsessively neurotic, shrill, rude and inconsiderate guy who is so easy to root against that it made me question why I was watching the movie. It's clear he has feelings for Aniston's Kassie, but that almost-relationship never worked out. In the meantime, he intervenes in her life -- more than just a friend -- while also sabotaging his own relationships. It's explained later that his Dad left the family when he was younger so I guess that makes it all okay. Still, for the first 40 minutes or so the character is so downright unlikable that it almost derails the movie.

While the second half of the movie is actually pretty decent, it is the first half that does its best to drive us away. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck rely on a screenplay that builds itself around such a badly contrived gimmick that it's just rough to watch. Bateman's Wally keeps trying to convince Kassie not to go through with the sperm donor but can't pull it off. At her 'Getting Pregnant' party, he gets drunk and also takes some herbal pill that clearly messes with his consciousness. Destroying the sample, he actually masturbates and replaces the missing donation with his own donation. Oh, but he's drunk so he can't remember it!?! It feels like a cop-out that he simply can't remember what he did. I'm all for gross-out jokes and comedy, but this just seemed like a little much on the gross-out meter. It also seems all sorts of wrong ethically, but that could just be me up on my high horse.

Go figure then, but when Kassie returns to NYC, 'Switch' actually manages to find an enjoyable, likable and entertaining tone and story. That switch-up comes when Wally meets Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), a 6-year old version of himself....but really cute. He's a unique little kid from his hypochondria to his general intelligence. Named Sebastian, he's got quite the nerdy name and after bonding early on with Wally, turns to his "Uncle" for advice. I liked the Sebastian character a lot. He's curious about his real dad. He likes to collect photo frames but keeps the inserted pictures, not replacing them with his own. The chemistry between Bateman and Robinson is pretty perfect, helping make up for the rather obnoxious early portions of the movie.

The rest of the cast is familiar but not bad. Aniston is okay as Kassie, but she's not given enough to do other than look kind of worried and be nervous. Patrick Wilson plays Roland, the actual donor who thinks Sebastian is his son. It's a tough part because we're supposed to think Roland is a doof, but other than some weird little traits, he seems like a good guy. Juliette Lewis is wasted as Debbie, Kassie's appropriately kooky character, a must-have character in a quasi-rom-com. I did like Jeff Goldblum as Leonard, Wally's co-worker who usually gives him a good dose of brutal honesty as the problems arise. Not surprisingly, things get uncomfortable late as Wally decides to tell Kassie the truth. The ending seems a little forced to make things a happy ending. I for one, imagine Kassie being eternally pissed at Wally, but I'm not writing screenplays.

So while I really intensely disliked parts of the movie, the parts that do work are excellent. It's a moderately positive review, but don't be looking for a comedy classic.

The Switch (2010): ** 1/2 /****   

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Shoot the Piano Player

Taking a film class in my college years, I was introduced to the French New Wave with an example here and there. I wasn't especially impressed, but I could at least appreciate what the new type of film accomplished. They broke with tradition in terms of storytelling, camera techniques and even just what the actual film could get away with showing audiences. Often enough, I think these films become too self consciously obnoxious, begging audiences to appreciate how original and unique they are. Well, I found one I liked, 1960's Shoot the Piano Player.

Working at a small but successful bar in Paris, Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour) lives a quiet life playing the piano for bar patrons on a nightly basis. Trying to forget about an incident from his past, he's content to live his life, play the piano and care for his younger brother, Fido (Richard Kanayan). One night, his brother, Chico (Albert Remy), comes running into the bar, begging him for help because he's got two double-crossed mobsters on his tail. Charlie helps him escape, but the mobsters come looking for him in hopes of getting some answers as to his brother's whereabouts. He does his best to avoid them, hiding out with the help of a longtime crush and co-worker at the bar, Lena (Marie Dubois). Charlie thinks he's managed to shake them, but far from it. The mobsters go after Fido instead to get to Charlie that will hopefully lead to Chico too.

This is a film that defies a simple plot explanation. From director Francois Truffaut, 'Shoot' plays like a tribute on steroids to American crime and film noir stories. It is based off a novel by noir author David Goodis with some pretty major tweaks. Truffaut set out to do something different that audiences hadn't seen, and he succeeds. The opening 10 minutes meander to say the least, following Chico on the run in the Paris night as he talks for minutes (literally) with a complete stranger about marriage. Charlie isn't even the focus of the story until 20 minutes in. A long flashback is dropped into the story explaining Charlie's past and then goes right back to the present time. It's never difficult to follow, but it does force viewers to keep you on your toes, especially with some fast-moving subtitles. I can only imagine what 1960 audiences thought when they watched this one.

Some unique storytelling techniques are one thing, but where Truffaut and the New Wave directors set themselves apart from the norm was in terms of style. His camerawork is aggressive and right there with the action. He follows the action close-up, walking with characters, putting a camera in the front seat of the car. There is a touch of that independent, roguish filmmaking with the camera. Some edits and cuts are rough, other scene wipes coming out of nowhere. More than that, it's how Truffaut pushed the limits. A prostitute (Michele Mercier) climbs into bed with Charlie topless and sits there for several seconds. First off, American movies were still shy about actual sex on-screen (even the implication), much less show nudity. Later, one of the mobsters (Claude Mansard) admits he once wore women's panties, capping off an odd conversation with his partner (Daniel Boulanger) about sex and how all women want "It." Can you imagine any of that in an American film from 1960? Even a little?

With so many new techniques in storytelling and camerawork going on, the characters get a tad lost in the shuffle at times. The best though is Aznavour -- a French singer, songwriter and actor -- as Charlie, a quiet, shy diminutive piano player. It's a "hero" unlike any I've seen in a film noir, a hero of sorts that constantly questions what he should, his voiceover narration providing some really funny moments (like THIS one). In a weird way, we feel sympathetic for him, not because he's a particularly sympathetic character, but because there's this almost pathetic aura hanging over him. Whatever it is, Aznavour does a fine job. Mansard and Boulanger similarly play against type as the pursuing henchmen. They're not just killing machines; they have a sense of humor, they argue. It's just one more thing that tries to be different -- and succeeds in most ways -- from the norm in a familiar genre.

More than just the stylistic differences is Truffaut's ability to juggle so many different tones in his ever-moving story. It is a romance, especially Charlie's explained past with a former love (Nicole Berger) but also his current relationships with Lena and Clarisse. It is a film noir, Charlie forced to go on the run to protect himself and Lena. Most surprisingly, it can be really funny. Mansard's hit man says "May my mother drop dead if I'm not telling the truth" followed by a cutaway of an older woman keeling over and dying. It's incredibly dark, but it works. All these different ingredients just shouldn't work so well, but they do. The pieces fit together like a puzzle for the better.

So while things may meander around a bit, introducing characters and backgrounds, Truffaut throwing different things are way.....well, because he can. Too often the French New Wave films were condescending in their unique qualities, but 'Shoot' manages to keep it unique and original without being too cute. I liked it a lot, and that's more than I can say for so many other films from the genre.

Shoot the Piano Player (1960): ***/****

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Burglar

With a career that spanned three decades, Dan Duryea had quite a career in film and television, racking up over 100 different roles. He never became a huge star, instead becoming one of the best character actors to ever grace the screens in Hollywood. Like most character actors, he did get a crack or two at his own movies, one he could carry himself, and he doesn't disappoint in 1957's The Burglar.

Having grown up as a thief, always improving his skills and ability, Nat Harbin (Duryea) doesn't have many equals. He's a small-time thief though, never gaining much in the way of notoriety over the years. He pulls jobs that net him enough money to get him to the next job while also caring for his step sister, Gladden (Jayne Mansfield), who helps him and two other thieves. With his most recent job, Nat steals a necklace worth $150,000 but much to the dismay of his team, he sits on, waiting for the heat to cool down and the cops to back off. With each passing day though, the heat intensifies, and his two partners get more and more anxious. When Nat senses the cops are closing in, he sends Gladden to Atlantic City to hide out only to find out that a crooked cop (Stewart Bradley) is following her. Now it becomes a race against time to see who can get to her first.

I came away impressed with a lot of things from this Paul Wendkos-directed film noir. It is based on a novel by David Goodis (who also wrote the script), and it is the better for it. The best thing going here is Duryea as the anti-hero thief, a thief with a code of honor. It is the type of character that would pop up more and more in the late 1950s and into the 1960s. He's a criminal, a thief, no doubt about it, but he does operate by a code of sorts. No guns, no betrayals (if possible) and no messing around, just get the job done. His background is explained, showing how he ends up caring for Gladden, how he came to be the man he is. It is a quiet, perfectly understated part that gives Duryea a chance to shake off his bad guy typecasting. With a bit of that doom cloud hanging over his head, it is apparent things may not end well for him, but maybe, just maybe, there's a chance for him to get out clean.

Using Duryea's starring performance as a jumping off point, 'Burglar' manages to rise above the good but not great film noir list with some impressive style decisions. Yes, it is filmed in black and white, bringing to life the shadows and dim lights that populate the criminal underworld, but it's more than that. Wendkos takes what we know of the noir genre and makes it more of an arthouse film, an almost existential film. It is a lonely, isolated world, and Wendkos brings it to life with some startling jump cuts, some odd, off-center camera angles and a solid, appropriately jazzy, unsettling score from composer Sol Kaplan. The pacing can be a tad slow early on with some long, dull monologues, but once things get rolling, it doesn't really slow down, right up until the surprising finale.

While Duryea's performance is noteworthy, I think at least part of this movie's relatively unknown status is because the rest of the cast lacks any name recognition. Building up her sex kitten status, Mansfield shows she doesn't have a ton of acting range, but she's solid. Her looks are dulled down for the first half -- baggy clothes and all -- and then at the halfway point....ta-da! Bathing suit! Martha Vickers plays Della, a middle-aged woman with a checkered past, looking for something new in her life...and maybe with an ace up her sleeves. As the sinister, hovering villain, Bradley is a good counter, a bad guy with greed as his only real motivation and nothing else. Working with Nat as his partners on jobs are Peter Capell as Baylock, an older crook looking to retire and Mickey Shaughnessy as Dohmer, a brutish thug who is always worrying.

Shaking off the somewhat slow start, 'Burglar' picks up the pace when Nat realizes the crooked cop is on their trail. The ending is almost inevitable in its execution, but that doesn't take away from that tension-packed build-up. Nat and Co. head to Atlantic City to find Gladden, but when they run into a motorcycle officer that recognizes them, the plan takes a wicked plan. 'Burglar' films its finale on location in Atlantic City -- a time capsule to the late 1950s -- and it becomes a race against time as Nat, Gladden, cops (crooked and legit) all converge on the Steel Pier. It really finds its noir roots in the finale, a downbeat ending that nonetheless works extremely well. Highly recommended, shaking off a sluggish start. Watch the movie HERE at Youtube.

The Burglar (1957): ***/****