The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Untouchables

So Prohibition, huh? That must have sucked. People wanted to drink, but the government said it was illegal to do so. The government agencies and police forces were tasked with limiting the bootleggers, but that was easier said than done. The most famous? Eliot Ness, a Treasury agent who became famous for helping take down Chicago gangster Al Capone. His story was turned into a successful TV show in the late 1950s and early 1960s and maybe most famously in a feature film, 1987's The Untouchables.

It's 1930 and Prohibition has turned Chicago into a warring city of dead bodies and rival gangsters fighting for control. The most powerful though is Al Capone (Robert De Niro), ruling the city and the influx of alcohol with an iron fist. Where there's demand, he's got the supply. A U.S. Treasury agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), has been called in to bring Capone to justice, hopefully bringing his crime empire down with him. Ness, idealistic and a little naive, struggles with where to start, meeting dead end after dead end as he discovers how deep Capone's empire goes. Obsessed with doing his job and doing it well, Ness keeps on, recruiting a small group of agents and police officers, including a tough Chicago beat cop, James Malone (Sean Connery), who knows the streets better than anyone. As he quickly finds out, Ness doesn't know how deep he'll have to go to accomplish his mission, especially when the bodies start to pile up.

From director Brian De Palma, this is one of those perfect guy's guy movies. It is based on Ness' real-life exploits as his crew of Untouchables took the battle to Capone in Chicago between 1929 and 1931. Yes, time is compressed, some names are changed here and there, but the point is the same. It has just about everything going for it. 'Untouchables' was filmed on location in Chicago (looks gorgeous), and it feels like Depression Era Chicago, picking up two Oscar nominations for Costume Design and Art Direction/Set Decoration. Everything from the background on the streets to the cars to the time-appropriate costumes (Armani suits never looked so good), it all adds layer after layer to the film. Also picking up an Oscar nomination is the score from composer Ennio Morricone.Listen to his full soundtrack HERE. I love the sweep of it, quiet, moving Morricone balanced with bigger, epic Morricone.

At the forefront of 'Untcouhables' is a great pairing of stars. Costner is one of the biggest stars of the 1980s with everything from Bull Durham to Field of Dreams, Silverado to No Way Out. Connery was a Hollywood legend, the firmly established star. Their on-screen dynamic is an underrated part of the success here that can get lost in the shuffle. Costner's Eliot is a hard-driving, hard-working idealist. He wants to accomplish his mission, but do it the right way, not knowing how filthy the world is he finds himself in. Connery's Malone is the flat-footed beat cop with a long career behind him. He knows everyone, knows all the secrets and inner-workings. Eliot Ness is looking for help while Malone is looking for a reason to become re-energized again after years of watching greed and corruption poison Chicago. Their scenes together crackle, dialogue just brimming with energy and plenty of great one-liners.

Joining Costner and Connery as the Untouchables are a very young Andy Garcia and a scene-stealing Charles Martin Smith. Garcia plays George Stone, a cop fresh out of the Police Academy and a dead-shot with a pistol, his Italian background hinted at but never fully explained. Garcia's Stone is inherently cool, a man of few words who lets his smirk and his pistol do his talking. Martin Smith plays Oscar Wallace, a Treasury accountant/bookkeeper who jumps at the chance to do some actual field work with the Untouchables. It's four cool characters, a great dynamic among the quartet, an odd couple men on a mission grouping that works perfectly.

Committing to gaining weight to really look the part, De Niro is a fine choice to play infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone. It is a part that would have been easy to be exaggerated, but De Niro knows how far to push it. Capone is hot-tempered, fiery and barely keeps his emotions in check. The part is mostly long scenes, monologues really, where De Niro gets to flex a bit. Richard Bradford plays the police commissioner caught in the middle of it all and maybe playing all sides, Patricia Clarkson plays Ness' pregnant wife, an uncredited Clifton James as the prosecuting district attorney, and Billy Drago as Frank Nitti, Capone's chief enforcer and accomplished killer.

With the actual history here condensed from a few years to seemingly a few months, we get an episodic story that covers a ton of ground in the 119-minute movie. More than the performances, the music, the period appropriate....well, everything, 'Untouchables' always stands out for me because of the well-staged set pieces. An ambush near the Canadian border is a gem, the machine guns rattling like crazy to Morricone's swooping score. The highlight though has Ness and Co. looking for Capone's bookkeeper, desperately trying to get out of town, at Union Station. The action, the drama, the nods to classic films (Battleship Potempkin), and the slow motion all build to this almost unbearable tension. Maybe it isn't the most unified script/story, but the set pieces help keep things together beginning to end. A gem, a must-see for fans of Costner, Connery, gangster movie fans and any Chicagoans.

The Untouchables (1987): ****/****

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Cheyenne Social Club

Two of Hollywood's most legendary stars, James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred together in 1968's Firecreek, a pretty solid western that pitted the two legends against each other as adversaries. Friends off the screen, the duo didn't wait long to team up again, working together on 1970's The Cheyenne Social Club.

It's 1867 in Texas and two cowboys, John O'Hanlan (Stewart) and Harley Sullivan (Fonda), are doing what they do best, punching cows on a cattle ranch, when John receives a long overdue telegram. His brother has died and has left him his business, an establishment called the Cheyenne Social Club in Wyoming. The cowboys saddle up and head north to see what's up, but they're in for a surprise. Upon arrival, they meet Jenny (Shirley Jones) at the club and quickly realize that the Cheyenne Social Club is actually a whorehouse. John had been dead set on being a property owner, but now he faces an ethical situation. Does he continue on as owner or does he switch things up, turn it into a boarding house? The city of Cheyenne may have something to say about that.

Considering the year this flick was released -- 1970 -- it's a bit of an oddity. Spaghetti westerns were still very popular in Europe, and in America a trend toward revisionist westerns with a darker tone was on the upward swing. How then does a fairly light, sexually suggestive story fit in? Surprisingly well. Oh, and the director is dancer/actor Gene Kelly?!? It's a weird, pretty out there formula that just works. It doesn't rewrite the genre, and it has its funny moments with some sexually suggestive dialogue. The tone is appropriate (light) with some darker moments late. It's been generally forgotten since its release in 1970, but it's a solid American western from an era where there just weren't many solid American westerns.

It doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out the main appeal here. The chemistry between Stewart and Fonda is on display here from the opening scene. Stewart does what he does best, a sort of prickly, high-voiced cowboy with some eccentricities. Mostly though, he'd just like to have something of his own in terms of property, a business, some land. Fonda's Harley reminded me of his part in The Rounders (with Glenn Ford), an easy-going, even laconic cowboy who goes with the wind. He's talkative, rambling on almost incessantly, completely oblivious that he's even doing it. His Harley just enjoys life for the little things and goes with the flow. Their cowboy partnership working cattle drives and ranches together goes back 10 years (apparently they avoided the Civil War entirely), a history that's hinted at more than directly addressed. It's two pros doing their thing perfectly and carrying a movie in the process.

I liked the dynamic between the two veteran cowboys and their surprise gaggle of high-class hookers. A pre-Partridge Family Shirley Jones is excellent as Jenny, the head girl at the Social Club who ends up going toe-to-toe with Stewart's John. Her girls of the night include Opal Ann (Sue Ane Langdon), who takes a shining to Harley, Pauline (Elaine Devry), Carrie Virginia (Jackie Russell), Annie Jo (Jackie Joseph), and Sara Jean (Sharon DeBord). Also look for Robert Middleton as an amiable and angry bartender, Arch Johnson as Cheyenne's sheriff, Robert J. Wilke as a revenge-seeking gunslinger and Dabbs Greer as John's lawyer.

As a western, I liked the message 'Club' goes for. Stewart's John begins to question what he really wants to do with his life. He delivers a good monologue late laying it all out. The longtime friendship comes under fire late when John goes after the wrong man in town, setting his family down on Cheyenne and the Social Club. That's really the only action on display in the 102-minute movie, but it's an enjoyable action set piece. It's a good movie I'm having trouble analyzing. Maybe it's not meant to be. If you like westerns, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, you'll like this one.

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970): ***/****

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Now You See Me

Here we sit again. I love a good twist in a movie. It's fun for any number of reasons. Will the twist work? Will it fall short? Maybe the best thing going though is can you get ahead of the twist? Can you figure it out before the reveal? It goes both ways. Now movies are trying to dupe us. The end result? Movies like 2013's Now You See Me, obsessed with making the audience look stupid.

Las Vegas audiences have seen just about everything, but they've seen nothing like the show put on by four street performers, magicians and con men dubbed The Four Horsemen, headlined by J. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg). During a show in front of a packed house, the Horsemen seek the help of an audience member and actually manage to somehow rob a bank in France of $3 million francs. Is it deception? A sleight of hand? Or is something magically mysterious going on? An FBI agent, Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo), is called in to head the case and figure out exactly what's going on. He's given the help of an inexperienced Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) but is dealt a tough hand almost immediately. The Horsemen welcome the challenge. If the FBI and police are going to prosecute them, they're all but admitting that magic is in fact, real. The Horsemen say they've got two more shows and it will all come together. What are they up to?

Released in theaters late this spring, 'Now' was a surprise success with audiences, earning over $320 million worldwide. It was so successful a sequel has already been confirmed. I can't wait! Yeah! Reviews were generally pretty mixed, and I was skeptical going into my first viewing. The previews looked a little too goofy for my liking. At the same time, the cast listing looked absolutely ridiculous. We're talking lots of very talented individuals here working together. As is so often the case though with big, impressive casts, there's too much going on. Still, the cast is nuts. Unfortunately a very talented cast is wasted in this heist thriller from director Louis Leterrier. I really do my best not to give spoilers away so I'll try here, but it's going to be difficult.

Magic is inherently....well....mysterious, right? How do magicians pull off those crazy tricks? Is there an element of the supernatural in their acts? That's the challenge here. In the movie's first scene, Eisenberg's Atlas addresses the point of the movie. While you're trying to figure out his trick, he's pulling a fast one on you in the opposite direction. And there's the movie. While we're trying to figure out how the Four Horsemen pull off their jobs, the actual job/heist is being pulled somewhere else. 'Now' is admitting it is trying to trick us, and that's where things blow up. It is so interested in tricking us that any degree of reality, believability, or coherent semblance of anything is completely thrown out the window. Oh, they didn't really rob the Parisian bank? Oh, but they kinda did? Oh, all of their plans involved meticulous detail that no real life plan could possibly hinge on?

The catch is that the twist isn't really as clever as it thinks it is. Oddly enough, it's both really obvious and really out of left field. If you pay attention early when a character discusses some personal history, you can start to put the pieces together. That's as far as it goes. When the reveal comes, it defies description. It is so mind-blowingly stupid that it pained me to go back and thought how it all fit together. In order for it to work, whole scenes, whole sequences that we've already seen are now basically null and void. Again, no spoilers because I want you to experience the badness of this movie. Let it be known though. It is real bad.

Okay, now for the cast. Along with Eisenberg (who isn't as obnoxious as usual), the Four Horsemen include Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco. As their notoriety rises, we actually see little of them for long stretches. Ruffalo and Laurent are decent together, but we get the pleasure of seeing the what if angle of their relationship. Along with that duo in the law enforcement wing, we get Michael Kelly and Common, neither given much to do except look foolish as the Horsemen one-up and dupe them again. But wait, there's more! Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman both have key supporting roles. The parts are so thinly written that we never really learn much about anyone in terms of background, motivation or actual personality traits. Cool characters/actors in name only.

I also didn't care for the score from composer Brian Tyler, a kinda 1970s crime thriller throwback that's too obvious as it blares away with each passing scene. I had moderate at best expectations for this movie, but it was frustratingly bad. At the expense of any good story, 'Now' goes for the huge twist that depends on shock value more than making sense in terms of the movie. I can't wait to not see the follow-up. Oh, I also like the assumption that if you're a con man street performer, you're also an expert in hand-to-hand combat. I especially liked Franco's street performer doing battle with Ruffalo by whipping playing cards at him, Ruffalo comically yelling back. Unintentionally funny, a light moment in a sea of badness.

Now You See Me (2013): */****

Monday, October 28, 2013


Yeah, yeah, yeah, air travel is supposedly the safest form of travel around. I've heard it all. But I've also seen a lot of movies. And you know what happens in movies? Bad things happen to planes. Crashes, bombs, madmen hell-bent on doing all sorts of evil, engine failure, Gary Oldman, anything and everything. In other words, it's a prime jumping off point for a disaster flick, like 1972's Skyjacked, a solid if unspectacular entry to the genre.

A veteran airline pilot with a military background, Capt. Hank O'Hara (Charlton Heston) boards his flight to Minneapolis on a Boeing 707 like any other flight. Once the plane is airborne though, a passenger discovers a message in the bathroom. Written on the mirror in lipstick is a message telling O'Hara to divert the plane to Anchorage or a bomb will be exploded. Is it serious? Is it a prank? While they're trying to decide for sure, a second threat/message is found, demanding the flight be diverted immediately. O'Hara goes along with it, knowing nothing can be achieved by calling the bomber's bluff. The plane heads to Anchorage but the weather is horrific for hundreds of miles in every direction. Can O'Hara get the plane to its new destination? Can they find out who the bomber is in time?

Rampant during the 1970s before dying out a bit in the early 1980s, the disaster flick genre produced some classics, some duds and a whole lot of flicks right in between. From director John Guillermin, 'Skyjacked' is right in the middle there. It's not really good, and it's not really bad. In the end, it's an entertaining, sometimes very tense disaster flick that has it's moments. For the most part it avoids a lot of the overdramatic pratfalls that can doom any movie. A nutso bomber has a bomb on an airliner packed with passengers. Do we need much else in the drama department? We waste little time before getting on board and letting the fun begin. The story does take a surprising twist near the halfway point, but I thought it worked pretty well. Yeah, it comes out of left field, but considering who the bomber is, I liked it.

It is a disaster flick so who should star? If you answered anyone else other than Charlton Heston, shame on you. In the 1970s, his name seemed synonymous with the genre. Are they all great performances? Nah, not really, but him just being there definitely legitimizes the movie. He commits to the part, and it's always fun to see him do his thing. I liked his Capt. O'Hara, a tough as nails pilot who will do anything he can to ensure that his passengers, crew and plane makes it through okay. His crew includes Mike Henry as his co-pilot and Ken Swofford as his navigator with Yvette Mimieux as Angela, the head stewardess who had a previous "thing" with O'Hara. Wouldn't you know it? Those feelings might be creeping back up again! I know, right, I didn't see that coming either!

Following the disaster movie formula, we get a whole lot of characters rounding out the cast. Will everyone make it? Who goes nuts? No spoilers here as to the identity of the bomber mostly because I had it ruined for me via a Netflix plot description. Let's start with Walter Pidgeon as a U.S. Senator on the way to Washington D.C., his son (Nicholas Hammond) who has an interest in free-spirited Susan Dey. James Brolin plays a U.S. soldier trying to get to his sister's wedding with Roosevelt Grier sharing his row of seats with him as a musician traveling with his rather large instrument. Mariette Hartley is a very pregnant woman traveling by herself while Jeanne Crain and Ross Elliott play a married couple moving to a new job after some past job troubles. Mostly a cameo, Claude Akins plays a radar specialist who helps O'Hara bring the plane down safely. Not exactly the cast of Towering Inferno in terms of star power, but it's a fun cast with some cool supporting parts.

How about the weirder portions of the movie? My favorite has Heston's O'Hara smoking a the cockpit. In general, there seems to be a lot of smoking on-board. I know its the 1970s, but talk about a funny time capsule. A close second in the ridiculous department is pregnant Mariette Hartley turning down a water for a....Bloody Mary. Maybe her going into labor is a drink-induced karma, who knows. There's also a couple of dreamy, cloud-like flashbacks that are pretty bad, but those pale in comparison to the bomber's hallucinations. The story isn't great, keeping things on a superficial level with basically all the characters, but I did enjoy it in a stupid, entertaining popcorn flick kind of way. Decent disaster flick.

Skyjacked (1972): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, October 25, 2013

Guns of the Timberland

I guess I only have myself to blame. I should have learned with 1952's The Big Trees that logging and cutting down trees just isn't exciting as it sounds. Just the same, when 1960's Guns of the Timberland popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule, I wanted to give it a shot. It comes from a novel by an author I like a lot, and the cast sounded pretty capable. Yeah, I was wrong. It's now 0-for-2 when it comes to logging movies.

Traveling by train, Jim Hadley (Alan Ladd) and Monty Walker (Gilbert Roland) are heading into the mountains to finish out a contract they've signed. It's 1895 somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and Jim, Monty and their crew of lumberjacks have been contracted to provide limber for a new railroad line. They've invested much of their own money to help get the job and desperately need it to come through for them. They think the job will be easy...until they get there. The area they're supposed to clear is dominated by ranches that need the trees to provide a watershed for the land. No trees, no ability to hold water in the land. One ranchowner, Laura Rileyy (Jeanne Crain), is at the forefront of the effort to stop them, and the whole town is behind her. Both sides stand to lose everything should the other side succeed. Who will cave and buckle first?

When I see based on a story/novel from western writer Louis L'Amour, I'm always psyched. I grew up reading his stories and still read them today. I haven't read this source story, but it sounds like the movie script switched up the focus of the novel. In the movie, we follow Jim and Monty in their efforts to clear the land. In the book, it sure sounds like it's the other way around as we see from the rancher's perspective. Ultimately, I felt like that went a long way toward dooming the picture. It's hard to support and/or hate either side here. Both sides are doing what they need to do to survive. Yes, it's at the expense of the other side. So really....are there good guys and bad guys? It's hard to judge either side too harshly. Too bad because with that said, all the natural conflict goes out the window. We don't really want either side to win if that makes sense.

I did like the cast even if they are given little to do. I like Ladd depending on the role, and he's decent here because he's paired with the fiery, always fun Roland. Thankfully, Roland avoids the stereotypical 'Ay, chihuahua!' moments he so often resorted to. Ladd seems a little off, some of his lines stepping on other actor's lines, maybe off a second or two as to when he should have said something. I don't know what was going on, but Ladd even looks a little uncomfortable in most of his scenes. Also joining the crew of boisterous, roughneck, fun-loving lumberjacks is Noah Beery Jr., Henry Kulky, and Johnny Seven, some there for comic relief, others for intimidation factors.

On the other side of the line is a really dull crew of quasi-bad guys who aren't so bad. Crain is okay as tough female rancher Riley, but even she falls for Ladd's Jim at the drop of a hat. The most villainous is Lyle Bettger as Clay Bell, Riley's foreman who isn't below some rather nasty methods to get the lumberjacks out of town. Frankie Avalon plays Bert, a young man working on the Riley ranch who finds himself caught between the ranch and the appealing freedom of the lumberjacks. It's actually a pretty good part for Avalon, even if the script finds two opportunities to let him sing. The rest of the townspeople don't make much of an impression, just a sea of passive-aggressive, cackling maroons who revel in all the stunts pulled against the lumberjacks. Mostly, you just want to see them get punched in the face a couple times.

If there is a positive to take away here, it's the on-location shooting. Director Robert D. Webb filmed his movie in Blairsden and Graeagle, California up in the mountains. It may be one big old dull story, but it's nice to look at while you're being bored. That's the biggest issue. The tension is there, but it's just never that interesting. You don't care how things end up, and the finale is a big old cop-out. I didn't have high expectations to begin with, but even those weren't worth it.

Guns of the Timberland (1960): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I think the western genre will always be my favorite. Even though there just aren't many westerns released anymore, it's still No. 1 in my head. What's No. 2 on that list? The more and more I delve into it, I have to say it's science fiction. Like a western, there can be something familiar, even comforting about it. On a different level though, even lousy efforts can still be entertaining because something new was tried. What about when something new is tried....and it works on basically any level? Somewhat familiar but still an excellent film, 2013's Oblivion.

It's 2077 on Earth, but it's unlike the Earth we know. In 2017 there was an alien invasion that destroyed much of the Moon and ravaged Earth, the human race winning the war but destroying their planet in the process. Now some 60 years later, surviving humans live on Titan, a moon of Saturn, while the Tet hovers in the Earth's atmosphere, harvesting energy from the oceans to help the colony on Titan survive. A man named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) works with the Tet but down on Earth as an engineer, a fix-it man of sorts who helps the Tet's drone operate and stay functional, receiving help from Vika (Andrea Riseborough), his mission control. Jack and Vika are just weeks away from the end of their tour before they too can fly to Titan, but Jack has begun to question things. He has memories of long ago, long before the war that ravage Earth, but that doesn't make sense. He hadn't even been born yet. Where do these memories come from? On patrol one day, he sees a ship crash in a dangerous zone populated by Scavengers, the remaining aliens. What answers will he find, if any? Will he even survive?

This is a difficult movie to review, but I'll say this early. I loved this movie....a lot. From director Joseph Kosinski, 'Oblivion' was a relative success in theaters but struggled to recover its rather large budget. Critical reviews pointed out a thin story with a very strong visual look and strong performances. I liked the story so I'll disagree there, but on we go. The script went through some rewrites and studios in getting made, finally ending up with the version we see in 2013. It does what I like best about science fiction. It lays something out for you, explains it a bit, and then builds the tension as we look for answers. Why does it stand above the rest? It does all those things, and the payoff works extremely well. The revelation works. It doesn't disappoint like high-reaching science fiction stories sometimes do. Visuals, story, characters, for me it all worked. I can't say enough about this one, but I'll try.

Maybe the coolest thing about Oblivion is that while it is its own film, it also knows where its science fiction roots come from. Its post-apocalypse world has some cool nods to previous sci-fi classics, a nice touch by Kosinski and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt. The alien invasion left much of the planet ravage by nuclear weapons, leaving "Radiation Zones" behind, a modernized updated of the Forbidden Zone from Planet of the Apes. Cruise's Jack searches the world for evidence of a world long since gone, finding books all over, a cool touch that reminded me of Fahrenheit 451. Jack's Zone 49 is stationed somewhere on the east coast, a key part of his zone being a ruined New York City. On these ventures down to the surface, it certainly has the feel of I Am Legend, The Last Man on Earth, Omega Man, all those last surviving man sci-fi flicks. It's these little touches that bring it up a notch in my head, a tip of the cap to those that came before while on its own journey to carve out its own niche.

What Oblivion is able to do is that much more impressive because of the scale. A war-ravaged, dying Earth is huge in scope, but we only get six real speaking parts. Cruises commits himself like he always does, bringing a very real, personal edge to Jack. It's easy to root for him, especially as he begins to look for answers for questions that just don't seem to add up. Riseborough is excellent at his side as Victoria, his mission control from their Zone 49 headquarters, a futuristic high-rise up above the clouds. Melissa Leo plays Sally, more of voice work than anything, the Tet's representative that gives Jack, Vika and Zone 49 their daily updates and missions. Olga Kurylenko plays Julia, a survivor of a wrecked ship Jack comes across who knows more truths than he could have counted on. Without giving too much away, Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau play Beech and Sykes, two men who end up playing key parts in Jack's decision.

I typically try to mention the not so glamorous parts of a movie as part of a paragraph with other stuff mentioned. Here, it's hard to do when talking about the visuals the music. The visual look of the movie is a stunner, a sea of dull, cool blacks, whites, grays and blacks as we see what Earth has become. The CGI blends seamlessly with the real-life action, Iceland serving as much of the backdrop for this post-apocalyptic Earth. The story is interesting in itself so the beautiful backdrop and location shooting works almost like a bonus. As for the soundtrack from M83's Anthony Gonzales, I loved it. It balances out the big, booming epic action scenes with the quiet, personal emotional scenes like the best scores do. The song over the final credits -- listen HERE -- featuring Susanne Sundfor is a great conclusion to it all as well.  

I don't want to give away too much here. Things take a big turn nearing the hour-mark in a 124-minute long movie, but in a good way. As I mentioned, the revelations don't feel forced. They're surprising in their revelations, but you never get the sense that Kosinski and the script were giggling to themselves. "Oh, baby, the audience will never know what hit them!!!" It's twists, surprises and revelations that work within the natural flow of the story. It's a beautiful film, and like the best sci-fi, it manages to create its own world from the war-torn Earth to the futuristic home in the clouds, Jack's Bubble Ship to his honed-in motorcycles, it all works. The ending payoff won't disappoint either as a handful of scenes left a lasting impression on me. Can't recommend it enough. Seek this one out.

Oblivion (2013): ****/****

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Sharkfighters

A WWII pilot serving in the Pacific is shot down, his plane crashing in the ocean. Besides worrying about pilots strafing him and finishing what they couldn't, besides worrying about being rescued before any survival supplies run out, that pilot had to worry about one major thing. What about sharks cruising for a meal? Like Robert Shaw's iconic monologue in Jaws, maybe sharks were the most dangerous thing of all. Enter 1956's The Sharkfighters, an interesting look at a Navy effort to create a shark repellent for downed pilots.

It's the middle of World War II, and Navy officer Lt. Commander Ben Staves (Victor Mature) has been tasked with a mission that could save many lives. It isn't behind the lines or even at the front lines, but instead on a small island off of Cuba where a Navy science team is at work. He has been placed in command of the small outpost that's been tasked with creating a shark repellent that downed pilots can use until rescue arrives. The team has been at it for months with little in the way of results, but with some harrowing personal background on the subject, Staves hopes to whip his team into shape and get them going toward something positive. The bays and water all around the island is a virtual shark hunting ground so the samples are there, but the team has to come up with something that can work first. And it better work because they have to do a human test -- man in the water with sharks and repellent -- before sending it to Washington D.C. for approval. Can they do it?

Nothing flashy here that calls attention to itself in this WWII adventure film from director Jerry Hopper that's based on a true story. As if the ocean wasn't scary enough in itself, how about sharks trying to eat you? That simple and very real fear goes a long way in making this story interesting. Now, if the scientific process to develop a shark repellent isn't the most exciting thing around, that's a fair criticism. I've read about downed pilots, shipwreck victims trying to survive as sharks swam all around them, and yeah, it's fair to say I'm deeply, deeply terrified at the thought. Just 73 minutes long, 'Sharkfighters' doesn't screw around, getting to the nitty gritty quickly. It was filmed on location in Cuba -- 3 years before Castro's takeover -- so if for nothing else, give it a try to see 1950s Havana and Cuba in general, some supremely cool locations. Composer Jerome Moross' score is decent too. 

I got a kick out of a couple reviews pointing out that Mature took this film as a good chance to have a couple beers while shooting a pretty straightforward movie in Cuba. Fair? Yeah, I wouldn't pass that up either, but I thought Mature does a good job with his lead performance. He's no scientific experience or background with sharks, fish or the ocean, just a personal experience. The commander of a Navy destroyer, he saw his ship sunk by the Japanese and sharks decimate the survivors in the hours and days before they could be rescued. Like the movie itself, it's nothing flashy, but I've always been a Victor Mature fan, and he's good here. His Navy science team includes replaced commander and zoology expert Evans (Philip Coolidge), Ensign Harold Duncan (James Olson), a young chemist itching to get to the fighting, Chief Gordon (Claude Akins), the cameraman on board documenting the tests, and Carlos (Rafael Campos), a young Cuban man who helps on board.

The one odd point in a 73-minute movie for me was including Lt. Commander Staves' wife, Martha (Karen Steele), who moves to Havana with her husband and sees him on his few breaks. I'm assuming this addition to the script was an attempt to humanize Staves, to make him more than just a driven officer. We see a different side of him, but not necessarily a more interesting side of him. It isn't a long movie to begin with, and in the last 40 minutes or so it felt like far too much time was spent on the Staves' relationship rather than the mission at hand. I'm also assuming Steele was cast so Hopper and Co. would have an excuse to have a swimming at the beach scene, Steele wearing a clingy swimsuit. Subtle, it ain't.

For the most part, I liked this one. The tests of the repellent end up being the coolest thing going by far. We watch sharks swim around the test repellents and eagerly await a positive or a failure. Will the shark attack? Will it swim on? The highlight is not surprisingly the human test, a human subject -- no SPOILERS here as to who it is, silly reader -- getting into the water after 72 successful tests with fish and scraps. It's tense and simple and uncomfortable, a really high energy finale for a decent movie. Good, maybe even only average, but I enjoyed it. The positives definitely outweigh the negatives, and Cuba is a great backdrop to the story with much of the film spent in Havana and out on the water with Operation Shark Chaser.

The Sharkfighters (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Jayhawkers!

Sometimes sports rivalries can be pretty legit. As my friend pointed out, Missouri vs. Kansas isn't just two schools who hate each other. This is two states that brutally went back and forth against each other prior to the Civil War in hopes of bringing Kansas into the U.S. as a free, Northern state. So when you hear "border warfare" between the two schools, remember, it's not so bad. The conflict was even dubbed Bleeding Kansas. It's naturally a touchy subject, especially one for a feature film, but that doesn't seem to stop 1959's The Jayhawkers!

It's shortly before the Civil War in 1860, and Cam Bleeker (Fess Parker) has escaped from the territorial prison in Kansas. Wounded with a bullet in his shoulder, he returns home to find a very pretty French widow, Jeanne (Nicole Maurey), living in his home and on his land with her two kids. He finds out the truth, his wife died months earlier from unknown reasons. It's not long then before he's caught by the army and offered a choice. Bleeker will earn himself a full pardon for his past actions if he can somehow bring Luke Darcy (Jeff Chandler) to justice. With a small army of fighters and gunmen, Darcy intends to turn Kansas into his own country, seemingly without a preference to free or slave state. The only problem is that Darcy has forted up somewhere in the foothills, and no one knows where his hideout is. Making Bleeker's decision easier, he finds out Darcy may have somehow been involved with his wife's death. He takes the offer having to first find Darcy and his gang of Jayhawkers, but he doesn't know the full truth.

From director Melvin Frank, I remembered this one vaguely from watching it as a kid. A huge Davy Crockett fan then (and now to be fair), I watched it for Fess Parker, the mountain fortress sticking with me all these years. It popped up recently on a movie channel I didn't realize I had so I thought it was as good a time as any to catch up with it. Let's start with the positives. A quasi-western about Bleeding Kansas gets points just for having some balls. That is one particularly nasty period in American history so quite a challenge for a modestly budgeted western. So there, No. 1, an attempt at originality. On top of that, it's a very pretty western, shot with some impressive vistas and horizon shots that John Ford would have been proud of. Also, composer Jerome Moross turns in a score that's all around solid, big and booming (a little too "epic-y" at times) to keep up with the action and developing story. 

Never quite the huge film stars they could have been -- Parker more of a television star thanks to Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Chandler with a career tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1962 at the young age of 42 --both Chandler (getting top billing) and Parker are well cast. I liked the darkness of either character. Chanlder's Jeff Darcy is an egomaniacal maniac....but a really smooth, charming one. He wants Kansas, ALL of it for himself. His methods are brutally harsh, innocent people caught up in his wake, but for many, there's a method to his madness as his followers increase. Parker too gets a good shot at a significantly darker role than he'd previously had and doesn't disappoint. His Cam Bleeker (also a nomination for Coolest Name Ever) is hell bent on revenge and his target is Darcy. The relationship between the two men is maybe the most surprising thing about the movie, mostly good, some questionable.

Because every western needs a female character -- read = Sarcasm -- we get Maurey as Jeanne, a French widow who ends up with Bleeker through an odd set of circumstances, one after another. Her children are very badly dubbed it seems to the point it can be distracting listening to them talk. It's not that this is a bad or uninteresting character, it's just that she seems out of place and forced into the story. Henry Silva is a slimy scene-stealer as Lordan, Darcy's right hand man and brutal enforcer while Don Megowan and Leo Gordon play two of his Jayhawkers. Herbert Rudley plays the Governor of Kansas, cutting a deal with Bleeker. Also look quickly for uncredited Jack Kruschen and Harry Dean Stanton as a sheriff and deputy in pursuit of a fleeing Bleeker.

Unfortunately, it ain't all positive. A potentially really dark story with a revenge-seeking convict cutting a deal to capture a maniacal, power hungry man just should have been better. It just should have. Parker's Bleeker seems to fall awfully easy for Chandler's Darcy and all his motivations. Even when something goes horribly wrong late in the movie, Bleeker is pissed.........but really only to a point. For the sake of the movie he keeps on going to get his revenge, but even then, the brakes get tapped. All I ask is commit to the darkness or don't go there at all. There's even a bizarre scene in tone early as Bleeker "teaches" Jeanne's two French-speaking children English, or at least a Parker-like English. Bleeker instructs them "I'm a-going, she's a-going, he's a-going" and keeps on going. It's a painful scene in execution and completely out of place.

That's the biggest deal breaker. It's a lot of potential here that is never tapped. For a movie that runs 100 minutes, just not enough happens. Lots and lots of talking with no real payoff, including an ending that I felt cheated a bit. A decent watch thanks to some interesting casting, but mostly this was just a disappointment.

The Jayhawkers! (1959): **/****

Monday, October 21, 2013


You sit at the box office at the movie theater, the question hanging there in the air. Would you like a ticket for the 2-D or the 3-D version? For me, it's always been an easy question. I just want to see the movie, I don't need any number of cheap, cheesy gimmicks "thrown" at me. Well, I've found a film that's worth forking over the extra cash for to see in a 3-D format, a film currently tearing it up at the box office, 2013's Gravity.

Assigned to a mission on the space shuttle Explorer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical officer/engineer experiencing space for the first time. The small crew includes veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a likable, little goofy astronaut on his last space mission before retiring. While the crew attempts to repair a panel outside the shuttle, Mission Control warns them of debris hurtling through space, the result of a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite. In a flash the news changes, the debris is heading straight at them. With only minutes to spare, maybe only seconds, the crew must try to get back into the Explorer and get away, but it's too late. The shuttle is ripped to shreds by the debris, killing everyone but Stone and Kowalski. They are now floating in space, Kowalski outfitted with a thruster pack, their only hope lying in reaching other nearby satellites and shuttles. They are truly alone though with no hope of rescue from anyone other than themselves.

In 2006, director Alfonso Cuaron received some much-deserved acclaim for his Children of Men, one of the best movies of the decade. Well, seven years later, here comes his follow-up, an equally impressive film that he co-wrote with his son, Jonas Cuaron. It is a good example of a brutally simple, incredibly uncomfortable story that rises above its relatively straightforward roots. Deep space is a hellish place with no gravity, hellacious temperatures and for lack of a better description....countless horrific ways to die. If something goes wrong, you're on your own. There's no cavalry to come and rescue you. That's what I'm going for in describing its simple roots. It's a survivor story unlike anything we've seen prior. Survivors of a plane crash, trapped in the freezing mountains with little supplies. Sure, it's terrifying to think of, but how about you transport that do-or-die situation to deep space? Profound in its simplicity, it works on an epically successful level.

I had issues with this movie that I'll get to later, but one thing here cannot be even remotely criticized in my opinion. This is one of the most stunning visual movies I've ever seen. It totally lives up to expectations in the 3-D department. My biggest takeaway is this; I'm assuming I'll never get to explore deep space. This is the closest I'll get to that experience. It's incredible. The opening tracking shot sets the tone, an almost 14-minute scene where the camera doesn't have an edit, simply following Stone, Kowalski and their mission outside the Explorer. It breathlessly follows the action in a sequence that is truly amazing to watch. That is the entire movie, the sense of the immensity of floating through space paired with the incredibly close, ultra-personal experience of being right there in the spacesuit with Dr. Stone. Obviously, it's CGI for the most part, but it is seamless/flawless. It never stands out, looking as natural and realistic as possible. You never question that you're watching something that isn't happening in actual space.

'Gravity' plays on a simple notion here concerning survival. Instead of falling off a cliff or drowning in the ocean, the 'death option' here is far scarier in my mind. In several instances, Stone and Kowalski's life depends on one or the other grabbing a piece of the space station as they throttle past it. A door, a handle, a piece of equipment, anything. Grab it, and you've got a slim chance of survival. Miss it? They will float on and on with no rescue until finally their air runs out, and they die a slow, painful death. Survival is one thing, this is another, something most -- if not all -- of audiences will never experience.

So here we sit, I'm five paragraphs in and haven't mentioned much about the acting. It's basically a two-person movie -- Bullock and Clooney -- with the focus exclusively on them. We see some other members of the crew (briefly, very briefly) and hear a couple voices (Ed Harris plays Mission Control). This is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's movie. We get little snippets about who they are, their background, how they came to be on this mission, but not too much, just enough. Clooney is Clooney, calm, collected, smooth and a huge presence. I didn't think of highly as Bullock who is drawing some rave reviews for her part as the tortured Dr. Stone. I think it is a good performance, not a great one. Obviously being in the situation would produce all sorts of panic and chaos, but I thought the performance/part was a tad too whiny. We're rooting for her to make it though regardless, one individual struggling to survive.

There it is, a movie that's raking in ridiculous amounts of money three weeks into its theatrical run. The reviews are uniformly positive for a reason. While I have some issues with it, none of them are deal-breakers. I'm not ready to call it an all-time great, but it is a good, even really good movie. It offers a chance to experience deep space at its most primal, survival or death hanging in the balance.

Gravity (2013): ***/****

Friday, October 18, 2013

What to Expect When You're Expecting

Brace yourself, it's not just a change of pace review. It's a BIG change of pace review. No, not just a romantic comedy....a romantic comedy about pregnancy. Oh, the horrors!!! Enter stage right 2012's What to Expect When You're Expecting.

From different backgrounds, jobs, marital/relationship statuses, five different women are all about to find out they're pregnant. How will they and their significant other handle the pregnancy and all its fun? Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a host and trainer on a weight loss reality show when she finds out that her boyfriend of three months are pregnant. Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is a freelance photographer who can't have a child, but with her husband is looking into overseas adoption. Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) owns a store aimed at young moms and after years of trying with her husband has finally gotten pregnant. Rosie (Anna Kendrick) owns a food truck and is stunned to find out she's pregnant after a one-night stand with someone from her past. Let the pregnancy hijinks begin.

Yes, this was a movie pick of the girlfriend, not one I picked on my own. Go figure, I didn't love it, but I liked it considerably more than I thought I would. From director Kirk Jones and based on a series of pregnancy help books, 'Expect' earned a decent $26 million in the U.S. and $83 million worldwide. The reviews are almost uniformly negative -- 5.5 at IMDB at time of review, 23% at Rotten Tomatoes -- and maybe it's easy to see why. It covers a whole lot of ground in 110 minutes with ideas of what characters are more than actually delving into said characters. I don't know, maybe I'm catching myself on a frustrated, negative swing as I read reviews, but what do you expect from a flick like this? It clearly wasn't made to rewrite FILM itself. It's supposed to be fun, emotional and dramatic, all rolled up into one. I liked it so deal with it, Internet.

The recent trend in comedies is seemingly to get every single actor/actress currently working in Hollywood who's available at the time of filming and make a movie. We're talking He's Just Not That Into You, any Tyler Perry movie, Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve and probably many more I haven't seen and am forgiving. There's a lot of talent assembled here so regardless of the thin characters, it's cool to see. Let's get going because I'm wasting my nonexistent word count. Diaz's Jules is dating Matthew Morrison's Evan, a dancer on a Dancing With the Stars knockoff, the duo having met while dancing together on the show. Lopez's Holly is married to Rodrigo Santoro's Alex who's understandably a little freaked out about adopting an African baby. Ben Falcone is a scene-stealer as Gary, Banks' Wendy's husband, supportive as he can be while dealing with his own struggles. As Rosie's baby daddy, Chace Crawford plays Marco, a rival food truck owner.

There's plenty going on at basically all times but two key additions (in terms of subplots at least) end up bringing the entire movie up a notch. Dennis Quaid plays Gary's Dad, a former race car driver who's remarried a much younger woman, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), and is similarly pregnant. The dual pregnancies becomes a bit of a rivalry between father and son, Wendy's proving rather difficult, Skyler's the definition of ease. The other has Santoro's Alex introduced to a Dad walking club in hopes of getting him used to the thought of being a father, the group including Chris Rock, Thomas Lennon, Rob Huebel, and Amir Talai with Joe Manganiello as their single friend they all envy. Rebel Wilson is funny as Wendy's assistant and co-worker without a filter, Wendi McLendon-Covey as Lennon's husband and Holly's boss.    

With an almost schizophrenic, episodic story, things never slow down. The story bounces pretty seamlessly from woman to woman, ranging from montages at ultrasounds to all of them going into labor the same exact night and going to the same exact hotel. Crazy, huh?!? What are the chances?!? Maybe it is because the story is so quick, but there's no time to look for plot holes or analyze too much as to any faults or issues. There are some really dark moments -- one pregnancy ends in miscarriage -- and the finale has a twist or two (sort of, not really ;)). Harmless, entertaining story that I enjoyed more than I thought I would. Besides, even if it was really bad, you could just sit back and watch all the talent. Either way, it's a win.

What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012): ***/****

Thursday, October 17, 2013


Win a war. Rebuild a country. Well, that's the nice way of doing it. Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era was a dark mark on U.S. history. After World War I, the Allied powers basically neutered Germany, demilitarizing the army and placing harsh limits on the country. The Marshall Plan followed the conclusion of World War II, but what to do with Germany, and as is the case in 2012's Emperor specifically, what to do with Japan?

World War II has come to a close, and U.S. forces are occupying Japan, plans going forward to help rebuild the country but also to search and investigate war crimes committed during the war. General Douglas MacArthur (Tommy Lee Jones) has been named Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers and has been tasked with deciding where American forces and Japan go from here. One of his biggest decisions is coupled with the war criminals. First, they must be found and second, they must face trial for their crimes. More than that though, he must decide what to do with Hirohito, the Japanese emperor. How much involvement did the Emperor have in getting Japan into the war? How much was he responsible? Did he order the attack on Pearl Harbor? MacArthur passes the investigating mission to an officer on his staff, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), to find out how the Hirohito issue should be resolved, but there won't be easy answers.

I was encouraged when I found this movie at IMDB and then Netflix. A post-World War II about the U.S. occupation of Japan -- just months after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima -- sounded like a great jumping off point. It's a touchy, messy and uncomfortable topic in history that hasn't been dealt with much in terms of film. That's when the movie is at its best, seeing the Japanese cities in ruin, the channels the American military must still go through following the war with the Japanese power structure, the differences in culture between America and Japan and plenty of other things. It's a war movie but not quite. It's a drama about the military and based on a true story at that. Read more about Bonner Fellers HERE.

So that's all and good, right? You would think so. The movie unfortunately only partially focuses on that part of the story. Director Peter Webber works off a script from Vera Blasi and David Klass decides to go down a different route. Instead of focusing solely on the investigation into Emperor Hirohito, 'Emperor' follows Fox's General Fellers and his own personal investigation into finding a past love, Aya (Eriko Hatsune), an exchange student he met in America but visited in Japan prior to the start of the war. We get one mindless, lyrical flashback after another showing their past, slowing down an already slow-moving story to a standstill. We're talking about a huge moment in international history, and it is minimized to a love story that cannot be. Gag me. The best thing to come from it is some more exploration of the Japanese culture -- what makes the Japanese people who they are -- but that doesn't make the majority of it interesting.

The casting in general is just okay. Fox is acceptable as General Bonner Fellers, but his entire part is hamstrung by the long lost love script. Tommy Lee Jones is an interesting choice to play MacArthur, one of the most iconic generals in American military history. Physically, nothing was done to make him resemble the famous general, but he gives it the old college try in terms of speech patterns and physical mannerisms. It's a good part, not a great one, but his character is basically an extended cameo. It's a part that keeps him in the background far too much in general. As for the rest of the cast, not too much else to recommend. The other American officers at HQ are basically faceless, and the Japanese officers and government officials don't make much of an impression.

There are some moments late that are worth mentioning. Fox's Fellers has an emotional scene late with his Japanese translator, Takahashi (Masayoshi Haneda), a man dealing with his own grief but trying to move on as best he can. A Japanese official (Masato Ibu) talks to Fellers about the day Japan surrendered and what led to it, a part of history I wasn't aware of that you can read about HERE. As well, the scene late where MacArthur actually gets to meet with Hirohito (Takataro Kataoka), an odd meeting in terms of cultural differences as two men feel each other out. Unfortunately, these are just individual scenes that get lost in a movie that wastes a chance to be pretty decent considering the subject matter. Too bad because I wanted to like this one.

Emperor (2012): **/****  

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Upside Down

Here we are again. The beauty and flaw in the science fiction genre. Anything can happen, anything that can be thought of or even imagined can come to life in the past, present, future, a tweaked present, anything. That's what's so cool about 2012's Upside Down, a sci-fi flick with a ton of potential that never really amounts to much to the point it's almost painful to watch.

A young man named Adam (Jim Sturgess) has grown up in a world with dual gravity, meaning two worlds exist next to each other, almost on top of each other. The world/planet is ruled by three scientific rules that help keep the worlds apart, Up being rich and well-to-do, Down struggling to survive in its own poverty. As a teenager growing up in Down, Adam meets Eden (Kirsten Dunst), a resident of Up. The worlds are strictly kept apart though, and the police break up one of their gravity-defying meetings. Some 10 years pass, and Adam is wallowing away working for an engineering company. One day on TV, Adam sees Eden as a representative/employee of Transworld, a corporation that rules everything. His long lost love is there in front of him after years of mystery. He decides that somehow he must defy gravity, Transworld and the law to get his love back.

A French-Canadian science fiction film from director Juan Solanas (who also wrote the script), 'Upside' received basically no theatrical release in the United States, making $28,000 on 11 screens one weekend. I only discovered it because it was advertised On-Demand on Reelz. It sounded pretty cool, and if nothing else, freakishly original. I'm a sucker for just about any science fiction -- especially when it's....well, actually good -- so I wanted to give it a chance. I did, and it wasted about 8 seconds in ruining that chance. More specifics later in that department, but it's just got too many flaws for its own good. The narration is inanely painful, the acting really bad to say the least, and a convoluted science background that had me questioning everything and anything that's going on. Long story short? I really didn't like this movie.

I'm going to start with Mr. Sturgess because he was the one that put me in a negative mindset almost immediately. Explaining all the background, all the science, all the rules, it's painful. An English actor, Sturgess really struggles with an American accent. More than that though, he elects to speak in this high, eternally happy voice that sounds like he's on A. happy gas or B. stoned out of his mind. It's loopy, goofy and painful. Anytime he goes back to the narration, I found myself frantically searching for the fast forward button. Beyond the painful voiceovers though, I'm still in the undecided camp on Sturgess. He doesn't bring a ton of personality to the part, his character really a series of shrugs, smirks and general confusion. It would have been nice to root for the Adam character, but it just wasn't there. A couple cool supporting parts are Albert (Blu Mankuma) and Pablo (Nicholas Rose), his boss and co-worker (both friends) down in Down.

Okay, so we've a basically unbearable male lead character. Come on, Kirsten Dunst, this one is on you! Save the movie! And..............oh, it doesn't happen. No fault of Dunst who at least commits to her part. The script does her no favors. Her Eden suffered amnesia 10 years earlier upon being separated from Adam, and now doesn't remember anything about their torn-apart love. Oh, wait! Yes, she does! And like a snap, she remembers everything. The chemistry just isn't there between Sturgess and Dunst in this really forced Romeo and Juliet-esque story. And because the story wasn't trying hard enough to be deep and existential, their names are Adam and Eden!!! No way, an Adam and Eve reference?!? It's too painfully contrived for its own good, like a high school English student trying to be profound.

If there's a positive, it is the visual. The abstract idea of two worlds with dual gravity is great. The visual execution works too even if there's too much reliance on CGI to bring it to life. The camera moves back and forth because the worlds are literally on top of each other. What Adam sees in the Up world is upside down to him and vice versa. As good as the idea is though, it just cannot overcome how bad the story is. The science seems to change at will as required for the sake of the story being moved along. Just not good. A brief positive is Timothy Spall as Bob, an Up co-employee and friend of Adam's who he meets at Transworld.

Upside Down (2012): */****

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Honey Pot

I like to think I know at least some background on anything from movies to television, sports to music. And then there's....plays!!! I've never been a huge fan of theater so I can honestly say I know little to nothing about a whole lot of plays, theaters, and writers, like Volpone, a play from the 1600s from playwright Ben Jonson. How about an introduction with 1967's The Honey Pot?

Even with all his millions, his whiskey, his cigars and his huge Venetian mansion, quirky millionaire Cecil Fox (Rex Harrison) is bored to tears. He's always taken pride in living life to the fullest, but in his middle years he's looking for some entertainment. Fox comes up with an idea while watching Jonson's Volpone, bringing the play to life, his life. He hires an on-and-off actor, William McFly (Cliff Robertson), as his assistant in his own personal play, the millionaire putting his diabolically "fun" plan into effect. Fox is going to pretend he's dying following a heart attack and he intends to settle up his vast fortunes, assembling three former loves in his Venetian mansion and letting the hijinks begin. McFly takes the job somewhat suspiciously but he goes along with it. What exactly is Cecil Fox up to? What is his ultimate goal in pulling off this ultra-involved prank?

I had never heard of this 1967 quasi-comedy from director Joseph Mankiewicz until it recently popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule. The plot sounded interesting enough, but mostly it was the cast that caught my attention. On top of Harrison and Robertson, we get Susan Hayward as Lone Star Crockett, a quirky American businesswoman with her hand in the oil business, Maggie Smith as Lone Star's nurse, Sarah, Capucine as Princess Dominique, and Edie Adams as a sex kitten American movie star. Oh, and there's also Adolfo Celi as a Venetian police officer who gets pulled into Fox's elaborate practical joke. Not too bad in the casting department, huh? That's what I thought, and I was right. Above all else, if you're going to give this one a try, go in because of the casting.

I especially liked the dynamic between Harrison and Robertson. Neither man knows exactly what the other one is up to, but they both know the other is up to something at least mildly sinister. Who will figure it out first? They have an appealing, easy-going chemistry that gives an energy to each of their scenes together, whether it be putting all the details of their plan together or just sitting across from each other at a poker game. Harrison's Cecil gets a chance to go one-on-one with Hayward's bajillionaire, Capucine's royalty and Adams' actress, each bringing a different dynamic to their scenes and background. I especially liked Hayward as Lone Star with all her quirks and idiosyncrasies. Robertson too gets a possible romance with Smith's Sarah, Lone Star's nurse who begins to smell a rat somewhere in this Venetian mansion.

So where exactly does this one hit a rough spot? Well, to be fair, it's not just one specific scene. It's an entire script from Mankiewicz, based off Thomas Serling's novel which is based off the original Volpone. The movie is a rather leisurely 132 minutes, and that's just the version released in the United States. In the United Kingdom, a 150-minute long version was released in theaters. I'm all for well-written dialogue. I don't know if this is as well-written as it thinks it is. It's smart and clever, witty and quick, but it's not the end all, be all dialogue that it believes it is. 'Pot' is too smarmy for its own good. The dialogue goes on and on seemingly without end. There are no memorably choreographed set pieces, nothing at all really to break up the monotony. It runs over two hours, but this is a story that goes on and on. It feels long. It is long.

'Pot' is listed as a comedy crime thriller which is fine and dandy. When one of the above characters is murdered nearing the hour-mark, things are definitely thrown for a loop. It's dark, but it ceases to be funny from there on in. One character begins to piece things together, but can the mystery be unraveled in time? It's not especially funny, especially the ending with all its forced attempts at humor, and the drama isn't dramatic enough. Pick a tone and stick with it! Funny or drama! It can work in the right situation, but this wasn't it. A very disappointing negative review.

The Honey Pot (1967): **/****     

Monday, October 14, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

While it made over $300 million back in 2009, I can think of exactly one person I know who saw and liked G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra. Okay, one person other than me. It was mindless, stupid fun with a cool cast. Well, the makers didn't exactly strike while the iron was hot, but it didn't seem to matter. With little of the same cast returning, 2013's G.I. Joe: Retaliation was an immense box office success. Is it any good?

Having led a successful mission to recover stolen nuclear devices in Pakistan, a G.I. Joe force is prepping for evacuation when an air strike wipes out much of the force. What happened? Who ordered the attack? Only three G.I. Joes survive the air strike, including Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Flint (D.J. Cotrona), and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki). They manage to escape in the aftermath, vowing revenge. All evidence points to Cobra Commander being up to something, but no one knows that he's replaced the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) with one of his right-hand men, Zartan (Arnold Vosloo). The evil Commander is just waiting for the right opportunity to unleash his plan. The surviving Joes are back in America by now. Can they figure out what's going on before they're eliminated too?

As mentioned, this sequel from director Jon M. Chu is a not so timely follow-up to the 2009 original. It earned over $370 million in theaters so it obviously landed well with audiences, a good thing considering it had some issues getting to theaters. A release date was pushed back almost a year to transition the film to 3-D (more on that later) amidst rumors of horrific audience screenings. Only a handful of cast members from the original even returned, and those parts are pretty weak in execution. It's not quite a sequel in name only because there are unifying links, but it sure is close to being a stand-alone movie. I'll be giving it a positive review based almost solely on some cool characters and action, but there's some big issues along the way. We'll get there in time.

Taking the helm for the franchise going ahead -- supposedly at least -- Johnson does a fine job as Roadblock. We learn little about him other than meet his two daughters (very briefly), and that he's a capable soldier with just about any weapon at his disposal. Cotrona and Palicki are okay as the rest of the Joes, Palicki there mostly to wear skimpy outfits and fire automatic weapons. Other member of the G.I. Joe organization are Snake Eyes (Ray Park), a helmeted, silent, sword-wielding ninja, and Jinx (Elodie Yung), a ninja who's....well, a ninja with no other background provided. Also joining the cast is Bruce Willis as General Joe Colton, the original inspiration for G.I. Joe. It's not a big part, but Willis makes the most of it, deadpanning his way through a couple good one-liners.

Now for the bad guys, cool because they're bad guys without any real background, reasoning and motivation. Price is the evil President, hamming it up and having some fun with it. Vosloo is there in appearance only, not uttering a word. Byung-hun Lee is the coolest villain as Storm Shadow, a sullen ninja with a tricked out pair of swords with only one rival, Snake Eyes. Ray Stevenson joins the villains too as Firefly, a mercenary working with Cobra. Luke Bracey plays Cobra Commander (replacing Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but it's a wasted part. Little in the way of lines or actual screen time, it's there because the G.I. Joes fight against Cobra commander. That's all. Walton Goggins has a small part as a sinister, brutal prison warden.

Not surprisingly, the best thing going here is the action. With a movie that runs about 100 minutes, I'm guessing no more than three to four minutes go by in between action scenes. We're never far from a chase, shootout, fist fight or cool one-liner. The opening raid to get back the Pakistani nuclear weapons is solid, and the finale at Fort Sumter (yes, Fort Sumter!) is cool because about 100 different things are going on at the same time. The high point is Snake Eyes and Jinx trying to capture Storm Shadow from a heavily guarded mountainside in the Himalayas. Using bungees, Snake Eyes, Jinx and a small army of Cobra ninjas swing perilously thousands off feet up in the air. The action is pretty good, making up for a script that isn't interested in character development at all (we're talking any background at all), scene to scene transitions and dialogue that isn't a snappy one-liner. This is an action movie, pure and simple. Literally, there's nothing else going on!

Okay, quasi-spoilers from here on out. When this sequel was made, producers/studios apparently decided 'Cobra' star Channing Tatum wasn't capable of carrying the franchise going forward. Well, their mistake, because in the time in between, Tatum shot to stardom with 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike among others. As for the pushed back release date? Supposedly audiences hated that Tatum was dispatched rather quickly in this sequel. Reshoots had some more development between Tatum's Duke and Johnson's Roadblock, scenes that are pretty decent but also pretty obvious in how forced they are into the story. Tatum has goatee, doesn't have goatee, does have goatee. It's a ridiculously forced, contrived "solution" that works because Tatum and Johnson have good chemistry, but it's hard not to notice.

In general, there is something missing here. 'Retaliation' is so ridiculously all over the place with so many freaking characters that it is almost frenetic in its final version. It's never dull so that's always a positive, but it is so mindlessly stupid it's hard to describe. A mildly positive review because even through all the flaws, I was entertained from beginning to end.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips

It was a breaking news story that seemed surreal in its reality. An American cargo ship hijacked by pirates? It sounded like a story that should have come from tall ships in the 1700s and 1800s more than a breaking news story in 2009, but there it was just the same; Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship, an international incident that captivated viewers for days as it unfolded. Like any worthy story, it's now a feature film, one that's easy to recommend, 2013's Captain Phillips.

The captain of the Maersk Alabama, a U.S. cargo ship out of Norfolk, Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) heads to Africa for another voyage. This time he is transporting food, water and relief supplies around Africa and with a new crew to boot. The trip is only expected to take three days, but the route is through dangerous waters, even more dangerous when Phillips continues to receive warnings that there are are pirates in the area. The Maersk Alabama is able to turn back one pirate attack, but a Somali pirate named Muse (Barkhad Abdi) is persistent in his attacks and manages to get on-board Phillips' ship. Muse and three other pirates claim control of the ship and all its cargo, seeking a lucrative payday in front of them. Their plan doesn't go quite as planned though, forcing Muse and his three fellow hijackers to improvise. Phillips is taken hostage in demand for a huge ransom, but the U.S. Navy and a Seal team have been called in. Now, it's just a matter of time. Can Phillips be rescued before the Somali pirates kill him?

As I mentioned earlier, it's hard to believe this is a true story. Not that it isn't realistic or believable in the facts, it's just difficult to imagine this happening in any sort of modern world. The facts are the facts though, and it happened. Read more about it HERE, director Paul Greengrass (of the Bourne movies) sticking pretty close to the truth. The adaptation of the facts works so well because Greengrass films in an almost documentary style. We're not given a bigger picture of what's going on in the world, of so many behind the scenes issues. This is an American ship being hijacked, its captain being taken prisoner, and the rescue effort to get him back. There is a profundity in its simple, straightforward quality. However or whatever you remember from the 2009 incident, the movie itself is a gem.

Where else to start? Ads and critics alike are pushing Tom Hanks' performance as his best in years, and it's hard to disagree. What I came away most impressed with is how easy Hanks makes it look. Playing Capt. Phillips, he is calm, intelligent and always trying to think several steps ahead of him and his captors. Death stares him in the face, and still, he is able to keep eerily calm. He's trying to save the lives of his men, his own life, at all costs. What sets Hanks' performance a step above is the final half hour as the hostage situation comes to its terrifyingly real conclusion. Now, Phillips begins to see that maybe no matter how calm he stays, this could still end with his death. We see some horrifyingly real moments from Hanks, desperation taking over, wonder at what's happening, and that pure terror that takes over with his own death possibly hanging over him. I don't know who will get nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, but Hanks certainly deserves to be in the discussion.

The most dynamic thing to come from the movie -- a tad long at 134 minutes -- is the cat and mouse game that develops between Hanks' Captain Phillips and Abdi as Muse, the young Somali pirate who leads the hijackers aboard the Maersk, and eventually the ship's 28-foot lifeboat. Phillips works to get his crew and himself out safely while Muse sees the chance for riches, fame, notoriety, all of them just out of reach. To do so, Muse knows he must keep Phillips alive. Phillips on the other hand, knows this, and is trying to keep his Somali captor searching for what to do. It's uncomfortably perfect to watch, this dynamic between Hanks and Abdi (in his first feature role). They both try to one-up each other, keep the other off balance, Muse dubbing Phillips "Irish" while Phillips simply calls him Captain. Who will win out in the end? Hopefully, you know the answer, but getting there can be a lot of fun.

The three other pirates working with Muse are Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman), the youngest of the four who questions what they've gotten themselves into, Najee (Faysal Ahmed), the paranoid, fiery pirate sure that they're being tricked and Elmi (Mahat M. Ali), the pirate and boat driver. All four actors are making their acting debuts, all of them delivering impressive performances in their variety. They're not presented as uniformly evil either, a wise decision I thought in making the hostage situation far more uncomfortable. We see each of them react in different ways to the escalating situation. As for the crew of the Maersk, there's Michael Chernus as first mate, Shane, with David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson and Chris Mulkey the recognizable faces from the crew. Catherine Keener has a quick part as Phillips' wife. 

While it is a true story, Greengrass and screenplay writer Billy Ray manage to make a true story play almost like a thriller. Supported by Henry Jackman's adrenaline-pumping musical score, the story is one tension-packed scene on top of another. We see a foiled attempt to hijack the ship only to see the return of the Somali pirates the next day. On board the Maersk Alabama, it's a cat and mouse game, only to eventually see Phillips kidnapped and brought aboard the lifeboat. It's there the story drags a little bit (a little, not a deal breaker by any means), but that tension and energy get ratcheted up in the final half hour. Even knowing how the real-life incident ended, it's still unbelievably real to see it happening. The finale is emotionally draining and moving, Hanks really showing off his chops. I very much liked this one, and I loved the last 30-45 minutes. Well worth checking out.

Captain Phillips (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Track of the Cat

John Wayne will always be remembered as an actor and a movie star. Fair? Yes. But during a long and distinguished career, he accomplished a lot of things behind the camera and backing movies as a producer, including starting his own production company, Batjac Productions. He starred in several of those movies -- Hondo, Island in the Sky, The High and the Mighty -- but not all of them. With Batjac backing, here's 1954's Track of the Cat.

It's the first heavy snow in the California mountains and the Bridges family preps for a heavy snowfall. Their ranch sits in an isolated valley with mountains ringing it all around, and as they prep for the weather hear the growls of an immense panther in the trees, not to mention its tracks around their cattle. One of their ranch hands speaks of a legendary black panther that's terrorized these mountains for years so could this be that animal? With their cattle at risk, brothers Curt (Robert Mitchum) and Arthur (William Hopper) pack food and supplies and bundle up to head into the wilderness to hopefully put an end to the panther. But as they head out, the rest of the Bridges family, including youngest brother, Harold (Tab Hunter), await their return back at the ranch. Under high tensions though, personal issues and long-held grudges come to the surface, threatening to tear the Bridges family apart.

The positives of 'Cat' are pretty evident. Working off a novel by author Walter Van Tilburg Clark, director William A. Wellman originally intended to shoot his film in black and color!!! Is your mind blown as much as mine? Most of the movie is shot in shades of white, gray and black. That way when we do see colors, they really do pop off the screen. The visual look of the film in general is a big success, even if there's too much use of pretty obvious indoor sets, thanks in great part to the filming locations in Washington at Mount Rainier. You know what looks like real-life mountains and not a mountain studio set? Real-life mountains! Also, composer Roy Webb turns in a solid score, a little over the top at times in telegraphing what's coming but still pretty good.

So we've got a real winner on our hands, huh? No, not really. Things play out like a Greek tragedy meets Russian classics versus Shakespearean dramas...except not that good. It is incredibly dark, which I usually eat up, but it's so heavy-handed and obvious that it loses any impact it could/should have had. That's one thing, but it also tries to be profound and existential with a message. Good and evil! What are you? Quasi-spoiler alert.....we never actually see the black panther terrorizing the mountains so we're led to believe that the panther is some sort of all-incarnate evil, right? It divides the family along very broad lines, all those bottled up emotions exploding outward in one big explosion. Then, out of nowhere we get these cutesy moments that are out of place and unnecessary. It can't find the right tone, going for an incredibly dark story Greek mythology would be proud but not getting there.

The cast itself is hamstrung by a script that writes in cliched, stereotypical and somewhat obvious parts. Mitchum makes the most of it as Curt, the brother who runs the ranch and made it what it is but he's also an intimidating bully to anyone who won't go along with him. Hopper is his complete opposite as Arthur, the good brother who reads poetry and tries to defend those bullied members of his family. Hunter looks surprised with big eyes a lot, his limited range crippling the part of Harold, the youngest brother who's had a girlfriend/friend, Gwen (Diana Lynn), move in with the Bridges. Gwen has caught the eye of Curt and basically thrown everyone for a loop. There's also the family patriarch (Philip Tonge), a preening drunk, and family matriarch (Beulah Bondi), a Bible-thumping, manipulative nut, and Grace (Teresa Wright), the only Bridges sister who hates her life, her family and everything basically. In a bizarre bit of casting, Carl Switzer -- formerly Alfalfa in The Little Rascals and wearing a ton of makeup -- plays Joe Sam, an elderly Indian supposedly over a 100 years old who works for the Bridges.

I didn't like this movie. I read about it for years and was at least mildly curious to watch it. Too much time is spent back at the Bridges ranch and not enough time with Curt out on the trail of the never-seen black panther. It tries too hard almost from the start and never really picks up any momentum over a 102-minute running time. Very disappointed.

Track of the Cat (1954): * 1/2 /****