The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

Sands of the Kalahari

Ah, the survival film, the type of movie that makes you think how you would react in a life and death, do or die situation. Me? I'd probably wet myself and die of fright in most situations. Adrift at sea, stranded anywhere from a snow-covered mountain to a barren, savage desert wasteland, it all sounds pretty hellish to me. A straightforward story of survival with a hugely dark message, enter 1965's Sands of the Kalahari.

Traveling across Africa, Grace Munkton (Susannah York) is at the airport waiting for her flight when over the loudspeaker she hears her flight has been indefinitely postponed. She heads to a nearby hotel and is woken up hours later by a knock at the door. Several passengers have agreed to pay a pilot, Sturdevan (Nigel Davenport) with his own plane to fly them to their destination. With five passengers, Sturdevan takes off but hours out from the airfield they fly directly into an immense swarm of locusts. The engines give out, the plane crash-landing in the middle of the African desert. Now with limited supplies, Grace, Sturdevan and four other individuals must survive. They're trapped in the middle of the desert with no indication of where they are, where they should head. Making it worse? Sturdevan was unable to report his position before crashing. Can the group survive? Can they survive each other?

'Kalahari' comes from director Cy Endfield (who also wrote the screenplay) and star Stanley Baker who had worked together a year earlier on the very successful Zulu. It keeps the African location, but from there the similarities end. This flick was filmed on-location in South-West Africa and Spain, an expansive, sun-drenched look to the desert survival story. The music is kept to a minimum, the focus almost entirely on the survival aspect. It is based off a novel by author William Mulvihill and gets points for some wise choices. It's unglamorous, gritty, cynical and dark. It explores the possibilities when a situation is quite literally life and death. How would you respond? Would you freak out? Would you do your best to remain calm, hold out for hope and rescue? It's hard not to at least think of this story on a personal level in that sense.

The survivors certainly cover the gamut in terms of variety. We get a female character, an old man, strapping young man, the educated, the physical, the bullying. A little society pops up among the survivors who find a relative life when they stumble across a cave carved into an immense black rock mountain, a water hole nearby with a limited food supply. Baker plays Bain, an alcoholic engineer who's injured in the crash. Davenport has a character that's odd across the board in terms of personal choices, the pilot Sturdevan an interesting, flawed character. York adds the interesting element as the woman, drawn to Stuart Whitman's O'Brien, a big-game hunter who's traveling with two high-powered rifles in tow. Whitman is the star here, his O'Brien realizing how tenuous their grasp on survival is, and he's willing to make some harsh decisions. There's also Harry Andrews as Grimmelman, an aging German man with desert experience, and Theodore Bikel as Dr. Bondrachai, a professor with tons of knowledge but not necessarily life experience.

I liked this movie enough to seek out the novel from Mulvihill. I read it over a couple days, an entertaining, interesting read that I enjoyed. Endfield's adaptation is odd in a sense, trying to add some more profound outlooks on life. He doesn't just show the desperation for survival. He has to tell us about it. Everything is spelled out for us. Campfire scenes try to explain what's happening, about their situation, about how they're changing. I think they're trying to be profound in their analysis of humans, survival and that desperation that sets in with death on the line. Just show it though. These long, expository scenes of dialogue become tedious and worse than that, condescending.

If there's a weakness, it's that the story isn't as interested in spelling things out. 'Kalahari' leaves a couple loose ends in the finale about what happens to certain characters. The ending itself is perfect in its execution. There's some good twists along the way, some good performances, but it's also a tad slow-moving and drifts along at parts. I wanted to really like this one, but I came away with mixed feelings. I'll recommend it, but this is a decent movie that could have been significantly better.

Sands of the Kalahari (1965): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, May 29, 2014

24 Hours to Kill

When it comes to movies, sometimes you should just listen to your gut. I recorded 1965's 24 Hours to Kill off of Turner Classic Movies back in early February, and there it sat on the DVR for two-plus months. I watched five or 10 minutes and was intrigued, but something seemed a little odd. Maybe my gut was ahead of my brain in this case. It's got a couple redeeming features, but mostly....yeah, just bad.

Flying his commercial flight with a full crew and packed airliner, pilot Jamie Faulkner (Lex Barker) is forced to land in Beirut when the plane has engine troubles. He thinks it'll be a quick fix, but mechanics say otherwise. The plane is going to be grounded for 24 hours while the engines are worked on. One of the members of his crew, Norman 'Jonesy' Jones (Mickey Rooney), seems especially distressed at the news, hanging close to the crew as they head into Beirut. What's wrong? What isn't he telling them? He tells Faulkner over drinks that a friend of his robbed a crime syndicate in Beirut of a gold shipment, the syndicate blaming Jonesy for the theft. Is there more to his story? Maybe, but now Faulkner is forced to be on guard for one of the members of his crew while also seeing if he can find out the truth. The clock is ticking.

I typically like 1960s crime thrillers made in Europe and the Middle East. There's a certain low budget hidden away charm that comes from movies like this, movies that aren't readily available or even readily known in the U.S. When 'Kill' popped up on TCM's schedule, I was intrigued. From director Peter Bezencenet, 'Kill' has some potential but it goes nowhere. International intrigue with smuggling and a crime syndicate and all sorts of ulterior motives, nothing wrong there, but the execution just isn't there. The best thing going is the on-location shooting in Beirut, a bit of a time capsule to a city that would be torn apart by war in 1970s with the Lebanese Civil War. The Beirut backdrop provides some gorgeous, very cool locations to a story that unfortunately does not hold its own.

A Hollywood legend who started his career all the way back in the 1920s, Mickey Rooney passed away this April at the age of 93. There isn't much he didn't do over a career that spanned 10 decades. In the second half of his career, Rooney did his best to reinvent himself, taking darker, more sinister roles than the ones audiences had come to expect from him. This performance certainly qualifies, an airplane engineer who clearly isn't letting on to everything he knows. A bad guy is one thing, but a lousy character is another. Rooney does his best, but this is not a well-written character. It's basically a series of bluffs as Jonesey sees what he can get away with in dealing with both his friends among the crew and the syndicate trying to track him down. All he does is whine and moan, getting into one stupid situation after another. I'm a big Rooney fan, but this isn't his best moment.

So as mentioned, a lot of that has to do with the script. The on-location shooting in Beirut is a definite positive, but I'm also beginning to suspect maybe Lebanon had some financial backing to advertise their city. A script that should have been a more modern film noir simply falls short. It becomes light comedy as we hang out with Jamie's crew, including babely Louise (Helga Sommerfeld), who Jamie has some sort of relationship with (I'm thinking work mistress). There's also Tommy (Michael Medwin), a ladies man with a little black book who's ignoring the advances of similarly babely Franzi (France Anglade), another stewardess. Oh, and there's co-pilot Kurt (Wolfgang Lukschy) who's struggling with a gambling addiction of sorts. Who cares?!? Focus on the crime syndicate and all the underhanded, dastardly doings from the criminal underworld, not a travel guide for Beirut!

It's a 94-minute movie without much in the way of energy, just a series of scenes joined by tourist detours around the city. The ending doesn't pull any punches, but by then it's too late. I had checked out long before. If there's a minor positive, it's Walter Slezak in Bond-villain mode as Malouf, the mysterious bad guy in the syndicate who wears a Fez, has an imbecile enforcer who's a doctor, and a hot blonde limo driver. Other than that? Steer clear.

24 Hours to Kill (1965): */****

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Out of the Furnace

I love a good movie trailer. I love the previews before the featured show. And some of them, they just reach out and grab you. Recently, the new Godzilla trailer caught my attention with some great visuals, great style and even better music. Released last year, 2013's Out of the Furnace caught my attention for different reasons. I should qualify that. Reason, singular. That cast. THAT CAST.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has spent his whole life in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, working at the local steel mill and carving out a rough hewn, tough life for himself. That life is torn from him one night when he drinks a little too much and gets in a car accident, two people killed in the other car. Russell is sent to prison and serves his sentence for manslaughter, finding his life even more uprooted when he gets out. Almost everything dearest to him has been taken away from him, his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), also in trouble. His younger brother is a veteran of multiple tours in Iraq and is struggling to cope, getting involved with a backwoods crime boss, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). As he tries to pick up the pieces of his own life, Russell is now trying to save Rodney from himself too.

The trailer for this crime drama from director Scott Cooper caught my eye immediately. About just as quickly, the reviews started to come out criticizing the film. It wasn't that 'Furnace' wasn't good. It was more so that it wasn't as good as it could (and maybe should) have been. The reviews were pretty mixed, and it never gained any footing in theaters, earning a little over $14 million. Opinions will vary, but I liked this movie a lot. If there's a complaint, maybe it's that 'Furnace' is a little too familiar. It does feel like other movies, other crime dramas revolving around families and crime bosses operating on their own. It is dark, brutal and violent but the formula works, simple as that. It was filmed on-location in Pennsylvania and West Virginia where the story takes place, giving the story a gritty, authentic feel. Dickon Hinchliffe's musical score is okay but a few days later no themes really stick with me.

Christian Bale is on a short list of actors that I'll basically see anything they're in. I liked him a lot as Batman and love what he can do and has done with a variety of different roles. In a lot of ways, 'Furnace' reminded me of an ultra-gritty 1970s crime thrillers. It's the type of role that's easy to imagine Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen playing, and Bale doesn't disappoint. Bale's Russell is that familiar but cool anti-hero, a good guy who's fallen on some tough times. What will he do to hopefully reverse that trend?  It's a matter of a guy getting out of his head and doing what needs to be done, even if none of that is the easy thing to do. This isn't a showy or flashy part, but Bale brings the character to life without any huge, dramatic monologues. His most emotional scene is a quiet, moving exchange with his ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) as they meet for the first time in several years. The important thing is simple though. You're rooting for Russell, hoping he can figure things out in a solid lead performance from Mr. Bale.

But that cast! THAT CAST!!! Some reviews had some fun with the cast here in 'Furnace,' the trailers listing Academy Award winner/nominee, Golden Globe winner/nominee with seemingly every member of the cast. Harrelson is the downright nasty villain, his Harlan a drug-addicted, menacing criminal thug who doesn't have a redeeming thing going for him. It's fun to see villains like this, bad guys you love to hate. Affleck too is especially good as Rodney, Russell's younger brother who's struggling to readjust after returning from his tours in Iraq. Their relationship feels authentic from the get-go, two brothers who have always been close, one desperately trying to save the other. There's also Sam Shepard as Red, Russell's uncle who's very similar in demeanor to his nephew, Willem Dafoe as Petty, the local bar owner with his hand in some underhanded ventures, and Forest Whitaker as the local sheriff trying to keep his town somewhat in check as it threatens to implode. Hard to beat that collection of talent in one movie, huh?

This wasn't a classic movie, but I don't think it's trying to be. It is a good story with interesting characters and an equally interesting premise. The violence is startling and far from glamorous, not stylized like an action movie. So in that sense, 'Furnace' is quiet, moody movie that I enjoyed a lot. Appreciate the cast -- however big or small the role -- and watch this one. I feel like some viewers went in expecting an all-powerful movie that would rewrite the crime drama. It's just a good movie with an ending that's as dark and realistic as real life, not a duded up, forced ending.

Deal with it. Enjoy it.

Out of the Furnace (2013): ***/**** 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tora! Tora! Tora!

One of the most infamous days in American history, December 7, 1941 is one of those instantly recognizable dates. The ones that live on in history itself. The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a world-changer, the United States thrust into World War II in a flash. Released in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora! takes an almost documentary look at one of the most horrific days in American history.

In 1941, World War II is raging across Europe, Adolf Hitler's army marching and conquering all over the continent. In Japan, a new commander, Admiral Yamamoto (So Yamamura), has been named in the Japanese Navy with huge plans in play. Negotiations have been going on for months with the America and will continue for months to come. The American fleet all over the Pacific waits and braces for an attack that many believe is imminent while American intelligence back in Washington D.C. tries to decipher countless pieces of information, clues and evidence that will point to Japan's intentions. Will the Japanese attack? At the navy base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands, Admiral Himmel (Martin Balsam) tries to decide what to do next. As the end of November 1941 nears, a meticulous Japanese plan of attack is put into action; much of the fleet sailing toward Pearl Harbor to unleash a surprise attack that hopes to cripple the American navy.

From director Richard Fleischer, with Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda directing the Japanese sequences, 'Tora' is the anti-Longest Day. While that 1962 epic told the true story of the D-Day invasion at Normandy with an epic cast of Hollywood legends, 'Tora' goes for the true story angle but without the star power. Fleischer and Co. are interested in the details, the history, the build-up, the intelligence, the government responses, all those little things that history buffs will eat up. It takes a little while to get going -- clocking in at 144 minutes overall -- but it is never dull and once it finds its rhythm, the momentum gets going in a big way. This was a movie that struggled in American theaters but was a huge hit in Japanese theaters. Why is that you ask?

Well, the true story of the attack on Pearl Harbor is hard to believe in itself. There's no way it should have worked on so many levels. That's where 'Tora' is special. The Japanese surprise attack was a brilliant military plan, a reliance on air power leading to the success and that almost complete surprise on the American naval base. From the American side, any number of people and issues impacted the attack. Intelligence reports were handled slowly and sent to the wrong people and places. When the radar spotted the hundreds of Japanese fighters, reports were ignored. It's an amazing series of events, Fleischer's movie interested in all those little things. 'Tora' finds its groove near the hour-mark as the attack becomes imminent. The shots of the Japanese fighters and bombers taking off from carrier decks in the pre-dawn darkness as the sun rises in front of them are eerie, oddly beautiful and intensely uncomfortable as we know what their plan will accomplish.

That's the movie at it's absolute best. Nominated for five Academy Awards, 'Tora' won the award for Best Special Effects. Why? Because of the extended attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing one of the darkest moments in American history to life. The Pearl Harbor sequence is remarkable, starting about the 100-minute mark. The amount of ground it covers is remarkable from the attacks on Battleship Row to Hickam Field and anything and everything in between of military importance. The camera films from ground level to put the American POV in perspective while also filming in the air to give the view the Japanese pilots saw as they attacked. The sequence of the Japanese planes flying across Hawaii to Pearl Harbor especially resonated with me in terms of the reality of what we're watching. Amazing aerial sequences, some incredible stuntwork, and composer Jerry Goldsmith's score boosting it all up a notch, this is a sequence that works on all levels. It brings the horrors of the real-life incident to life to the point it is uncomfortable to watch. A great sequence.

With hopes of leaving the focus on the true story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the cast was filled out with recognizable, respected actors who didn't exactly have star power. Among the high-ranking American military, look for Balsam, James Whitmore and Jason Robards, and with the Intelligence, E.G. Marshall and Wesley Addy. Among the Japanese there's Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto with Takahiro Tamura as the flight commander leading the attack on Pearl with and Eijiro Tono as the Admiral leading the attack group across the Pacific toward Hawaii. There's gotta be a 100 or so speaking roles so far too many to mention here, but also look for Joseph Cotten, Richard Anderson and Neville Brand among many others.

An interesting movie basically across the board. Told from both the American and Japanese perspectives on seemingly countless levels, you get an excellent sense of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the actual attack, and the immediate fallout. It ends on a somber note, the world truly thrust into the war at this point on an international level, Yamamoto expressing his thoughts. "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve." Profound words and a fitting end to the movie.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): ***/****

Monday, May 26, 2014

They Were Expendable

John Ford once famously said "I make westerns." I love a lot of those westerns -- and tolerate some others -- but Ford's career was more than solely westerns. Some of his most respected movies like The Quiet Man, The Grapes of Wrath, and Drums Along the Mohawk are far from westerns. Ford even served during World War II, but the popular director isn't known for making war movies. His last war film? An underrated classic, 1945's They Were Expendable.

It's December 1941 in the Philippines and Lt. John 'Brick' Brickley (Robert Montgomery) is at the head of a small squadron of torpedo boats, a new form of attack boat that hasn't earned a reputation yet as a fighting unit. That ability to fight is about to be tested. When the Japanese unleash their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire U.S. military in the Pacific is forced to improvise in a desperate attempt to hold off attacking Japanese forces and somehow survive in the process thousands of miles from help. Brick and his second-in-command, Lt. Rusty Ryan (John Wayne), join the fighting too, the PT boats figuring out on the fly how they can help the war effort as Japanese forces surge forward on Bataan and Corregidor. With supplies limited and reinforcements a remote possibility, the PT boats must band together in a last-ditch effort.

The early parts of World War II in the Pacific feature some of the worst defeats the U.S. military has had in its 200-plus year history, including the battle for Bataan, originally leading to the horrific Bataan Death March. It reflected how poorly the U.S. was planned for an attack on such a grand scale. Ford's film -- which he supposedly hated, saying he was forced to make it -- delves right into that. The U.S. government had to make extremely difficult decisions in December 1941 and into 1942. If there was any hope of taking the attack back to the Japanese, the Philippines had to be abandoned, meaning thousands of American and Filipino troops were simply left to fight it out on their own with little in the way of supplies, food, ammunition and most importantly, no help on the way. A horrific American defeat, it makes for an incredibly moving story.

What a somber, unsettling and yes, moving film from Ford. I believe it deserves far more of a reputation, an incredible story that covers a lot of ground in its 135-minute running time. 'Expendable' follows the battle for the Philippines -- about four-plus months -- in a forthright, honest fashion. This isn't a rah-rah! war movie. It tells a story that needs to be told, and I'd imagine, many Americans don't know much about. 'Expendable' is interested in telling the story of the heroic sacrifices made by the thousands of people left to fend for themselves as Japanese forces inched ever closer. Ford's film was shot in black and white, a beautiful, shadowy visual that a crime-ridden 1940s/1950s film noir would have been jealous of.  There will be no miracle surprise in the end for these men. Some will be flown out of the Philippines but for most, they will be left behind, forced to choose whether to fight the Japanese or maybe surrender. A downbeat story for sure, but an honest look at war too. Heroes? Yes. A story interested in glory? No, just doing what's difficult because that's what they've been trained to do.

So many moments here stick with me after viewing this 1945 WWII movie. Wayne's Rusty meets Sandy (a scene-stealing Donna Reed), a young nurse trying to help the wounded that keep pouring in. It is a love story that feels real and natural, not forced. Ryan delivers a soft-spoken, emotional eulogy over a fallen comrade with his surviving crew standing around him. A quiet, candlelit dinner has Ryan, Sandy, Brick and their officers quietly enjoying a peaceful turn, the Japanese guns banging miles away. An old man known as Dad (Russell Simpson) who's lived in the Philippines for years waits on his doorstep with a rifle across his lap. Take his land? He'll have something to say about that. Brick and Rusty visit a wounded comrade (Paul Langton), trying to give him a boost even though the prognosis is a mortal wound. There's too many to mention here, but it helps boost the movie up a notch. Ford at times could get overly sappy, too cute with his stories, but 'Expendable' rings true from beginning to end.

There isn't a weakness in the cast. A Navy veteran himself, Montgomery is excellent as Lt. Brick, a tough, capable officer who doesn't let the daunting task at hand slow him down. When Ford had some on-set health problems, Montgomery stepped into the director's chair. Ford was especially tough on Wayne because the Duke had not served during WWII, but Wayne comes through, delivering an excellent performance. The chemistry between Montgomery and Wayne is subtle and perfect, two friends who have almost a brotherly relationship. Along with Reed, also look for Jack Holt and Charles Trowbridge as high-ranking Army and Navy officers, tasked with the impossible, holding together an army that has no backing. As for the PT boat crews, look for Ford regular Ward Bond along with Marshall Thompson, Cameron Mitchell, and Ford favorite Jack Pennick. I also liked Louis Jean Heydt's quick appearance as Ohio, a fellow officer Ryan meets trying to survive one place to another.

This is a war movie, but the action isn't front and center. What's there is impressive though, the footage of the PT boats zipping across the Pacific doing an excellent job of getting your adrenaline pumping. Mixing in some archival WWII footage, the action is spectacular as the Japanese guns blaze away at these small but extremely fast attacking boats armed with two torpedo tubes and a couple of .50 caliber machine guns. The action sequences are highlighted by an escape from a lagoon base under attack, a nighttime attack on a well-guarded Japanese convoy and a desperate run up a river as Japanese planes descend for their own attack runs. The focus is far more on the men, but these battle sequences are excellent whenever they pop up. 'Expendable' was filmed in Key Biscayne, Florida and the Florida Keys, a more than worthy fill-in for the South Pacific.

Just an excellent war movie, one that deserves more attention for what it accomplishes. It deserves its place among John Ford's classics.

They Were Expendable (1945): ****/****

Friday, May 23, 2014

Trouble Along the Way

John Wayne was a cowboy, a cavalry officer, a marshal, a soldier, an officer, a tough guy, any and all. Name most of his Wayne's most famous, iconic roles, and odds are, you can peg it as one of those descriptions. I've seen most of Wayne's non-serial movies, and I can't think of too many comedies or dramas away from the wild west, a war situation or some sort of historical epic. Well, I found one, and I liked it a lot, 1953's Trouble Along the Way.

The longtime rector at St. Anthony's University in New York City, Father Burke (Charles Coburn) has been given some bad news. His small Catholic university is seriously in debt, and the order of brothers has decided to close the school and relocating the priests on the faculty while allowing its students to transfer to other universities. Not willing to accept the news, Father Burke goes about thinking of ways to raise money to keep St. Anthony's open. One of his best ideas? Reinvigorate the football program which has fallen on some tough times. A successful football team will no doubt bring in tons of money to the university, right? Burke finds his man to coach the team in an ex-coach with a checkered past, Steve Williams (Wayne), a single father who's fallen on some tough times as he tries to care for his young daughter, Carol (Sherry Jackson). Williams has his work cut out for him and not a lot of time to do it in. Can he pull it off?

I've watched John Wayne movies since I was a kid, but this was one of his few movies I haven't seen a second of this 1953 drama from director Michael Curtiz. It was available on Netflix, but that ominous 'Very Long Wait' kept staring back at me. Well, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and a John Wayne marathon, here we sit. It's a good movie for all the right reasons, reminding me at times of a Frank Capra flick. 'Trouble' is an old-fashioned story that you can comfortably call 'cheesy, sappy, cliched and familiar,' but you know what? Those are good things here. Filmed in black and white at Pomona College and assorted Los Angeles high schools, 'Trouble' plays like a sweet throwback in the wayback machine to a simpler time, a Happy Days and Leave it to Beaver time. A cool change of pace.

John Wayne was all of those things above over a long, distinguished career so if for absolutely nothing else, it's pretty fun to see him in a far-more family role. His tough guy single dad is raising his daughter like a tomboy, father and daughter bonding through sports and football and billiards. Wayne has a great chemistry with Jackson's Carol, a talented young actress who doesn't force things. It's a natural performance, a rarity when you consider how bad some child actors were (especially in the 1950s). There's also a possible love interest in Donna Reed's character, Alice Singleton, a court officer sent to investigate if Carol should stay with her Dad or move in with her mother (oh no, family drama!). Thankfully, 'Trouble' allows most of the pratfalls here involving that budding relationship, keeping it in the background and developing it slowly. The Duke is excellent in the fatherly role, a change of pace but in a good way.

Beyond Wayne and Reed, Charles Coburn is the best supporting part as Father Burke, the idealistic, sweet old priest who wants nothing more than to have his St. Anthony's remain open, helping students struggling with money with an education. His fellow priests include Tom Tully and Dabbs Greer with Leif Erickson and Douglas Spencer as the two priests who bear the bad news to Burke. Marie Windsor plays the over the top evil, manipulative ex-wife of Steve's with Tom Helmore as her rich new beau. Also look for Chuck Connors and former NFL player Bill Radovich as Steve's assistants.

Now all that said -- and I did enjoy this movie -- there are some moments that will no doubt make some viewers cringe. Politically incorrect 'Trouble' is not, especially some scenes between Wayne and Reed, Wayne's Steve "analyzing" how Alice came to the job with a wrap-up compliment of 'And you've got nice legs.' As well, any sports fan will get a kick out of the 1950s-era college rules. The script has some fun with Steve's background, a coach who's been run out of a handful of college coaching jobs using some questionable players with eligibility issues. The school completely turns a blind eye to his coaching tactics. A dealbreaker it is not, but it certainly adds another fun, entertaining level to the story.

An interesting change of pace. Definitely worth a watch, especially for John Wayne fans.

Trouble Along the Way (1953): ***/****

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Delta Force

Here's a universal truth for you that just about everyone can agree about. Chuck Norris is in fact, an amazingly bad ass movie star. His movies aren't always that great -- sometimes they're not even good, sometimes they're truly bad -- but through it all, Chuck Norris and all his awesome facts, is one cool dude. I haven't seen many of his movies, but I do my best to catch up with them, like 1986's The Delta Force, loosely based on the true story of real-life 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

Flying out of Cairo with scheduled stops at Athens, Rome and New York City, ATW Flight 282 takes off with 100-plus passengers on-board. Not too long after takeoff, terrorists from the New World Revolutionary Organization led by a man named Abdul (Robert Forster) hijack the plane, starting a chain of events as the plane tries to find a landing site to deal with the terrorists and all their hostages. While the terrorists' demands are up in the air, an elite American special forces out, the Delta Force, led by Colonel Nick Alexander (Lee Marvin) and his second-in-command, Major Scott McCoy (Norris), is scrambled to help rescue the hostages. Can the Delta Force get their in time and rescue the hostages in time against nearly insurmountable odds as the terrorists prep to go out in a blaze of glory?

What an odd, weird movie. From director Menahem Golan (who co-wrote the script with James Bruner), 'Delta' was filmed on-location at a new studio in Jerusalem, the GG Israel Studios. The Israeli locations are pretty cool, adding an authentic look and feel to the story. Now with that said, it's a big old mess of a flick with some -- if not enough -- entertaining qualities. It mixes touches of disaster movies, action heavy shoot 'em ups and plenty of patriotic flag-waving, bouncing back and forth among the different angles. It's almost schizophrenic, never finding a rhythm. We go from on-board hostages to diplomatic and government situations, airport to Delta Force, hostages to terrorists. I felt like key parts of the story that explain what went on are completely missing. Title cards try and explain how and when and where, but there seems to be chunks completely cut away. Different segments with no real unifying link.

Instead of that focus on story and character and plot development, 'Delta' rides on one thing; Chuck Norris' awesomeness. That's it. That's all. Unfortunately, he's kept in the background for most of the first hour of the movie.When his McCoy is on-screen, Norris makes the most of it, his experienced Delta Force leader worn down by the horrors of fighting. That said, he sure embraces that whole fighting thing. The last 45 minutes (more on it later) are one scene after another where Norris' McCoy goes all America on some terrorist ass. He jumps off buildings, shoots, punches, and stabs countless terrorists while riding a motorcycle rigged with seemingly infinite rockets and missiles. In another way of showing how cool he is, McCoy typically likes to enter or leave a room by jumping through a window, opening the door for all sorts of badass entrances. Great drama it is not, but in the badass department, 'Delta' succeeds thanks to Norris.

In his last movie before his death a year later in 1987, Marvin is as cool as ever as Col. Alexander, the no-nonsense, smart-ass Delta Force leader, always ready with a quick shot from the hip or a snappy one-liner. Their scenes aren't too long, but Marvin and Norris are an excellent team together. Who else to look for? How about Robert Vaughn as the Delta Force commander back in Washington D.C. Oh, and some of the hostages? George Kennedy, Martin Balsam, Shelley Winters, Joey Bishop, Lainie Kazan, and a young Kim Delaney as a nun with Bo Svenson as the pilot of the hijacked jet airliner. Not a bad cast by any means, just the opposite, but the disjointed story doesn't give most of them a chance to do anything. George Kennedy manages to rise above the story, as do Balsam and Svenson.

If you can make it to the last 45 minutes, you'll be rewarded. It's almost non-stop from there until the final scene, making up for the slowish first 80 minutes and its schizophrenic nature that's all over the freaking place. In general, it's a pretty cheesy 1980s action movie with all sorts of good cliches and stereotypes. The Delta Force theme is unintentionally funny -- nice work from composer Alan Silvestri -- with an almost pleasant, light-hearted feel to it. Listen HERE if curious. You almost expect to be played over a sports movie montage.

Not a bad movie, not necessarily a good movie either, but entertaining enough. Cool cast that isn't used to its potential, but Marvin and Norris make it worthwhile.

The Delta Force (1986): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Von Richthofen and Brown

The name Manfred von Richthofen may not ring a bell with a lot of people, but his nickname certainly will....or it should at least. That name you ask? That would be the Red Baron, a German fighter pilot from WWI who became the most famous fighter pilot of all-time. His life has been made into several films and books, but this one....well, it ain't especially good. Please read on anyways! It's 1971's Von Richthofen and Brown, an interesting title if there ever was.

As World War I rages across Europe, a young German officer, Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) transfers from the cavalry to an air squadron of fighter pilots. He picks up flying quickly and it's only a matter of time before he becomes an ace himself. His fame spreads across both sides, both German and British pilots fearing and respecting him. As his fame and notoriety rises, Richthofen's ego grows, but it's more than that as he starts to see the tide of war turn toward the Allies. Across the lines at British airfields, a new Canadian pilot has arrived, Roy Brown (Don Stroud), with some new thoughts on how the air war should be handled. Two very different pilots with very different outlooks, both Richthofen and Brown seem destined to meet on a collision course as the war wears on. 

From movies like Top Gun, Red Tails, and Behind Enemy Lines to older movies like Wings, The Dawn Patrol and Twelve O'Clock High and countless movies in between, audiences have long had a fascination with aerial combat. An untapped source of said movies is World War I, the first war to feature aerial combat of any sort. We've got entries like Flyboys, a throwback type film, entertaining if highly cliched, like The Blue Max, a bit long in the tooth with lots of potential that I should rewatch soon. Where does this 1971 entry fall? Well, it ain't good for starters. As a counter though, it doesn't have a ton of potential to begin with. We're talking a real winner here, huh? I had modest expectations heading into this flick -- there just isn't much in the way of World War I movies out there -- but I managed to come away disappointed.

It's never a good start when your two title characters have the on-screen personality of brooding, annoying and boring pieces of cardboard. I always thought John Phillip Law was a likable enough on-screen presence if not exactly a huge acting presence. The script does him no favors, but Law is downright boring as one of the most famous war heroes ever. Early on, he's an idealistic, capable soldier who revels in each of his kills. With each passing month, Richthofen becomes more and more disillusioned with the war and its cost. And then there's Stroud as Roy Brown, an actor who typically played a villain, a bad guy, a nut bag, or any and all. Wow, this performance is just bad. Stroud's Brown hates war and all its horrors. Interesting premise, huh? I don't know if he had one line that wasn't some preaching, whiny, condescending about the profoundly awful qualities of war. A dud for both potentially very interesting characters.

Made on the relative cheap from director Roger Corman, 'Richthofen' certainly tries to be a good movie. There's an abundance of aerial sequences, WWI era planes in one dogfight after another. Yeah, there's too actually too many of such sequences, and they all seem to have been filmed over one particular field. The editing just goes on and on with no real flow to the dogfights. Making it worse, the narration from Richthofen, Brown and several other pilots/officers/commanders rambling on and on about their problems, the pressure, the knowledge that death awaits them at any minute. Even composer Hugo Friedhofer's score can't save this dreck.

Lookie here, there ain't too much to say here. I didn't like this movie, and it has little to nothing to recommend. It's dull and does little in 99 minutes. There aren't any other characters/performances worth mentioning, and the only two I did mention weren't very good. My personal favorite in the most cringe-worthy department was Stroud's Brown examining a wounded, possibly dead pilot. He yells at everyone to get back, examines the body himself, and then says in almost sing-songy fashion "Well, he's dead!" and walks away. You couldn't make it up if you tried. It plays fast and loose with the historical facts, and it's just a bad, dull movie.

Von Richthofen and Brown (1971): */****

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Thor: The Dark World

There are certain irrefutable things in life like death, taxes and the fact that all Avengers franchise movies will make a boatload of money. The Avengers was the top-earning film of 2012, becoming the third-highest grossing film of all-time. I've liked all of the movies to varying degrees with one major exception, 2011's Thor. I really didn't like this one, but come on, I've got to keep up with the franchise, right? Right?!? Here we go with 2013's Thor: The Dark World.

Following the adventures/misadventures in New York (in The Avengers), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to Asgard with his brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), in tow, set to waste away for his crimes. With the universe threatening to tear itself apart, Thor has gone about bringing about the Nine Realms back together. His quest though is halted when his love back on Earth, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), accidentally comes into the possession of the Aether, an ancient powerful weapon that dates back eons and has remained hidden and buried all that time. The Dark Elf who previously possessed it, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), wants nothing more than to reacquire the Aether, hopefully to tear Asgard, Earth and the entire universe to pieces with his new-found power. Hoping to save the universe, Asgard and Jane, Thor is left with few options, forcing him to turn to an unlikely ally, Loki himself. Can his brother be trusted?

I don't know what it is. I can't peg it down exactly what doesn't work for me about these Thor movies. I can say that I liked this second movie more than the original. Director Alan Taylor's superhero flick still isn't perfect, but something just seems more self-assured. It's still heavily flawed, but it isn't the deal-killer that I found the original Thor to be. There's a lot of issues I have I guess. One, I'm being hypocritical. I've watched the Lord of the Ring series, the Star Wars movies and countless other science fiction and fantasy movies so that in itself isn't a deal-breaker, but I struggle to go along with all the Asgard history and lore. Writing that plot synopsis, I felt like I should be reading it in MOVIE TRAILER voice. All the mythology and history and Aethers, it's all very cartoonish and comic book. I can't say that for the other Avengers movies. Based in comic books but rising above it...except for Thor.

One thing above all else is not in question, AT ALL. That would be star Chris Hemsworth who has become an international movie star courtesy of these movies. Talk about epically perfect casting. From the visual look with his long blonde hair to his commandeering physique to his booming voice that deadpans his way through his scenes, Hemsworth is the best thing going for these movies by far. I won't go as far as saying he's the only good thing, but it's closer than you'd think unfortunately. He commits to the part completely but it never seems jokey or forced. It's serious with some laughs. Hemsworth handles the action effortlessly from beginning to end -- his Thor hammer is one of the best cinema weapons ever -- and adds a touch of humor too. Some quick, little scenes work perfectly, including Thor hanging up his hammer like a coat as he enters an apartment. Hemsworth's performance is the heart of the movie, a great lead.

Now the unfortunate thing is that as many big names and potentially cool characters as this movie has, very few leave a positive impression. The biggest exception to that statement is of course, Hiddleston as Loki, Thor's treacherous brother who is obsessed with power and taking over Asgard. The chemistry between the brothers is great, their scenes together in the last hour my personal high points for the movie. As for the rest? Meh. I like Natalie Portman a lot, but she still seems out of place in the Thor movies. Anthony Hopkins is cool but given little to do as Thor's father, Odin, while Rene Russo returns as Thor's mother, Frigga. Idris Elba is as cool as ever as Heimdall, all-seeing Asgardian sentry who watches over the entry point to Asgard. In the annoying comic relief department, the usually reliable Kat Dennings is shrill and annoying as Jane's assistant, Darcy, Stellan Skarsgard is relegated to crazy scientist in background duty, and Darcy even gets a goofy British intern (Jonathan Howard).

But wait, there's more! Eccleston is pretty decent as the villainous Malekith, obsessed with destruction, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje his freakishly strong enforcer, Algrim. In the wasted department are Thor's Warriors Three from the original, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi (a new arrival) and Tadanobu Asano, mostly given cameo-like appearances, Jaimie Alexander also returning as Asgardian love interest (of sorts), Sif. And because the Avengers franchise is interested in coverage across all their movies, Chris Evans makes a quick appearance as Captain America while Benicio Del Toro makes an appearance in the credits scene as a hint of where the Thor series will go.Also look for Chris O'Dowd in a small part.

And here we sit. I know what I want to say, but it's going to sound harsh. My biggest complaint of the Thor movies is that they seem almost generic without a whole lot of heart. They're fun and flashy, blending action and comedy, but that doesn't necessarily translate to "interesting." Thor is a really cool character, but what else is there to offer? 'Dark' clocks in at 112 minutes, but once you take away an incredibly long credits sequence (even taking away the minute scene added on) we're still looking at a movie that's now 101 minutes. Too much going on, too many ideas and characters, a story that bounces liberally among its countless options, and a coldness in general that the other Avengers movies manage to avoid in a big way. It's better than the first movie, but it's still not that good.

Thor: The Dark World (2013): **/****

Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

Ah, Godzilla, a name that has resonated with movie fans for almost 60 years now dating all the way back to the Japanese monster's debut in 1954 with the original Gojira. Everyone's favorite King of the Monsters has starred in over 20 movies and is one of the most iconic movie characters to ever grace the screen. I was more than curious when I found out the Godzilla franchise was getting a reboot and downright psyched when I saw the trailers for the new film. What's the verdict for 2014's reboot Godzilla? Read on and find out.

It's 1999 near the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant by Tokyo and plant supervisor Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is tracking a weird anomaly that his supervisors aren't nearly as worried about. In a violent, destructive explosion, the plant is destroyed, Joe's wife killed in the accident. The incident is identified as an earthquake, but Joe suspects something else. Some 15 years later, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is now an explosive ordinance disposal technician with a wife and son...who's still dealing with his Dad. Joe has been arrested near the quarantined Janjira plant, Ford flying to Japan to bail him out. There's more though. Looking for answers, father and son head back into the quarantined plant looking for answers only to get caught again. What waits inside? More than they were counting on including a creature unlike any the world has ever seen before. It is a creature that threatens to tear the world apart, leaving waste and destruction wherever it goes. There's more though, another creature that's the stuff of myth and legend. It could save us or kill us.

If a studio wants to do a reboot, do it right and with a franchise that needs and/or deserves one. The Godzilla franchise certainly deserves one. This is the 30th Godzilla movie and first for American audiences since the awful 1998 version which was too goofy and campy for its own good. For starters, the 2014 reboot gets points for taking things seriously. The trailers were exceptionally good, setting the tone for what was to come. Director Gareth Edwards (who directed the somewhat similar Monsters) has done an admirable job with a story that tries to tackle a whole lot. That plot description was difficult to write because, well, you can write it without actually mentioning that Godzilla fella. Still, it reboots the franchise while creating its own identity, especially Godzilla's backstory, one of the best things to come out of the script in a very cool, unique twist. The original has Godzilla forged out of nuclear testing in the 1940s and 1950s, but that ain't the case here. No spoilers here though. Go see the movie!

Here's somewhat of a warning. Don't go into this movie expecting two hours of Godzilla fighting and tearing apart cities. Nope, instead Edwards goes for the more subtle, even artsy attack similar to what Steven Spielberg did with his 1975 classic Jaws where the shark wasn't shown in full until the final act. It's not so extreme here thankfully! That said, Godzilla isn't front and center for long stretches of a 123-minute movie. What's there is excellent, by far the strongest parts of the movie. We see the King of the Monsters out of focus, in shadows and hidden away, building up the mystery and the tension so when we actually see him....yeah, it's epic and awesome and perfect, exactly what you're looking for. On other levels, the look of the creature is perfect and back to basics. It's the immense reptilian character with the long tail and razor-sharp back plates that looks like a gigantic sea creature/dinosaur. Oh, and that Godzilla yell (Listen HERE). Yes, it's there and it's great.

Semi-SPOILERS ahead. Semi-SPOILERS. So where does the story go? Godzilla treads that fine line between King of the Monsters who destroys the world and King of Monsters who's the lesser of two evils and somewhat unintentionally becomes a protector of Earth and mankind. Who does he go up against? Two creatures dubbed MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) who have been separated and trying to reunite. Yes, this movie isn't just about Godzilla. It starts off in Japan and heads across the Pacific to San Francisco and into the Nevada desert and Las Vegas and then back again. The fights between the MUTOs and Godzilla are epic, the movie's strongest points and what most people/fans/audiences want to see when they go see a Godzilla movie. The action sequences are remarkable, CGI that doesn't look like CGI as these monsters do battle. They're everything that the Transformers often missed out on, even last year's Pacific Rim. It's CGI, but it doesn't get bogged down. These are just COOOOOOOOOOOL sequences. END OF SPOILERS

Oh yeah, those pesky people in the movie. No huge names here, and that's a positive. There's good and bad among the human cast. I liked Cranston a lot, bringing the right of drama without overdoing it, especially his scenes with his wife (Juliette Binoche). Johnson becomes the more prototypical action hero, the E.O.D. technician seemingly everywhere as Godzilla and Co. traverse the globe. His Ford is given a worrying wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and cute kid. As for the military personnel, look for the always reliable David Straithairn as the Admiral in charge of the operation while Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are the two scientists who may know more than they're letting on. Nothing crazy good or crazy bad, just necessary parts. Cranston stands out for the positive, and Johnson holds his own without calling too much attention to himself.

What the trailers seemed to hint at and Edwards came through on was the "smart" aspect of the movie. This isn't a dumb, shoot 'em up action movie with prehistoric monsters tearing apart the world. The build-up is a little slow for the first hour, but it does a heck of a job building the tension to almost unbearable levels. When we do see Godzilla and his prehistoric rivals, it's almost like a release/relief to finally see them. It's a great-looking, stylistic, even artsy visual look for 'Godzilla.' Some sequences especially stood out for me, including our first real look at Godzilla as we get landfall in Hawaii, tsunamis, explosions, airports blowing up, and all sorts of shenanigans going on. It's big and sweeping like you'd hope to see. The coolest sequence though is a HALO jump into an on-fire, apocalyptic San Francisco, SEAL teams and specialists dropping into the city in a last ditch effort to save thousands of lives. Set to music from 2001: A Space Odyssey (listen HERE), this is a remarkable sequence, beautifully haunting and proof that action can have an art quality to it.

Well, here I sit. I didn't love the movie, but I did like it a lot. I'll be curious to see where this rebooted franchise heads in coming years -- should sequels be in the works. For now, this is an excellent attempt to reboot one of the most iconic, infamous characters/creatures in film history. An easy flick to recommend, and a hopefully excellent start to the summer blockbuster season. Also check out THIS excellent teaser trailer.

Godzilla (2014): ***/****

Friday, May 16, 2014

Grudge Match

Raging Bull and Rocky, two of the greatest movies about boxing ever, and sports in general really. Both films have stood the test of time and both deserve the status they have earned as true classics. As for the stars, yeah, I guess Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone are pretty cool. So 30-plus years after those movies hit theaters, the two stars are united in an interesting quasi-follow-up, 2013's Grudge Match. What's the verdict?

In the mid 1980s, boxers Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen (De Niro) and Henry 'Razor' Sharp (Stallone) become huge fan favorites with their ever-growing rivalry. McDonnen wins the first fight, Sharp winning the rematch soon after. When a third fight is brought up, Sharp decides to retire instead, leaving the potential for a grudge match just hanging in the air. Sharp retires to work in a factory while McDonnen continues to fight, becoming a spokesman and product pitchman while opening up his own bar in Pittsburgh. Some 30 years later though, that decisive third match is a distinct possibility as Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart), the son of the promoter who worked with both fighters in the 80s, offers them a handsome payday if they agree to fight once more. This isn't just a rivalry anymore though. These two guys hate each other to the point they can't even be in the same room together. Can they hold it together long enough to train for the fight?

My first response when I saw this trailer last fall was simply "No.....just no." I didn't think it looked good in the least. It looked cheesy, cliched and just trying too hard to reclaim past magic from both stars. You know what? I was right on all accounts. You know what else? I was right, and I don't care in the least. Going in with pretty low expectations basically across the board, I ended up liking this sports comedy from director Peter Segal a whole lot. It is cheesy and cliched, but it embraces those aspects rather than trying to avoid them (or worse, trying to avoid them but actually embracing them). 'Grudge' struggled in theaters last Christmas, recouping its 40-plus million budget and little else, as waves of negative reviews convinced people to stay away. Familiar -- maybe too familiar -- it is, but I liked this one as a harmless entertaining sports flick that offers some good laughs.

Come on now, it's Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone. With their respective roles in Raging Bull and Rocky, both actors deserve an all-time space in the Sports Movie Hall of Fame (Look it up, it exists. I swear). Now obviously the drama just isn't as big here. The lead parts aren't so dramatically heavy. People forget sometimes, but Stallone can freaking act when he wants to. De Niro has done more fun movies over recent years than heavy dramatic parts, those choices earning him some hate on any number of message boards. What's wrong with two legendary movie stars and actors having some fun? Of the two, De Niro represents himself well. It's a goofy, over the top story with goofy, over the top characters, and De Niro commits to the part. Stallone looks to be sleepwalking at times, but their scenes together have an enjoyable, funny chemistry. Their bitching and moaning at each other provides some great one-liners in the movie's best moments.

It can't all be old guys busting each other though, can it? Unfortunately not. We get some family drama thrown into the mix, some of it providing some good moments, but mostly, it's just too familiar and cliched. Much of the drama comes from Kim Basinger as Sally, Razor's girlfriend who slept with Billy years before right in the midst of their boxing rivalry. The result of that hook-up? Billy has an estranged son, B.J. (Jon Bernthal), who will now help train the old man while also introducing him to his grandson, the type of movie kid that speaks like no kid ever. Alan Arkin gets the fun, flashy supporting part as Razor's former manager and trainer, "Lightning" Conlon, now relegated to a nursing home. Hart too is pretty funny, his scenes with Arkin offering some memorable lines. Even LL Cool J makes an appearance as a gym owner and trainer. Good cast, decent parts.

Nothing too out of the ordinary here with an enjoyable, familiar formula. We get a couple sports training montages as our two 50-something out of shape fighters get back into shape, editing that in with the less interesting personal drama. The best moments come from Stallone and De Niro reigniting their rivalry with one whackier situation after another. The stop-motion video game capture scene goes especially well, Razor and Kid beating the crap out of each other. I also liked their skydiving gimmick gone horrifically wrong.

Is this especially smart humor? No, not by a long shot, but it is fun. The final fight is nothing too flashy, going for a safe ending. The end credits have some good cameos too from boxing personalities, fighters, on-air commentators and some ESPN sportscasters. An entertaining movie, one that's easy to sit back and watch for a couple hours. Nothing more, nothing less. If you're looking for something more, go watch Raging Bull and Rocky again. And how about that poster, not enhanced at all?

Grudge Match (2013): ***/****

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Vehicle 19

I'm kinda conflicted about Redbox. I like how easy it is, how cheap it is, and the variety. I can also appreciate that Redbox and Netflix have all but killed the video store. Still, you go with what you've got, and if I've learned anything from Redbox, it's that there's a whole lot of movies out there I've never, ever heard of. Straight to DVD, never released in theaters, it can be hit or miss so you've got to be on the lookout. Every once in awhile, you get a winner like 2013's Vehicle 19.

A plane lands in Johannesburg, South Africa, an American named Michael Woods (Paul Walker) getting off the plane and heading for the rental car company. He's in South Africa to try to patch things up with his ex-wife who divorced him after he was sentenced to 18 months in prison for a hit and run (one he still maintains his innocence of), just days removed from his release. Woods picks up his car, calls his ex and is off, but it doesn't take long before he realizes something is up. There's a cell phone that's not his receiving text messages with directions, there's a gun underneath the driver's seat and he's hearing noises from the trunk, a woman (Naima McLean) tied up and stashed away but very much alive. Michael isn't telling the whole truth though. He violated his parole to travel to South Africa and salvage his marriage. A voice at the other end of the phone tells him to simply follow orders, but what can he do? What should he do?

Now according to all-powerful Wikipedia (and they rarely steer me wrong), 'Vehicle' earned some $2 million-plus in theaters last year. Obviously, that's not a huge, national theatrical release, but it was in theaters at some point, huh? So trudging on, I stumbled across it on On-Demand and with Walker starring and a premise that sounded pretty cool -- even somewhat similar to the Fast and the Furious series -- so I gave it a shot. Go figure, I liked it. The reviews pretty uniformly ripped this flick from director/writer Mukunda Michael Dewil, one that was filmed on location in South Africa, quite the change of pace from your usual action movie hitting theaters. There is a different quality to it that simply put, just works. The soundtrack mixes South African rap/hip-hop (not so good) with a trance-like score (pretty decent), and things never slow down in an 85-minute movie.

All about the gimmick for this little-released action thriller. Almost the entire movie is set in the rental car that Walker's Woods accidentally picks up. In a rush to meet up with his ex-wife (Leyla Haidarian, heard over the phone more than seen in person), he basically hangs up on the rental office as they try to warn him he's taken the wrong car. From there, we're off. Movies with such a small "set" don't always work, but that claustrophobic, impending doom feeling here works really well as Woods stumbles deeper and deeper into something incredibly sinister involving human-trafficking and corruption through the government and police force. Are there some instances that stretch limits of reality? Sure, especially Woods seeking some help from some rather helpful gangsters. It builds the drama and the tension all the way through, that mystery permeating the story. What the hell is going on exactly?

We get that what the hell's going on mindset through one Paul Walker, a favorite movie star of mine. I recently reviewed another Walker venture, 2013's Hours, that I came away pretty impressed with. Over the last few years before his tragic death, Walker was definitely developing into a very respectable actor, not just a movie star. This was a cool, little part, and like Hours, the focus is almost entirely on Walker, scene in and scene out. It is certainly an interesting character -- some more development would have been lovely -- as he descends deeper and deeper into something he was never intended to be a part of. Can he survive it all? Can he even decipher what he's stumbled into? There's some nice touches from the American driving in a foreign country to the ex-con trying to prove he's innocent for any number of things. And come on now, it's a driving movie. Walker shot to fame in the Fast and Furious movies. He looks right at home in the driving sequences.

I think sometimes when a movie gets negative reviews, other reviewers simply read those reviews and regurgitate ideas into their own. I read several reviews that all criticized 'Vehicle' for its "incoherent action scenes." Literally, word for word. What movie were they watching? It is a movie built around one big, extended car chase. What's so incoherent about these scenes? Do we need to know the inner workings of Johannesburg as Woods navigates the city? No, not at all. If the complaint is the editing, then a whole lot of other, far more positively reviewed movies should have taken some heat. The entire story takes place over a couple hours as Woods' situation goes from bad to worse and then hellaciously worse.

Look, this movie doesn't rewrite the genre. Maybe it's not even that good, but I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It's exciting, keeps you guessing, and doesn't overstay its welcome. Ignore the almost universally negative reviews. This one was fun and worth a watch.

Vehicle 19 (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Way back in 2004, audiences were introduced to Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in 2004's Shaun of the Dead. The comedy duo worked with director Edgar Wright again in Hot Fuzz and World's End, the trio's odd, smart sense of humor resonating with audiences. Pegg and Frost branched out in 2011, starring in Paul, a movie any science fiction fan will get a kick out of.

Lifelong friends with a love of science fiction, Graeme Willy (Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Frost) have traveled from England to San Diego for Comic-Con. That's not all for the trip though, the friends renting an RV and planning a trip across the southwest, hitting all sorts of extraterrestrial spots like Area 51 and Roswell. The trip goes pretty much as first. One night driving along, the RV crashes and when they get out to investigate, Graeme and Clive are stunned at what they find. An alien is standing in front of them, and he speaks English quite clearly (and with some attitude). The alien's name? Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), and he's on the run from government agents. Paul has escaped from the facility he's been held at, and he intends to go home to his own planet. He bonds immediately with nerdy Graeme and Clive, but he needs their help. Will his two new friends help him get away and get to his spaceship?

I really do try to be honest with my reviews so here goes. When I saw the trailer for this sci-fi comedy a few years back, I thought it looked dumb. No, that's not enough. D-U-M-B. I avoided it the last couple years, finally caving and getting it on Netflix. The cast proved to be quite the motivating factor in the end! Well, as is so often the case, my complete refusal to listen to the "Don't judge a book by its cover" premise ended up being very, very wrong. I liked this movie from director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland). A lot. It was funny, surprisingly smart, and pretty sweet in the end -- with some dark, stupid humor mixed in for good measure. Yeah, the pretty deep, very talented cast helps, but there's more to it than that. With Pegg and Frost writing the script, you know you're getting a good final product.

The acting/writing duo actually came up with the idea for 'Paul' when they were filming Shaun of the Dead, and then it was just a matter of time until they could make it. The elements that worked in 'Shaun,' 'Fuzz' and 'World's' all translate here in an easy-going, natural chemistry. It never feels like Pegg and Frost are acting. This plays out like two old friends who know everything about each other -- some think they're gay, much to their surprise -- and are enjoying a vacation they've long talked about. Then throw in Rogen (who's excellent), and we've got quite the trio of characters. An alien who's been on Earth since the late 1940s, Paul is a great character. He's picked up all sorts of human touches from personal interactions to his often dirty conversations. Rogen even provided the motion capture movements for Paul, adding an oddly appropriate slacker look to the alien's actions. I loved the dynamic among the three, that chemistry providing the best laughs and carrying things throughout the 104-minute movie.

As a movie nerd, it was cool to watch this one develop. Pegg and Frost have said in countless interviews this movie was intended as a tribute of sorts to all the science fiction movies they love. It's a tribute to all those great science fiction movies from the 1970s and 1980s. By my count, I saw scenes with nods to Close Encounters, E.T. (obviously), Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future and probably countless others I'm forgetting. The ending especially gives a big old nod to Close Encounters and E.T., a pretty cool ending overall. Even director Steven Spielberg makes a voice cameo, Paul serving as his unofficial "technical adviser" as he makes E.T. back in the early 1980s. And in a quick but essential cameo, sci-fi icon and Alien star Sigourney Weaver makes a fun appearance late. Science fiction fans will definitely get a kick out of this one.

There's more to that pretty cool cast that's worth mentioning. Jason Bateman has some fun as Agent Zoil (a kinda-sorta Men in Black), a government agent in pursuit and trying to bring Paul back. Bateman looks to be having a lot of fun in the tough guy part and with a good twist late. He's got two bumbling, inexperienced agents working with him, played nicely by Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio. Kristen Wiig puts a fun spin on the love interest, a woman who was raised highly religiously and is beginning to think she's got it all wrong. Her rookie attempts at swearing and cursing are especially good.There's also fun parts for Jane Lynch, David Koechner, Jeffrey Tambor, Blythe Danner, John Carroll Lynch and Jesse Plemons.

If you read some reviews about 'Paul,' you'll no doubt fall into quite the religious quagmire. The script from Pegg and Frost takes some digs at religious folks, those who believe what they believe even if evidence is presented that directly counters what they believe. I lean toward the non-believers side so I wasn't offended, but it's easy to see why some resented this movie's message. The religious characters are loony, crazy, off-the-wall individuals. As well, the action gets ratcheted up to some crazy levels over the last 30 minutes, goofy and over the top but never too much. A very pleasant surprise from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

Paul (2011): ***/****

Monday, May 12, 2014

Three Outlaw Samurai

Well, the Internet has finally failed me. I just can't find a certain piece of information about something that I figured would be readily available. Okay, sorta. For quite awhile, 1964's Three Outlaw Samurai sat on my Netflix queue -- the saved portion -- as I waited for the new Criterion Collection DVD to become available. I'd read this 1964 samurai movie was a prequel to a highly successful Japanese TV series that ran for six seasons. Now that said....I can find very little about the show. As for the movie....READ ON!!!

A wandering ronin without a master or a job, a samurai Sakon Shiba (Tetsuro Tanba) notices a commotion out away from the road at a small, run-down mill. Naturally curious, Shiba investigates, finding three dirt-poor peasants inside, and they've kidnapped the daughter of the local magistrate, a particularly brutal man. Their goal of the kidnapping is simple, their village having come up with a petition that makes demands on how the village should be treated. Shiba decides to set up shop in the mill and see what comes of it. The magistrate is expecting a visit from the powerful Lord in the district and wants nothing to go wrong. He sends waves of samurais and hired killers at the mill and village to wipe out his opposition. Shiba finds out he may not be alone in his fight and curiosity as two other samurais, Sakura (Isamu Nagato) and Kikyo (Mikijiro Hira), deciding whether to join the fight and on which side.

I like samurais. There, I could end the review with that simple statement, but I won't. It's easy to compare samurais to wild west gunslingers, both living by their own code. Sure, that's somewhat idealized thanks to movies and pop culture, but it's there. These were men who drifted along -- in the case of samurais at least -- roving the roads, sworn to help and do good things. Cool premise, huh? I typically think so. Director Hideo Gosha turns in a stylish, interesting, if flawed story that I liked, but I had some issues with it. It's good, worth recommending, especially for samurai movie fans, but there's also some serious issues.

Not surprisingly, I thought the strongest part of 'Samurai' was....well, the samurai. The concept of the samurai is what works, including an at-times heavy-handed message. It's the variety here. Tanba's Shiba is the main focus, a curious, loyal man of his word who tries to do the right thing. When we meet him stumbling into the kidnapping, we're not quite sure of his motivations. Does he hope to intercede? Will he side with the peasants? Has he made his decision or does he just linger out of curiosity? We find out his answer eventually, but the mystery works. The other two outlaw samurais are similarly interesting but for different reasons. Nagato as Sakura is the scene-stealer, a down on his luck ronin who we meet being released from a jail cell. He's hit a rough patch, looks generally disheveled, but through it all, he wants to do what's right. Hira's Kikyo is the most underused, a samurai working for the corrupt, powerful lord, a samurai finally pushed too far.

A tweak on the men-on-a-mission movie, I thought this was going to be a movie about three outlaw samurai (You know, with the title and all). I didn't realize this was a prequel to the TV series -- that I can't find information about -- so that obviously affects how things go. 'Samurai' simply takes too long in uniting the three outlaws. They're not actually brought together until the last 10 minutes of a 93-minute movie. Gosha's movie does a good job presenting the three characters as individuals and not a collective group. Interesting, fascinating characters, very capable with their own principles and motivations, but I wish there was more of them. This is a movie with a lot of characters, a lot of twists, and things get fairly jumbled once the ball gets rolling.

That becomes my biggest issue. The characters are cool, the action scenes are stylish and surprisingly graphic and unceremonious, and the black and white cinematography adds to that very visual style. Beyond those three main characters though, I struggle to identity other people worth mentioning. The evil Lord is very evil. It seemed there was about 9 different female characters, all interested in one of the samurai, or not, or a peasant, and I lost track of what was going on. I struggled to keep up, simple as that. Some of that I can no doubt attest to my lack of familiarity with the Japanese cast. Characters seem to flit in and out of the story. The overarching message is pretty cool in terms of how dark it is. The Japanese Lord consistently breaks his word, betraying anyone in his way, anyone who will stop him from reaching the power he needs and wants. Lots of potential, an okay end result for me.

Three Outlaw Samurai (1964): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, May 9, 2014

A Fistful of Dollars

By 1964, the spaghetti western genre -- westerns typically made in Italy and Spain with Italian backing -- was alive and well, but not quite what people think of now. The genre was still in its infancy, light, even family-oriented westerns that were cheap knockoffs of American westerns. That changed in 1964, one movie kicking in the door and changing the genre and westerns as a whole in a huge way. The movie? 1964's A Fistful of Dollars.

In the small, south of the border town of San Miguel, a nameless gunfighter (Clint Eastwood) rides into town and promptly catches the attention of three gunfighters. He callously shoots them down in the street and heads to the saloon. There he meets the saloon owner, Silvanito (Jose Calvo), who fills him in on the town and its background. Things are run by two warring families, the Rojos, three brothers led by the maniacal, Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), and the Baxters, led by the town sheriff, John (Wolfgang Lukschy). The two families are always going at it, and the mysterious gunfighter sits directly in the middle. Seeing a chance to make some serious money, the gunman pits the two families against each other, his job made that much easier when a troop of Mexican cavalry rides into San Miguel transporting a gold shipment headed for the U.S.

Wow, what a movie from director Sergio Leone as he kicks off his Dollars trilogy. A director with a handful of films to his name -- some credited, some not -- Leone put his name on the map with this western. This is unlike just about any western that came before it. Leave it to an Italian director working in Spain with an international cast and crew to rewrite the most American of genres. Tweaking Akira Kurosaw's Yojimbo, this is dark, dirty, brutally sadistic and cynical from the characters to the story and everything in between. There aren't so much good guys and bad guys, just less bad guys. No one is safe. The violence is aggressive, stylish and in your face. 'Fistful' helped propel the western into a new age, Leone's For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly hitting theaters in the two years following. It all started here, and it starts in a big way.

A recognizable face from TV's Rawhide, Clint Eastwood was far from a star in 1964. He was a definite TV star and had some supporting parts in films, but in 1964, he signed on to star in this Euro-western with a director he knew little about. What a wise decision it was, Eastwood propelling to international stardom thanks in great part to the Leone westerns. This is the definition of a western anti-hero. He isn't typically interested in what's right or living up to his word. He's looking to survive, make some money and move on. He earned the nickname the Man with No Name -- he's called Joe here, Manco and Blondie in the other Dollars movies -- for these movies, a gunfighter and drifter who moves from job to job. For the most part, he's a man of few words, typically letting his six-shooter do his talking. He squints and stares, sometimes revealing that "I'm up to something" smirk.

Much of the character is in the visual. Eastwood's Man with No Name wears a hat pulled down tight on his head, a long poncho over his frame, a calfskin vest and denim shirt, tight blue jeans, and plain boots with his gunbelt worn low on his hip. His face is covered in a short beard, almost a five-o'clock shadow. Talk about doing a 180 from the typical white hat-wearing western hero. That's a big part of the spaghettis appeal, credit going to Leone in general. The west was hot, dirty and sweaty, and it reflects in the look of the movie. The Almeria locations, the wardrobes, the town sets, all these little things add up to the success of the movie. Oh, and there's that composer, Ennio Morricone, turning in a memorable score that he would top with the next two movies. A good score, but he would set the bar high with each passing movie. Listen to an extended sample HERE. It's all those little things that add up from the look to the style to soundtrack to the stylish opening credits, and they all add up here nicely.

Working again with Leone a year later as the villain in For a Few Dollars More, Volonte became one of the all-time great western villains as the psychotic, pot-smoking Indio. It took that crazy performance to keep this performance in the background. Volonte delivers a gem of a part as Ramon Rojo, the fiery leader of the Rojo family. He's a brutal, calculating killer who's a dead-shot with a rifle. In Eastwood's Joe, he sees an expert gunman who can cause problems. Snake-like, sinister and creepy, a great lead performance. His brothers include Sieghardt Rupp and Antonio Prieto Puerto, his gang including spaghetti regulars Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell and Mario Brega. Along with Lukschy as the Baxter patriarch, look for Margarita Lozano as his wife and Bruno Carotenuto as their oldest son, Antonio.

In a lot of ways, 'Fistful' feels like a dry run for what's to come. The cynicism, the style, the characters, the shootouts, Leone would improve on it all over the next two movies. The gunfights are quick and harsh, and the finale as Joe stands down Ramon, his brothers and their gang shows that style that would become iconic in 'FAFDM' and 'GBU.' The close-ups, sometimes extreme close-ups of faces and eyes, the violent fanning of the gun for rapid fire effect. It's all there. Is it a great movie? No, but it's really good. A modern comparison is easy, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. Batman Begins is a really good movie, but the next two movies are simply better. That said, the first one had to lay out the groundwork for what was to come. An excellent movie, a huge turning point for where westerns would go in the mid to late 1960s.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964): ***/****