The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, August 25, 2014


Having worked in film and television for the last 10-plus years, Zoe Saldana has made quite a name for herself over the years. She's been in comedy, drama and action but yet hasn't been able to make herself into that HUGE star. How about an effort to make her that star? That would be an action flick that tries to go for something a tad different with a female lead, 2011's Colombiana.

It's 1992 in Bogota, Colombia and young Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg) is witness to the deaths of her parents. Her father was tied up with a drug lord and had some damning information against him, prompting a hit on both him and his wife at the hands of the drug lord's enforcer, Marco (Jordi Molla). In the aftermath, Cataleya escapes, getting out of the country with some help from American law enforcement and traveling to Chicago where she meets her crime-connected uncle (Cliff Curtis). Even as a young girl she knows what she wants to do. Cataleya wants to be a killer, a hired gun, and Emilio begrudgingly agrees to train her. Some 15 years later, Cataleya (Saldana) has grown into a terrifyingly effective killer. She has turned into a bit of a vigilante, but her sights never change too much. Cataleya intends to exact her revenge on the drug lord and his enforcer, Marco, no matter what it takes or what it costs.

The ingredients were here for a solid movie from the cast to the story to a not so ordinary female lead in an action movie. Yeah, they were here, but in the end they didn't add up to a winner. Director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 2 and 3, Taken 2, soon to be Taken 3) tones down some of his usual over the top schtick in terms of style-heavy action, but working off a script from Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, something is just missing. Lots of good elements -- potentially at least -- that don't quite gel in the end. It received pretty middling to negative reviews and did okay at the worldwide box office, earning about $60 million, but was far from a big success. So what's good? What's bad?

With the Star Trek movies, Avatar, The Losers, Takers, and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana has shown she's a tough actress more than capable of holding her own with a tough guy cast around her. So how about her getting a crack at a lead role? Like most of the characters here, the issues aren't with the acting. It's the script. The Cataleya character is interesting but never developed in truly interesting fashion. Why does she take so long to exact her revenge? Her desire for revenge becomes an obsession but she seems surprised when the drug lord fights back in brutal fashion. Think things through! Now just as an action star, Saldana nails the part. She looks like a stiff wind would knock her over, but my goodness, does she look good dispatching countless nameless henchmen. Saldana is given all sorts of chances to undress, wear tight clothing, wear very little clothing and generally look good doing it. She's got the potential to be an excellent action star if she so chooses.

But what about everyone else? The other characters seem like cardboard cutouts of interesting people. They're ideas of characters more than red-blooded people who...ya know, might actually exist someplace. I love seeing Jordi Molla's name pop up in the credits, and his Marco is a smooth villain but he's simply not around enough to be effective. The same for the drug lord he works for, Don Luis Sandoval (Beto Benites), an under utilized bad guy too. The similarly reliable Curtis is kept in the background, his few scenes with Saldana providing some solid dramatic moments but simply not enough. Michael Vartan is Cataleya's lover, a painter who's curious about this beautiful woman's mysterious qualities, and Lennie James plays the FBI officer trying to track Cataleya down as her kill count piles up. Max Martini plays his assistant and right-hand man.

It's a movie I wanted to like more. The action-packed finale packs a pretty good wallop -- stylish and bloody and slow-motion -- but getting there can be a trip at times. There are too many portions that feel rush and/or disjointed. As well, there are some cringe-worthy moments from young Cataleya turning into a parkour runner and evading an army of drug gunmen to Curtis' Emilio opening fire in public to prove a point and simply walking away as police pull up in force. Say what now?!? It doesn't help that the film is "filmed" in Chicago but the city I grew up in sure looks like Los Angeles, at least a west coast city. It sure had some potential, but it ends up being a disappointment.

Colombiana (2011): **/****

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Day of the Jackal

How do you like your movie thrillers? If you're a fan of more recent thrillers, things just aren't as subtle and underplayed as the ones I appreciate more. As in so many film genres, the current solution to everything seems to be violence and explosions, car chases, beautiful women and sex. It wasn't always that way though, like with 1973's The Day of the Jackal, one of the all-time great thrillers. How good is it? It's so brutally efficient, it's almost hard to explain.

It's 1962 and French president Charles De Gaulle is dealing with some serious civil unrest after he has given Algeria its freedom separate from the rule of France. A splinter group of rebels, the O.A.S., many from the French army, has had enough of  De Gaulle's rule but an assassination attempt fails miserably, doing nothing other than alerting French security to the OAS' plan. Desperate to stop De Gaulle's presidency and power, the OAS command puts together a desperate last plan. They hire an extremely gifted, brutally efficient hired killer, an Englishman (Edward Fox), who agrees to go by the codename 'Jackal.' He's paid handsomely but has his work cut out for him as De Gaulle is protected by one of the world's best security forces. How will he do it? When will he do it? The assassin goes about his planning, his ideas known only to himself. Though the deal was made in extreme secrecy with the OAS officials, French security manages to catch wind of the assassination attempt. Can they find him and stop him in time? Not if the Jackal has anything to say about it.

Wow. Just wow. What a good movie, director Fred Zinnemann doing an admirable job of bringing Frederick Forsyth's equally impressive/entertaining novel to the big screen. How good is it? Knowing that this story didn't in know, actually happen, you start to believe that it did happen. When it comes to tough as nails, hard-edged stories about no-nonsense tough guys, it's hard to beat Forsyth, who also wrote The Odessa File and The Dogs of War among others. This should serve as a blueprint for how to construct a no frills thriller that will nonetheless have you on the edge of your seat. 'Jackal' clocks in at 145 minutes which may sound long but simply put, it isn't. The running time flies by, absolutely flies. I've probably been saying this too much of late -- I do have my reasoning -- but I'll go out and say this is a perfect movie. I love it. Hopefully you will too.

What's the big appeal? It's so well-written you believe that maybe Fox's Jackal did exist, maybe an assassin was hired to take out De Gaulle. It's just the sort of thing you could believe a government and security covering it up for the sake of national security. 'Jackal' wreaks of realism, of authenticity that all adds up. Zinneman films it in business-like fashion, giving it a quasi-documentary feel to the fast-developing story. Through the entire film, we watch the Jackal hunt (of sorts), the police on an international level (especially France and England) hunting him, and all the while wondering how things will eventually turn out (even knowing the history). The filming locations across Europe add another dimension to the film, especially the on-location shooting in and around Paris in the final act. It just works, every bit of it.

Hopefully if you're a history buff or even just remotely know some history, you know how this story will end -- at least in some fashion. So who to watch for? An underrated actor with quite a few good flicks to his name, Fox delivers a career-best performance as the Jackal. It is sinister and smooth, subtle and underplayed, Fox bringing this character to life in impressive fashion. Why? We literally know nothing about him other than some off-hand comments made about his reputation. He gives the Jackal an air of professionalism, a brutally efficient killer who kills not because he enjoys it, but because he's freakishly efficient at killing. His actions aren't personal. It is simply business. That element adds an interesting element to the story. You're not rooting for the Jackal per se, but you're nonetheless incredibly curious how he proposes to pull off this job. An excellent performance for Mr. Fox.

So while the Jackal is the unquestioned star, the rest of the cast is a very solid ensemble. The best supporting part without a doubt goes to Michael Lonsdale as Lebel, the deputy police commissioner tasked with tracking down an unknown killer with no physical description or any real idea where he's at. It's underplayed and perfect, a stressed detective pushed to his limit, forced to use all the tricks he's learned over the years. Derek Jacobi plays his assistant in a good part. Also look for Alan Badel as the French minister of the Interior, in charge of the manhunt, Thomas (Tony Britton), a British inspector looking into the Jackal's background, Cyril Cusack as the gunsmith who helps the Jackal construct his specialized rifle, and Jean Martin as Wolenski, an OAS clerk/bodyguard, a nice nod to the Battle of Algiers which Martin also starred in.

With a story that's underplayed and subtle, you might not think the story would be a thrill a minute type of thing. But it is, and it works better because none of it is obvious. The Jackal always manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers in these great moments, the noose closing in. By the time he makes his attempt on De Gaulle, I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happens. What an ending, just a crazy, adrenaline-packed finale to wrap things up. As if that wasn't enough, there's a twist in the closing scenes that adds another layer of mystery to the whole story.

Just a phenomenally well-made and well-executed thriller. Can't recommend it enough.

The Day of the Jackal (1973): ****/****

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dead Poets Society

More than a week later, it's still hard to believe the shocking news about the passing of Robin Williams. A comedic legend of both television, film and on-stage as a comedian, Williams did it all in a career dating back to the 1970s. I've always thought Williams was an underrated dramatic actor so as a tribute of sorts I tried to catch up with some of his best works. First up? A film he picked up a Best Actor nomination, 1989's Dead Poets Society.

It's 1959 at the prestigious Welton Academy, a four-year, all boys prep school, and a fresh school year is about to begin. This is a school that has quite a reputation for producing above average students, many going onto the Ivy League. This year, Welton is welcoming a new English teacher to its faculty, John Keating (Williams), who favors some unorthodox teaching methods to get his lessons across. Some students like Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) take instantly to this out of the box teaching, embracing Keating's message. Other students, like the criminally shy Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), are more wary and stay guarded.  Keating's teaching seems to have quite an impact on his students, but it also catches the attention of some of the rest of the faculty, including the administration that runs the school. The message and goal is there, but is Keating going too far in teaching his students to be free-thinkers?

Whether you watch this movie to rewatch a classic, as a tribute of sorts to Robin Williams, just to explore a new movie you've heard good things about, it's all a positive. I hadn't watched this film from director Peter Weir in years, but it doesn't matter. It still resonates years later because it is pure and simple, a wonderful, beautifully told story. Filmed on-location at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware, 'Poets' is visually gorgeous, a film full of richness, an almost earthy tone, with some shots looking like a painting. Composer Maurice Jarre's score is equal parts haunting and beautiful, relying on two main themes. Listen HERE for an extended sample. It's the type of perfect score that is effective and powerful and emotional without overpowering what we see. It plays like a companion piece, giving each scene a notch or two up.

But here we sit. Many people think of Robin Williams first and foremost as a comedian, and he's damn funny to the point some have said he's a comedic genius. I think he's criminally underrated as a dramatic actor, and this is a prime example. In a part that earned him a Best Actor nomination (losing to Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot), Williams absolutely steals the show. His John Keating is an English teacher who simply wants his students to learn to think for themselves, to be themselves and to question the norm. In a no-nonsense school, these teaching methods obviously ruffle some feathers. You watch his scenes teaching, and all you think is that THIS is how and what teaching should be like. He inspires, he pushes, he questions, and he makes his students question what they know, how they study and learn. Williams gets his quick glimpses into his comedic ability -- he does a trio of really strong impressions to get a point across about Shakespeare -- but this is Robin Williams at his subdued, dramatic best. Just an amazingly perfect performance.

So while Williams' Keating is the one trying to deliver a message, it is in the students we see how the messages land, some effectively, some with a thud depending on the student. Robert Sean Leonard is excellent as Neil, one of the smartest students at Wellton, a likable kid who's trying to find out who he is and what he wants to be, his incredibly strict father (Kurtwood Smith) limiting those choices. In just his second feature film, Hawke nails his part as Todd, the very smart but very shy new arrival to Wellton who's struggling to find his way. The other students we meet and end up forming the Dead Poets Society include Knox (Josh Charles), the lovestruck kid who falls for a cheerleader at a local public school, Charlie (Gale Hansen), an underachiever who always loves to stir things up, the grades-obsessed Cameron (Dylan Kussman), and Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and Pitts (James Waterston), the smart, tech-savvy nerdy types of the group. It's an impressive group of young actors, all of them playing off each other well and finding a groove almost immediately.

The movie has too many worthy moments to mention. I love Keating forcing Todd to step out of his comfort zone to embrace his inner poet. I love Keating's out of the ordinary lesson plans from the Carpe Diem speech to the walking exercise to the strong opinion on the J. Evans Pritchard intro to a book of poetry. It all pales in comparison to where the story goes in its second half. 'Poets' packs quite the emotional punch in its finale in one scene after another. At no point does it feel like they're begging for emotions or trying too hard. Weir, Williams and the young cast manage to find this perfect middle ground, leading to one of the most perfect endings to a movie I can ever remember. It hits me in the gut every single time I watch it. Hawke, Williams and Jarre's score absolutely destroy the final scene.

A classic, a great movie. You will be missed, Mr. Williams.

Dead Poets Society (1989): ****/****

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Young Guns of Texas

So do you have a famous parent? No? Me neither, but I've two keepers. I grew up in Chicago where Michael Jordan did and still does reign king, the greatest basketball player to ever live. Once his kids started to grow up though, the pressure passed to them. Would they be as good as Pops? Well, short answer, but 'No.' When you've got famous parents, there's pressure whether it's inward or outward to live up to what the parents accomplished. Take 1962's Young Guns of Texas, a little-known western that features four actors with famous parents.

In a town in the southern part of Texas, a young man, Tyler Duane (Gary Conway), rides in and starts asking questions. He's on the trail of a small army patrol but not an everyday army patrol, instead it's one Union officer, six Confederate soldiers and one woman. Looking for answers, Tyler meets a young cowboy, Jeff Shelby (Jody McCrea), who says the patrol passed through town a few days earlier. Why is this patrol so special? Tyler reveals they're carrying $30,000 in gold, but the patrol is wearing out horses trying to get to Mexico before they're caught. Jeff sides with Tyler, agreeing to join him on the trail, but they're not able to leave before getting caught up in some town drama. Now Tyler, Jeff and a small group are also being hunted, a posse following them. A showdown in the desert looms when all three groups meet up.

God bless Encore Westerns. They seem to show the same cyclical bunch of westerns -- some classics, some good, some really bad -- on a weekly to monthly basis, but I do love a western (basically any of them). I keep tabs on their schedule because let's face it, you never know when you may stumble across one you've never seen, maybe never even heard of it. Enter this little known, very B-movie(ish) western from director Maury Dexter. The description actually said "Mostly noteworthy because of appearances by offspring of...." without actually giving....ya know, a description. Well, the story ends up being a mess, but it clocks in at just 78 minutes. As soon as it starts, it's over. Not especially good, but not long enough either where it overstays its welcome.

As for those celebrity offspring, yeah, they're here in abundance. Along with McCrea (father Joel McCrea), look for James Mitchum (Robert's son) and Alana Ladd (Alan's daughter) in key parts. Even Chill Wills' son, Will Wills (that's his name, no kidding) makes an appearance. What's the verdict? Who holds their own? Who doesn't? None are especially good to be fair. McCrea holds his own as Jeff, a young cowboy always seeming to get into trouble. Mitchum is okay but nothing flashy, trying to go for the strong, silent type that his Dad became synonymous with. Ladd isn't given much to do other than look pretty, part of a doomed relationship with Mitchum's character, Morgan Coe, a young man rescued from a Comanche tribe now dealing with prejudices of the classier white society. Of the young stars dubbed the 'Young Guns of Texas,' I thought Conway holds his own best and he's almost a background player in parts.

Simply put, 'Guns' tries to accomplish far too much. There's two main storylines, both worthy of their own feature length movie, but instead we get two decent stories jammed into one lightning-quick 78-minute story. Story 1: A young former Union officer (Conway) rides into town looking to return $30,000 in Army payroll that's been stolen by his brother. The officer and a cowboy hit the trail to reacquire the gold. Story 2: A former Comanche captive falls for the beautiful daughter of the local rancher (Robert Lowery) who doesn't take kindly to the possibility of that son-in-law...even though the rancher was the one that rescued Morgan from the Indians years before. Neither story gets the attention it deserves, wasting the potential that could have brought 'Guns' up a notch or two into some pretty respectable territory. As is, there is simply too much going on, the two stories absolutely forced to work together, coherent story be damned!

But you know what? I still liked this mess of a movie. It isn't good, but it's entertaining. At a certain point, I just stuck with it to see how things were resolved, for the sake of a review, and to see which characters get picked off in the finale. There isn't much in the way of action, and when it's there, 'Guns' borrows liberally from some 1950s westerns, including most obviously some footage from Hondo. It's an odd bean to say the least. I liked the potential, three young cowboys, a little kooky preacher in Chill Wills, the young, innocent daughter, and a tough-talking, seductive female rancher (Barbara Mansell) on the trail kept me intrigued. The payoff is okay, but it's nothing special as things are rushed together in a flash. If you're a western fan, you may enjoy it in bits and pieces. As a whole? Eh, could have been pretty decent with some tweaks.

Young Guns of Texas (1962): **/****

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Buccaneer

Ever heard the name Jean Lafitte? If you're a history buff, you should have. A French pirate and privateer, Lafitte operated out of New Orleans and the surrounding bayous through the early 1830s. His name though remains in American history for a big reason, Lafitte helping then-General and future President Andrew Jackson to victory at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. It's a story told in a generally forgotten film from 1958, The Buccaneer.

War has broken out between the young United States of America and Great Britain, the power up for grabs after British forces capture Washington D.C., the American government barely escaping. Down in Louisiana, New Orleans is bracing for an attack, a small American army commanded by General Andy Jackson (Charlton Heston) ready to hold off a far superior British army. New Orleans will be the key as whoever holds the river will control the Mississippi River. The key to it all? A powerful, rich pirate named Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) who helps control the mouth of the Mississippi with his fortified pirate colony. Whichever side he sides with will have all the power and both the British and Americans are desperately trying to convince him. They're both very convincing, but what will Lafitte decide in the end?

Of all the wars America has fought in since the American Revolution in the 1770s and 1780s, the War of 1812 has to be one of those most easily forgotten. I can't even think of another film about the war. 'Buccaneer' is also noteworthy for its director, an actor making his only appearance behind the camera. Who you ask? That would be Anthony Quinn, Zorba himself taking a shot at directing. It is rumored that famed director Cecil B. DeMille did direct some of the movie while also appearing on-screen early for the prologue that sets up the history of what we're about to see in the film. What it tries to accomplish is admirable, bringing a part of American history to light that hasn't gotten the amount of attention that other wars, conflicts and incidents have. What it accomplishes in the end? That's more up in the air.

The biggest positive is Yul Brynner as infamous French pirate Jean Lafitte. As portrayed here, he's probably a little idealistic (but that's more the tone of the movie) as to the historical figure, but Brynner does a solid job. This is a man caught in the middle and trying to figure out what's his best play, whether it be with the British or the Americans. He thinks selfishly, knowing whichever way he chooses will affect his vast fleet of pirates but also thousands of other people. Dressed up as a bit of a dandy -- in one of the few roles I can think of where Brynner sports hair, even if it is a wig -- Brynner commits to the part. He has some fun with it, the best thing going in a story that tries to accomplish a lot in terms of scale and characters and history. His struggles are interesting throughout, a bit of a doomed character, and his scenes in the second half of the movie with Heston's Jackson provide the movie's strongest points.

The rest of 'Buccaneer' is more of a mixed bag. One of my biggest questions involves the sets. The entire movie is filmed on indoor sets, giving the story an odd, even cheap look. In some scenes, like the battle of New Orleans, it adds a cool claustrophobic effect to the proceedings, but for the most part it limits the potential. It's going for an epic scale, full of a long list of characters and big history, but never quite gets there. In other words, the DeMille touch...sorta. Everything is polished and colorful and too clean for an 1810s world. A pirate world at that! It's more than that though, a story that bounces around too much and simply takes too long to get where it needs to be. The last 45 minutes are 'Buccaneer' at its strongest, but the first hour and the last 15 minutes drag a bit too much. Elmer Bernstein's score is okay but not up there with his best.

So DeMille loved his epics, right? Nowhere else is that more evident in the casting. Check out the full cast and crew listing HERE. There's 200-plus names, a whole lot credited, a whole lot more uncredited. Just too much going on all over the place. There's Claire Bloom as the fiery daughter of a rival pirate captain, Charles Boyer as Lafitte's very French second-in-command, Inger Stevens as the beautiful daughter of the Louisiana governor (E.G. Marshall), Heston as Andrew Jackson, Henry Hull as his backwoods, buckskin wearing assistant, Lorne Greene as a rich resident of New Orleans, and George Matthews as Lafitte's loyal henchman of sorts. That's only part of the cast. There's too many familiar faces and recognizable names to mention. Among Lafitte's pirates we see Woody Strode to John Dierkes and many more. If you ask me, it speaks to a movie that was edited some heavily in post-production. 

If you stick around, the second half is significantly better than the first half. The battle of New Orleans isn't a long, drawn-out battle but what's there is enjoyable. Parts of the movie are really good but as a whole it wastes much of its potential. Too bad.

The Buccaneer (1958): **/****

Friday, August 15, 2014


One of the most underrated actors from both film and television going back to the late 1950s, James Garner passed away in mid-July at the age of 86. The star of TV's Maverick and The Rockford Files, he's also a scene-stealing member of a great ensemble in one of my two favorite movies, The Great Escape. In a tribute to Garner's impressive career, Turner Classic Movies aired a 24-hour marathon of some of Garner's best -- but NOT The Great Escape -- allowing me to catch up with 1969's Marlowe, a flick I'd never even heard of.

A private detective working in Los Angeles, Phillip Marlowe (Garner) will take just about any case that presents itself in his office. His most recent case though is providing some problems, but not the one he would think. A small-town Oklahoma girl, Orfamay Quest (Sharon Farrell), is worried that something happened to her brother who's gone missing for first a few days and then more than a week. Marlowe looks into the case but doesn't think there's too much to look into, telling Orfamay to go back to Oklahoma and things will figure themselves out. They don't though. Looking into one last lead, Marlowe finds a man he interviewed with an ice pick buried deep in his neck. The next day, another source turns up dead via the exact same fashion. What exactly has Marlowe gotten himself into? Has he gone too far?

From famed noir author Raymond Chandler, the character Phillip Marlowe is synonymous with tough, hard-edged film noirs, both written and on the big screen. The name became even more recognizable when Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in 1946's The Big Sleep. It is a great, lasting character that's been played by several famous actors. Made 15 years after the heyday of the film noir genre, 'Marlowe' then is an interesting development for the character. Movies by the late 1960s could get away with more and in far more aggressive fashion. But all that said, is this 1969 neo-noir from director Paul Bogart and based off a Chandler novel any good? Well, I'm not a huge fan.

When you look at James Garner's career filmography, I can't really identify one singular role. Yes, he's excellent in The Great Escape. He was good to very good to great in more than a few movies, but he didn't have that one AMAZING performance in a classic film. None of that is a negative. This was a reliable, steady actor who was almost always incredibly likable on screen, and I'm always glad to see him pop up in credits. That's what type of performance this is. His Marlowe is a little worn-out, but still stubborn to a fault and always looking for answers. He's not below some under-handed shenanigans to get the job done and let it be known, he's very good at being a private detective. As the story develops, Garner's Marlowe becomes almost the straight man to all the craziness that he discovers. It's a part that sure seems like a big influence on The Rockford Files, Garner always ready with a quick, disarming and charming smile that can quickly turn into a disgusted shrug.

Beyond Garner though, the movie is a bit of a mess. The supporting players are recognizable but not necessarily interesting unfortunately. One of the first suspects Marlowe starts to look into is a rising TV sitcom star and all-around sex symbol Gayle Hunnicutt who looks worried all the time and refuses to cooperate. There's also Farrell as the shrill, whiny country girl who keeps after Marlowe. In the more interesting department, Rita Moreno plays Dolores, a high-class dancer/stripper, friend of Hunnicutt's and possibly interested in Marlowe. Her striptease at the end is pretty scandalous for the times and ends up being a somewhat reasonable reason to stick with this one.  Because we need someone stupid to make Marlowe look good, Carroll O'Connor and Kenneth Tobey play detectives always one step behind the case. Also look for future Mr. Feeney, William Daniels, in a small part and Bruce Lee even gets a chance to show off his athleticism and karate ability as a henchman sent to intimidate Marlowe.

For all the good things that could have been though, they just don't add up. I liked the locations, but there wasn't enough of them. The tone of the story is all over the place from a phone routine that seems more appropriate for a James Garner/Doris Day flick than a hard-boiled 1969 film noir. The same for a fight scene when Marlowe dispatches a villainous killer after him. The payoff is almost laughable, playing like a comedy spoof as opposed to what it is. As the story develops, one layer of the onion is revealed one after another to the point I wasn't sure who did what and to whom by the end of the movie. There's a twist, a reveal, a payoff, and I felt like I missed it entirely. Who killed who for goodness sake?!?

So, Mr. Garner, I'm sorry to see you go. You were one of my favorites. Onto The Great Escape!

Marlowe (1969): **/****

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

August: Osage County

Family, can't live with them. Can't live without them. Family dramas can be a dime a dozen but when handled right, they can be home runs drilled out of the ballpark. I didn't necessarily have a ton of interest in catching up with 2013's August: Osage County because it did look a little too familiar, but I'm glad I did. An excellent movie all-around, and as I mentioned periodically while viewing, just a disgusting, talented cast.

It is an especially hot August in the small Oklahoma town of Pawhuska, and the Weston family is in for some fireworks. Family matriarch (of sorts) Violet (Meryl Streep) has been diagnosed with mouth cancer and quickly becoming addicted to the pain pills she's been prescribed. The family has drifted apart over the years, but Violet has to ask them for help, to return to their hometown when their father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing. There's no trace of where he went to or if he will even be back, but the Westons return in a time of trouble to help their mother (some against their better judgment), including the Weston's oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts). The family is far from close though, many of them barely able to stand the site of each other. All those buried away emotions and feelings are getting churned up, and they're going to be churned up even more when news of where Beverly went is revealed.

Based on a play of the same name by Tracy Letts, 'August' was a bit of an under the radar flick last winter in terms of Oscar buzz. It made over $70 million in theaters and picked up mostly positive reviews. With this cast, how could it not? Reading reviews, watching previews, I didn't question that it'd be a good movie. I kinda just assumed in that department. But did I want to see it? Need to see it? No, not particularly. I'm glad I did though. It is well worth a couple hours to sit down and watch even if it is equal parts funny and uncomfortable, things changing from one to the other at a moment's notice.

But that's family, isn't it? And that's your movie. These aren't good guys and bad guys. These are people who grew up and reacted/responded differently to their parents, their siblings, their extended families, their house, their school, their surroundings and their environment. That's life, and that is what the movie does so well. That's what life is, and the script by Letts (off the play) does it pretty effortlessly. Much of the movie takes place in the Weston home with an occasional, quick departure here and there. All that frustration and emotion and discomfort has been bottled up for years, and this not so pleasant reunion may be the thing that blows the top right off that stove. Most of that pent-up emotion comes out at a painfully real dinner scene, but more on that later.

But seriously, how about this cast?!? You almost take for granted what a freakishly good actress Meryl Streep is because....well, every year she's in another Oscar-nominated part (she's been nominated 18 times. 18!!!). Streep just commits to each and every part to the point you never even question her. You just go with it. Her Violet is a terrifying character (maybe because my Mom is...ya know, really nice), a mother who had a hellacious childhood and at times takes it out on her kids. She means well -- I think -- but it comes across in some odd ways. The main personal dynamic is between Streep's Violet and Robert's Barbara (both Oscar-nominated turns), a mother and daughter who argue almost constantly, maybe not admitting they're more similar than they would like. Just two supremely talented actresses doing their thing.

But wait. There's more!!! Along with Shepard in a quick appearance early, there's also Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), much maligned in the eyes of his mother and often protected by his father. As for the other Weston sisters, there's Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), single and getting a little older who never moved away from her hometown, and Karen (Juliette Lewis), the youngest sister who means well but is a tad bit clueless. Who else to look for? Ewan McGregor plays Barbara's husband, the longtime couple struggling through some serious issues, Abigail Breslin their rebellious teenage daughter, and Dermot Mulroney as Karen's new boyfriend and recent fiance who you just know is up to something in the slimy department and Misty Upham as Johnna, the Native American (or Injun, whatever you like) caretaker Beverly hires for Violet before his disappearance.

Some complaints were that for a dark comedy, there wasn't enough...well, comedy. There are laughs, but there is far more in the old drama department. The dinner scene is the heart of the movie, some genuine, out-loud laughs that quickly transition into painful, real moments that you could see happening at any long, overdue family reunion. The movie goes down some surprising routes in the second half and let's face it, a happy ending here just wasn't going to happen. This is a drama about the story, about the drama, about the acting. Highly recommended. If you're a fan of family/friend dramas from Home for the Holidays to The Family Stone, The Big Chill to Rain Man, you'll enjoy this one, hopefully a whole lot.

August: Osage County (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Wild Geese

A little bit of a spin on the wild west gunslinger, today's discussion centers around the mercenary, the hired gun who will take just about any job as long as the money is good. And if movies have taught us anything, mercenaries had lots of work throughout Africa in the 1960s and since with movies like Dark of the Sun, The Dogs of War and most recently Tears of the Sun. What about the best of the bunch? It's a movie many American viewers may not have heard of because it didn't get much of a release in the states. That movie? One of my favorites, 1978's The Wild Geese.

 A brutally efficient mercenary with years of experience under his belt, Allan Faulkner (Richard Burton) has agreed to take on a dangerous mission in Africa courtesy of the equally brutal, efficient and greedy merchant banker, Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). With lucrative copper mining rights on the line, Matherson needs Faulker to rescue a deposed African leader, Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), a leader of the people and a good man, to retake the government and settle things down. Taking a hefty payday, Faulker assembles an experienced, effective unit of 50 mercenaries, including fellow officers Lt. Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and Lt. Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), and goes about putting together an effective plan, a smash and grab job. Faulker has the men assembled to pull off the job with a minimum of danger, but no matter how well thought out the mission is, even these mercenaries can't know what awaits them when they drop into Africa.

This review comes just a day after my Von Ryan's Express review, one of the great entertaining war movies ever made. More than that, just a great action movie. Well, surprise surprise, but I put this 1979 mercenary-centric action/drama on the same level. Is it a great movie in the vein of The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia? Heck no, but it doesn't need to be! I watched a version that was 128 minutes long, and it is one extended thrill ride from beginning to end. Director Andrew McLaglen is far from a great director, but this is one of his best (if not THE best) movies. It is gritty, graphic, rough and tumble and the definition of a great tough guy flick. This is a movie that earns it's "Guy's Guy" type of movie, even if that theme song (listen HERE) seems a little out of place. But that's for the opening and closing credits. Enough with that. Let's get to the action!

Okay, not quite yet there with the casting. In the men-on-a-mission vein of The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, here's one of the all-time great tough guy casts. The script calls for some older mercenaries, giving stars who weren't exactly A-list stars a chance at the spotlight again, and let me tell you, they don't disappoint. In a part of his career where the films weren't exactly great (an understatement), Richard Burton absolutely nails the part as Faulkner, a weathered, experienced mercenary who doesn't care for much other than the money he makes and the booze he can drink. Not exactly a stretch, but let's not nitpick. His officers include Harris as Janders, the master tactician and planner, Moore as Fynn, the born soldier who can fly or drive anything with a motor, and Kruger as Coetzee, the South African experienced bush fighter who has quite a few racist tendencies. They each get their moments to shine, the tough guy quartet killing it throughout with an easygoing, likable chemistry.

But wait....there's more!!! Along with Granger's quick appearance, there's Barry Foster and Patrick Allen as other shadowy characters involved in putting the mission together. Filling out the mercenary lineup are scene-stealing Jack Watson as foul-mouthed drill instructor Sandy Young, John Kani as Sgt. Jesse, the youngest of the bunch but an incredibly capable fighter, Kenneth Griffith as Witty, the flamboyantly gay medic, with Ronald Fraser, Ian Yule (an actual former mercenary), Percy Herbert, and Glyn Baker rounding out the crew. Also look for Jeff Corey and Frank Findlay in small parts. Just a cool, underrated supporting cast with plenty of memorable, recognizable faces.

Based off a novel by Daniel Carney and a Reginald Rose screenplay, one of 'Wild's' most underrated aspects is its script. Yes, it is familiar. Yes, it is politically incorrect one moment and somewhat preachy the next. But in the end, you throw it all together and all those separate ingredients work well together. It follows the men-on-a-mission formula nicely, going from assembling the team, to training the team, to unleashing the mercenaries on their dangerous mission deep in Africa, a regiment of brutal Simbas waiting to wipe them out if given the chance. There's too many good moments to mention from the Wild Geese free-falling out of a plane at 25,000 feet to Watson's hysterical rants during the training sequences to the almost non-stop smartass attitudes that produce a ton of memorable one-liners, some funny and some highly effective in the old drama department. Just a lot of positives on display here across the board.

But the biggest positive? The action of course! It's so good that the DVD actually offers a stand-alone menu where you can watch solely the explosions, shootouts and all sorts of hell that breaks loose. Without giving away any spoilers, the mission doesn't go off quite as planned, Faulkner and his men forced to improvise deep in enemy territory. Most of the last hour of the film is one extended action scene with some occasional dialogue to break things up. The highlight is the last 30 minutes, the mercenaries shooting it out with a large force of Simbas hell bent on stopping them from escaping. It's bloody, graphic and uncomfortable and features some surprising twists too as the body count rises ever higher. The action turns into a chaotic chase across the African savannah, lines and flanks shifting minute to minute. What an action movie.

This can be a difficult movie to track down. Years ago, I was lucky enough to track down a Tango DVD of this 1978 mercenary flick. It's currently available at Amazon for a very reasonable $12.99 if you're curious. As I mentioned, is it a perfect film? Nope, and again, it isn't meant to be. Instead, it is pure escapism, pure entertainment, and for me that's all I'm looking for. Familiar but highly entertaining story, action to burn and one of my all-time favorite casts. Can't recommend this one enough.

The Wild Geese (1978): ****/****
Rewrite of June 2009 review

Monday, August 11, 2014

Von Ryan's Express

Introduced as a kid to 1963's The Great Escape, I fell hook, line and sinker for the entire prisoner of war genre. Some like 'Escape' and Bridge on the River Kwai are instantly recognizable among movie fans while many others have taken some digging on my part to track them down. How about one of the best? One of my all-time favorites? Oh, yes, one I always enjoy revisiting, 1965's Von Ryan's Express.

As the Germans try to hold off advancing Allied forces in Italy in August 1943, an American Army Air Corp pilot, Colonel Joseph Ryan (Frank Sinatra) is shot down and sent to a prisoner of war camp where he becomes the ranking officer. There he clashes quickly with his second-in-command, a fiery, stubborn British officer, Major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard). When the camp's Italian guards abandon the camp, Ryan makes a difficult decision, one that ends up backfiring as almost 400 prisoners are rounded up and boarded on a German train heading north. Heading the wrong way away from the advancing Allied forces, it seems hope has run out for Ryan, Fincham and their fellow prisoners. When all seems lost though, Colonel Ryan has one more trick up his sleeve, a daring plan that has the prisoners attempting to take over the train. The closely packed train is headed to Germany, but not if Ryan has his say. Instead? They look to Switzerland, but can their plan hold together?

If there is one major difference between 'Von Ryan's' and other prisoner of war movies, it is this. While all entertaining, movies like The Great Escape, River Kwai, Stalag 17 and others are high drama, often delivering a message. That's not to say Von Ryan's Express isn't high drama, director Mark Robson doing a fine job in this WWII actioner. It's more than that. It's more than just describing it as a prisoner of war movie. I've long thought this is one of the most perfect popcorn flicks ever made, the most entertaining, the most adrenaline-pumping action/dramas I can think of. It clocks in at 116 minutes but with each viewing, it goes by quicker and quicker. There isn't a weak moment. There are no slow portions, no parts where the momentum lets up. It's the rare movie that can accomplish that. From beginning to surprising finale, I love it all, one of my all-time favorites, one film I can watch over and over again.

What's the best thing going here for this 1965 war movie? There's a ton to mention! Just a few weeks ago in my review for 100 Rifles I mentioned how much I loved composer Jerry Goldsmith's score. Well, as good as that score was, I think his score here is one of his bests (and that's saying something considering the breadth of his career). Listen to the main theme HERE. This is the perfect score to back up the action, the heart-pumping moments, the quieter, more inward scenes and everything in between. An underrated score that deserves more of a reputation. Right up there with the musical score as an additional character is the choice to film on location in Italy. The filming locations give an air of authenticity that Hollywood backlots just wouldn't have accomplished. From the hills and streams to the ancient ruins to the weathered towns and train stations, wouldn't you know it? The film actually looks like it takes place in Italy. Go figure, right?!?  These are things that if mishandled wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but when handled correctly.....well, they can lift the movie up a notch or two or 10.     

You know who's cool? Totally caught me off guard, but it's that guy -- maybe you've heard of him -- named Frank Sinatra. By the mid 1960s, Sinatra played variations on tough guy parts that allowed him to more or less, be himself. In other movies, it might seem too familiar, but there's an energy here as Sinatra brings this intriguing character to life. Dubbed 'Von Ryan' by his fellow prisoners for helping the Germans, he's forced to make difficult decisions left and right, often putting lives at risk with each passing decision. There's an easy-going confidence to Sinatra's Ryan, a 90-day wonder as he calls it, a capable leader making some impossible decisions. The best supporting part not surprisingly comes from Trevor Howard as the stubborn, action-driven Fincham. Their Odd Couple-like relationship works, the quiet, cool American and the fiery Brit officer providing some good energy, some good sparks throughout. Their chemistry is evident any time and every time they're on screen together. Two excellent leads.

Lost in the shuffle can be a damn good supporting cast beyond Sinatra and Howard. In the eye candy department, Raffaella Carra plays Gabriella, a beautiful Italian girl who becomes a part of the escape. As for the villains, there's Adolfo Celi as a Fascist Italian officer and commandant of the camp and the very German Wolfgang Preiss as a very German officer in command of the prison train. My favorite supporting parts are Ryan's fellow prisoners, a cool group, an almost oddball crew that includes Bostick (Brad Dexter), one of the few American prisoners, Capt. Oriana (Sergio Fantoni), a well-meaning Italian officer thrust in with the P.O.W.s, Orde (John Leyton, also in Great Escape), Fincham's right-hand man, Father Costanzo (Edward Mulhare), the naive at times but very brave priest, and Stein (Michael Goodliffe), the camp medic. Also look for James Brolin, Michael St. Clair, Richard Bakalyan and James Sikking as other prisoners with smaller parts.  

Based off a novel by David Westheimer, 'Von Ryan' certainly has plenty to offer, including a handful of memorable set pieces. The opening 40 minutes are spent in the camp, the next 15 or so on the road and the last hour is when the prisoners are boarded on the prison train. I loved Ryan's scene with an inquisitive Gestapo agent (supposedly William Berger, I'm not positive) asking about Ryan's American watch. I loved Mulhare's masquerade as a German officer hoping to dupe an inspection. There are all these great moments that embrace this ludicrous possibility of this happening and run with it. We go along because it's so damn fun. This is a thrill a minute flick that's meant to entertain scene in and scene out. Nowhere is that more evident than....

The finale. As strong as the movie is, 'Von Ryan' is at its absolute best over the last 25 minutes, the prison train making a desperate run to the Alps and Switzerland, a German troop train (commanded by John Van Dreelen) hot on their trail. Throw in a trio of Messerschmitt fighters, a bombed out bridge (Spain standing in for Italy), and a stunning backdrop on a mountainside railway trestle....well, you've got a winner. It is in the ending that the film deviates most from Westheimer's novel, but it is a doozy of a finale. In terms of pure excitement, of really getting your blood pumping, I can think of few movies that can the ending here. A race against time, Germans edging ever closer, it has it all. Just a great movie, one I can rewatch over and over and always pick up something new.

Highly recommended. One of my all-time favorites.

Von Ryan's Express (1965): ****/****
Rewrite of October 2009 review

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Silent Movie

Certain names rise above the genre they're associated with. And when you talk about the comedy genre in Hollywood, few names hold such power, respect and name recognition as Mel Brooks. A director, writer, actor and producer extraordinaire, Brooks did it all with too many classics to even mention to his name. And what do you get with power and an ability to make some serious amounts of cash? A movie like the 1976 comedy Silent Movie.

A very successful movie director, Mel Funn (Brooks) has fallen on some very rough times as he has retreated into a bottle.  After years away from movies, Funn has a script that will hopefully turn his career around. With his friends and sidekicks at his side, Marty Eggs (Marty Feldman) and Dom Bell (Dom DeLuise), Funn heads into Hollywood with his script and convinces a Big Studio executive (Sid Caesar) to back his movie....if he can get some big stars attached to the production. With their work cut out for them, Funn and Co. set out to find enough big movie stars to work with but it's going to be easier said than done. A film studio, Engulf and Devour, has been scooping up struggling movie studios left and right, and they'd like nothing more than to buy up Big Studio too. Can Funn put his drinking problem aside to get his dream movie made? What is that dream movie? Well, Funn intends to make a silent movie. Dun-dun-duh!!!

Ready for a twist? Writing, starring and directing 'Silent,' Brooks is at the helm of an actual....silent movie!!! You know, because there's always so much demand for that throwback feel of a silent movie! It plays as a tribute to the slapstick stars of the silent era like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, even evoking moments of The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, and Laurel and Hardy. Famously, only one word is audibly spoken in this comedy, dialogue cards popping up as our stars discuss and talk on-screen silently. We're introduced to sight gags, musical cues, sound effects throughout the 87-minute running time, a series of jokes on top of each other. Brooks has a ton of fun with those little moments, the soundtrack setting up a joke and then pulling out the rug from under us.

That's all well and good, the tribute working well. But still, I don't think the movie is as funny as the movie thinks it is. The script is interesting, the stars very talented, and a handful of cameos providing some memorable moments. 'Silent' is going for the laughs, but they're not necessarily there in the end. I chuckled a couple times, smiled a bunch, laughed out loud once or twice but at no point did I think I was watching a hilarious, laugh-riddled comedy. None of this is to say it's not good. It is good, but 'Silent' isn't even close to as funny as it think it truly is. Moments work, a sight gag here and there, but as a whole, there's no unifying link that holds it all together unfortunately.

So, yes, the laughs aren't there in abundance as I might have liked. There are moments though that work because quite honestly, there's too much talent assembled here for it to not be somewhat entertaining. So Brooks, Feldman and DeLuise? Yeah, they have their moments. It's the little things, not the big moments. It's how they walk in step inches apart from each other. It's how they hug like they've won the lotto when the movie gets approved, prompting the beginning of a running gag with on-lookers muttering a perfectly placed slur. They each get their bits, Brooks the leader who falls for a sexy seductress (Bernadette Peters) sent by Engulf and Devour to destroy Funn. Feldman's Eggs is always trying to hook up with beautiful women, usually going down in flames, while DeLuise's Bell is perpetually drinking Coke and always needing to go to the bathroom. Great comedic minds at work.

Also look for Harold Gould as Engulf and Ron Carey as Devour, the studio heads so desperately trying to stop Funn from making a successful movie. Huge, over the top parts with so obviously evil villains.

All things considered, the best thing for me from 'Silent' was the cameos, some big-time stars poking fun at themselves with some quick appearances. That group includes Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, Marcel Marceau and Paul Newman. Reynolds especially stands out, playing up his good looks into a star obsessed with his own looks. The scene where Funn, Eggs and Bell end up in the shower with him is pretty perfect, one of the moments I genuinely laughed out loud. Caan too is very good, playing the kinda slow movie star who invites Funn and Co. into his off-balance trailer as they serve some lunch. It is a solid example of how subtle physical humor can work in an almost effortless fashion.

Still, I struggled to get through this one. No cohesive link, some solid moments lost in a wave of lesser moments that don't work so well. Not a positive rating, but it's still one I can mildly, mildly, recommend because when it works, it works real well.

Silent Movie (1976): **/****

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Enemy General

I'll always give a war movie a try no matter the story. There are too many interesting stories to shake your head at any because you never know what you're going to get (Yeah, Forrest Gump reference!). One sub-genre of war movies I've always thought was under utilized is the story of resistance movements, especially the French Resistance during WWII. The ones that are available? Not always that good. Where does 1960's The Enemy General stand?

As the German army sweeps across Europe in the early 1940s, a resistance movement pops up and develops in France, men, women and children fighting back against the Germans in any way they can. Among one of the groups is an American O.S.S. officer, Allan Lemaire (Van Johnson), who helps train the recruits and coordinate the attacks on German positions and convoys. During one particularly costly attack, Lemaire's group believes they've accomplished their objective, killing a high-ranking German general (John Van Dreelen) held in high regard by Hitler. General Bruger survives though, organizing reprisals against a local French village. Months later as the Allies invade Europe on D-Day, Lemaire receives orders to rescue a German general sentenced to death by Hitler. The man they're supposed to save? General Bruger himself.

From director George Sherman, 'Enemy' kept popping up on a movie channel on cable so give me enough chances, and I'll do something about it. It isn't a well-known war movie in the least and features a cast without much in the star power. That's not a deal-breaker though, far from it actually. The biggest issue is that at 75 minutes 'Enemy' plays like an extended TV episode. The short running time gives the impression the story is always in a rush, but even with that said, not much is accomplished. Several sequences liberally use wartime footage of combat, of ships landing at D-Day, of soldiers hitting the beaches, of Nazi forces entering Paris. Wasn't there enough story? Wasn't there anything that could be done to flesh things out even a little bit? Apparently not, a short movie at 75 minutes that never really hits a stride in the old entertainment department.

A huge star in Hollywood in the 1940s and early half of the 1950s, Van Johnson wasn't at the height of his popularity by 1960. I often think of him as an actor who could play big, fun parts, Johnson's smile filling up the screen. And for this movie.....yeah, it's the polar opposite, his Lemaire a dark, brooding and revenge-seeking O.S.S. officer. There's potential with the character, but like so much else, it doesn't click. We never get much in the way of background other than that his fellow Resistance fighters highly respect him. His reason for revenge is as good as movie revenge gets, Bruger killing Lemaire's beautiful French fiance, Lisette (Dany Carrel), as part of a reprisal for a resistance attack. The chance for a good character is there, but Johnson doesn't bring much energy to the part, hamstringing things throughout the short running time.

Have you seen Von Ryan's Express? If you haven't, shame on you. It's one of my all-time favorites. Playing the easily despicable German general, Van Dreelen is a solid villain. Now it's good and bad all things considered. The story provides a little bit of a twist near the halfway point, but it doesn't really come as much of a surprise if you're even remotely paying attention. Still, Van Dreelen does a good job playing that oily, sinister German officer. Playing Lemaire's French sidekick, Jean-Pierre Aumont isn't given much to do other than look worried and play off Johnson's resistance leader. Also look for Jacques Marin and Hubert Noel as two resistance fighters.

Just a blah movie in the end. There's no urgency, no excitement as the story builds. Toward the end when the back and forth cat and mouse game should be wrapping up in exciting fashion, it just sorta ends. Things are wrapped up and then 'THE END' flashes across the screen. This is a flick not meant to be a classic, but I would have settled for mildly entertaining. Instead, it is a movie that's just there and nothing else. A disappointing result in the end.

The Enemy General (1960): **/****

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Immortal Sergeant

Here's a fun game for you. Ready? Pick a movie star -- any movie star -- and go through their film career trying to pick their worst movie. That one that THEY would hate, not the one you hate. Let's start with Henry Fonda, a Hollywood legend who still had his fair share of duds in his career. I'm looking at you Tentacles, The Swarm, and Meteor. What's Fonda's choice? An odd one, but not because he's bad in it. It's 1943's Immortal Sergeant, and yeah, it has more to do with the making of the movie.

The North African campaign is still raging early in World War II as a British infantry unit arrives back at the front awaiting orders. Among these men are a squad led by Sergeant Kelly (Thomas Mitchell), a World War I veteran who talked his way back into the army. The squad looks to Kelly often to get them through thick and thin, the NCO an intelligent soldier with plenty of combat experience. Kelly's second-in-command is a young Canadian, Corporal Colin Spence (Fonda), a quiet, steady soldier who is nonetheless terrified of being placed in a position that will require him to command. He's scared to death of making a decision that will claim the lives of the men around him.  That fear is about to be put to the test. Tasked with a long patrol in the desert to see what the Germans are up to, Kelly, Spence and the squad board an armored vehicle and two trucks and head out from the camp. What awaits in the expansive desert?

Airing on Turner Classic Movies recently, I was able to check off 'Immortal' from my to-watch list finally, the airing being the premiere broadcast on TCM. I remember it being advertised as a preview on my old Sands of Iwo Jima VHS (In COLOR too!) but was never able to find it. So why did Fonda hold this film in such poor regard? Well, apparently it wasn't because the story was a disappointment or the character wasn't interesting. It was because his arrangement with the studio required him to do it. He didn't want to, the contract said he had to so he did. What did Fonda think of the end result? I can't find too much and according to TCM host Robert Osborne, Fonda simply refused to talk about 'Immortal.' So what's the moral of the story? This is far from Fonda's worst movie. He just hated making it so no worries in that department.

Released in 1943, 'Immortal' is an interesting war film. It avoids all the pratfalls of pure propaganda flicks that shove patriotism down your throat so director John M. Stahl gets credit there. Mitchell and Fonda are very good, and the Lost Patrol-angle ends up being pretty decent if familiar. The biggest issue here? In a movie about the immortal Sergeant, it focuses far more on the worrying, sad sack Corporal. There's a handful of flashbacks as Spence worries about the woman he's been seeing, Valentine Lee (Maureen O'Hara), being seduced back home by a dashing war correspondent (Reginald Gardiner). Obviously soldiers in combat, wartime situations worry about what's happening back home, but these flashbacks are rough. A quiet -- some would say emotionless -- Spence doesn't give Valentine much reason to stick around if you ask me. So whenever the camera lingers on Spence as he looks off into space.....yeah, I lost a little focus in flashback mode.

What becomes most disappointing is that the rest of the story -- you know, that part focusing on the war -- is pretty decent. Playing the titular character, Thomas Mitchell is solid as always, what I kinda assume I'll get with Mitchell, one of my favorite character actors. He's natural and believable and likeable from beginning to end, really giving the sense of why his men look up to him and respect him so much, despite his older age. His scenes with Fonda's Spence are solid with two professionals just doing their think. Obviously, their conversations lean toward the dark and foreboding nature, but that comes as no surprise considering the movie's title is about a sergeant but the main character is a corporal. Underplayed, emotionally effective parts for Fonda and Mitchell, providing a good base for the story. Dona especially shines in a scene with O'Hara when he explains why he enlisted, a proud if confused look on his face as it all comes together for him.

As for the men in the squad, look for Allyn Joslyn, Melville Cooper, Bramwell Fletcher, and Morton Lowry. I was disappointed in that part of the story, a wasted opportunity to develop some cool characters around Spence and Kelly but nothing really comes of it. Also look quickly for 20-year old Peter Lawford in a small part as a member of the patrol before an Italian plane gets the best of the future Rat Pack-er.  

This movie had some potential, especially when it focuses on the Lost Patrol angle. The story relies on small unit tactics, how a small group of men would still function as a fighting unit in an undesirable position trapped in the desert with little supplies and the enemy all around them. The battle scenes are quick and hard-hitting (especially for a movie released during WWII), including one scene that caught me by surprise in its brutality. It's not what you see, but that it happens at all in a surprisingly dark moment. A decent movie, one that could have been a lot better with some storytelling tweaks. But that's me. When I wanna watch a war movie, I wanna watch a WAR MOVIE, not a love story.

Immortal Sergeant (1943): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Lego Movie

Even as a kid watching Toy Story, I was aware of what I was watching, of how truly good it was. As I've gotten older and revisited it while watching on my own, with my niece, with my cousins, I really appreciate what a great, innovative, unique, creative story it is. That's a stand-alone statement, a movie statement in a bubble. How else has it impacted movies? Animated movies haven't quite been the same ever since, Toy Story's influence especially seen in Wreck-It Ralph and most recently with 2014's The Lego Movie.

In the universe of the Lego, an ordinary construction worker, Emmet (Chris Pratt), has spent his whole life trying to be a part of the group. He wants to be liked. He wants to be accepted, and he likes his life -- rigid though it may be. One day after his shift on a construction site, Emmet sees something strange and rather than report it, he investigates. A mysterious, beautiful woman, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) is lurking around the construction site, and when he follows her, Emmet actually discovers a mythical object, the Piece of Resistance. His discovery leads Wyldstyle to believe that Emmet is the prophesied Special, the key to the resistance against President Business (Will Ferrell), seemingly a good president for Lego Land. Wyldstyle and a small group of Legos, the Master Builders, including their leader, Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), are fighting against President Business and now, Emmet could be the unwilling, unknowing key to it all.

When 'Lego' was released in February, I wanted to see it in theaters but just never got around to it. The reviews almost uniformly glowed, and audiences ate it up with a current box office total internationally of $467 million. And in the end, it is excellent. Lots of talent assembled to lend their voices to the story, a very unique jumping off point, and creative in the same way Toy Story and its sequels are. Director Phil Lord and Christopher Miller do something familiar and make it memorable. Yeah, some party poopers criticized the movie for being one huge advertisement for Lego, and to a point, I suppose that is fair. But this is a movie that's more than that. You think it is one thing, and it goes somewhere else, but that's all for now. Some quasi-spoilers later maybe.

Like the best, the most memorable animated movies -- whether the modern age of CGI or the old school drawn cartoons -- there's got to be something that sticks with you. Here with 'Lego' it's something special and unique that will sound almost stupid describing it. Yeah, it is a world of Legos. Duh, right? Obvious but innovative. When a building gets knocked down, you hear the thundering....clicks of all those pieces moving around. When a water tower collapses, little blue "water" pieces rush after characters. When Wyldstyle adjusts her hair, that hair moves in robotic fashion JUST LIKE a Lego piece would. It sounds dumb, but those little touches go a long way in providing some great moments, putting a smile on your face. 'Lego' is full of such moments, in jokes for adults while still providing some laughs for the kids in the audience. That's where the best animated movies reside, somewhere in between, good for adults and kids.

I loved the voice talents assembled here. Some are recognizable the second you hear them speak while others take some thinking on as the story develops. A rising star in Hollywood, Pratt throws himself into the body of Emmet, our not so intrepid construction worker who could save the Lego world...or maybe not if he chickens out. Banks too commits, having some fun as Wyldstyle, a fiery counter to Emmet's generally quiet, well, everything. Freeman has some fun as Vitruvius, the wise elder who seemingly knows everything and serves as a guide and mentor of sorts to Emmet. The other Master Builders who become part of the crew include a clueless Batman (scene-stealing Will Arnett), ever positive Unikitty (Community's Alison Brie), Benny (Charlie Day), a 1980s spaceman frustrated with modern Lego technology, and Metal Beard (Nick Offerman), a pirate mutant with all sorts of enhanced body parts. It's a fun crew with a lot of variety, a bizarre-o version of the men-on-a-mission formula.

But wait, there's more! I'm a big Will Ferrell fan so it's always cool to see him throw himself into a fun part like this. His Lord Business is a great villain, over the top and goofy and always ready with a laugh. His enforcer is an equally scene-stealing Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop, able to twirl his head around within a conversation, an excellent site gag. There's plenty of other voices to listen for including Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Superman and Green Lantern (desperately trying to be friends with Superman). Without giving too much away, also look/listen for Will Forte, Dave Franco, Shaquille O'Neal and a few others sprinkled in here and there. It's the randomness that works, especially when the Master Builders council is called, assembling all of the above with Shaq and the 2002 NBA All Stars, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, a feuding Gandalf and Dumbledore, some historical heroes and then there's Emmett, a regular old construction worker.

So all well and good, right? And it is. It builds to something special here that as I look back on it is criminally straightforward. It feels weird saying this with an animated movie, but there's a heck of a twist in the final act that brings the movie together, even managing to take the entire movie up a notch or two. I LOVED this twist. It makes a good movie into a great one. There are hints along the way, but I wasn't expecting it at all. This is a smart, funny flick that delivers a message without being heavy-handed about it (We all have talents and skills. It's just a matter of finding your place with those talents). Also, it's funny in a self-conscious way, including two songs, Everything is Awesome by Tegan and Sara featuring The Lonely Island -- listen HERE -- and my personal favorite, Batman's self-written theme of sorts (listen HERE), Arnett absolutely nailing it.

An easy movie to recommend.

The Lego Movie (2014): ***/****