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, March 31, 2014

Bang! Bang! You're Dead!

B-movies can be really good when handled right. Now the counter, they can be really, really bad when handled wrong. Whole studios between the 1940s and 1960s were devoted to B-movies, like American International Pictures with its horror, thriller and westerns. How about a spy spoof that has some fun with the James Bond formula, the mistaken identity genre like North by Northwest and a generally fun attitude? That would be 1966's Bang! Bang! You're Dead, released in Europe as Our Man in Marrakesh.

On vacation from his job with an oil company, Andrew Jessel (Tony Randall) is spending his time away from work in northern Africa in Morocco. He boards a bus headed to Marrakesh with five other passengers, not knowing that one of them is carrying two million dollars intended for Mr. Casimir (Herbert Lom), a powerful man with his hand in everything underworld. Where's that money heading? Paid here and there to help fix an upcoming vote at the United Nations. Casimir is trying to find out who, Jessep finding himself mixed up in it all when he finds a dead body in his hotel room closet. One of the other passengers, Kyra Stanovy (Senta Berger), stumbles into the room and sees the dead body, stunned even more when she recognizes who it is. Now, Andrew is very much involved, trapped in a foreign country and trying to hide a corpse. Mr. Casimir is right with him, watching his every step.

I don't hide my feelings about spoofs. I'm usually not a fan. It's the rare spoof I like -- Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Spinal Tap -- with most of them trying too hard to...well, be a spoof. From director Don Sharp, 'Bang' isn't a literal spoof as I think of a spoof, instead having some fun with a typically pretty serious topic, international intrigue. In the end, I liked it but didn't love it. It's pretty light, fun at times, obnoxious at others, and a decent enough waste of time for 90 minutes or so. The on-location shooting in Marrakesh, Morocco is a definite plus, even if some scenes are undone by some really obvious green-screen shots. Still, Marrakesh in the 1960s sure looked cool, the time capsule effect a big positive.

Leading the way in the Mistaken Identity department is Tony Randall, Mr. Felix Unger himself. Doesn't Randall scream tough guy hero in a spy flick with international intrigue? Yeah, I guess not. He has some fun with the Everyman part, the normal guy thrust into a crazy situation full of conniving crooks, beautiful, mysterious women, wishy-washy motives, lots of enforcers, hit men and car chases, and life and death opportunities around every corner. Randall shows off his impeccable comedic timing throughout, questioning all the craziness that's going on but mostly going along with it. Would you question too much if you got to hang out with Senta Berger? Okay, maybe once a dead body showed up, but I'd still debate it. One of the more unlikely action heroes, Randall throws himself into the mix in the chase and action scenes, his goofiness and lighter tone playing well with the kooky story.

Across the board, the cast is the biggest selling point for this spy spoof. As the sexy sidekick, Berger is just that, pretty sexy. Skimpy and/or tight outfits, sexy Euro accent, how can you lose? Playing the slimy, slick villain, there weren't many better than Herbert Lom, an oiliness to his impeccably smooth and suave Mr. Casimir. Klaus Kinski makes the most of a small(ish) but intimidating part as Jonquil, Casimir's brutally effective enforcer while Margaret Lee sex kittens it up as Casimir's young lady friend/lover who's always asking him to "come lay down with him." Oh, scandalous! As for the other suspects on the bus to Marrakesh, look for Wilfrid Hyde-White as Fairbrother, a Brit working with a septic company (maybeeeeeee) and John Le Mesurier as Lillywhite, another Brith looking to expand his own business. Who is the courier with all that cash? What's everyone up to? There's also some fun parts for Terry-Thomas as El Caid, the son of a former crook trying to go straight...well, sorta, and Gregoire Aslan as Achmed, a truck driver who sides with Andrew and Kyra as things escalate.

My typical issue with movies with a twist, stories with some mystery, is that they try to be too cute in keeping that mystery under wraps. Without going back and rewatching 'Bang,' I'd wager Berger's Kyra tell Randall's Andrew "I'll tell you everything that's going on tomorrow!" Or.....or, just sit down and tell us now. Whatever works. Don't be too cute. Don't leave audiences on the hook for the sake of that cuteness. Thankfully, the last 30-40 minutes pick up the pace once we figure everything out. The finale is pretty fun as everything comes together, one extended chase and action sequence. It's a fun movie, easily digested and onto the next movie!

Bang! Bang! You're Dead! (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, March 28, 2014


Airing for five seasons on CBS between 1959 and 1964, The Twilight Zone helped rewrite the science fiction and thriller genre, especially for television. There weren't too many weak episodes, but the best ones presented these mysterious situations with no explanation provided. How did we get here? Who am I? Where am I? They were these great little stories, wrapped up nicely in 30-minute episodes. Watching 2006's Unknown, all I could think of was that the Twilight Zone was a big inspiration.

A man (Jim Caviezel) wakes up in an odd, vacant warehouse with no idea who he is and absolutely no recollection of how he got there. The situation is about to get a lot weirder. He's not alone, with several other men unconscious in the same warehouse. One man (Joe Pantoliano) is tied up to a chair, another (Jeremy Sisto) is handcuffed and hanging from a bar overhead, a third (Greg Kinnear) lies face-down in a pool of blood, and a fourth (Barry Pepper) is quickly regaining consciousness. Trying to piece it all together, the first man answers the phone, a voice (Peter Stormare) at the other end, asking a couple questions and then telling him "We'll be back soon." With no answers, no clues as to what's going on, the first man realizes the rest of the men are waking up. All they know is they're trapped in a warehouse with no exits in the middle of the desert. Who put them there? Were some of them involved? All they know is they could be in trouble if they don't find a way out immediately

What a perfectly straightforward, highly enjoyable flick from director Simon Brand and screenwriter Matthew Waynee. Mystery, countless unanswered questions, and a whole bunch of confused, angry men in a hellish situation. Sometimes the most straightforward, simple premise works this best. I don't remember this thriller getting a release in theaters in 2006, but I liked it a lot from the get-go. Just like the men in this isolated warehouse, as an audience we have no idea what's going on. NONE. There really isn't a weak point in the story, but 'Unknown' hits the ground running. The high points are the opening, five knocked-out men waking up in a warehouse and freaking out (rightfully so). They panic, scream, yell, argue and then settle in, knowing their time is running out if they want to get out unscathed. I like movies like this that capitalize on a gimmick and do it well. If you're gonna use a gimmick, do it right.

More than the story, I was drawn to this movie because of the cast. These aren't huge names, but that's a good thing. These are some of the more talented actors working in Hollywood, working together to form a great ensemble cast. We kinda sorta learn some of their names, but in the cast listing they're identified by some distinguishing feature, Caviezel is Jean Jacket, Pantoliano is Bound Man, Pepper is Ranch Shirt, Kinnear is Broken Nose, Stormare is Snakeskin Boots and Sisto is Handcuffed Man. The performances are uniformly good, Caviezel, Kinnear and Pepper getting the most of the screentime. The group does a strong job showing the various reactions, Caviezel curious and questioning himself, Kinnear absolutely flipping out, Pepper the middle ground trying to weight all their options. We see the dynamics -- individually and as a group -- as everyone involved must decide which people to side with. Should they side with anyone? These folks are in a life and death situation. That's it. That's all.

That group dominates the screentime, but there are some key supporting parts. Bridget Moynahan plays a worried woman trying to get one of the men out, a small but key part. Chris Mulkey and Clayne Crawford are two police detectives on the hunt, looking to follow the clues as presented, looking for someone in the warehouse. Mark Boone Junior plays an associate working with Snakeskin Boots.

With a story like this, it would be really easy to give away some major spoilers. But what's the fun in that?!? I want you to enjoy the movie like I did, going in blind and trying to piece it all together, see if you can figure it out before the twists are revealed. The amnesia storytelling device can be a make or break gimmick, but it doesn't feel forced here. A bottled chemical is released, knocking these five men out for over a day to the point they remember nothing about who they are or how they got there. After waking up, they slowly begin to figure things out, to remember all those touches and snippets of their lives. We see these portions in blurry, hyper-edited flashbacks, everything falling into place. My usual worry is that the premise in innovative stories like this is far better than the twist, the payoff. It comes as disappointing when the reveal is made. Not the worry here. The script, the story, the twist, it all works and does so really well.

The only disappointing part of this quick 85-minute long movie is in the finale. Far from a dealbreaker, but the potential for some giant twists (giant good twists) is there. The ending is good but it could have been great. There's also a surprising, secondary twist revealed in the last two minutes that felt unnecessary, everything kinda hanging in the balance when the credits start to roll. Still, these are minor issues with a thriller that I loved watching. Uncomfortable and mysterious, adrenaline-pumping right until the end, this 2006 film is a gem.

Unknown (2006): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson is one goofy, talented, eccentric director with a legion of devoted fans who love just about everything he does. I'm a fan of Anderson's films, but I don't love them. His humor can be too off the wall, his humor too subtle at times. Well, then there's 2014's The Grand Budapest Hotel, a hysterically dark, truly off the wall flick that Anderson fans will no doubt appreciate.

It's 1932 in the Republic of Zubrowka, and the concierge of the Grand Budapest Hotel, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), has taken a protege under his wing, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), a talented refugee working as one of the hotel's Lobby Boys. Zero is fascinated by everything about Gustave from his gentlemanly ways to his knowledge of anything and everything, especially his "relationships" with rich, older women who visit the hotel to specifically see him. When one of his favorite guests, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), dies mysteriously, Gustave and Zero rush to her countryside villa to be there for the funeral. They're both stunned when they find out that Madame left almost everything in her will to Gustave, including one lucrative painting. The rest of the family is less than pleased and just a day later, Gustave is arrested for the murder of Madame D. With help from loyal Zero, can he escape jail and prove his innocence?

If there was ever a movie where a story/plot description could be misleading, this is it. Yes, the story is key with its twisting and turning reveals, its countless characters, its flashbacks within flashbacks. But as anyone who's seen a Wes Anderson movie, it is also far more than that. His movies are never just stories, using the screenplays as a huge jumping off point into a stylishly visual movie that basically defies description. With an Anderson flick -- when it works -- you can just sit back and let it wash over you. Very much qualifying in that department, 'Budapest' succeeds on a stylistic level on its own. The visual is stunning at times. Anderson uses his familiar shooting technique, the camera shooting much of the action as if it was a stage play. It's more than that though. The camera and all its movements become a secondary character.

Some of these shots make the movie feel like a throwback to the days of pre-computer special effects. I imagine Anderson used some CGI at different points, but he never really relies on it. The pure variety of shots 'Budapest' uses is impressive in itself. Our first introduction to the hotel and its surrounding areas is done via miniatures, a little set built up that looks like a dollhouse. From there, the tone is set. Just about every scene looks like a painting painstakingly crafted by an artist full of bright, vivid, Earthy colors. Anderson films with his cast, close-ups as they ride a motorcycle, as they race down a mountain on a sled. It's clearly an effect but it appears almost effortless in execution. The closest, best description I can come up -- and I intend it as a compliment -- is that 'Budapest' looks and plays like a children's picture book, the story bouncing from page to page with almost reckless abandon. Style to burn, an essential element to Anderson's formula for success.

The extreme depth of the cast here shows what a director Anderson must be, one who actors and actresses desperately desire to work with. He has his fair of regulars who show up here, but this is a movie that belongs to Ralph Fiennes. Working with Anderson for the first time, Fiennes is an epically successful scene-stealer. It's a part that's hard to qualify because it works on so many levels. There's a rhythm to the dialogue that Fiennes takes to easily, his delivery rarely varying no matter who he's addressing. It's more than that too, Fiennes committing physically with some great visuals, a pitter-patter to the on-screen movements. His running style especially cracked me up, including one scene where he's confronted about the murder of Madame D. Gustave runs away, but he runs as a gentleman under control, not a man running for his life. There's too many funny scenes to mention, but almost all of them work. This is most definitely a character though, a gentleman who is vain, loves older women because they've gained life experience (among other things), full of pride, a strong boss, a loyal friend. We pick up all these little things that just work so well.

This performance comes through best in the scenes between Gustave and young Revolori as Zero, the Lobby Boy refugee who's lived on his own for years. Not quite father-son, not quite a brotherly relationship, it's somewhere in between, the protege and his mentor. The duo brings the screenplay to life from the drama to the laughs, the physical, almost screwball comedy to the international chases. I loved both characters, even the quasi-rivalry that develops when Zero meets a beautiful young baker, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), who Gustave is enchanted with as well. Just a great chemistry, a great one-two punch that carries the movie throughout.

Brace yourself for the rest of the cast. It is a doozy. In a framing device, Tom Wilkinson plays the author of a book about the hotel, Jude Law playing his younger representation, interviewing an older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. Because part of the fun is stumbling across the stars on-hand here, I won't go into a ton of detail as to their background or who they are. But just to list them is pretty crazy in itself so pull up a chair and get comfy. Some appearances are no more than a scene or two, but they're there just the same. There's Adrien Brody, Mathieu Amalric, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban, among others who will no doubt catch your eye. If that cast doesn't do something for you, maybe movies aren't your thing.

As I've learned with other Anderson movies, these simply aren't for everyone. The humor is either something you go along with or just don't. 'Budapest' covers a ton of ground in its 100-minute running time, scenes transitioning with a stylish title card, Alexandre Desplat's effortless score pushing the story along, sight gags galore dotting the road. If you like it, I think you'll love it. Just a goofy kind of perfect, vastly different and a step above just about everything else hitting theaters. Highly recommended.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Escape Plan

The 1980s and much of the 1990s were the Age of the Overblown, Dumb, Mindless Action Movies, stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Dolph Lundgren and others dominating the genre. The action genre has changed a ton in the years since, but the stars are still there, including two of the biggest stars who reunite in 2013's Escape Plan.

A former lawyer turned specialist, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is the best in the business. That business? He's inserted into federal penitentiaries and maximum security prisons as a prisoner at large, no one aware of his identity, and devises a way to escape. Breslin has no equals, doing the job for years and helping to improve overall security, earning himself quite the reputation over the years. His reputation has gotten him quite the job offer, a $5 million payday if he can escape from a new, state-of-the-art prison facility that has been deemed 'impossible to escape' from. The background seems a little shaky, but Ray takes the job only to find out he's been duped once he's inside the prison. The warden, Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), has no intention of even giving him a chance to escape, leaving Ray in an impossible situation. His possible out? Help from a fellow prisoner, Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who desperately wants out.

Action movies can't just be action movies anymore, can they? They have to do something different, out of left field, desperately trying to rewrite the genre. Is there anything wrong with a throwback to the 1980s/1990s when it was acceptable for an action movie to have really cool good guys, really despicable bad guys and a lot of mindless fight scenes with some stupid one-liners along the way. That's the formula director Mikael Hafstrom follows in this action flick that earned over $137 million in theaters. Is it particularly good? No, not especially, but if absolutely nothing else, it is refreshing to see a movie like this. Too bad it wasn't better, some really fun, solid moments lost in mostly mediocre moments in a too-long 115-minute long flick.

Come on now. The reasoning I'm guessing 99% of movie fans sought this movie out was the pairing of two of the all-time great action icons, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. We're talking Rambo and the Terminator, side by side and pissed at the world. It's the pairing that fans wanted to see for years in the 80s and 90s, finally getting a taste of it with the two Expendables movies. There is a certain cheeseball charm to this pairing of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, screenwriters Miles Chapman and Jason Keller's script giving them plenty of chances to bust each other, make fun of each other and basically argue about anything and everything. It isn't anything that's going to strain any brain activity, but it's fun. Any scene where the duo is together is automatically better just because they're there. They have an easygoing chemistry that reflects two old friends, Stallone the smart-ass straight man, Schwarzenegger the funner, livelier part. Whether it's 1984, 1994 or 2014, it's cool to see these two action icons working together in lead roles.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast. The script's goal is to give Stallone and Schwarzenegger a premise to work with....and that's about it. There's no real development anywhere else. Good = good, bad = bad, and Vincent D'Onofrio = bad because well, it's Vincent D'Onofrio. I don't consider that a spoiler so deal with it. It's cool seeing Jesus himself, um, uh, Caviezel in a bad guy role, hamming it up with steely eyes and a pristine black suit, but we know nothing about him. How'd he end up as warden of a corrupt prison like this? Vinnie Jones plays his enforcer, Drake. Faran Tahir tries to avoid stereotypes as much as possible as Javed, a Muslim prisoner who hates Breslin but may have to work with him to escape. Along with D'Onofrio, Amy Ryan and 50 Cent are Breslin's partners and business associates, wondering if they've stumbled into something surprising. Oh, and Sam Neill is cool because he's Sam Neill.

There was potential here, but moments along the way help derail the story. The script is obsessed with giving Sly and Arnie as many stupid, forced one-liners as humanly possible. I figure they're going for laughs, but the jokes and lines fell short for me. The premise is cool, no doubt about it, an inescapable, perfectly built prison that no one can get out of, and let me tell you, there's a good twist about where exactly that prison is. There's an even bigger twist in the finale that does work in some ways, but again, it feels like such an effort was made to trick the audience and pull the rug out from under us that it loses most of its impact. It's not painfully bad, but it's not as good as I'm sure it was intended.

So what are we left with? Mostly a pairing of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. The action is kept on the backburner until the last 30 minutes, definitely the most enjoyable part of the movie. It's got all those cliches we've come to expect from an action movie, slow motion bullets, bad guys with insanely bad aim, heroes with amazingly good aim, and all those little touches that look a fun way. A meh movie if there ever was unfortunately.

Escape Plan (2013): **/****

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


That British Empire, it got around in its heyday. You couldn't go far without stepping on some territory that Great Britain had an interest in. So with so big an empire, things didn't always go well, and in steps film and movies. Today's entry is 1966's Khartoum, an epic story about a little-known part of history (to me at least) with some impressive scale.

In 1883, an English general marches into the Sudan with 10,000 Egyptian troops looking to capture or put down a rebellion of Muslim zealots being led by the Mahdi (Laurence Olivier), believing himself to be the one appointed by Muhammad as a savior. The army is massacred to a man, leaving the British government in a spot.  The Prime Minister, William Gladstone (Ralph Richardson), doesn't want to commit a British army to the Sudan to resolve the situation, but what other measure can be taken? A solution is found in the form of a British military hero, General Charles "Chinese" Gordon (Charlton Heston), the man who helped rid the Sudan of slavery. The plan seems doomed to failure -- the British admitting to him they will only offer military assistance as a last ditch effort -- but Gordon takes the job just the same. What is his reasoning? Can he accomplish a mission with little hope of success? What does the Mahdi have in store? It's all going to be played out on an international stage.

I love a good epic from The Alamo to Spartacus, Ben-Hur to Lawrence of Arabia. This 1966 epic from director Basil Dearden doesn't quite have the huge scale of those other movies, but it is most definitely a gem. It clocks in at a modest 134 minutes (not quite the 3-hour behemoths) but accomplishes a lot in its running time. 'Khartoum' is based on a true story about Britain's quasi-involvement in the Sudan during the 1880s, filming on location in Egypt to give it some authenticity. Most importantly, it has the feel of an epic from the look to the far-reaching story to the music (composer Frank Cordell's score is solid) to the action. It doesn't have quite the reputation or following of so many other historical epics from the 1950s and 1960s, but it is well worth seeking out.

Who better to lead the way in this epic than Mr. Epic himself, Charlton Heston? Here's a case of some excellent casting. This is an underrated performance in a career that featured plenty of memorable roles, his Gordon interesting because there's so much mystery. A military hero, he's religious, loyal, intelligent, stubborn, and so much more. Does he take on this mission because he believes he can accomplish the impossible? Or is it ego, his vanity? Is it more than that? Is it something else? Whatever the answer, this is a layered, deep character who possibly only has one for sure do good. Gordon himself -- read about him HERE -- was a fascinating person, and Heston more than does him justice. We see all the sides of Gordon, a capable leader, a strong military strategist, and a man brimming with personality. It's easy to see why people believed in him, why people followed him and turned to Gordon when times were tough. An excellent performance from Heston.

The depth of the cast isn't the cast of thousands we've come to expect from an epic, but what's there is excellent. Olivier's part isn't huge -- kinda an extended cameo -- but once you get past the point that the very British actor is playing a very Muslim Arab, it's a good part. His scenes with Heston's Gordon are a high point, two Hollywood legends going toe-to-toe in quiet, underplayed scenes dripping with tension. Richard Johnson is excellent too as Colonel J.D.H. Stewart, the one officer granted to Gordon, working as his aide who sees the writing on the wall with their desperate mission. Richardson leads the government contingent as the wishy-washy prime minister, Michael Hordern, Hugh Williams and Ralph Michael as his government tools. In the military department, Nigel Green plays General Wolseley, the army commander tasked with "rescuing" Gordon, while Peter Arne plays Major Kitchener, the signal corps officer sent somewhat close to Khartoum to aid the defense. Also look for Johnny Sekka as Khaleel, Gordon's house servant, and Alexander Knox as a British official working with Gordon in Khartoum.

Enough with all this acting stuff, let's talk about some epic scale! I liked the story and the characters, feeling like I really learned something from this historic story. What resonated most though in 'Khartoum' was the impressive scale from three extended battle sequences. The opening massacre really sets the tone, the Mahdi's army swarming down hillsides at an exhausted army. Seemingly thousands of extras fill the screen in an amazingly tone-setting sequence. The middle action sequence has Gordon's forces holding off a nighttime ambush of the Mahdi's forces while the final assault on Khartoum packs the screen with Gordon's small forces in the city and the Mahdi's army charging the city in endless waves. Cinematographer Edward Scaife and second unit director Yakima Canutt (a former stunt man, a hugely underrated name in Hollywood stunt/action history) film right there in the dirt and sand with the action. They put the cameras on trucks and speed right into the battle like cavalry charging into its own battle. Great, adrenaline-pumping sequences that belong in the conversation of memorable battle scenes.

I liked a lot about this 1966 epic. It's able to cover a lot of ground, the siege of Khartoum lasting almost a full year. Things never feel rushed as we get to know Gordon, his motivations (sort of), the international situation, the British "solution" to the plan, and the slow-burn Gladstone and Parliament use to hopefully resolve it all. While it's an up and close and personal story, the script from Robert Ardrey does a good job keeping it in an international perspective. All the while, the doom builds right up until the conclusion. I liked it a lot, the expansive look from the opening prologue narrated by Leo Genn to the desert scenes and everything in between. Highly recommended.

Khartoum (1966): ***/****

Monday, March 24, 2014

Runner Runner

If you would have told me back in the late 1990s, that some 14 years later Justin Timberlake would be where he is right now..........yeah, I would have said you were nuts. The 'N Sync front guy?!? Really?!? But here we sit, Timberlake one of the biggest stars in entertainment in music, film, even on TV pairing with his buddy Jimmy Fallon. Good for him, the star doing quite the job of marketing himself. And then there's 2013 Runner Runner, setting him back in a bad way.

A graduate student at Princeton, Richie Furst (Timberlake) has fallen on some tough times. A former Wall Street broker, Richie lost his six-figure job and is now struggling to even pay his tuition. As a way of earning some money, he sends gamblers to an online gambling site, earning a commission, but as a last ditch effort, Richie gambles too at the site, losing his entire upcoming tuition payment. Running a study through a friend's software, Richie proves he was cheated. His solution? He travels to Costa Rica (where he got that money is never addressed) looking to confront the company's controversial owner, Ivan Block (Ben Affleck), who operates free of U.S. jurisdiction with his possibly corrupt business. When he somehow manages to finagle a meeting, Richie is stunned at the response he gets. Ivan offers him reimbursement and more, he wants Richie to work with him as a right-hand man. It seems too good to be true, huh?

From the explosion of Texas Hold 'Em's popularity to the "Video Poker" signs that pop up seemingly everywhere, that whole gambling thing sure seems to have taken off over the last 10-15 years. Right up there in the popularity department is the insane popularity and growth of online gambling, giving gamblers a chance to gamble from their couch. To say online gambling is worthy of a huge, all-reaching story isn't exactly spot-on, but it's certainly an interesting premise. This is not that movie. Released in the U.S. in October 2013, it bombed in theaters, raking in countless negative reviews, and let me tell you it is just not good. Director Brad Furman's flick is currently rocking a 9% at Rotten Tomatoes and is barely hovering over the 5.0 mark at IMDB. I'm surprised it is even that high.

The biggest issue here concerning the criticism is that there's not one high-arcing reason for why 'Runner' is so bad. Maybe that's the biggest reason in itself? It is dull, has no energy, seems borrowed from one like-minded movie after another and never creates its own identity. At 91 minutes, it is painfully slow, trying to do a whole lot but not achieving any of its goals (if you ask me) and limps to the finish line in a painfully contrived finale. This is a movie that's dead on arrival. The biggest thing I can say is this. There's no real reason to watch it. This is a movie that's just sorta.....there. I didn't hate it with a passion, didn't revel in its badness. It just sits there, and if you ask me, that's one of the worst things you can say about a movie.

As for that Timberlake fellow, he's got that potential, that thing that makes people stars. He's hilarious on his SNL hosting gigs, has shown he can handle supporting dramatic parts in movies like The Social Network, could do well in a rom-com like Friends With Benefits. What's missing? Dark, heavy dramatic parts that require him to be a tough guy. I don't know if Timberlake is cut out for that part, struggling here the same way he did in About Time. Is it his demeanor? His kinda slight physical stature? That not so deep voice? Maybe it's all of them, maybe it's none of them. In 'Runner,' his Richie character is the worst kind of lead, cocky but not likable. His voiceover narration has him talking in this raspy growl -- seemingly to "toughen" up the part -- but it feels forced and comes across as unintentionally funny, not high, exciting drama. Timberlake has a future in acting, no doubt about it, but I think it's more in the comedy vein. He's still looking for that great action/drama role.

Playing the more fun part, Affleck is probably the best thing going here. His Ivan is friendly, charming, disarming and conniving like a crazy person to save his own backside. Still, the script from Brian Koppelman and David Levien is too rushed, not spending enough time with the Block character. We never get a good read on him, especially when things take a turn for the worse for everyone involved. Gemma Arterton is wasted as the necessary pretty girl who likes the new guy but has a past with the established guy. It's a part that gives her nothing to do other than flirt and wear nice dresses. Another talented actor who has picked some odd roles, Anthony Mackie overacts like his life depends on it as Agent Shaver, the FBI agent investigating Block. Also look for John Heard as Richie's gambling addict father and Michael Esper and Oliver Cooper as Richie's two friends who also get involved with Block's company.

What a blah flick. When things are supposed to be speeding up toward the finale, 'Runner' limps to the finish. The scenes with the final twists and confrontations are awful, Mackie's supposedly competent FBI agent making one horrifically dumb decision after another. This is just a dumb, boring movie. Highly recommended! Kidding. Totally kidding.

Runner Runner (2013): */****

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Desert Sands

Ah, the French Foreign Legion, where men can be men and no one can judge them for it. Yes, I'm rewriting my western posse lead so deal with it. Originally created in 1831, the Legion is a unit in the French armed forces that allows for foreign nationals to join the Legion, not an exclusively French group of soldiers. This very unique, very interesting military force has provided a long list of films to tell their story. Check out the list HERE. The most famous is Beau Geste, but there are many, many more, including 1955's Desert Sands.

At an isolated outpost in northern Africa, Fort Valeau, the French Foreign Legion garrison is readying for relief, for a break from its year-long posting. The commanding officer (an uncredited Ben Wright) is set to be replaced as well, medical concerns beginning to weigh on him. His replacement? A legend among the Legion, Capt. David Malcolm (Ralph Meeker), an American who has gained quite a reputation over the years as an impressive, more than capable fighting man. Malcolm arrives at the outpost ahead of his relief company (by helicopter too, oooh!), surprised they haven't arrived yet. Malcolm and the garrison soon find out why. A young shiekh, El Zanal (Keith Larsen), has been lying in wait for 15 years, building and planning and preparing for an all-out assault that will wipe out the Legion, starting with Fort Valeau. Malcolm's relief company has been massacred, and the garrison is very much on its own with no help in sight.

There is a certain charm to French Foreign Legion movies that have always appealed to me. The portrayal of these fighting men is usually of misfits and screw-ups looking for a chance to redeem themselves through battle, sometimes through their own death. It's magnified for movies obviously, the Legion a legitimate fighting unit in the French military. But as movies would have it, it seems garrison after garrison of Legionnaires are wiped out by warring tribesmen across Africa and around the world. This short, 87-minute B-movie from director Lesley Selander certainly has its moments. The isolated outpost is a very cool set, and while there isn't a ton of star power, there's some fun characters on-hand. 'Sands' is content to be fun and entertaining, but some script issues really prevent it from being a good movie.

The positives are pretty obvious for me. Isolated outpost, impossible odds, eccentric group of legionnaires forced to fight together, putting aside their differences and rivalries. Fun, right? Meeker is okay as Capt. Malcolm, a little wooden for a guy known for his dark roles. I would have liked a little more background about his legendary status as a Legionnaire as well. His garrison is full of some cool characters that lack star power, but that's a minor concern when you're having fun. They include Sgt. Diepel (J. Carroll Naish), the longtime fighter and tough as nails sarge, Pvt. Tyle (John Smith), the fiery Texan, Havers (Ron Randell), the hard-drinking Brit, Lt. Mackie (Jarl Victor), second-in-command, Gabin (Otto Waldis), the likable vet, Lucia (Peter Mamakos), the amiable Italian, Ducco (Albert Carrier), the cowardly Frenchman, Woloack (Mort Mills), the radioman, Sandy (Philip Tonge), the friendly Scotsman, and Kleiner (Peter Norman), the outpost's doctor. A fun, cool group of disparate characters.

One would think that with an 87-minute movie, there isn't a whole lot of time available to really screw things up. One would be wrong. This movie was good, really entertaining, good action, for the first 45 minutes. Then it wasn't good. Larsen could be the most wooden actor ever, his epic, diabolical plans for revenge coming across as a pretty weak plan....that took 15 years to plan. Meh, what's time anyways? That's one thing though, not a deal-breaker. How about Zanal's sister, Zara (Marla English), also seeking revenge? Well, kind of. Mostly, she instantly falls in love with the not so charismatic Capt. Malcolm. She's like putty in his hand when she finds out his wife and child were killed in a car accident. The ladies do like a tortured bad boy, don't they? A story about a last stand, about honor and loyalty and camaraderie in the Legion? Money in the bank. But no. Let's make it a love story. Sound thinking if you ask me.

Now getting to the 45-minute mark is pretty fun. Good tension, good mystery as we meet the garrison's men, start to question what exactly is going on just out of view over the horizon. Zanal's attack on the fort is a gem, well-choreographed and surprisingly dark for a 1955 flick. For a B-movie in general, it's a pretty solid action sequence. That's ruined in the finale as the Legionnaires fight off a second massacre, defeating the evil invaders with awful strategy. Surrounded on all sides by expert marksmen from positions of height, the Legionnaires stand in the open in square formation, shooting back....and winning!!! It's such a stupidly put together finale, wrapping things up far too quickly. A disappointing end result, mostly because it was pretty decent early on. Also look for John Carradine as Jala, a treacherous, conniving wine merchant. Oh, an evil wine merchant!

Desert Sands (1955): **/****

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

All Is Lost

Live or die, survival at its most base. You choose. How much do you want to live? On an isolated mountaintop. In the desert. In a wasteland. On the expansive, seemingly endless high seas. Food, water and supplies are dwindling, and there is absolutely no guarantee that help is on the way. None. How far can you push yourself to keep on going, to keep on fighting? So goes 2013's All Is Lost.

Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, some 1,700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Strait, a man (Robert Redford) is sailing along on his sailboat. He wakes up below deck and promptly steps into ankle-deep water. He finds a hole in the side of his boat and heads to the top deck and is stunned at what he find. An immense shipping container has struck the side of his sailboat, imbedding itself and letting the water not so slowly seep in. The boat is able to sail, but the man is forced to improvise quickly, finding something that can serve as a patch to stop the flowing water. He fixes it, buying at least some time. The situation is dire just the same though. His radio and all of his equipment have been destroyed in the water, his food and water is limited, and it looks like he's sailing right into horrific weather. Time is running out, but this man is going to do his damnedest to live, to survive.

What a flick. I guess I should call this a film, not a movie, but a film. Director J.C. Chandor's follow-up film to his debut, Margin Call, deserves the moniker 'film' too. This isn't a story interested in special effects, in gimmicks, in anything forced or even remotely fake. Above all else, this is a story that plain and simple is interested in primal survival. There aren't any distractions from the mission at hand here. Robert Redford is the only person we even see the entire movie. This is a man adrift at sea surrounded by thousands of miles of open water. It takes place over eight days, the opening scene leaving the finale open-ended with a voiceover that's longer than any future dialogue we'll see in a 106-minute movie. Oh, and limited though that dialogue may be, Chandor wrote the script too, a series of trials and tribulations that would test any one man's will to keep living.

So that Robert Redord fella, he's pretty cool, huh? A true Hollywood legend who has done it all from acting to directing to producing to starting up the Sundance Film Festival, there really isn't much Redford hasn't done in films. As far as film roles go, this one is certainly a new and different part. More importantly, more impressive is that Redford takes over this movie with very few words said. Adrift at sea, surviving and nothing else, this is a quiet, intense, thoughtful, introspective performance. Listed in the credits solely as 'Our Man,' Redford makes us root for this man because that's all there is to do. We don't get any flashbacks, no background, no mentions of his family, kids, a wife, if he even has any of those. It's almost like the story takes place in an existential bubble. The only real interference is the potential of being rescued. Those moments are fleeting though -- never dwelling on them -- with the focus solely on Redford, doing so much with so little. It's a mannerism here. A facial expression here. Very natural, never forced and dripping with authenticity.

Like its character, 'Lost' is as minimalist as it comes. Survive or die. We don't get any distractions or detours. This is a man at sea somewhere in the Indian Ocean. There's a pretty decent sized hole in his boat, water flows in, his supplies are low, his radio is out, and He Wants To Live. Don't think this is an action-packed movie, Robert Redford dealing with pirates and sharks and all sorts of hell the ocean can offer. The look of the movie is excellent, showing claustrophobic scenes on his boat, the Virginia Jean (his wife? a long-lost love? Who knows?), as the water drips in, and then huge wide shots (frightening in its beauty and immensity) of the expansiveness of the Indian Ocean. These are shots that put in perspective how small one boat is, how small one man is. It's easy to see how the ocean could swallow up that one boat, that one man up in an instant. We see storms rolling in on the horizon, and it's as unsettling as anything you could see in a thriller or horror flick. Uncomfortable throughout a 106-minute movie. Kudos to cinematographers Frank DeMarco and Peter Zuccarini for filming a beautiful, uncomfortable movie.

A series of little episodes that all feature one individual's desperate desire to live does provide for some slow-moving portions here. Some scenes are more intense than others, simple as that. The opener is a subtle gem as the man finds a shipping container imbedded in his boat. "How the hell did this happen?!?" is what I would have been screaming. Two different storms roll in, providing hellaciously uncomfortable sequences, death hanging in the air. The most nerve-inducing sequences have the man (now in a raft) trying to float into the shipping lanes...and succeeding. Two sequences show the complete and utter desperation he feels, survival so close. The best scene is the finale though, his energy and will running out, even resorting to writing a message and throwing it off the raft in a bottle. The final scene is open-ended, Chandor even admitting he wants viewers to pick how it ends, to make their own conclusions. Until my buddy brought something up, I never even considered it open-ended so that will be up to you.

One last thing. I really liked composer Alex Ebert's score, the winner at the Golden Globes but not even getting an Oscar nomination. The lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Ebert's score is understated at its best, a soft, eerie, ethereal score playing over the man's desperate attempts. Listen to the entire soundtrack HERE, the sample I'm talking about playing immediately. Not quite a trance score, but there is a simple, elegant sound to Ebert's score that fits with the story and its tone in perfect unison. A difficult movie in general, probably not for everyone, but definitely worth checking out and experiencing.

All Is Lost (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Gypsy Moths

Skydiving has always fascinated me, but I've never had the guts to do it. Odd considering I'm typically scared to death of heights, huh? Meh, big deal! Years ago on a DVD I can't remember, I caught a trailer for a movie from the 1960s about skydiving with a great cast that looked like a light, fun and entertaining flick. Well, I caught up with how many years later, and let me tell you, 1969's The Gypsy Moths ain't what I thought it was going to be.

It's the Fourth of July weekend when a three-man skydiving team, Mike Rettig (Burt Lancaster), an experienced diver, Joe Browdy (Gene Hackman), the motor-mouthed owner/diver, and Malcolm Webson (Scott Wilson), a young but talented diver, drive into a small Kansas town looking to put on a show and make some cash. Malcolm grew up in the little town, the group even staying at the home of some of Malcolm's family. Their mindsets on basically everything is vastly different from the townspeople, including the family, causing some riffs between the barnstorming skydivers and the town-based population. Joe's team gets out on the town though, advertising and getting the word out about their coming show. It won't be easy to put the show together though with weather concerns, and those problems are amplified when the group argues over whether Mike should do a dangerous cape jump as a grand finale.

This 1969 flick comes from one of my favorite directors, John Frankenheimer, the man behind The Train, The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May among others. 'Moths' never got a full theatrical release in the United States, audiences only discovering it years later. The reasoning? My guess would be it was a couple years too early. In the 1970s, this movie may have flourished. There's surprising amounts of nudity, a forthright attitude about sex, adultery, life in general. Whatever the reason though, it didn't really get a chance with American audiences. Frankenheimer has even said in interviews that this was his favorite film he directed. That's all the convincing I need, but in very disappointing fashion, the movie doesn't amount to a great final package.

Some of that definitely comes from a perception of mine because I thought I was getting a different movie. That's not all of it though. I adjusted and went with a far darker story than I thought I would be watching. The screenplay from William Hanley looks to give a little slice of smalltown America and what better time to do that than a 4th of July weekend? Frankenheimer filmed on location all around Kansas, giving an authenticity that wouldn't work if it was filmed on a Hollywood backlot. It doesn't translate overall though. I think the movie is too thoughtful, too introspective, too brooding for its own good. These skydivers sure are moody, depressed, fighting amongst themselves and instantly clashing with the townspeople with their callous(?) outlooks on life. The first hour is painfully slow and so darkly down and depressing that I couldn't get into it at all. For me, that's saying something. I'm usually a big proponent of the darker the better in terms of story.

Whatever the tone though, 'Moths' has quite the cast. Are they used well? Eh, not really. I didn't really understand Lancaster's Mike character. He's a longtime skydiving veteran, an adrenaline junkie who's beginning to see the adrenaline wear off. Are his skydiving days beyond him? He may have found a future with Deborah Kerr's Elizabeth Brandon, a married woman and Malcolm's quasi-aunt. They're instantly drawn to each other, but it's never clear why. As near as I can figure, they're drawn to something different, Mike a settled down life with a wife and family, Elizabeth a wild and free life lived on the road to the fullest. Mostly, this relationship comes out of nowhere, one of those horrible movie relationships where two people fall for each other immediately with some knowing looks. This affair/relationship does push the story to some surprising twists, but the twist didn't have quite the dramatic shock I'm assuming was intended. Surprising? Yes. Effective dramatically? Eh, not quite.

The rest of the cast okay, nothing special. There is a chemistry among Lancaster, Hackman and Wilson, but there's not enough of it. When it does come around, it's too late. Hackman is solid as ever, a fast-talking charmer, the engine that makes the team go. He meets and clicks with a waitress (Sheree North, topless dancing and all) immediately as the skydiving show fast approaches. Wilson is moody and worrying and quiet as Malcolm, an underdeveloped character that falls for a young boarder, Annie (Bonnie Bedelia), at her aunt's home. These are all potentially interesting characters, but something just doesn't click to bring it all together. Also look for William Windom as Kerr's husband, seemingly seeing what's going on but not doing much about it.

The final 45 minutes at least make an effort to get the audience's adrenaline pumping. After all the introspective, slow-moving drama of the first hour, it is desperately needed as the skydiving team heads to their show. The footage is pretty crazy, cameramen jumping with the actual skydivers to get some great skydiving action. There are these ridiculous moments where you sit back and think "Man, that guy is hanging off the plane's wing waiting to drop. What if his parachute doesn't open?" The skydiving footage is the high point of the movie, no doubt about it, but it wasn't enough to save this Frankenheimer film for me. Unfortunate end result, a disappointing effort in the end that never connects.

The Gypsy Moths (1969): **/****

Monday, March 17, 2014

Need for Speed

Ah, racing and car movies, my Kryptonite, right up there with westerns and heist movies. Yes, I love them all, from the Fast and the Furious movies to classic films like Bullitt. Need something to tide you over until the next Fast and the Furious movie next year? Okay, funny guy, even if you said 'No' here's a good, old-fashioned popcorn movie for you, 2014's Need for Speed.

A blue collar mechanic who owns a custom car shop (he inherited from his father) he runs with his friends, Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) has earned the shop quite a payday on building a Shelby Mustang, a rare muscle car, for a former friend turned rival and highly successful driver, Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper). In a three-racer race, Dino causes an accident that claims the life of one of Tobey's friends but denies his involvement, sending Tobey instead to jail for a two-year sentence. Serving his sentence, Tobey vows to exact his revenge on Dino the only way he knows Tobey seeks entry into the hyped De Leon road race, highly dangerous, highly illegal, driving the Shelby Mustang, but first he's got to get across the country in 48 hours. With a car-knowledgable passenger, Julia (Imogen Poots), along for the ride, Tobey hits the road, Dino doing all he can to slow him up and maybe more.

So a movie with a video game background seems kinda ominous, right? I thought so, and that's as a fan of the Need for Speed video game series. Though there are issues here, its video game background has nothing to do with so any worries are unfounded. Maybe the biggest compliment you can give this movie is that it has a respect for car flicks and the genre movies that came before it. It's little things like showing Steve McQueen's Bullitt on a drive-in screen, shooting on location in San Francisco like Bullitt, including one familiar hotel location for fans of the 1968 movie. From Bullitt, Grand Prix, Vanishing Point, Death Race 2000, Gone in 60 Seconds and The Driver as the classics to more recent racing flicks like Fast and Furious, Drive, Death Proof, 'Speed' knows what audiences full of motorheads and car guys are looking for. Have no worries in that department. A little long at times at 130 minutes, it's still a lot of fun.

This is a movie about the racing. That's all. The in-between portions of the story are okay, sometimes fun, sometimes a tad awkward. Director Scott Waugh knows this is a movie about sexy, exotic, high-speed cars hauling ass down roads, highways and desert roads. Maybe that's why the movie's length is a little long in the tooth, there's simply non-stop racing sequences. We get an opening drag race, the deadly road race soon after, one sequence after another as Tobey and Julia gun it across the country, and the epic finale at the De Leon, six ridiculously cool, high-end cars going toe to toe for the win. What I liked was that these sequences let the cars do the talking for themselves. Composer Nathan Furst's score is good but kept in the background of the action. Let these cars with huge horsepower provide their own soundtrack, much like the iconic sequence in Bullitt. We see the cast doing some driving, the editing isn't too fast or choppy, and things never get tedious with a variety of sequences. Follow the racing formula and things will work out in the end.

Breaking Bad fans can rejoice, Jessie Pinkman himself gets a starring role here, and Aaron Paul doesn't disappoint. The Paul casting in a lead role was interesting because he isn't a prototypical action star and he's far from a bankable movie star. And you know what? Both those reasons end up being major positives. Paul comes in with little baggage so it's cool to see him step up and embrace a leading role. His Tobey is an everyman, a working man and blue collar kind of guy with a freaky ability to get the most out of every car he drives. He goes down familiar anti-hero routes, a man of few words who's loyal, tough as nails and is gonna get the girl at the end of the road. I liked Paul's on-screen presence, able to handle the intense scenes with his low, gravelly voice but also handling the lighter scenes with his friends that provide some comic relief. It seems like the future is bright for Paul in the movie business.

Basically across the board, 'Speed' doesn't boast any star power. Like Paul's casting though, it works as we see some familiar faces if not hugely recognizable names. Poots grew on me, her character showing she's not just a pretty face with a hot British accent. Cooper's part as Dino is horrifically underwritten, Cooper getting by with some evil-looking glares. Michael Keaton overacts like his paycheck depended on it as the Monarch, the mysterious, rich organizer of the De Leon race. Toby's friends and fellow mechanics helping him get across the country include rapper Kid Cudi as Benny, able to fly anything and with a smart-ass comment ready for anything, Finn (Rami Malek), able to identify a car's problems in a snap, Peck (Ramon Rodriguez), the relatively normal guy who has cool facial hair, and Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson), the ultra-confident youngest member of the group. Also look for Dakota Johnson as Pete's older sister, now dating Dino but who also has some epic sexual tension with Tobey.

There's plenty of questions here. How does Benny continuously acquire planes-helicopters-army transport? What exactly is Dino's deal? If he's a Nascar/Formula 1 driver, why the hell does he join the De Leon? Can a helicopter even hold a souped-up Mustang Shelby that drives off a cliff? Why is Dino so stupid? The movie really isn't interested in spelling too many things out. You'd think the police would commit more effort to tracking Tobey down after all the vehicular shenanigans he pulls, but nah! Oh, fast cars doing tricks! That's the movie. Enjoy it for what it is, one exciting driving sequence on top of another.

Need for Speed (2014): ***/****

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Three Musketeers (1973)

Some stories and literature just translate well to the big screen. Plain and simple. What do you think is the piece of literature that has inspired the most film adaptations? Okay, as I write this I'm assuming the Bible, but I'm talking about author Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers. There have been one adaptation after another over the years, an estimated 200 for Dumas' career work. Well, that's add another review from that list, 1973's The Three Musketeers.

It's the 1620s in France, and a young, poor and idealistic Frenchman, D'Artagnan (Michael York) is on his way to Paris to become a Musketeer. Without the experience necessary, D'Artagnan is quickly turned down and turned away. In the span of a few hours, he manages to insult three different Musketeers, agreeing to duel with each of them at three different times back-to-back. When he meets them later, D'Artagnan ends up fighting at their sides, including Athos (Oliver Reed), Aramis (Richard Chamberlain) and Porthos (Frank Finlay), against the Cardinal's guards. While he's not officially a Musketeer, young D'Artagnan is welcomed by the friendly trio, especially when they are thrust into some intrigue between the French queen and an English lord while Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston) seeks to gain more and more power over the inept French king.

Ready to get your mind blown? This movie was originally intended for.....The Beatles!!! Director Richard Lester had worked with the famous British rockers in Help! and A Hard Day's Night, but the Musketeers a la The Beatles never came to fruition. Instead, we get this entry, a solid action-packed story with a great cast and some funny physical humor that works surprisingly well. With a ton of attention to period detail, 'Musketeers' shot on location in Spain (a nice stand-in for France, kudos to cinematographer David Watkin) and features a fun, big, fast-paced score from composer Michel Legrand. It isn't the cleaned-up, glossy vision like the 1948 version or even the 1993 reboot. I can't speak for the the newest take on Dumas' iconic characters from 2011. Lester's version though? It seems to be the favorite of all the versions, so good that most of four hours of footage was shot, Lester deciding to make one film into two. Yeah, the cast was less than pleased. Paid for one film, turned into two. That's good business.

Go figure, the high point of this 1973 take is the Three Musketeers. I haven't seen much with Michael York in it other than the Austin Powers trilogy so it was cool to see him in a part like this. Playing D'Artagnan, he just goes for it, committing to bringing the almost hyper-active, goofy, idealistic young man to life. He also falls for the lovely Constance Bonacieux, played by Raquel Welch, and that's never a bad thing. York fits in well with Reed, Chamberlain and Finlay as the three established Musketeers who all come to respect young D'Artagnan, originally thinking of him as one of their own. If anything, the group is underused through much of the 105-minute movie. I wanted to see more of them. Of the three, I was most impressed with Oliver Reed as the fiery Athos, the unofficial leader of the trio. Reed defined on-screen intensity in the 1970s, and his Athos is just a cool character, waiting for an enemy to make his mistake and unleash an attack. Also look for Roy Kinnear as Panchet, D'Artagnan's hired servant who becomes an unofficial fifth member of the group.

If there's a weakness, it's that Dumas' novel just has so much going on. A ton of characters, a fast-moving story, it's a lot to handle in a movie that's 15 minutes short of 2-hours, and that's including a credit sequence. There's a ton of talent here, but it gets lost in the shuffle at times. Heston is underused as Cardinal Richelieu, the treacherous papal official looking to take over France, Faye Dunaway playing his gorgeous spy, Milady de Winter, and Christopher Lee as Rochefort as the head of the Cardinal's guards. As for the French royalty, look for Geraldine Chaplin and Jean Pierre Cassel. Rounding out the cast is Simon Ward as the Duke of Buckingham and Spike Milligan as Bonacieux, Constance's dimwitted husband.

But what are the Musketeers all about? Sword fighting. Lots of sword fighting. Master swordsman William Hobbs choreographed some great fight scenes that are big and all over the place with four and five swordsman on either side. The highlight is a great extended fight at a quiet countryside convent, a group of laundry women working away when the Musketeers arrive to fight a group of the Cardinal's guards. The action features some great physical gags, rope swings that don't quite reach where they're needed, trips and falls at will. Kinnear provides some good laughs too, always ready to hit some baddies over the head with a blunt instrument while the Musketeers duel away with their swords. Fun throughout.

Because it was decided post-production to turn one movie into two, the ending is just sorta there. A tad disjointed to say the least with not much resolved. I hope to check in with the follow-up soon. In the meantime, this one was pretty good. How can you pass up a movie where Roy Kinnear walks around dressed up as a polar bear who can juggle and then causes massive amounts of havoc? Or a catfight between Raquel Welch and Faye Dunaway. I submit that you CANNOT.

The Three Musketeers (1973): ***/****

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

The names of the U.S. Presidents are instantly recognizable, names synonymous with the history of the United States, especially that building where the president leaves, whatever it's called. The White House I think? What about all the people who work at the White House, who keep the place running? And no, it's not just the nameless/faceless individuals who get killed during terrorist attacks in movies like White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. I kid of course as we jump into 2013's Lee Daniels' The Butler, the true story of one of the White House's longtime butlers.

Growing up as a young boy with his sharecropping family in 1926 Georgia, Cecil Gaines has his outlook on life forever impacted when his father is shot down by a white man, the land owner where the family work, after raping his mother. Cecil is taught to be a house worker, a butler, and grows up finding jobs here and there working as a butler for the rich and well-to-do, eventually ending up at a Washington D.C. hotel. It isn't long before a grown-up Cecil (Forest Whitaker) has created quite a reputation for himself, earning an interview and eventually a full-time job at the White House, working with the sizable staff to make sure the President's home is a crisp, clean operation on a day-to-day basis. It's the late 1950s though, America heading into a turbulent time in its young history. Cecil has an inside look at America's involvement at home and internationally, all the while trying to raise a family with his wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey).  

This wasn't a movie I was dying to see, but I was nonetheless curious, even intrigued to see it. Loosely based on the true story of Eugene Allen, 'Butler' is director Lee Daniels' second film since his 2009 movie, Precious, that really put him on the map. It received pretty solid reviews and was a surprise success in theaters, earning over $167 million. I'm not really sure what to take away from it overall. I can appreciate what the message is going for, what it's trying to stand for and say about American history, yet that said, I didn't especially like it. What it's trying to do is admirable. What it accomplishes? Still mulling that over. Some of that can be chalked up to the script which tries to accomplish a ton in a 132-minute movie.

What I didn't question was Forest Whitaker in the lead role. Playing Cecil Gaines, Whitaker is our window as an audience into a whole lot of American history. We see his mindset, his frustrations, his motivations, his friendships, his rivalries, all of it. It isn't a flashy part, far from it, just a very straightforward, effective part. Whitaker's Cecil is a family man who wants to provide for that family, especially his wife, Gloria, struggling with alcoholism as she misses Cecil, his oldest son, Lewis (David Oyelowo, a good performance with some odd moments as a 37-year old playing a 15-year old), who dives headfirst into the civil rights movement, and his youngest son, Charlie (Elijah Kelley). His narration as a lead characters gets to be a little heavy-handed at times, but that's the script and not on Whitaker's shoulders. A very solid performance for Whitaker, a man trying to get by and live in some extremely turbulent times.

Beyond the family though, the supporting cast is mostly a long list of historical characters and bit parts that aren't around long enough to resonate. We meet a handful of Presidents including Dwight Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman), even meeting Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda). These little episodes are pretty cool, but they're also gone as quick as they started. Because of that pacing issue, these scenes, appearances and story developments aren't as effective as they could and should have been. In storytelling technique, 'Butler' reminded me of the classic Forrest Gump, bouncing around to a lot of stories, a lot of key moments in American history, the story giving us a window into those moments. Where Forrest Gump blended the humor and drama though, 'Butler' stays on the dramatic path, and it wore on me. This can be a heavy, dark movie to get through at times.

Give the movie credit. It tries to do a lot. Ultimately though, I felt like it tries to do too much. A story focusing on Cecil's 30-plus year career at the White House would have been fascinating in itself. The same for a man trying to care for his family through the turbulence of the Civil Rights movement, into Vietnam and beyond. Doing both ends up making things too bouncy to the point neither story gets the attention it deserves. Much time is spent with Oyelowo's efforts in the Civil Rights movement, Cecil and Gloria worried and angry back home. Moments that feel like they should resonate well and carry the movie feel rushed, not letting those moments breathe. Much like the recent The Monuments Men, this feels like a story that would have been better suited to a miniseries. The effort is admirable, the execution tolerable. Moments like Cecil interacting with his fellow butlers (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz) ended up resonating more with me than most of the far-more dramatic scenes. Also look for Terrence Howard , Mariah Carey, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave in odd, out of place parts.

That's the biggest issue. It doesn't pick a route and stick with it. Moments that work among portions of story that drift too much, kinda a necessity with a story that covers six decades in a man's life. I also resented something from the final scene, a written, on-screen message thanking all the men and women that have helped gain "our freedom." As a white individual, this message hit me the wrong way, and I admit I may be over-analyzing. Is this a movie meant solely for an African-American audience? Should I not be watching this movie? It's a mixed bag in the end, a generally interesting movie that ultimately doesn't live up to its potential.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lust for Gold

As Gordon Gekko profoundly said, 'Greed is good.' One of the all-time great films dealing with one of the seven deadly sins was released in 1948, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a frightening look at what gold can do to one's minds. It's one of the all-time classics, making 1949's Lust for Gold an odd choice. Was it an effort to build off its success? Whatever the reason, it doesn't work despite some potential.

It's 1948 in Arizona, a treasure-hunter of sorts, Barry Storm (William Prince), is walking through the Superstition Mountains looking for a supposedly long-lost mine, the Lost Dutchman. He's actually following a famous treasure hunter who states he's got the mystery figured out, but Storm is stunned when he hears a gunshot and soon after finds the treasure hunter dead. He walks to the nearest town, still several days away, to report the murder, quickly realizing this isn't some innocent old treasure hunt. Storm is quickly cleared of suspicion, but his interest makes some curious as he claims to be the grandson of the original owner of the Dutchman mine. As the police waits for a break in the case, Storm sits back and listens to the legendary story of how the mine came to be, including how his grandfather, Jacob Walz (Glenn Ford), came to be involved.

This was an interesting movie, not always for the good. From director S. Sylvan Simon (and an uncredited George Marshall), 'Lust' does have its positives and negatives. It plays at times like a pseudo-documentary, a film noir meets a rough and tumble western. Unfortunately, it never really gels as one coherent film. I liked the framing device in the story, a 90-minute story split about 55 (the Glenn Ford part) and 35 (the 1948 part) divvying things up appropriately. It comes with a message from the state of Arizona -- almost like a Welcome Guide, "Come and see Arizona!" -- stating that the mine is still out there somewhere. It is based off a book by the real Barry Storm, called Thunder Gods Gold, and it plays like a pandering effort to sell some copies of the book. Prince's Storm's narration is a little much too, almost an attempt to sound like a James Cagney-esque gangster. "The gold's out there, I tells ya! Don't believe me, eh?!?"

Oddly enough though, I enjoyed the 1948 portion of the story far more than the 1885 portion. Prince is okay as the intrepidly curious Storm, jobless and interested in finding the lost mine that's supposedly filled with literally tons of gold. The film noir in the desert plays well, dead bodies and potshots piling up over the years as treasure hunters supposedly near the location of the lost mine. In addition to Prince, look for Paul Ford as the local sheriff with Will Geer and an uncredited Jay Silverheels (later Tonto on The Lone Ranger) as his two deputies. The mystery builds nicely and when things wrap up back in 1885, we get some solid resolution. The ending was pretty exciting, wrapping things up that the first 20-25 minutes set up.

Surprising for me was how dull the actual 1880 Arizona western was. It starts off well, greed, murder and betrayal introduced early to the point I thought I had stumbled onto a hidden gem from a genre I love. Well, I didn't. The story detours quickly and is never able to recover. Glenn Ford gets a rare turn as a bad guy -- an out and out bad guy -- but it's wasted because after he finds the gold mine by some rather duplicitous means (read = Murder) the story hamstrings the character as it devolves into a forced love triangle with Ida Lupino's Julia and her husband who she fights with constantly and would like to divorce, played to smarmy annoyingness by Gig Young. Wait, she loves her husband, but she doesn't because she loves Jacob but she doesn't love him either. Gag me, the story goes nowhere, turning a potentially really good story about what greed can do to people into a lame, glacially-moving love triangle. A love triangle of sorts. You've gotta be kidding me.

In the flashback portion, also look for Edgar Buchanan as a grizzled old trail hand working with Ford's Jacob and uncredited parts for Arthur Hunnicutt and Antonio Moreno as two rivals who may hold the key to the location of the lost gold mine. Even western veteran John Doucette turns up for a quick appearance in a barber shop talking about how much gold may be out there.

There are parts that worked surprisingly well. The explanation of how the gold came to be in the mine is a gem, an Apache war party descending on a heavily-guarded escort in a surprisingly graphic action scene. The same for the intro to the 1880s flashback, Glenn Ford's Jacob straight up murdering folks. How many movies can you say that about? Glenn Ford is a good guy for goodness sake! The ending in the flashback has some potential too, but by then I was so bored with the Ford-Lupino-Young part of the story I just didn't care. A movie that has its moments, but not enough of them unfortunately.

Lust for Gold (1949): **/****

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

I'll make a bet with you. I swear I'll pay up too if I lose. I would wager that David Lowery is a fan of two things. One, he's a fan of the films of Terrence Malick, few though they are. Two, he grew up watching 1970s crime thrillers set in the South, including Texas. How do I know this you ask? I watched Lowery's film that he directed and wrote, 2013's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a film with obvious influences from both of the above.

After a botched robbery that resulted in a police officer getting shot, outlaw Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck) is sent to prison with a 25-to-life jail sentence. He took all of the guilt and blame for the robbery and the shooting, his pregnant wife, Ruth (Rooney Mara), a willing participant and the one who actually shot the officer. Years pass, Ruth has a baby daughter, and life moves on of sorts, Bob writing her almost every day from prison as his sentence wears on. After three-plus years go by, Ruth is shocked when the police arrive to tell her something....Bob has escaped from prison. Does she know anything about the escape, his intentions or where he's heading? Ruth maintains that Bob wants nothing to do with her, holding back the truth, but she knows her husband is coming back to bring them with on a new life. Does Ruth want to go?

When I saw this trailer last spring/summer for this movie, I was immediately intrigued. The visual, the lyrical story, the small-time crooks, all those different stylistic choices, I was convinced this was a film from director Terrence Malick. Convinced of it. I was wrong, Lowery both writing and directing this 2013 film. The influences though are obvious from Affleck's ethereal, dream-like narration, the long shots of open fields and grass blowing in the wind, the music from composer Daniel Hart that's almost trance-like, soothing and calming with an ever-growing sense of doom and dread. It reminded me of Malick's Badlands, of the more recent Cold Mountain, and of countless movies set in the South and in Texas, different worlds when it comes to movie portrayals, especially with crime stories. It's a different sort of crime here, more personal and on a smaller scale.

So what doesn't add up? I....don't....know. Okay, that's not fair, I know, but I'm struggling to explain it. All I can I come up with is this, 'Bodies' doesn't create its own identity. It feels familiar, like we've seen this countless times before. It's too familiar. More than that though, 'Bodies' depends on that familiarity. Lowery's script isn't interested in explaining or in some cases, even addressing how the story develops. It drifts from scene to scene without transitions, scenes of nature and sunsets and grassy hills serving as those transitions. The story is equal parts too fast and too slow because of those seemingly missing scenes that just ain't there. I'm going down a slippery slope here in my criticism. Stories like this force critics' hands. Is it smart because it doesn't spell everything out for us? Or is pretentious, using that as an excuse to gloss over flaws in a story? Lyrical, dream-like only goes so far when those missing gaps are key to....well, everything.

The biggest fatality is the characters. At no point did I feel like I was really invested in any of these characters. Affleck is hit the hardest, his Bob Muldoon going from possibly a tragic anti-hero to a rambling, angry husband and father who may not be all there. Affleck's Bob has two rambling monologues that other characters interrupt to correct/question, painting Bob as something else than we're seeing. Getting out of this unscathed, even representing herself very well, is Mara (a rising star in Hollywood) as Ruth, an almost single mother who's tortured by a decision that tore the family apart. Her scenes with her daughter, Sylvie (played by twins), are effective and moving, especially as she sees this new life she's got isn't so bad. Also coming away looking good is Ben Foster as Patrick Wheeler, the police officer who Ruth shot but Bob took the wrap for. Years later, he's drawn to Ruth, not knowing the truth. Mara and Foster are very good together, the high point in the acting department.

With a small cast, there's really only two other parts worth mentioning. Keith Carradine is misused as Skerritt, an obvious influence on Bob and Ruth growing up....but, yeah, that's all. This is another huge hit because of the script. It's hinted that Skerritt ran some sort of gang in the past -- Bob, Ruth, even his own son included -- and was almost a surrogate father. That's all though. Hinted at isn't enough, too much mystery out there when even a little detail would have gone a long way. Another solid part is from Nate Parker as Sweetie, a bar owner who has a past with Bob, possibly working with him in some criminal undertakings.

No doubt about it, some moments do work. Without anything said or spelled out, it seems the story is set in the 1970s. The folksy musical score underplays the story and what little action there is. A nighttime ambush by three bounty hunters/hired guns with Bob is chaotic and crazy, a chase ensuing with fast-paced, backroads Cajun music playing with it. It isn't enough though, the moments not adding up to a worthwhile package. When things truly fall apart in the finale, we're supposed to feel something, but it's just not there. I was never invested in the characters or their goals or concerns so when the inevitable downbeat ending comes along, it falls short. A disappointing negative review because there was potential for an interesting movie.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013): **/****