The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Losers

Well, it's time to take a trip in the Way-Back Machine. Yep, we're going all the way back in April 2010 when I was relatively new to this whole blogging thing. Some movies need a revisit, like 2010's The Losers, an ultra-entertaining action flick that my cousin got me for a birthday present a couple years back. Timely, no, but I caught up with it this weekend. Yes, still an excellent, entertaining movie.

An elite black-ops team working with the U.S. Special Forces has been deployed into Bolivia to take out a compound run by a drug cartel. Headed by their commander, Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), they've worked together for years, including Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short) and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada). The mission isn't everything it seems to be, the team rescuing a group of 25 young children being held as drug mules and hostages. The kids board the helicopter intended for the team, but the helicopter is struck by a missile. Clay and Co. have become targets. Who wants them dead? More importantly, why? The man's name is Max (Jason Patric), a C.I.A. operative gone rogue. Trapped in Bolivia and believed dead, the Losers are left with no alternatives, getting help from a beautiful, mysterious woman, Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who promises to help them. Can this group pull off the impossible and survive the suicide mission ahead of them?

Hitting theaters in spring 2010, 'Losers' received middling reviews and did okay in theaters but was far from a hit. It seemed to have some horrific timing, released in a wave of men-on-a-mission movies like The A-Team (June 2010) and Takers (August 2010). Of the three, I liked this one best, director Sylvain White turning in a stylized, fun, shoot 'em up that more than holds up on a repeat viewing. Does it rewrite the genre? In a word? No. It doesn't need to. It is one of those perfect popcorn movies. Just sit back and watch it, clocking in at an action-packed 97 minutes. Very stylish, lots of cool characters, bullet and explosion-riddled action scenes. An easy movie to recommend. Too bad it didn't do better in theaters. I would have loved to see where the Losers went from here.

What works so well is the casting, and probably was at least part of the movie's struggles in theaters. There just ain't a ton of star power on display here. Now for me, I count that as a positive, but we're not talking Ocean's 11 star power to round out the Losers. The dynamic works, the men-on-a-mission premise that's one of my favorites. Each team member has a specialty, Clay the no-nonsense leader, Roque an expert in tactics and detonation, Jensen the nerdy tech specialist, Pooch able to drive anything with an engine and wheels and Cougar proficient in long-range eliminations (Yes, we've got ourselves a sniper). Their backstory is never spelled out, just hinted at, but we know they're damn good at their job...right up until they're betrayed and left out in the dark. Of the group, there's no weak spots, but I especially liked a scene-stealing Evans ("That's right. I've got a crossbow, bitches."), Morgan, Elba, Short and Janeada all getting their chances to shine too.

'Losers is actually based off a graphic novel series that was adapted into a screenplay written by actor/director Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt. And that's where we get a surprising angle on the movie. With graphic novels, character development isn't the first thing that comes to my mind, but here it is an essential part of the story. We get that development through dialogue, lots of quick, fast-firing conversations among the team. One that especially stands out has Jensen and Pooch debating whether to take a car or not, the back and forth coming in almost monosyllabic grunts, one-word answers in rapid fire succession. If there isn't more star power, so be it. The chemistry with the cast is spot-on perfect from beginning to end. This is a fun movie, and the cast is clearly having a ton of fun making it. We've got tough guys on a suicide mission with lots of action, funny, memorable one-liners and a great chemistry. That's a winning formula if you ask me.

Adding some sex appeal to the action-heavy hijinks is Zoe Saldana as Aisha, a mysteriously beautiful woman who wears slinky and/or tight outfits but who can also handle herself when the bullets start to fly. What's her motive? What's her end-game? Well, that's part of the fun. Hamming it up and clearly enjoying himself is Jason Patric as the maniacally evil Max. It's a ridiculous character, but Patric commits and it works in a big way. This is a villain that seems ripped from so many over-the-top 1980s action movies, but it fits right in with all the craziness. Holt McCallany plays Wade, Max's much-maligned enforcer, the straight man to Max's off the wall antics.

Onto the action! There's no time to waste in a 97-minute movie so in between scenes of the team bitching and moaning, ripping each other almost non-stop, we get action. LOTS of action. The opener at the drug compound sets the tone, quick and flashy and fun. The same later for almost back-to-back sequences, the Losers taking out Max's heavily armored convoy in Miami, the follow-up Jensen trying to navigate a well-guarded building with security on his tail. The obvious high-point is saved for the end though, the Losers forced to stop Max (and his diabolical, ecological-minded plan) at the Port of Los Angeles -- because all action movies require a good shootout at the Port of L.A. Like the whole movie, it's fun. Get some popcorn, sit back and appreciate it for all its entertainment value. Your time will not be wasted.

The Losers (2010): ***/****
Rewrite of April 2010 review

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

12 Years a Slave

Just a year ago or so in theaters, Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained was a huge hit with audiences and critics alike, making over $425 million. It was a story about a pre-Civil War slavery that was horrific and over the top, almost cartoonish in its portrayal of slavery. An interesting companion piece because it tackles the same historical issue in far darker, far more somber fashion, 2013's 12 Years a Slave.

It's 1841 in Saratoga, New York, and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man. He works as a carpenter, is also a skilled musician and lives comfortably with his wife and two young children. When his family goes away on a quick work/vacation, Solomon is approached by two musicians who offer him a two-week job working with their traveling circus performers. Solomon is intrigued by their offer, dining and drinking with them one evening. He wakes up the next morning in chains, realizing he was drugged the night before. Solomon has been kidnapped and will be shipped south to be sold as a slave in the deep south. Listening to other kidnap victims in the same situation, some runaway slaves, he learns he's in more of a spot than he thought. If he tries to convince anyone of his plight, they'll punish him (with the possibility of whipping) if not kill him. Can he survive? Can Solomon find a way to endure and somehow gain back his freedom?

Wow. What a movie, one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've had watching a film in years. Technically speaking, it's excellent, but this next part might sound obvious. Anyone who knows their history -- or even those who don't -- realize that slavery existed in the U.S. less than 200 years ago in the 1860s. It's a known thing, but knowing and seeing the horrors are different. It is a terrifyingly uncomfortable movie, and it's supposed to be. It pulls no punches in telling the true story of Solomon Northup, director Steve McQueen (not that one) at the helm of a movie that won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars. Be forewarned heading in. This is a film, not a popcorn movie that you come away with with a smile on your face. '12' is a film to watch and appreciate for what it is. A true story from one of the darker periods in American history. I won't be revisiting this one anytime soon. Once was enough.

Chiwetel Ejiofor or Matthew McConaughey? Which actor for the Best Actor Oscar? Having seen both '12' and Dallas Buyers Club, it's fair to say that either man deserved the win. It's a push, both performances worthwhile in their own respect. For Ejiofor, this is a great performance and hopefully one that propels him into stardom. I've always thought he was a solid actor with some poor choices in films (2012, Four Brothers), but this film shows his ability. Playing Solomon Northup, this is an emotionally draining, physical, very expressive part. Ejiofor allows the rest of the cast to chew scenery at times, letting a quick, hard-hitting diatribe here and there fill in the blanks. He does so much with a look here, his tired eyes telling the story. Dubbed Platt (the name of a runaway slave from Georgia), Solomon tries to survive however he can, almost willing himself to keep on and return to his family. This is a human, visceral performance. Unbelievable stuff.

In a part that won her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Lupita Nyong'o delivers a gem as Patsey, a young slave who's hard-working, does her job and puts her head down, unfortunately becoming a favorite of the plantation owner, Epps, played to evil perfection by Michael Fassbender (nominated for his part, didn't win). Nyong'o is strong across the board but won the Oscar with one key, emotional gut-wrenching scene late. A great supporting performance. Fassbender (a favorite of mine) is intensity personified, a vile slave owner who quotes the Bible at all times, making his slaves do odd, bizarre things to suit his random wants and desires, Sarah Paulson playing his equally unhinged wife. Some other key supporting parts include Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford, a decent slave owner but still a slave owner, Paul Giamatti as a bottom-line slave dealer, Paul Dano as an angry, clueless overseer, Alfre Woodard as a slave woman turned mistress, Garret Dillahunt as Armsby, a hopeful overseer, and Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam as the men who kidnap Solomon.

As I mentioned, this was a difficult movie to sit through. It's not boring, the subject matter just hard to watch. '12' is 134 minutes long and does drag at times. The story isn't the most pointed thing, drifting along at times. My biggest issue is that there is no sense of time having passed. I kept waiting for a title card or something to pop up on-screen and say '8 Years Later.' There's no way to tell how much time has passed. Has it been weeks or months? Has it been years? The incidents are horrific, the truth of the story hard to fathom, but then out of nowhere there's a solution to it all. That was my biggest issue with '12,' no idea of the time that's passed. It sounds simple and something minor to complain about, but it's a legit issue.

This is a difficult movie to watch, plain and simple. I do like where it heads in the last third or so, Brad Pitt making a memorable appearance as a Canadian carpenter working in the south who meets Solomon while working on Epps' plantation. We get several scenes analyzing the horror and truth of slavery that come across as slightly heavy-handed, but that said, I guess there's very little subtle about slavery itself. The ending is heartbreaking in itself, especially the title cards that play out before the credits. Also worth mentioning is Hans Zimmer's score, almost minimalist in its execution, a simple, soft, trance-like theme resonating the most. Listen HERE. An interesting movie, one you're not necessarily going to like, but one you'll be able to appreciate and experience.

12 Years a Slave (2013): ***/****

Monday, April 28, 2014

Johnny Cool

Some faces just stick with you as you watch more and more movies. A glare, a stare, a smile, a laugh, a maniacal laugh at that, just something easily remembered. Henry Silva qualifies on basically all of those things, a character actor who made a career out of playing supporting parts, usually crazy, psychopathic villains. He was GOOD at it, beyond good, a great bad guy. Then there's 1963's Johnny Cool where Silva got a starring role as the definition of an anti-hero bordering on out-and-out bad guy.

As a young teenager in 1940s Sicily with World War II raging, young Salvatore Giordano sees his mother killed by a German soldier. He joins the Italian partisans, becoming a hero across the countryside both during the war and after. Years pass and now Salvatore (Silva) is infamously known around the country and even internationally. Some know him simply as a bandit chieftain, others as a modern day Robin Hood. An exiled American gangster, Johnny Colini (Marc Lawrence), arranges a faked death for Salvatore as he has far bigger plans for him. Colini teaches Salvatore how to act and look like a gentleman, but more importantly he turns him into an unstoppable killer. His intended targets? The men who helped orchestrate Colini's exile. If Salvatore -- taking the gangster's name -- can pull it off, Colini's empire will be his.

Yikes. What a vicious, brutal movie. From director William Asher, it's even darker when you consider it was released in 1963. Playing like a hard-boiled, brutal, in your face film noir, 'Cool' is the definition of a B-movie. It's gritty and doesn't feel faked from beginning to end. While there are indoor/studio shots, there is also plenty of on-location scenes from New York City to Los Angeles to Las Vegas. The gloomy, impending doom, jazz-heavy score from Billy May and Johnny Worth permeates Asher's gangster/underworld story. This is a story based in smoky nightclubs, in backroom gambling halls, in gangsters' offices in high rises. Filmed in black and white, there's a great, throwback style throughout. I didn't love the movie -- little slow-moving at times -- but it does have a lot going for it.

From possibly unhinged supporting player to...partially unhinged leading player....Yeah, okay, maybe this part isn't a huge departure for Silva, but it's a chance he doesn't disappoint with. While there's a strong ensemble working with him, this is Silva's movie, plain and simple. It's cool to see the transformation his character goes through, from revenge-seeking teenager to infamous bandit to killing machine. It would have been cool to see some more background, more motivation -- is he solely interested in riches and fame? Is it something else, something more? -- but we see a man who becomes obsessed with achieving his goal. It's pretty apparent from the second we meet Salvatore/Johnny that this is one doomed dude, but the route he takes is certainly fascinating. Silva brings that intensity we've come to expect from the veteran character actor. A very interesting part.

The rest of the cast has its positives and negatives. Ever seen 1960s TV sitcom Bewitched? Yeah, Samantha herself, Elizabeth Montgomery plays Darien, a divorced woman looking for some excitement and getting more than she figured when she joins up with Silva's Johnny. How about some of Johnny's hopeful victims? There's Telly Savalas (sporting some hair), Jim Backus, John McGiver Brad Dexter and Mort Sahl. If that wasn't enough, also look for Joey Bishop, Sammy Davis Jr., Richard Anderson, Elisha Cook Jr. Beyond Montgomery and Savalas, no one on this list is around for more than a couple minutes, the story almost becoming a revolving door of quick cameos. Still, cool to see some big names like this all in one cast.

Mostly though, this is a dark movie to sit back and watch without much in the way of a sympathetic character. Silva's Salvatore/Johnny becomes a killing machine who's beyond saving. Fascinating to watch, far from an even remotely sympathetic anti-hero. Much of the violence is off-screen, but it's pretty hardcore just the same. You don't have to see it to know that a man getting bashed in the head with a shotgun is gonna be rather graphic. People are dispatched with no build-up, no tension. Just BOOM! You're dead. And that, just wow. We don't see what's going on, but the foreshadowing is rough. An interesting movie, but beware of what you're getting into.

Johnny Cool (1963): **/****

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Undefeated

Considering the extreme and far-reaching effects the Civil War had on American history, it's odd there haven't been more movies about the most costly war in the United States' relatively young history. The western genre has done its fair share of quasi-Civil War movies, the war becoming a jumping off point for a shoot 'em up story. What to do once the war is over? Like Major Dundee and Vera Cruz, many went south into Mexico. We can add 1969's The Undefeated to that short list.

After four years of bloody fighting, the Civil War has come to a close, leaving both the North and South to figure out where to go forward. With some of his remaining soldiers, a former Union cavalry officer, Colonel John Henry Thomas (John Wayne), rounds up a herd of 3,000 wild horses with the intention of driving them south into Mexico where they'll sell them to Emperor Maximilian's forces. A former Confederate officer, Colonel James Langdon (Rock Hudson), who had outfitted his own regiment, is leaving his plantation behind, moving south to Mexico with his surviving men, along with their wives, children and family in hoping to start a new life. In turbulent times for both the U.S. and Mexico, these two groups' paths may cross, and with wounds from the war still fresh on both sides.

This portion of history has always fascinated me, especially in movies like this, Major Dundee and Vera Cruz. I grew up watching this John Wayne western, and in spite of its flaws, I've always been a fan. From frequent Wayne collaborator and director Andrew V. McLaglen, 'Undefeated' is a fun western with a very good, deep cast, authentic locations in and around Durango, Mexico (Dundee fans will appreciate some familiar spots), a memorable score from composer Hugo Montenegro (listen HERE, disregard the odd video choice), and in general an entertaining quality that lifts it up past the flaws. It plays like a lot of Wayne's later movies; easy to sit back and watch, some action and shootouts, some drama, some romance, and some laughs here and there. When westerns were changing so dramatically in the late 1960s and heading into the 1970s, it can be fun just to watch an old-fashioned western with good guys and bad guys. No more, no less.

In a pretty cool casting choice, Wayne goes toe to toe here with Rock Hudson. It's not the most obvious pairing, but it works, simple as that. Wayne is playing a variation on his archetypal cowboy part, the leader of a small, surviving group of volunteers that rode with him throughout the Civil War. Now, he's looking for some cash to start over with, hence the immense horse drive. Hudson's Langdon too is looking for a clean start, the horrors and severe losses of the war still fresh on his mind. They're two different men, but they also have many similarities. They're fighting men who stand by what's right, loyal to those who ride with them, and ultimately try to do what they should do, not what's easiest. Their scenes together are the high points of the story, an easygoing charm with just a little Union vs. Confederacy animosity lingering. Two parts I liked a lot.

Working with a big story and a whole lot of characters, there's a lot going on in 'Undefeated,' clocking in at 119 minutes. Both halves -- Union and Confederacy -- are interesting, but I liked Wayne's half more. His trail-worn, loyal riders include Ben Johnson as Short Grub, his right hand man, Harry Carey Jr., John Agar (his part was heavily cut, including his early death scene), Don Collier (a familiar face, often a stunt man in Wayne movies), Jerry Gatlin and Dub Taylor as McCartney, the cantankerous cook who's always looking to fight, a mangy cat, High Bred, at his side. NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel joins the cast too as Blue Boy, Thomas' adopted Cherokee son. With so many western regulars, there's an ease to these scenes that are just fun to watch. Also look briefly for small parts for Paul Fix, Royal Dano and Pedro Armendariz Jr.

With the kinda-sorta episodic story that amiably drifts along, half of the focus is on those Confederates. It's never boring, but it's also not as interesting as their Union counterparts. We meet Langdon's wife (Lee Meriwether), his buxom teenage daughter, Charlotte (Melissa Newman), and his widowed sister-in-law (Marian McCargo). His men include Bruce Cabot, NFL star Merlin Olsen, Jan-Michael Vincent, Robert Donner, Edward Faulkner and whiny Big John Hamilton. We get to see young, pretty Charlotte hold off Jan-Michael Vincent's Bubba Wilkes' advances (she like Blue Boy). We get to see worrying wife Lee Meriwether....well, look worried. Olsen's Little George hangs out with the kids, then fights the Union cavalry. There's plenty of familiar faces, some good parts, but it's simply not as interesting to watch. Not bad, just not as good as it could have been.

Certain portions of the episodic story drag, but some certainly stand out. The pre-credits sequence wraps up the Civil War in a quick Union attack on a Confederate position. Later, Wayne and Hudson must team up to hold off a bandit attack on the Confederate wagon train, a good, exciting sequence. My favorite though is a late battle between the Union riders and French cavalry, the horse herd used as a weapon and negotiating ploy with a Mexican officer (Tony Aguilar). I'm wavering here. It's not a great western -- maybe not even a good one -- but I'm always entertained watching it. John Wayne fans, western fans alike should like this one.

The Undefeated (1969): ***/****

Friday, April 25, 2014

Wreck-It Ralph

With 1995's Toy Story, animated movies were rewritten on several different levels. The computer animation revolutionized the genre, Pixar becoming a huge studio in the years since. On a simpler level, it took something we've all thought of growing up -- your toys coming to life when you're not there -- and ran with it. Almost 20 years later, another cool premise with a twist, video games, is brought to life with 2012's Wreck-It Ralph.

For 30 years at Litwik's Arcade, the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. has been a mainstay, a popular game for countless fans. At night though when the arcade is closed, the games and their characters are left on their own, all of them allowed to travel from one game to another through the power cables. The villain in Fix-It, Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly), has had enough though, deciding 30 years is enough of being a villain while Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer) is honored as a hero on a nightly basis. One night, Ralph leaves the game through the power lines, hoping to become a hero (and earn a medal in the process) so he can prove everyone wrong. Ralph doesn't know what he's getting into, traveling from first-person shooter games to kart-racing games, but the old stand-by, Fix-It Felix Jr., could be in trouble if Ralph doesn't return in time.

In the same way Toy Story appeals to me, so does this Disney animated film from director Rich Moore (who also lends his voice talent to a couple characters). While the execution is there from beginning to end in the 108-minute movie, above all else, it's the idea, the premise that works so well. The thought of beloved video game characters, of dastardly villains, having this separate life apart from their video game is a thing of brilliance. As we play their games, this is their job, their day-to-day, 9-to-5 gig. When the arcade is closed, that's closing time. The power lines and outlets serve as a video game subway, the good guys and bad guys traveling wherever they so choose at night. The visual appeal is there -- from the sugar-coated kart-racing game to the dark, apocalyptic first-person shooter -- but it is that brilliantly innovative story that is most effective.

I'll also say that this is a movie that has a genuine appreciation and love for its subject matter. Wreck-It Ralph is clearly patterned after the original Donkey Kong, an early 1980s platform game that's since morphed and transitioned countless times, Ralph molded like Donkey Kong. It's cool to see all the video games living in one world, from the old platform games to the shoot 'em up action games, the racing games to the new wave of dance platforms (the end credits are especially cool in that department, Ralph working his way across countless video game worlds). There's some great moments early, including Ralph showing up to a Villains Support Meeting, the whole group working to get through their years of getting beaten down as villains. Their best line? "Just because you're a bad guy doesn't mean you're a bad guy." We meet all sorts of iconic video game characters -- check them out HERE -- with some other nice little touches, from glitches to how characters move in almost robotic fashion as their characters would. Clearly fans of video games were behind this flick, and it doesn't hurt if you're a fan too.

One of my favorite comedic actors, John C. Reilly nails the part of Wreck-It Ralph. He's made a career out of smashing a high-rise building only to have McBrayer's Fix-It Felix swoop in and save the day, and he's had about enough. All he wants to do is save the day, be the good guy, be the hero. Reilly's voice translates well to the part, and the visual doesn't hurt, an immense physical stature with his red overalls, his wild hair, and his rather large wrecking hands. It's quite the character, a great lead. The best development for Ralph comes when he meets Vanellope von Schweetz, a young girl and racer in the kart-racing game Sugar Rush. Sarah Silverman lends her voice talents to Vanellope, putting her usually pretty harsh sense of humor on hold. Vanellope is an outcast in her game, a glitch who threatens to shut the game down if fans want nothing to do with her. The duo forms an unlikely friendship/partnership, Reilly and Silverman doing an excellent job.

I liked the rest of the cast, but there aren't a ton of recognizable voices here. McBrayer is excellent as Fix-It Felix Jr. -- a gentle takeoff on Mario I think -- who's naive and clueless but in a sweet way. At one point as he tries to help a situation, "Why can I only fix things?!?" Playing Calhoun, the hard-edged female squad commander in Heroes Duty (first person shooter vs. aliens), Jane Lynch does a good job as a hero with the darkest backstory ever. Alan Tudyk plays King Candy, the ruler of Sugar Rush. Also listen for Mindy Kaling, Dennis Haysbert, Joe Lo Truglio and Ed O'Neill as Mr. Litwak, the longtime owner of his expansive arcade.

A fun movie with a very cool premise. The message for the kids never gets to be too heavy or too obvious. I look forward to where Wreck-It Ralph might go in a sequel. Moore has said it might aim at online and console gaming but that's for later. For now, just enjoy the original!

Wreck-It Ralph (2012): ***/****

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Frisco Kid

Some movies have a formula that should just work. They just should. A great director, a really cool premise/plot, and two actors in the lead roles that I'm a big, big fan of. And sometimes, the formula doesn't add up to something that's as good as it could have been. That's 1979's The Frisco Kid. I liked it, but it has its flaws/struggles and doesn't quite live up to its potential.

It's 1850 in Poland and young rabbi Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder) is 87th in his graduating class of 88 potential rabbis (because rabbis have graduation/class rankings?), but he's about to be on the move. He has been named the rabbi of a congregation/church in San Francisco so Avram packs his things, a Torah included, and sails across the Atlantic on his way to his new life and destination. Likable and naive, Avram is taken in by three con men who steal his money, clothes and all his possessions, leaving him on his own on the trail westward. His hopes of surviving on his own seem slim at best, much less actually making it to San Francisco to get to his church. Just when it seems his chances are completely shot, he is saved on the trail by young Tommy Lillard (Harrison Ford), who looks like a cowboy but is in fact, a bank robber. Maybe the duo can get by together.

From director Robert Aldrich (of The Dirty Dozen fame, among many others), this 1979 western is good but not great. It just should have been better. I've made no bones about my general dislike for comedic westerns, but this one could have been a pretty good one. As it is, it is way too long at 119 minutes, utilizing an episodic story that is funny at times and drags in a big way in others. There's no real unifying link in the story that simply drifts too much. Never bad, but never as good as it could have been in the end unfortunately.

Come on now, it doesn't take a nuclear scientist to figure out the best thing going here in Aldrich's western comedy. That would be Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as one of the odder buddy pairings I've ever seen, a naive, likable rabbi and a wild west bank robber. Above all else, this pairing works because both actors commit to their parts. Things get a little goofy at times, a little over the top, as both actors are required to ham it up as their trail trials get a little weirder. It is a pairing that wouldn't seem to work, but it does. They have a great chemistry together whether it be arguments or bonding back and forth. With Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles and many other movies, Wilder was the established star by 1979. Ford was riding high as Han Solo off the success of 1977's Star Wars ('Empire' to come). Two very different stars, but it works throughout.

Not many others resonate from the rest of the cast unfortunately. Most of the episodic portions of the story don't stick around long enough to do so. Ramon Bieri, William Smith and George DiCenzo play the three con men who rob Avram and leave him for dead on the trail. Val Bisoglio has some fun as Chief Gray Cloud, an Indian chief who's fascinated by Avram's Jewish background. Penny Peyser has a good part as Rosalie, the sister of the somewhat slutty young woman who's been promised to Avram upon his arrival in San Franisco.

With a talent like Wilder, you've got to figure some comedic moments are going to stand out from a story that drags at times. Some of it is as simple as a physical mannerism, like the inexperienced Avram riding a horse, holding the reins out wide of his body like he's conducting an orchestra. The Jewish jokes can be hit or miss at times, but when they work, they're really funny. In a life or death situation, Avram refuses to ride a horse on a Saturday (the Shabbat) but encourages his horse to walk faster, Tommy screaming at him all the while, as the sun ever so slowly sets behind a rock formation, a posse in hot pursuit behind them. A trip to a monastery run by monks who have taken a vow of silence has some good laughs, as does a detour to an Indian camp where Avram sees their cultures aren't so different, the Indians and the Jews.

There are a handful of moments like these, really strong moments that hold the story together, whether they be dramatic or funny. The same for Wilder as Avram and Ford as Tommy, a genuine if unlikely friendship developing between the two men. If only the movie had been a little tighter, a little more pointed in its story, we'd have a pretty good movie. As is, it is a mild recommendation with some worthwhile moments.

The Frisco Kid (1979): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Big Chill

It's one of those things. Good movie (some would say great to classic), impressive cast, a loyal following and positively reviewed almost across the board. Then.....then, you watch it, and it just isn't very good. All in the eye of the beholder, huh? Maybe I missed something, maybe I just didn't think it was very good, but here's 1983's The Big Chill.

A group of friends who attended the University of Michigan in the late 1960s have drifted apart over the years, some starting families, others pursuing careers, some doing both. They're about to be brought back together under far from ideal conditions. One of the friends, Alex, has committed suicide, the rest of the group all returning to Alex's hometown in Michigan for the funeral and service. For some, they see friends they haven't seen or talked to in years, but the relationships are still there, the bonds, the friendships, rivalries, all coming back in a flash. Staying together in one house over the weekend, the group of friends starts to see that everything isn't so rosy. Sex, drugs, music and some good old-fashioned bonding among longtime friends. Let the craziness and kookiness commence.

This was the first time I saw director Lawrence Kasdan's film that's earned a reputation over the years as one of the seminal movies of the 1980s. This is a story about a generation that grew up with Vietnam, hippies, Watergate, the drug culture, one of the most turbulent times in American history. Now in the early 1980s, they're all grown-up, their past craziness just that, a thing of the past. They have jobs, careers, family (for the most part). It is a story ripe with potential, one house serving as the setting for almost the entire movie. The soundtrack is pretty epic featuring everyone from The Rolling Stones to Marvin Gaye, The Temptations to Procol Harum and a whole lot in between. Style, interesting premise, lots of talent in the cast....and, yeah, I didn't really like it much at all.

For starters, let's talk about the very talented cast. There's Kevin Kline and Glenn Close as a married couple with a checkered past that has been left in the past, Tom Berenger as the big celebrity, the TV star with a hugely successful Magnum P.I.-esque show, JoBeth Williams his married crush who's having some marital struggles, Jeff Goldblum as a goofy journalist, William Hurt as the drug-addled Vietnam vet who struggles with...well, everything, Mary Kay Place as the single 30-something who has her biological clock ticking loudly, and then Meg Tilly as Alex's girlfriend who he'd been seeing for about three months. Some impressive names, but my goodness, I just didn't like these characters. We're thrown into the story without much in the way of introduction or background so I struggled immediately to keep up with what was going on. Yes, we learn some things with each passing dialogue scene (and there's plenty), but the early struggles proved to be the movie's doom.

Watching this movie in 2014, it's easy to see the influence 'Chill' has had on countless films and television shows in the 30 years since its release. Any movie about old friends reuniting has to at least tip its cap to this 1983 film in one way or another. As for my next statement, I say this as someone who grew up in a generation that complains about just about everything. But really, has there ever been a movie with so many whiny individuals? Is life just so awful? As they reunite, catch up after years apart, this group of friends proceeds to bitch and moan about how tough life is, how life didn't turn out how they thought it would, how things didn't develop as they thought they would. Boo-freaking-hoo. The entire second half of the movie plays like one big sob story. It helps to have some initial sympathy for these characters, but it's just never there. Wait, life is tough?!? Who knew? Get over yourself.

What was original in 1983 plays like cliched now. So through no fault of its own, 'Chill' was working against it immediately. At one point, the crew dances together as they clean up and do the dishes after dinner. Woo-hoo! Bonding! If it was meant to show them bonding again, we get it, but it feels forced and goofy. The story up until this point is based in some sort of reality, but the last 30 minutes or so derails with some just odd decisions. We're talking painfully awkward decisions that I just don't see a lot of real-life friends making. By the end though, I was beyond worrying too much. I went in with modest expectations but came away very, very disappointed. Maybe in five or six years when I'm in my mid-30s, I'll appreciate it more. For now, I just don't get the appeal.

The Big Chill (1983): * 1/2 /****

Monday, April 21, 2014

How the West Was Won

In the age of the epics -- the 1950s and 1960s -- some just stand above the rest. It's the stories, the cast, the scope. I don't love 1962's How the West Was Won but as far as epics go, there are very few in its neighborhood. There are obvious flaws, but when it works, it works in a big way. An impressive all-star cast, a story about the development of the American west and a shooting technique that is must-see. That's a winning formula.

A 162-minute film is broken up into five separate segments, the story following the Prescott-Rawlings family as it moves west and settles between the 1840s and the 1880s. It was directed by three different directors and covers a ton of ground. And away we go!

1. The Rivers (directed by Henry Hathaway): It's the 1840s, and the Prescott family, led by patriarch Zebulon (Karl Malden), is moving west and looking for a new life. In Zebulon's family is two daughters, Eve (Carroll Baker), looking for a new life in the west, and Lillith (Debbie Reynolds), wanting to stay in the far-more civilized East. In their dangerous travels on the rivers, they also meet Linus Rawlings (James Stewart), a mountain man with a canoe full of pelts.
Also starring: Lee Van Cleef, Walter Brennan, Agnes Moorehead, Brigid Bazlen.

2. The Plains (directed by Hathaway): Having worked for years on her own as a singer and dancer, Lillith Prescott (Reynolds) has just inherited a gold mine in the wake of the California gold rush. She heads west on a wagon train led by trail driver Richard Morgan (Robert Preston) with a gold-seeking gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), also along too. 
Also starring: Thelma Ritter.

3. The Civil War (directed by John Ford): The war between the states in its early months, young Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) leaves home with the blessing of his mother, Eve, to join the Ohio volunteers in the fighting. Like so many others, he thinks the war will be full of glory and be over quickly. Zeb finds out how very wrong he is at the bloody battle of Shiloh.
Also starring: John Wayne (as General Sherman), Russ Tamblyn (as a Confederate deserter), Harry Morgan (as General Grant), Andy Devine, Ken Curtis, Raymond Massey (as Abraham Lincoln).

4. The Railroad (directed by George Marshall): In the years following the Civil War, railroad companies race across the U.S. to link the two coasts. Now in the cavalry, Zeb Rawlings (Peppard) finds himself balancing out what his duty requires of him with what he knows is right, the railroad, including brutal supervisor Mike King (Richard Widmark), pushing the Arapahoes to their limit.
Also starring: Henry Fonda as Jethro Stuart, a former mountain man.

5. The Outlaws (directed by Hathaway): Having left the cavalry behind, Zeb Rawlings is now a family man with two kids, now trying to leave his profession as a lawman behind. He receives a letter from his aunt, Lillith (Reynolds), and readies the family to move. As they travel though, Zeb runs into Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach), a notorious outlaw gunning for Zeb.
Also starring: Lee J. Cobb, Carolyn Jones.

This is a movie that's simply put, BIG. It was filmed in Cinerama, three cameras filming each scene and then splicing the action together. The result? An immense look at the expansion of the west. Shots look like panoramic paintings, putting a whole new scope on the growth and development of the American west. It is a beautiful movie. Certain sequences especially stand out -- the camera on a raft trying to survive river rapids, an Indian attack on a wagon train, a stampeding buffalo herd trampling a railroad camp, a runaway train during an attempted robbery -- over the course of the movie, but visually there just isn't a weak spot. I love composer Alfred Newman's score -- listen to an extended sample HERE -- as it gives a moving background to the story. Countless gorgeous filming locations, providing a great backdrop while also transitioning from segment to segment.

It had been years since I watched this movie straight through in one sitting before my recent revisit of this 1962 epic. As you compare the five separate segments, I don't think it's really in question which one is the strongest. It's John Ford's Civil War segment, doing in 20 minutes what entire movies couldn't do in bringing the Civil War to life. Quick, dark, visually striking and unsettling, it is a gem of a sequence, especially Peppard meeting Tamblyn's Confederate deserter after the battle. The second strongest segment for me is the opening 'Rivers' with Stewart, Baker, Reynolds and Malden all leaving a positive impression. All five segments could be stretched out to a feature length film on their own, but these two especially stand out. They get their message across in a quick window and in both cases left me wanting more. Kudos to Ford and Hathaway for their work here.

What struck me more on the rewatch was the other three segments. They are by no means bad segments, but they're just not as good as the other two. I've always thought the weakest was the Plains segment, things feeling too rushed in general. The same qualifies for the Railroad and Outlaws portions. By the time you take away the Entr'Acte, intermission, and Finale music, we're looking at a movie with five segments covered in about 150 minutes (give or take). None of these three are given a chance to breathe to the point they feel downright rushed. As for some other positives? I loved the transitional scenes -- narrated by Spencer Tracy, directed in uncredited fashion by Richard Thorpe --  that set things up, explaining how America has changed, how its people change. These quick montages provide the heart of the movie, almost like a documentary in some ways. Like any movie that tries to accomplish so much, there's good and bad. The positives -- especially the Civil War middle -- is enough to outweigh the negatives thankfully.

One of my biggest worries in reviewing this 1962 epic was that the cast is too big. There's no way I was gonna be able to get all those names tagged with a 200-character limit. Who stands out? Stewart i excellent as Linus Rawlings, Fonda is good in a quick part as Jethro Stuart, and Baker is very strong too. The best parts though are Debbie Reynolds as Lillith and George Peppard as Zeb, the two hearts of the family. One or both is in every segment, the audience seeing them age, learn and adapt as America grows with them. Their scenes together in the Outlaws portion ring especially true. However you cut it though, just an impressive cast from top to bottom, one of the best ever assembled for a Hollywood film.

A doozy of a movie for what it's trying to accomplish. It falls short at times, but this is a movie worth watching for what it represents alone. This is a throwback film, a true epic that strives to be something great. If it doesn't live up those high hopes, so be it. The effort is admirable, a fascinating story of America growing up over an extremely turbulent portion of its history. Oh, and Debbie Reynolds singing A Home in the Meadow (listen HERE) is a truly beautiful song, a fitting one for the movie.

How the West Was Won (1962): ***/****

Friday, April 18, 2014

Rooster Cogburn

By the 1970s, there weren't too many bigger and better Hollywood legends than John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn. Both stars had been just that, stars, non-stop since the 1930s and by the mid 1970s were in the later parts of their careers. But even with all those classics films, classic roles and interesting pairings of stars, the duo had never worked together...until 1975's Rooster Cogburn, also known as Rooster Cogburn...and the Lady.

Still working as a U.S. Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) is up to his old tricks again. Not too interested in how the law says he should bring suspects in, Cogburn has been suspended for his overzealous ways...for now. He's given his badge and title back if he promises to bring in a dangerous gang of killers led by a maniacal outlaw, Hawk (Richard Jordan). The outlaw's gang murdered an army convoy carrying nitroglycerin, shipments of rifles and a Gatling gun. Their goal? Knock off a federal depository up in the mountains. Cogburn is on their trail quickly, but he's got a problem. In Hawk's wake, the marshal finds an older woman, a missionary of sorts, Eula Goodnight (Hepburn), who saw her father and his mission almost wiped out by the gang. Cogburn hopes to bring her back to safety, but Eula has other plans. She intends to go with, helping bring her father's killers to justice.

I'm usually completely against sequels, especially when the first movie wraps up everything so nicely. That's the case with 1969's True Grit, a western that brought Wayne his only Oscar win for a long, distinguished career. It isn't a great western, but it has stood the test of time because of Wayne's scene-stealing part as Marshal Rooster Cogburn. This 1975 follow-up from director Stuart Millar takes the formula and takes it a step forward, pairing Wayne with Hepburn in a similarly scene-stealing part. Much the same way 'Grit' resonates, so does 'Rooster.' It's typical of many other late Wayne entries, straightforward and entertaining, likable, fun good guys versus dastardly bad guys, and just a lot of fun throughout. Laurence Rosenthal's score is solid, tweaking Elmer Bernstein's score from the original. Listen HERE for the theme. The Oregon locations go a long way too, the backgrounds for the shots providing a stunningly good-looking backdrop to the story.

Who are we kidding though? This is a movie that exists solely to put John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn together. The wait was worth it, the two Hollywood legends stepping to the plate in a big way. They make it look effortless. We learn some more about Rooster (including his first name), but he's still the same fat, one-eyed marshal who likes a good drink and is a tough as nails peace officer. Hepburn is not quite a spinster, but an older woman who looks to religion for answers, nagging Rooster about his drinking, his language, his boasting, a little bit of everything. The chemistry is on display from their first scene until the final scene. They argue, they bond, they talk about their pasts, finding there's plenty of differences between them, but there's also more similarities than they would have originally thought. Along for the trip is Wolf (Richard Romancito), an Indian boy in his teenage years, a capable rider who looks up to Rooster. 

If you're going to have a great hero to lead the way, you need an equally bad villain to put in his way. In steps Richard Jordan, an underrated actor who never became a huge star. His Hawk is beyond intense, his upcoming robbery of a gold depository becoming almost an obsession. In some nice touches with Hawk and his gang, we learn about some past meetings with Cogburn. In his gang, look for Anthony Zerbe as Breed, a tracker/scout who used to ride with Rooster, now on the outlaw trail, and Hawk's maligned right-hand man, Luke, played by 1970s tough guy Paul Koslo. John McIntire makes a quick but memorable appearance as Judge Parker, the court representative who always has to deal with Rooster. Strother Martin hams it up in a one-scene appearance as McCoy, a cantankerous veteran of the sea now renting his raft for river crossings.

Heading into this movie, if you're looking for any sort of groundbreaking western, you're going to be disappointed. The focus is clearly on Wayne and Hepburn, the highpoints their scenes sitting around a campfire, talking while riding on a wagon, moving along the trail. The potential was there for a darker western with more shoot 'em up and gunplay, but for the most part Jordan as Hawk is underused. This is a good, old-fashioned western that plays like comfort food. Just sit back and enjoy this one.

Rooster Cogburn (1975): ***/****

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Released way back in 2011, Steven Soderbergh's Contagion was one of the best movies I saw in 2012. A seemingly unstoppable virus is tearing its way across the world. Can it be stopped? Smart, well-written, well-acted and stylish, it was a great movie. Released 16 years earlier, 1995's Outbreak deals with a very similar story and formula. Where does it stand in comparison?

A longtime disease specialist/virologist working for the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USARMIID), Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his team have been sent to Zaire to deal with a new disease that wiped out an entire village. What they find is terrifying, a virus that replicates quickly, claiming victims within a 24-hour period. Daniels' crew manages to contain the disease within the village, taking samples and clearing out before the disease can spread. Just days later though, a patient in a hospital in Boston has the symptoms similar to the disease. Then there's another in California, and then a whole town. How did the disease spread so quickly? Can it be stopped before it wipes out thousands and maybe millions? Daniels and his team go to work, but there may be more at work within the government than they know trying to stop them.

From director Wolfgang Petersen, 'Outbreak' is a good example of a modern disaster film that doesn't have to resort to gimmicks to be good. When disaster films were at their most popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they became cliched quickly, trying to one-up each other one after another. That's not really an issue here, a pretty smart script laying out a situation that could really happen. Viruses and diseases are constantly evolving. Can the medical field and the government stay ahead of those evolutions? 'Outbreak' blends that intelligent premise with an all-star cast and lets things take off. For the most part, I liked it....for awhile. That's for a little later though. For now, here's some positives.

In much the same way I enjoyed Contagion, 'Outbreak' is at its best in dealing with the social implications involved here. We see how the USARMIID and the CDC respond, trying to react as quickly as possible. We see the government planning ahead for all possible contingency plans, however dark they may be. Petersen's got an eye for it, covering a ton of ideas and scenarios in relatively quick fashion. While there's a lot of characters and situations, it doesn't feel rushed. The disease spreads quickly, the virus jumping and developing quickly. It's all cut together at a lightning-pace, bouncing among all the different affected parties. Things take a turn for the dark when a California town is a breakout point, patients piling up at an alarming rate. The USARMIID, CDC, military and government descend on the town, other advances being made to track down the source. How did this disease spread? Those are the coolest moments, a frightening premise to think about in our current world.

Now for that all-star cast!!! It's interesting watching Dustin Hoffman do just about anything on-screen, and he's a great lead here. Unfortunately some of his character background is dealing with his recently divorced wife, Robby (Rene Russo), who's taken a job at the CDC. Oh, divorce drama! Still, Hoffman and Russo have a good chemistry. Rounding out Daniels' team are Kevin Spacey as Casey, the smart-ass, highly intelligent assistant who's worked for years with Daniels, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Salt, a new recruit with an army and medical background but no field experience. Representing the government/military higher-ups, Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland play highly-ranked officers who know more than they're letting on (courtesy of a 1967 flashback to open the film we see). Also look for Patrick Dempsey as an unknowing spreader of the disease, a cool, quick and essential subplot to the story.

And there it is. A good, creepy, entertaining story that could have been based in some sort of reality. And then there's the last 45 minutes. Hoffman's Daniels becomes a superhero, Gooding Jr. his intrepid sidekick, the duo traveling all over California, Sutherland's evil general in hot pursuit, and all against the clock. There's helicopter chases, a trap for a cute, disease-ridden monkey, an evil general obsessed with something, taking over a TV news broadcast, a helicopter with an endless supply of fuel, and a big old shift in tone that goes from serious and dramatic to goofy and campy. The movie is still good, but the last third is pretty rough. We're not sure who makes it, and it all is resolved rather quickly in a flash. Could have been great in the end, but it's okay instead.

Outbreak (1995): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Minnesota Clay

For right or wrong, movie fans think Sergio Leone created the spaghetti western genre. They would be wrong. With his Dollars trilogy, especially Fistful of Dollars, he didn't create the genre but instead put it squarely on the map, put it in the spotlight. Spaghetti westerns had been around for several years but in an earlier, nicer form. Leone would flip that formula. One pre-Leone spaghetti is pretty decent, a mix of an American and Italian western, 1964's Minnesota Clay.

Wasting away for years at a labor camp in the desert, Minnesota Clay (Cameron Mitchell) has had enough, vowing to prove his innocence. Years before, Clay was sent to prison in a frame-up job, found guilty for gunning down two men. In reality, it was self-defense, but a bribed court didn't see it that way.  He manages to escape, heading for home but in his hometown of Mesa Encantada, Clay finds the town being run by two rival gangs, one a gang of Mexican bandits led by General Ortiz (Fernando Sancho), the other run by a man called Fox (Georges Riviere), an old friend originally hired to protect the town. Looking to clear his name, Clay finds himself pitted against both gangs, working to save his own skin before they turn on him. His reputation as one of the fastest guns around is about to be tested in a big way.

Part of the 50 Spaghetti Western collection I bought several years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I knew this next tidbit but didn't remember it going in, but 'Minnesota' is from director Sergio Corbucci, later of Django, The Great Silence, The Mercenary and Companeros fame, among others. Corbucci's big hit, Django, would hit theaters internationally two years later, but here in 1964 with the genre still in its infancy, Corbucci shows his potential with a middling movie. It still has touches of American westerns (forced love interest, forced comedic moments), but there's also some clear, early examples of where the genre is/was heading. There's some familiar locations, decent if not memorable music from Piero Piccioni (he did much better) and a story eerily similar to Fistful of Dollars which was based off Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Not great, but better in general than some early spaghetti entries.

Over the last year, I've been watching The High Chaparral, a TV western that aired for four seasons and is now on syndication, letting me catch up two episodes at a time. One of the stars? Cameron Mitchell who I like a lot as Buck Cannon, a loving life cowboy. I've seen plenty of movies with him, but nothing quite like this. A recognizable face in American westerns, it's cool to see him head to Italy and star in this early spaghetti. It isn't a flashy part but a good one just the same. Gravelly-voiced, steely-eyed and looking for redemption, Mitchell's Minnesota Clay is a good example of where the spaghetti western anti-hero would go in the coming years. Some time is wasted with his daughter (Diana Martin) who doesn't know her father and her bumbling suitor (Alberto Cevenini), not enough focus on his possibly doomed attempt to clear his name. Not the biggest name to lead the way in a western but Mitchell more than holds his own.

The supporting cast is a good example of how the spaghetti western genre helped change the western in general. We've got some very good characters and very evil characters with little in between. Riviere is the slimy, smooth Fox, a manipulative businessman with a gang of killers to back him up, Gino Pernice as his main enforcer, Scratchy (quite an imposing name, huh?). Sancho does what he did best, the crazy, overacting, cliched, stereotypical Mexican bandit right down to the crossed bandoliers, the greasy mustache, the maniacal laughing, all a lot of fun. Ethel Rojo gets to femme fatale it up as Estella, a saloon girl who attaches herself to anyone who can help her out. Rounding out 'the good' department, Antonio Casas plays Jonathan Mulligan, Clay's old friend who took his daughter in as his own.

Maybe the biggest thing that audiences ate up with spaghetti westerns was the brutality, just the out and out violent, vicious qualities. No one was safe. NO ONE. Everyone was a possible target. Corbucci especially took those qualities to heart in his movies (Django, Silence, The Hellbenders), and this 1964 western is a good preview. Corbucci loved torturing his anti-heroes, gunslingers who were crippled, maimed, wounded and handicapped, forced to overcome these things to save the day in the end...and sometimes fail. There isn't a ton of gunplay here, most of it saved for two shootouts late. The finale especially is pretty cool, a partially blinded Clay forced to take on a small gang of gunmen. The American and Italian versions had different endings, and for a change, the American ending was better.

A solid spaghetti western all-around.

Minnesota Clay (1964): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


Some movies should just have been better. That's all. Good cast, cool story, lots of potential....and then they're not very good. That's what I thought with 1955's Bengazi. It starts off strong and then it just fizzles....quickly.

A World War II veteran who served in Africa, John Gillmore (Richard Conte) owns half of a bar in Bengazi co-owned by an aging Irishman, Robert Donovan (Victor McLaglen). Gillmore is involved in all sorts of black market deals, especially running guns, and consistently stays ahead of the local police detective, Inspector Levering (Richard Carlson). His most recent crime? He stole a jeep mounted with a machine gun from the British motor pool. He has a plan in place, working with a recently released convict, Selby (Richard Erdman), who knows the location of a hidden gold treasure at an abandoned mosque in the desert. Gillmore enlists Donovan's help with the promise of a huge payday in the end -- dangerous road aside -- but their plan has a wrench thrown in it when Donovan's daughter (Mala Powers) arrives in Bengazi to visit her father she hasn't seen in over 15 years.

A B-movie from director John Brahm, 'Bengazi' clocks in at 79 minutes, seemingly a perfect length for a relatively cheap flick. Well, that's what I figured at least. After some early potential, this movie derailed quickly and never recovers. As I've said, cheap/low budget doesn't mean bad....but, yeah, the cheap ends up impacting this one in the end. The disparate quasi-refugees and crooks working together in a crime-ridden foreign city, a suicidal mission with touches of countless westerns and war movies -- including The Lost Patrol, which McLaglen starred in -- are all archetypal stories and situations that never amount to much in the end. By the end, things are just thrown at the wall hoping some of them stick. Most don't.

If there's the remotest semblance of a positive here it comes from the cast. That doesn't mean it's good, but there's certainly some interesting casting. I like Conte, a solid character actor who never became a star so it's cool to see him in a leading role. The script does him no favors in a painfully forced subplot with Powers as Donovan's daughter, Aileen, falls madly in love with him and vice versa. They have no chemistry but are instantly in love in a dangerous situation. Gag. Late in his career, McLaglen hams it up like his life depends on it, but it's Victor McLaglen so that can be fun even when it's bad. Carlson inexplicably has a brutal Scottish accent, his Levering just an odd character in the end. Erdman is underused as the slithery Selby while Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Jay Novello and Maurice Hill have small supporting parts.

I wanted to like this one. The cast is pretty cool and that premise was interesting if somewhat familiar. After traveling across the desert, Gillmore, Donovan and Selby find the abandoned mosque near a desert oasis, but they're not alone, Bedouin tribesmen hovering just beyond the horizon in an effort to protect their hidden gold. Gillmore reveals a machine gun as protection and the trio wait for help. Wouldn't you know it? Levering shows up with his assistant and Aileen...because, well, we need some love tension, not because that move makes any sense in the real world. From there, it's a matter of who will survive, if anyone. We never see the Bedouin tribesmen other than a late reveal -- budget restrictions I'm assuming -- but that sense of danger never permeates the story. Yeah, they're there in the dunes, but when there's no interest in the characters, who cares who makes it?

By the end, the bodies pile up -- Conte calling his machine gun "Baby" -- but things degenerate into painfully slow, downright dull dialogue scenes and the always unbearable love triangle. Who will Aileen pick?!? The roguish Gillmore or the reliable Levering?!? Bleck. Just steer clear of this dud, solid cast and premise aside.

Bengazi (1955): */****

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Last Days on Mars

The unknown is almost always scarier than the known. What's behind that door? What creatures and secrets do the depths of the ocean hold? What about the far reaches of space? For me, especially watching movies, the mystery proves far more interesting than the actual reveal. The revelation can be forced, contrived, far too familiar or just not very good, like 2013's The Last Days on Mars, a potential-filled science fiction film that never creates its own identity.

Having served a tour at the Tantalus Base on Mars, an eight-man astronaut and scientific crew is just hours away from being relieved so they can begin the six-month trip back to Earth. One of the crew, a scientist named Marko (Goran Kostic), has made a startling discovery but with time running out he convinces the base captain, Brunel (Elias Koteas), to let him go out and explore one of their dig sites. Listening back at base over a transmission, the crew hears some sort of explosion and screaming but don't know exactly what happened. Racing out to the site, Brunel and one of his lead technicians, Vince (Liev Schreiber), are stunned at what they find. A huge hole has appeared in the ground, Marko's body seemingly down at the bottom. When Vince goes down to investigate, Marko's body isn't there. What exactly is going on?

I love a good science fiction movie. I don't necessarily like being scared when I watch a movie, but if I'm going to go along with it, this is the type of movie in terms of style. The unknown, the mysterious, the possibility of something unstoppable and terrifying, now that's scary. This sci-fi flick from director Ruairi Robinson is based off a short story called The Animators from author Sydney J. Bound. It doesn't overstay its welcome at just 98 minutes. Released last fall, it received a very limited theatrical release, received uniformly negative reviews and in the end is just sorta there. It isn't good, and it isn't bad. 'Mars' has its moments, but for the most part, it never does enough to distinguish itself from several other like-minded science fiction films.

Ah, that mystery. The build-up, that unknown, that possibility of anything, it's a powerful motivator in a story like this, and it doesn't have to be science fiction. Thrillers, dramas, it just works. I don't want to give too much away in terms of spoilers, but I'll give 'Mars' credit. The twist and the reveal works. What Marko finds somewhere in Mars' soil is genuinely creepy because....let's face it. It could happen. There's so much going on in space and its reaches that we can never really know what to expect. The twist is all well and good. It works, but in taking it forward, the execution just isn't there. The rest of the story plays like a knockoff of countless other better science fiction films from John Carpenter's The Thing to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. What this science/astronaut expedition finds on Mars threatens mankind, our existence itself if it escapes. It should work better in that sense. A small group of people fighting for their own survival, but also fighting for something bigger. That formula never quite gels.

With an ensemble cast, there's some recognizable names, some recognizable faces and a couple folks you just know are fodder waiting to be knocked off. Schreiber is the biggest name and the star, his Vincent Campbell a talented engineer who's struggling with some inner demons. Like the rest of the cast though, the script does him no favors. We get mentions of family, of wives and kids, of lives left behind on Earth, but it never translates to form any personal interest in these people. You're rooting for them because they're in a hellish situation, but that's all with no emotional investment. Koteas represents himself well as the base captain, trying to hold his crew together. Also standing out from the group is Olivia Williams is Kim, the hard-edged scientist who doesn't hold back her opinions, tough though they may be. In addition to Kostic as the selfish Marko, look for Romola Garai (Lane), Johnny Harris (the worrisome, selfish Irwin), Tom Cullen (Harrington), and Yusra Warsama (Dalby).

 Disappointing end result here, and maybe because it was just too familiar. When the twist is revealed, the momentum should pick up, but it doesn't. It limps to the finish line. The only real mystery is who will survive but even that can be pretty predictable. Too familiar, too cliched, and not willing to take any real risks. A good-looking, creepy, eerie movie at times that never comes together.

The Last Days on Mars (2013): **/****

Friday, April 11, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

Maybe more than any other film that was considered for some Academy Award nominations, 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis landed with a thud when the nominations were actually released in February. It picked up just two nominations -- for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing -- but won neither. Should it have picked up some other nominations? That's for others to decide. What isn't up for discussion is that awards season success aside, this is a good movie.

It's 1961 in New York City's Greenwich Village and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is looking for work and more importantly, some money. A folk musician with a bit of a following, Llewyn released an album with a partner in recent years, but he's on his own now and struggling a bit to get by. His name has a reputation -- somewhat -- as a talented musician who's also a bit flighty. Mostly though, Llewyn wants to sing, to perform, to get his name out there and really to take his career to the next level. He's nearing rock bottom though, his money running out almost completely. It's the dead of winter and he's overextended all his relationships, his friendships, his business connections. He feels he's close, but he just needs that one break...if he can find it.

Another movie that proved difficult to write a one-paragraph plot synopsis. From the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, 'Inside' is a stylish, well-told, throwback-type story that follows about a week in the life of a struggling musician. It's easy to see why there was some outrage when it didn't pick up any prominent Oscar nominations. I'll get into some real analysis later, but the gist is this; it's a really good movie. Not quite a comedy, not a straight drama, it's just good.

The most obvious place to start is with directors/writers/producers Joel and Ethan Coen. There is a certain style in each and every one of their movies from Blood Simple to Fargo, True Grit to No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou to The Big Lebowski. The stylistic choice here is picking the location, 1960s New York City (with some out of state departures). From the look of the movie with the hairstyles, the wardrobe, the cars, the mindset, all these little things add up to one great puzzle. From beginning to end, you feel like you're in 1960s NYC. The visual is almost bland, washed out colors permeating almost every scene. As for the folk background, 'Inside' has an extreme love and appreciation for the folk music scene of the 1960s. It feels authentic down to the smallest detail, and that authenticity goes a long way. The story drifts at times, it's both dark and funny and dramatic, but it just feels real.

A young actor with a ton of potential, Oscar Isaac nails the lead part here as folk singer Llewyn Davis. He's had key supporting parts in Drive, The Bourne Legacy, 10 Years (where he also sang), and Robin Hood, but this is quite the breakout leading part. For starters, Llewyn is far from a likable character. He has moments where you feel sympathy for him, but mostly, his issues are self-made. We learn why he's on his own now and not working as a duo anymore. We learn how he's got to this spot, and most importantly, we see that desperation and frustration of an artist/musician who just wants his shot at the big time. Unlikable qualities aside, with a general lack of sympathy, I still found myself rooting for Llewyn....only to see him rip that away quickly with some jackass move. Like the story though, this has the distinct feel of an authentic character, a person with hopes and dreams, aspirations that just haven't been there so far. Likable? Nope. Interesting, fascinating to watch? Yes, you bet. Interesting to see where Isaac goes next, especially because many thought he should have picked up a Best Actor nomination for his part.

Those Cohens, they specialize in ensemble casts like nobody's business. I guess talented actors and actresses want to work with them for some reason. I especially liked Carey Mulligan as Jean, a fellow folk singer who has a checkered past with Llewyn including one major current issue. Justin Timberlake is excellent too as Jim, Jean's fiance, a singer who's carved a name out for himself already.  The pairing of John Goodman as existential-thinking jazz musician Roland Turner is a scene-stealer, Garrett Hedlund providing some 1960s beatnik background as beat poet Johnny Five, Llewyn carpooling to Chicago with the odd duo. F. Murray Abraham has a good part as a Chicago club owner who's got some pull with record labels, giving Llewyn an impromptu audition. Also look for Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the Gorfeins, a middle-aged married couple who love Llewyn and allow him to crash on their couch from time to time. Max Casella also has a fun part as Papi, a club owner who likes Llewyn and keeps offering him different gigs.

An interesting movie for a whole lot of different reasons, most of them positive. The only one I didn't like was a stylistic choice with a framing device at the beginning and end, but it's not a huge deal. In general, there's plenty of things that can/will draw you in. There's a handful of musical numbers performed -- Isaac especially impressing -- with a nice nod to Bob Dylan late if you're paying attention. But across the board, whether it's the music, the story, the style, the acting, it's just good stuff. Enjoy it, appreciate it.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): ***/****

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Sam Whiskey

Before Burt Reynolds became a bankable star in the 1970s, he had to cut his teeth somewhere, both as a supporting player on a show like Gunsmoke (1962-1965) and in a handful of B-movies from the late 1960s like Navajo Joe, 100 Rifles, Impasse, and in 1969, Sam Whiskey, a generally forgotten B(ish)-western with a solid cast.

An orphan who grew up on his own during the 1840s/50s/60s, creating his own instantly recognizable reputation, Sam Whiskey (Reynolds) has done it all from being a cowboy to a shotgun driver on a stagecoach, an Army scout to a cattle rancher. Well, he's now gotten himself into something deep that could prove rather difficult. A widow, Laura Breckenridge (Angie Dickinson), approaches Sam with a favor, her dead husband having robbed the U.S. Mint of $200,000 worth of gold bars, but the ship it was being transported on sunk in the middle of a deep river. Laura doesn't want it back but to put it back so her husband's memory can be saved. With help from two partners, O.W. Bandy (Clint Walker), a quirky inventor, and Jed Hooker (Ossie Davis), a blacksmith, Sam goes about putting his plan into action, but there's some other parties who want the gold just as bad.

There are some movies out that that just don't want to be watched. I recorded this western from director Arnold Laven off of MGM-HD on TV over the last couple weeks only to receive a surprise. MGM doesn't use commercials, instead using a mid-movie intermission. Well, when the intermission came back, the credits for a new movie we're rolling. What the heck?!? Thankfully, it popped up on the schedule again, and I was able to watch the last 40 minutes. There's nothing classic about this comedic western, but if nothing else, it's cool to see this generally light-hearted, funny western in a time -- the late 1960s -- when the western was anything but. At times, it has the feel of an extended TV episode (mostly because of the town sets) with a limited budget. Expect an easygoing story with some fun characters, and you won't be disappointed.

Not yet the instantly recognizable leading man with the sex appeal and the bankable background, Reynolds looks to be finding his groove early of things to come in the future. His Sam Whiskey is an amiable if somewhat devious drifter who's done a little bit of everything to make some money. In the coming years, Reynold would eat a part like this for breakfast. It looks easy for him. He's charming and smooth, a quick thinker who always see the potential for a big payoff. He's also constantly singing, a little dirty ditty dubbed Mary McCarty, which adds to the general goofiness of the story.  As for the humor, it leans toward the scandalous in certain departments. How exactly does Dickinson's Breckenridge convince Sam to help her? Sure, the money works, but so does jumping into bed with him. Dickinson disappears for vast stretches of a 97-minute movie -- watch out, Lady, men at work -- but her part is good, especially when she's forced to babysit a kidnapping victim (Woodrow Parfrey). Still, Reynolds and Dickinson have a pleasant chemistry throughout.

Much of the story revolves around Sam, Walker's Bandy and Davis' Hooker, a kind of oddball teaming but one that works surprisingly well nonetheless. Reynolds is Reynolds, the smooth, confident leader while the other two play well off Reynolds' antics. Walker especially plays against type, forsaking his usual strongman character for a smart, quirky inventor who's putting his alcohol-fueled life behind him...or at least trying, sometimes successfully. Davis as the blacksmith gets to play the straight man to the antics around him for the most part. His Jed Hooker isn't about to get conned by Sam, seeing through his shenanigans as they pop up. With much of the story following this trio on the trail, recovering the gold and eventually replacing the gold, it's never a bad thing when you've got three likable stars working together to carry the story.

The strongest part of 'Whiskey' comes in the second half -- after that doomed "intermission" -- when Sam, Bandy and Hooker try to put the gold back into the U.S. Mint in Denver. That's right, putting the gold back. 'Whiskey' is a comedic western, but this extended sequence is very well-done in the old drama department. Almost working like an anti-heist, the trio must work inside a well-guarded mint in the dead of night, guards patrolling all around, the mint superintendent (William Schallert) slowly figuring out their plan. An especially enjoyable sequence, improving on the first half of the movie that, while good, is a tad slow-moving at times. A good, not great comedy western overall.

Sam Whiskey (1969): ** 1/2 /****