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, December 30, 2015

Mackenna's Gold

Oh, cable, how I love you. I basically have two channels on if I'm watching TV, either MLB Network or Encore Westerns. A whole channel devoted to western TV shows and movies?!? Aaahhh my head just exploded! It gives me a chance to revisit a whole bunch of movies I haven't seen in years, like 1969's Mackenna's Gold, a big-budget, all-star extravaganza that I remember liking (I think) on my first viewing. Does it hold up?

A marshal for the western town of Hadleyburg, Mackenna (Gregory Peck) is out on the trail when he's ambushed by an old Apache man who dies after a quick shootout. Before he dies, the Apache gives Mackenna a map to a famous, supposedly lost, canyon of gold ('Canon del Oro') that treasure hunters have long sought. Mackenna throws the map in the fire but not before noticing a couple landmarks on it. He's soon cornered by a Mexican bandit, Colorado (Omar Sharif), and his gang who similarly are looking for the canyon of gold. They're not alone. The desert seems full of treasure hunters and gold-hopefuls desperately searching for the gold. Discovering that Mackenna may hold the key to finding the canyon, he's taken along as Colorado's unwilling prisoner. The supposed location is days away across the vast desert with Mackenna, Colorado and his men forced to deal with a do-good posse out of Hadleyburg, an intervening cavalry troop and an Apache war party. How far will the prospect of gold drive all these folks?

I'm a sucker for westerns -- good and bad -- but this one is bad and just not that enjoyable. Talk about a movie where the ingredients don't come together (at all), and you've got this movie. The talent on-hand is unquestionable from director J. Lee Thompson, stars Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif leading a ridiculously deep cast, a cool, potential-filled story and a drop-dead look to it should have been so much better. Or I guess I'd settle for just 'good' too. The formula seems to go after a western Guns of Navarone meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre combination, but it never jells into anything remotely coherent or especially enjoyable. That's tough to say because a cast this good should make a movie pretty decent on its own but alas, it wasn't meant to be this time! If you're looking for a Peck-Thompson-Carl Foreman pairing, stick with 'Navarone.'

Kudos to Encore Westerns. Watching the movie for the second time but first time since 2009, I watched it in widescreen, as it was meant to be. Thompson filmed in Super Panavision 70, a filming technique that fills the screen to epic proportions, almost like a panoramic picture. Shooting on-location in Monument Valley, Glen Canyon and Canyon de Chelly in Arizona adds a great visual appeal to the movie. Shots of riders galloping across these expanses are excellent to watch, a sight to behold, and unfortunately, one of the few genuine positives to take away from a western that's too long at 128 minutes. When a movie's looks are the best thing going...that's never a good thing.

Poor Gregory Peck, he looks like he's as bored as all get-out and doesn't quite know what to do. One of my all-time favorite actors, he's undone by all the shenanigans going on around him. Getting to play straight man to a murdering bandit, a gold-for-eyes posse, a bloodthirsty Apache war party, a murdering cavalry sergeant (an underused Telly Savalas), and all sorts of ancient legends coming to life is never a good thing. As reliable as anyone who's ever graced the screen, Peck is given little more to do than look out for Camilla Sparv's damsel in distress while navigating a love triangle with Julie Newmar's Apache warrior and Sparv. Yeah, you read that right. Catwoman plays an Apache warrior and looks great doing it! She even gets an odd nude swimming scene where she tries to kill both Peck and Sparv. So there's that!

So much of the rest of the cast is simply miscast. I like Sharif in just about any film he's ever done, but he's an odd choice to play our Mexican bandit, Colorado. His gang includes Keenan Wynn as a Mexican bandit named Sanchez, with Ted Cassidy (Lurch from The Addams Family), Rudy Diaz and Robert Phillips as Apache warriors. All spot-on casting! Brace for this list of appearances that amount to little more than cameos, members of a "posse" out of Hadleyburg that's looking for gold. The group includes Eli Wallach, Anthony Quayle, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Raymond Massey and Edward G. Robinson!!! Look at that Hollywood royalty! Unfortunately, they're introduced, given nothing to do and there basically because of their name recognition. So....yeah....there's that! Quite the cast, huh? I just wish they were given more to do. Maybe that character development was cut from the rumored 3-hour version of the film. Yeah, that's it I'm sure.
Just too many moving pieces that never get going in the same direction. There's virtually no story, just some character introductions and then they're off into the desert. The only detour are various ways to kill off characters in waves. Then, there's the beautiful location shooting, with a slight problem. Countless times, one after another, we see the location shots and then a quick cut to our actors in front of a rear projection shot. Nothing takes you out of the story's momentum like Peck, Sharif and Co. riding a "horse" as they tear across the desert. Throw in some odd, out of place narration (it's not Victor Jory's fault!), some painful theme ballads, and generally odd cutting and editing that is more and more jarring with each passing scene.

There's a meanness to the story that's hard to account for. Characters are introduced for the sake of dispatching them in unceremonious fashion, but the general tone of the movie itself isn't that dark. It feels like they're going for that "Greed will make you do horrible things" tone, but it's too light, fluffy and goofy to pull it off. There's some potential obviously with the all-star cast, some equally impressive camera angles and shots, and the location shooting, but there's just too much negative going on to ignore it. A stinker.

Mackenna's Gold (1969): **/****

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Wild Bunch

By 1969, director Sam Peckinpah had worked on several TV series and several film productions, including The Deadly Companions, Ride the High Country and Major Dundee. He was an incredibly talented director but one whose fiery personality and personal demons could potentially derail any film he worked on. But in 1969, it all came together, Peckinpah making his classic, his all-time great film, one of the best westerns ever and best films ever in general, 1969's The Wild Bunch.

It's 1913 in a small border town near the Rio Grande, and a gang of outlaws, led by the infamous Pike Bishop (William Holden), disguised as soldiers ride in to rob the bank of a rumored silver shipment. The robbery is an epic disaster as a posse of bounty hunters, led by Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan), a paroled outlaw who used to ride with Pike, is waiting in ambush. Many of Pike's gang is killed in the robbery that nets them NO money. The remaining members of the gang, including Dutch Engstrom (Ernest Borgnine), retreat into Mexico. They need a new job, a new robbery, a new chance to earn some money. Pike especially knows that time is running out, that times are changing, and their chances at surviving as outlaws is becoming ever more unlikely. It doesn't help that Deke and his bounty hunters have followed them into Mexico, looking to collect the bounties on these infamous outlaws. With time running out, what do they do?

What a movie. Every so often, each and EVERY thing involved in the making of a film comes together and forms that perfect symmetry. 'Bunch' is an all-timer, not just a movie I love but a great movie in terms of storytelling and in technical terms. Appropriate for the time it was released (the late 1960's), it is cynical, horrifically violent, brutally honest and generally downbeat. This is a western and film ahead of its time, helping set the tone where films would go in the coming years. This is Peckinpah at the top of his game. He would have other good to great to classic films, but this is his Great film. Just a gem.

There is little to nothing to criticize here. While the filming process sounds incredibly interesting (a film in itself), the choice to film in Mexico pays off huge dividends. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard shoots a beautiful movie with the Mexican countryside and desert as a backdrop. The locations are phenomenal. You feel like you're watching the actual settings of the Mexican Revolution to our story. Composer Jerry Fielding turns in quite the memorable score as well, appropriately epic at times and equally quiet and emotional as necessary in other scenes. Listen to a sample HERE. As for the story itself, Peckinpah and writer Walon Green turn in a screenplay that's just a gem. It isn't a movie in a rush, letting things breathe and allow the viewer to get to know the characters -- for good or bad -- over its 145-minute running time. Sit back and take it in. You shan't be disappointed!

Many westerns have dealt with the death of the old west, the end of an era, but none better than The Wild Bunch. It's 1913 and there's no place for these outlaws, killers and gunfighters anymore. The world is changing, and civilization (of sorts) is moving in to replace them. We follow a gang of those outlaws, robbers, killers/murderers as they try to pull off their one last job and step away, and it's a testament to the acting on display and screenplay that we feel any sympathy at all to these men. Like few movies I've ever seen, there is a doomed quality to these men who are working with limited time on their hands. They know the door is closing on them, more than likely a bloody death awaiting them if they don't figure out something soon.

Where Peckinpah's screenplay is so strong is in its characterization and its depth. There's a whole lot of acting talent on display in 'Bunch,' and for much of the cast, this is their all-time best performance or certainly one of their best. Holden's Pike Bishop is one of the most fascinating characters ever in my book, an aging outlaw who's outlived his time but doesn't know what else to do. Borgnine too is excellent as Dutch, his right-hand man who can also see the writing on the wall. Their scene together after the early botched robbery is essential, two men who potentially know what awaits them but go into things willingly because maybe that ending is what's supposed to happen. On the counter, Ryan's Deke Thornton is equally tragic. He's riding after his old partner, Bishop, and would much rather be riding with them than chasing them. But as the script relies on, your word is your word, and these men live by that coda.

One of the many things Peckinpah loved to touch on in his films was that bond of men under fire who come through while others don't. Holden's Pike is the mouthpiece for that concept, of giving your word and sticking by it even when it'd be far easier to tuck your tail and run. We see that again and again with the bunch, including Pike, Dutch, old, grizzled Sykes (Edmond O'Brien), the crass, unsavory Gorch brothers, Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), the youngest of the group, a fiery Mexican. What's interesting is that though Pike and the bunch claim to live by this coda, they continue to fall short of actually living up to it. It's when they realize their faults in that department that the story takes a far more tragic turn toward the inevitable ending that you just knew was coming.

Because the already-mentioned star power wasn't enough, here's some more! Along with Ryan, look for scene-chewing Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones as two scummy bounty hunters with Albert Dekker as the railroad magnate "employing" them. Emilio Fernandez is perfectly slimy as Mapache, the Mexican general claiming to be some sort of freedom fighter but it seems it is all for show, for more power, with Jorge Russek and Alfonso Arau (El Guapo in Three Amigos) as his subordinate officers. Also look for Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Chano Urueta in key (if small) supporting parts.

What 'Bunch' has become synonymous with over the years is its groundbreaking, sometimes horrifying portrayal of on-screen violence. It's not that Peckinpah lingers on the violence for the sake of shock value. Far from it, but instead he makes it into an art form. The idea of a 'dance of death' comes to mind in any portrayal of violence with three main set pieces (1. The opening robbery turned into a bloody shootout 2. A prolonged train robbery and 3. The final, bullet-riddled and blood-splattered gun battle). The editing is ridiculously fast and cut in with perfect uses of slow motion. Simply put, there is an art to Peckinpah's use of violence, both in the editing, in the overwhelming use of slow-motion blood squibs, and the impact of that violence we're seeing. If Bonnie and Clyde opened the door some for its own use of on-screen violence, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch kicked that door wide open. Almost 50 years later, it still resonates, and it's clear the impact it had on hundreds and thousands of movies released since.

It all builds to maybe the most memorable action sequence of all-time. If it's not No. 1, it certainly belongs in the conversation. In a sequence that's been dubbed "The Battle of Bloody Porch," it all comes together in an extended sequence that has lost none of its edge since its release in 1969. This is a transfixing scene that is equal parts horrifying and startling but you just can't look away. There are too many great moments just in this scene alone to mention, including an improvised walk the Bunch takes on their way to a final showdown (maybe the movie's second-strongest sequence). It is followed by a quick, shocking death, and then an eerie moment of silence that hangs in the air. With one gunshot, it is on, bullets flying thick in the air. Obvious SPOILERS but you can watch it HERE. If you haven't seen the movie, I don't recommend watching the sequence out of context. Watch the movie and soak it all in as part of the whole product. Just a remarkable extended sequence with virtually no music. The focus is the characters, violence and death. Nothing more. Nothing less.

A classic in every sense of the word. I pick something new up with every viewing, and it never loses any of its impact. A film without a weakness.

The Wild Bunch (1969): ****/****

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Good Year

Above all else, Russell Crowe will always be Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and a loyal servant to the TRUE emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Yes, Crowe's most memorable performance for me will always be from 2000's Gladiator. That said, he's one of my favorites across the board, and I'll watch him in just about anything. How about Crowe and a frequent collaborator stepping outside their comfort zone? I believe that 2006's A Good Year most definitely qualifies.

A highly successful investment broker in London, Max Skinner (Crowe) is the best at what he does. He's cutthroat and brutally efficient and is coming off one deal -- however shady -- that earned the firm millions and millions of dollars. It's not soon after though that Max receives news that his Uncle Henry (Albert Finney), who he hasn't seen in 10 years, has passed away. The problem? Henry left no will, leaving his French villa and vineyards up for grabs. As Henry's only known living resume, Max must handle the villa, deciding whether he wants to sell it (likely) or keep it (far less likely). Max heads off to France to wrap things up while some work issues are settled behind him, but it's been awhile. He spent his summers with Henry at the villa as a child and hasn't been back in years, much less thought about it too much. Now, it all comes flowing back at him in a wave. What to do? What to do?!?

'Year' pairs Crowe with director Ridley Scott who he worked with previously in Gladiator, a pairing that earned Crowe the Best Actor Oscar and Scott a Best Director nomination. They've also worked together on Body of Lies, American Gangster and Robin Hood so naturally they've got to mix in a quasi-romantic comedy for dudes about a male character having a mid-life awakening of sorts. That makes sense, right? Right?!? I didn't think so, but there was too much talent involved to pass it up. I had to at least give it a try.

Reviews seemed to be mixed here. Movie reviewers disliked to hated it. Everyone else? Liked it to loved it. I'm in the latter group! I very much enjoyed this change of pace story from Scott and Crowe. Sure, there are parts that make you think of like-minded movies with Julia Roberts or Diane Lane, but there's something oddly refreshing about a straightforward story about a male character that doesn't involve gunfire, explosions, nudity, a drug war and all sorts of pyrotechnics. 'Year' is fairly predictable when things really get going, but I immensely liked it. 

Crowe especially looks to be having a good time as Max Skinner, a Londoner transplanted to the French countryside where he finds a life that's a complete 180 from his own. Not playing the all-that-is-man warrior lead, Crowe has fun as the smarmy, condescending Skinner (or if I was less crude, an asshole) who thinks he's better than anyone and everyone around him. It is definitely a departure but a pro like Crowe handles it with ease. Obviously, it doesn't hurt that even when he's in full-on condescension mode that Crowe is an immensely likable character. Even when he's being a bit of a d-bag, there's still a charm on display. He gets a crack at some more comedic moments and some physical humor, committing to the part and truly having some fun with it. If he didn't, the movie would have sunk immediately.

Top to bottom, I liked the cast. Sure, at times things are drawn in pretty broad strokes, but you're enjoying things too much to question it or complain too much. Marion Cotillard is an excellent choice to play a French goddess, a beautiful, fiery woman named...Fanny Chenal. Abbie Cornish plays Christie, a young American woman who shows up at the villa with a surprise while Didier Bourdon plays Francis Duflot, the villa's vigneron who looks after the soil and the grape vines with Isabelle Candelier as his wife. I especially liked Tom Hollander as Charlie, one of Max's few friends who tolerates all his little eccentricities (some would say straight Meanness) and his real estate agent. Archie Panjabi has some fun as Gemma, Max's assistant who knows how to handle her crazy boss. The best supporting parts though are Albert Finney as Uncle Henry and Freddie Highmore as a much younger Max. In some quick, character-affirming scenes, we see Max growing up in his summer months under Henry's tutelage. Some very charming scenes, Finney and Highmore with a great chemistry.

And last but not least, the French countryside, maybe the most important character of all. Scott's film could be a travel guide for why to travel to France. This is a story that wants and needs you to move to France, to embrace the lifestyle and general outlook on life. The expansive villas, the tree-lined roads, the stone streets, the history, the look, the food and the wine, this is an incredibly beautiful movie. It ain't subtle either in portraying washed-out dreary London as opposed to homey, earthy, colorful France. If you absolutely hate the characters or the story, just sit back and take in all the Frenchness. You will definitely not be disappointed. A very pleasant surprise so don't listen to all those movie reviewers! Oh, wait...listen to me but not them! I really liked this one and hope you will too. If you can't find me, there's a good chance I moved to France.

A Good Year (2006): ***/****

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Wonderful Country

Compared to the 1960's, the 1950's just doesn't stand up for me when it comes to the western genre. Movies were too much soap opera, not enough wild west. Sure, there were plenty of good to great to classic entries, but the following decade was a stretch of a genre at its best. Closing out the decade strong though was a 1957 western that's been generally forgotten over the years, The Wonderful Country.

Working for the powerful Castro family in Mexico, gunfighter and hired gun Martin Brady (Robert Mitchum) is crossing the Rio Grande and entering the United States. An incident from his past drastically changed his life, forcing him to retreat into Mexico where he developed a name for himself as quite the dangerous pistolero. Now, he's on a mission from the Castros to pick up an illegal shipment of repeating rifles and ammunition. It isn't soon after crossing the border that his horse throws him, breaking Martin's leg. He can't ride so he's forced to wait and heal in the border town, shipping the guns and ammunition back to Mexico without him. So with nothing to do but wait, Martin sits back and heals but doesn't quite know what awaits him. People from his past, new acquaintances, and those who want to see him dead, they all await in the coming weeks, especially when news reaches town that the gun shipment has been stolen. But by who?

What an interesting, genuinely odd, even offbeat movie. I watched this western from director Robert Parrish years ago and revisited it recently when it popped up on MGM-HD. I liked it a lot then, and a second viewing produced the same result...albeit with the same response. This is an odd movie, no doubt about it. There are touches of an almost art-house film sprinkled throughout. The story is disjointed to say the least, covering months (and maybe more) from beginning to end but with no real sense of the passage of time. But coursing through it all, an odd energy hangs in the air that I found appealing. A bit of a mess but a good mess to watch.

Robert Mitchum was the best. He had no rivals, a rogue in Hollywood before it was cool to be a rogue. He was one of the first anti-heroes too, the tortured hero who transitioned into bigger and better. One of his specialties? As I've mentioned before, Mitchum was drawn to Mexico including this film but also The Wrath of God, Villa Rides, 5 Card Stud, Bandido and probably several more I'm forgetting. Who better then to play an expatriate American who embraced the Mexican lifestyle almost entirely? I can't think of anyone.

Mitchum's Martin Brady is the one constant through all the craziness and winding story. Yeah, his accent is a little rough at times, but when he speaks Spanish, this isn't an actor remembering his lines. He speaks it fluently. But the character as a whole is interesting because it feels so ahead of its time. This is the somber, even doomed gunfighter running from his past but not really knowing what the future holds for him. All he's known is his pistol, but his ability with the gun has him tied down so he can't escape. From the look of the character -- the immense sombrero, the stubble, the vaquero attire -- to the potentially doomed development, it's a more than worthwhile lead performance.

The rest of the cast is more of an ensemble with a few bright spots. Julie London plays Helen Colton, the wife of the local army outpost commander, Major Stark Colton (Gary Merrill), a generally ineffective officer. Helen has a past and is drawn to Mitchum's Brady but she may have other ideas. But then things get weird in almost variety show ensemble territory, including Albert Dekker (a Texas Ranger captain), Jack Oakie (a well-meaning railroad man), scene-stealing Charles McGraw (an amiable doctor), former Negro League/MLB pitcher Satchel Paige (a cavalryman, a Buffalo Soldier), Anthony Caruso (a Mexican farmer), Mike Kellin (a Mexican pistolero), Victor Manuel Mendoza (the army officer) and his brother, the Governor (Pedro Armendariz), John Banner (the German store owner), Jay Novello (a Mexican soldier and Brady's friend) and Max Slaten (his naive visiting nephew). Enough for you? McGraw is especially good, as is Armendariz in a smaller part.

Definitely worth mentioning is the visual appeal of the movie. 'Country' filmed on-location in Mexico, making the movie look almost like a country's tour guide. Some locations are familiar from other like-minded westerns, but for the most part, you're seeing a country as it is, not done up for the sake of a movie. With a Mexican-themed score combined with that beautiful countryside serving as a backdrop, we've got a winner in the technical department. Sure, the story drifts along too much, bouncing from one character and situation to the next almost without warning, but this is a movie that's very enjoyable if you drift along with it. Not a classic, but a pretty darn good western.

The Wonderful Country (1959): ***/****

Thursday, December 17, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

Whether you've read it or not, everyone has heard of Moby Dick, the classic novel by author Herman Melville, right? Right?!? I'd hope so. If not, go check out a library. What many folks don't know is that Melville's story is partially based on a true story, the tragic story of the Essex (don't read if you don't want to find out some MAJOR SPOILERS). It's gotten a feature film adaptation getting somewhat mixed reviews, but you should decide for yourself with 2015's In the Heart of the Sea.

It's 1820 on Nantucket and the whaling ship the Essex is set to embark on a long voyage that will last at least a year and could stretch as long as two or three. The ship has a new commander, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), who's relatively inexperienced but who will be aided by a very capable first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). With a crew of 21, the Essex sets sail on a voyage that will take them south through the Atlantic and west into the Pacific as they seek to fill their hold with hundreds of barrels of oil they will produce by killing as many whales as they can track. After months at sea though, they have little to show for their work, forcing Walker to give the orders to go further out into the Pacific where reports of waves of whales offer an enticing potential for success. What awaits though in the vast expanses of the unexplored ocean? Even the experienced sailors on-board the Essex couldn't predict what awaits them.

This recent release from director Ron Howard is based on a book of the same name by author Nathan Philbrick. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS Writing in a simple, straightforward style (much appreciated!), Philbrick goes into detail of the time, the people and the tragic events that took place. While thousands of miles away from land in the Pacific, the Essex was attacked by an immense sperm whale and ultimately sunk, leaving the crew stranded at sea with limited supplies and no real hope of rescue in sight. Knowing it is the truth, it is a terrifying story to read, to know that these men experienced that pure terror. Melville's novel actually ends about halfway through the real-life story so don't think you've read and/or seen it all already! An interesting, uncomfortable read, but one that's worth it if you're a reader. RELATIVE END OF SPOILERS

Howard has tackled a pretty massive undertaking in turning the story and Philbrick's book into a feature film. The book itself isn't that big -- about 250 pages -- but it covers a ton of ground, both in terms of story, character and setting the time period. 'Heart' then has to cram all that into a movie that's about two hours long. It was originally scheduled to be released last March but was pushed back to a December release, and that's never a good thing. The story itself is interesting, and the acting is solid throughout with a cool storytelling and framing device, but it's missing that special something. The music is okay but nothing too memorable. The visual look of the movie is interesting, a bluish/green hue permeating the story. But when taken as a whole, 'Heart' doesn't have that one thing to take it up a notch or two from good to great or even really good.

Where it succeeds is the scope and scale. An early shot of the Essex is startling, a ship that's 87 feet long and barely makes a blip on the ocean's expanse. This is a little ship in a big old ocean. Long establishing shots of the ocean are unsettling, especially considering where the story is heading. There's no easy rescue available. If something happens, these men are on their own. That premise hits you at your very core, makes you realize how desperate survival really can be. The whale attack on the Essex is a quick, unsettling scene that I wish was actually a little longer and more drawn out to really let it breathe. The tension-building and foreshadowing of what's coming is highly effective, a massive whale bigger than any ever seen doing something that has never been seen just waiting in the unexplored depths of the ocean to strike. So yeah, the scope and scale are on point, but as for the more emotional moments...

They just aren't there. I felt very little connection with any of the characters, an issue with the immensity of the story. You've got so much to do as a director, so many goals you want to achieve, but what do you cut? Unfortunately here in 'Heart,' it's that emotional connection that allows us to get to know the characters, to sympathize with them through their horrifying trials at sea where death seems far more welcome than living at so many times. Hemsworth is solid, a capable officer seeking a captaincy of his own with one more successful voyage. Walker too is good as Pollard, a rivalry developing between the two men about how to command, a deep-rooted issue going back to both men's backgrounds and history. This puns sounds so horrifically forced and gimmicky considering the film's title, but it has very little heart. Characters pass away or disappear and we couldn't identify them if we tried. The scale/scope is excellent, but I wish it had evened out some.

Also look for Cillian Murphy in a solid supporting part as Matthew Joy, the Essex's second officer and a longtime friend of Hemsworth's Chase. Tom Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, a teenage Nantucket boy going on his first voyage. In a cool storytelling device, Ben Whishaw (Q in the Bond movies) plays Melville, seeking out a much-older Nickerson in late 1840's Nantucket, Brendan Gleeson as solid as always as Nickerson with Michelle Fairley playing his wife. Among the crew of the Essex, we see a couple faces pop up several times but never get to know them well either. Also look for Jordi Molla as a Spanish ship captain with a warning for the Essex crew as they prepare to head out to the Pacific.

Like so many historical epics and period pieces, 'Heart' seems like a prime candidate for a miniseries of some sort. Maybe a two or three-part series that would have been able to explore in more depth the the time the story takes place in, some more whaling background, the Essex's crew, the attack, and their desperate fight for survival in the wake of the improbable attack by the immense sperm whale inspired Melville to write Moby Dick. A good effort but ultimately a disappointing effort that doesn't live up to its potential.

In the Heart of the Sea (2015): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rolling Thunder

The Vietnam War ended, and American soldiers came home to a country that felt strongly opposed to what had been done as part of the fighting. They were not greeted as heroes as our veterans had been welcomed in previous wars, especially World War II. For some -- and not to sound too flowery -- the fighting was just beginning as those vets tried to re-acclimate to living back home. That's what we've got in 1977's Rolling Thunder as a jumping-off point.

Major Charlie Rane (William Devane) is coming home to San Antonio, Texas. He's spent the last seven years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, subjected to horrific treatment and torture meant to beat him down into nothing. Somehow, some way, he survived though, and he is welcomed back as a hero. Rane on the other hand, he's not so sure. He steps back into a home situation where his wife wants a divorce so she can remarry. His son is almost 10 years old, and he barely knows him. Rane simply doesn't know how to readjust to life as he used to know it. What little balance he finds is quickly destroyed when personal tragedy strikes, the reasoning...simple, pure greed with too many lives as an expense. Rane himself barely survives the incident, telling the police he doesn't remember much about what happened. The Air Force veteran...he remembers though, and Rane intends to exact his own revenge.

I'd never heard of this Vietnam War-themed flick from director John Flynn until recently it popped up on the movie channel Retroplex. It certainly sounded interesting, and in the end, it was. It's not a great film, but 'Thunder' is darkly entertaining, a morbid cloud of cynicism hanging over the proceedings. Isn't that what we all want to see?!? No nonsense about the story either. Straightforward revenge with a more vigilante-themed story mixed in with the more message-oriented story of Vietnam vets struggling to readjust to life back in the states after the horror of what they saw during their tours of duty. It ain't flashy, but it's violent, gritty and uncomfortable to watch. Worth seeking out.

A good to great character actor who never quite became a full-on movie star, William Devane does not disappoint with one of his few starring roles. It's his movie, and he carries it. His time spent as a North Vietnamese prisoner has worn him down while making him tougher in the process. His Major Charlie Rane is almost mute, is claustrophobic, has some form of PTSD and struggles to get back to the things he used to know and love. It is an unsettling performance, full of intensity and menace as Rane struggles to piece it all together. What does it? A release of hatred, a hate-oriented goal of retribution and revenge. He seems to find himself when tasked with a mission, however dangerous. Devane is excellent in a quiet, emotional leading performance. Two thumbs up for a guy often relegated to bad guy roles. Part Travis Bickle, part Paul Kersey, part Wild West vigilante, this is a fascinating character.

I haven't seen much of Tommy Lee Jones' pre-Lonesome Dove work, but here the 31-year old actor shows off that quiet, intimidating charisma that has served him so well in the 35-plus years since. He's underused as Johnny Vohden, a fellow prisoner who experienced everything Rane went through. Through their common, horrifying experience, they've bonded to become friends that can't be broken up. Excellent supporting part. Linda Haynes plays Linda Forchet, a young woman in her 20's fascinated with Rane, drawn to him in ways she can't describe. It's a good part, but somewhat distracting, as her character's personality seems to be wearing tight, thin shirts without a bra. Just an observation. Also look for James Best and Luke Askew as two gutter-trash crooks who wrong Rane in a big old way (wait for those fireworks!). Also look for Dabney Coleman, Lisa Blake Richards and Lawrason Driscoll in supporting parts.

'Thunder' is a bit of a slow burn, even following the surprising, horrifically violent twist about 35 minutes into the 95-minute long flick. It's trying to build that intensity to almost unbearable levels as we wait for Devane's Rane to blow like a volcano. In that sense, it treads that fine line. Things can be a little slow in parts. Never boring, but at the same time, never as interesting as things could have been. I'll give credit where it is due though. Everyone involved seems to know where they want to end up, all the while building up to a blood and bullet-riddled finale. It could have gone for a horrifically dark ending but taps the brakes a bit.

So overall, good but not great. A crime thriller set along the Texas/Mexico border has a gritty, dark feeling, almost like a film noir with a lot of blood squibs! This is a revenge movie that certainly belongs along the likes of movies like Taxi Driver and Death Wish and the Dirty Harry movies. A tad on the slow side at times, but worth checking out.

Rolling Thunder (1977): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Night Before

I'm a Christmas junkie. I love the music, the decorations, the gifts, the parties, the family and friends, and of course...the CHRISTMAS MOVIES. Everyone has their favorites, mine being It's A Wonderful Life and White Christmas, but let's be honest, even the lousy ones still have some holiday charm. So when new entries to the Christmas genre come along, I jump to and get in line. So goes 2015's The Night Before.

All in their early 30's, Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) have been best friends since they met early in high school. It's been 15 years since Chris' parents were killed in a car accident, both Isaac and Chris stepping in. Some 15 years ago, they went out and partied on the day after, Christmas Eve, to help distract their friend from his horrific loss. And so a tradition is born! They've been celebrating for years, but things are a'changing. Chris has become a superstar athlete who's instantly recognizable on the street, Isaac is about to become a first-time father, and Ethan....well, Ethan is struggling along, searching for some sort of happiness. The trio of friends has agreed it's time to put their Christmas Eve-partying tradition to rest with one last blowout. Ethan has obliged, getting his hands on tickets to the ever-elusive greatest Christmas party in New York City, the mysterious Nutcracker Ball. Just the drinking, debauchery and drugs begin!

So yeah, I love Christmas movies. Throw in a fun mix with the cast, some general holiday craziness and a not overdone story with a message, it's a really good flick. It's not tearing up the box office over recent weeks, but I definitely recommend it. Ho-ho-ho! Merry Christmas!

I watched this R-rated comedy from director Jonathan Levine and liked it a lot. It was only on the ride home that I began to put the pieces together. What rang a bell? This movie is Superbad plus 10-years or so!!! An overnight story, friends with their own goals for the night, and a message about how growing up is difficult concerning your longtime friends. It's freaking Superbad! None of this is a deal-breaker of course, just an observation. The overnight odyssey is a good story-telling technique, the entire story taking place over 18 hours or so, and with NYC on Christmas Eve as the backdrop, you can't really complain too much. Throw in a fun soundtrack with countless nods and references to other like-minded movies -- especially Home Alone -- and you've got a winner.

Heading into a movie like this, the one thing that may determine your enjoyment is how much you like the cast. I'm a big fan of all three stars, Gordon-Levitt, Rogen and Mackie, so I was hooked pretty quick. Gordon-Levitt's Ethan is struggling along, looking for what he wants in life, Rogen's Isaac is ready for a drug-fueled (wife-sanctioned) night out as his wife's pregnancy fast approaches, and Mackie's Chris is getting used to his new found fame. I liked all three characters, their chemistry coming across as perfectly believable in the quieter moments. The flashback to their first Christmas Eve tradition is surprisingly moving considering the low-brow humor that permeates the rest of the story. Their history is revealed in snippets and tidbits here and there, providing some of the movie's funniest moments.

I'll say I'm surprised the hate Seth Rogen gets. I like him a lot as an actor and as a comic actor. Here as father-to-be Isaac, he's decked out in his Hanukkah sweater and outfitted with a small gift box of drugs, including weed, mushrooms and cocaine among other specialties. Years removed from a regular use, he FREAKS out as the drugs combine in his system. I was dying as the mushrooms counteract with the cocaine, sending Isaac on quite a trip. A lot of great laughs from Mr. Rogen!

We need some more zaniness though around our Three Amigos, don't we?!? Also look for Jillian Bell as Isaac's very pregnant wife, Lizzy Caplan as Isaac's ex (it didn't end well), Ilana Glazer as a real-life Christmas grinch, uncredited Mindy Kaling as Lizzy's friend/drinking buddy, and Tracy Morgan as our narrator. James Franco is a scene-stealer in a one-scene cameo as himself (along with some uncomfortable texts) with Miley Cyrus and former NBA star Baron Davis also appearing briefly as themselves. By far though, the best supporting part goes to the always intense, always creepy Michael Shannon as Mr. Green, the boys' drug dealer...who's still a drug dealer 15 years later. His scenes are pitch-perfect, the wise supplier of weed who's able to cut right to the core of things and really got to what's bothering his customers. Hilarious part as Shannon plays it straight in each of his scenes.

Like the trailers that bombard us now, I don't want to give away too many good laughs so there's nothing fresh when you actually see the movie. So as usual, I'll leave you with this thought. 'Night' brings the laughs with a very funny cast and some surprisingly effective emotional moments. Highly recommended, a worthy addition to the Christmas movie canon.

The Night Before (2015): ***/****

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Lawless Breed

The Wild West in the post-Civil War years was synonymous with a lot of things, but maybe none more than the infamous gunslingers, gunfighters and pistoleros that roamed the country. Some are instantly recognizable like Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, while others don't have that notoriety. Take John Wesley Hardin for instance, reputed to have killed more than 40 people depending on what you read. Stick with Wikipedia though for any facts because 1953's The Lawless Breed...well, it's a steaming pile of you know what.

It's the years following the Civil War in Texas and young John Wesley Hardin (Rock Hudson) has grown up under a strict, God-fearing father who's tried to instill his own strict beliefs in his son. Wes as he's called, he's not interested. He's worked long and hard to be fast with a six-shooter and wants nothing more than to marry his longtime crush, Jane (Mary Castle), and start working at building up a farm where he can care for and sell horses. That's his plan at least. His father's actions push him away to the point young Wes finds himself in a saloon in a card game that goes poorly quickly. A man across the table draws first, but Wes outdraws him, killing him. Witnesses say otherwise though, forcing Hardin on the run as he tries to prove his innocence. The rewards and bounties grow larger and so does the body count as Wes tries to put the killing behind him (sort of). Can he though or will his name and reputation be too much?

My timing here is interesting. I'm currently reading Larry McMurtry's Streets of Laredo, his sequel to one of my favorite books, Lonesome Dove. John Wesley Hardin is a supporting character in the western novel, portrayed as an unhinged killer with no qualms about shooting anyone for any reason. Then, I saw this pop up on a movie channel and thought I'd give it a try. I shouldn't have...

From director Raoul Walsh, 'Breed' is based off the autobiography Hardin wrote about his life while serving a prison sentence in the 1880s/1890s. To say it stretches the truth a little is a massive understatement. It portrays Hardin as a kid who ends up in the wrong place time and time again and has to kill people over and over again because there's just no alternative. Yuck. Gag me. It's like an anti-revisionist western, hell-bent on portraying one of the west's more dastardly killers as...well, a decent guy! The script is a mess, drifting along far too much even at just 83 minutes, and though the casting is interesting (at times), most of it falls short because that source material is just so weak. Both in character portrayal and visual look, 'Breed' is too clean, too polished and too manicured as it tries to make a killer into the unlikeliest of heroes.

A rising star by 1953, Hudson gives it a go, but this isn't great casting for John Wesley Hardin. It tries to portray him as misunderstood but the next second it shows him as a bit of a scamp, a liar and a gambler who doesn't intend to keep his promises. If we're supposed to feel sympathy for this fella, there's an epic misfire. No matter what happens, the character just keeps digging deeper and deeper, never realizing it's all his fault and that he's to blame. If you're not on our "hero's" side, then things are going to get rough before they get better.

The rest of the cast has some name recognition, but again, the script does them no favors. Julie Adams is Rosie, the saloon girl turned potentially more with Wes, representing herself fairly well with a script that has her wearing very little and leaning forward a lot seductively. I'm sure her back was bothering her, nothing sinister about being able to see down her shirt/dress/blouse. In the oddity department, John McIntire plays dual roles, one as Wes' Bible-thumping Dad and the other as his more fun-loving but hard-working uncle. The Uncle is better than the Dad, but still, it's odd to just go along with.  Also look for Dennis Weaver, Lee Van Cleef, Michael Ansara, Forrest Lewis, and Hugh O'Brian in supporting parts.

I kept waiting for something enjoyable, entertaining or interesting to come along but to no avail. By the time the framing device of Wes and his autobiography wraps up...well, it's not good. The newspaper editor looks longingly off-camera and when asked how the story ends says "I'm not sure. It's a story that hasn't ended yet." The ending itself is laughable compared to Hardin's real-life death, read about that HERE with SPOILERS obviously, to the point I actually groaned when "The End" popped up on the screen. It's a B-western, but it's a bad one with very little other than the lovely Julie Adams to recommend giving it a watch. Give it a big, old wide berth!

The Lawless Breed (1953): */****

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Lonesome Dove

Sometimes you just need to sit back and take it all in. Just appreciate a movie for being pretty much perfect on all levels. Case in point? The 1989 CBS miniseries Lonesome Dove, based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel -- also an all-timer and one of my favorites -- from author Larry McMurtry. Aired over four nights, the miniseries pulled in crazy ratings, better reviews, and rave reviews for its cast. It deserves every positive thing it got. It is a true classic, and regardless of its TV roots, one of the best westerns of all-time.

Along the Rio Grande River in the town of Lonesome Dove in south Texas, former Texas Rangers Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) own the Hat Creek Company, working as cattle buyers and sellers, selling an occasional horse but nothing too lucrative. After creating quite a name for themselves as Rangers when all of Texas was still a wilderness, the duo has drifted into obscurity some. They're pleasantly surprised when a good friend from their past and a former ranger himself, Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), rides into Lonesome Dove telling them how beautiful and untouched the Montana territory far to the north is. Call gets the idea in his head to put together a herd of cattle and drive them all the way to the territory, starting up the first cattle ranch in Montana. Gus and several of their men are wary but go along with it. The veteran Rangers have their reasons for going -- both very different -- but no one involved has any real idea what awaits them on the trail.

It's impossible to condense a 900-plus page novel and a four-part miniseries running 384 minutes into one concise paragraph explaining the plot. Expanding a little, the two Rangers drive a cattle herd from south Texas to Montana, experiencing all the good, bad, dangerous and terrifying that the trail has to offer. Without getting too cheesy/flowery, it's about friendship, love, betrayal, pride, loyalty and on the biggest level, the changing times in the west, seen through the eyes of old and young men alike. There is a subplot I've lost interest in over the years and repeated viewings/readings, but Lonesome Dove is as perfect a movie as I've ever seen. I highly recommend the novel too if you're a reader looking for a good book.

Director Simon Wincer does an admirable job bringing McMurtry's novel to life. Decisions that are made to streamline the story excise non-essential characters, scenes and explanation to make a four-part miniseries into a miniseries running longer than six hours that flies by. The filming locations are perfect, helping set up the passage of time with cinematographer Dean Semler turning in a beautiful-looking story. A TV miniseries might seem limiting, but the visual scope and beauty here is a huge selling point. Throw in a sweeping, emotionally perfect score (listen HERE) from composer Basil Poledouris, and you've got all the makings of a halfway decent story!

What sets 'Lonesome' apart I've always felt is its ability to mix the romance of the wild west with the realism of the wild west. There's something straightforward and iconic about the visual of a cowboy on horseback trailing along with a cattle herd against the horizon. There's something simple about it that is able to permeate itself through a ton of westerns, good and bad. A man on his horse, doing a job that isn't easy and ready to fight off whatever comes at the herd because it's his job. The counter? There was nothing romantic about it no matter what you may want to think. It was back-breaking work, and death comes cheap (as it's said several times) to those who aren't careful and even to those who are. It doesn't take much for the winds to shift from good to bad. Straddling that line, 'Lonesome' is a somber, moving story that has the ability to tear your guts up through good and bad. It's the rare western with that ability.

Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. That's it. That's all. I could leave it at that and be good, but that'd make for a short review, wouldn't it? Both men have had remarkable careers, but I don't believe either has ever (EVER!!!) been better than they were here. Duvall's Gus is fast-talking, loves some whiskey and good biscuits, a ladies man, and an all-timer at avoiding work. Jones' Call is a man of few words, ridiculously stubborn, hard-working to a fault, and lives by a code. A true Odd Couple-esque dynamic, these are phenomenal performances. They play off each other with ease. Their dialogue crackles with energy whether it be two friends busting each other, two partners figuring out how to solve a problem, or two longtime friends having a rare heart-to-heart in a trying moment. Both are amazingly excellent, but Duvall is on another level here as Gus. His energy, his non-stop talking, his physical mannerisms from a quick smirk to sucking his lips to his unique goodness, Gus McCrae is one of the all-time best western characters. Robert Duvall is the freaking man.

Though there are many characters in the miniseries, the heart of the story is Gus and Call's Hat Creek outfit and their motley crew of cowboys. Danny Glover is a quiet scene-stealer as Josh Deets, the outfit's tracker and scout, a fiercely capable worker and fighter who never complains, just putting his head down and getting the job done. Rick Schroder is excellent as Newt, a young, inexperienced 17-year old cowboy orphaned years before and picked up and cared for by the Hat Creek outfit. Tim Scott plays Pea Eye, a well-meaning but not so intelligent former Ranger. And last, there's unofficial member Dish Boggett, played by D.B. Sweeney, a more than capable cowboy who finds a niche with the group. There's a bond, a camaraderie amongst the crew that feels natural and real, not actors, but real people and their relationships. It is the rare western where you can say that.

You could write a thesis paper about individual characters here, making my job reviewing the miniseries a tough one! Diane Lane doesn't deserved to get buried so far down in a review, but here we sit. Her Lorena Wood, a beautiful young prostitute who finds herself on the trail with the herd, is a fascinating character to watch grow and develop. Her chemistry with Duvall is impeccable too. Anjelica Houston plays Clara, a past love (and maybe currently) of Gus', married and with children on a horse ranch in Nebraska. Frederic Forrest is frightening as Blue Duck, a half-breed bandit who's rampaged all over Texas for years, all the while out of the reach of our Rangers. I also especially liked Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as Po Campo, the cook traveling with the herd.

If there is a weak point in 'Lonesome,' it is a subplot involving an Arkansas sheriff, July Johnson (Chris Cooper), trailing Jake Spoon only to find out his wife (Glenne Headly) has left him. This subplot also features Barry Corbin, Steve Buscemi, and Frederick Coffin. I just don't find myself drawn to the characters here and as a result, their portions of the story tend to drag.

This is a movie that deserves a big old, long review full of in-depth analysis, more than I've got the space for here. I easily could write a college paper about this McMurtry novel! I also don't want to give away too much here with my review, recommending you go into the miniseries with a clean slate. I'll say this instead. There are moments that are absolutely heartbreaking, truly gut-wrenching, whether it be a surprising/shocking death to a face-to-face where you're begging something to happen. Both watching the miniseries and reading McMurtry's novel, I've cried and we're talking real, big crocodile tears. It's a classic movie -- screw the miniseries moniker -- and required viewing for anyone who loves good characters, story and scope regardless of your feelings on the western genre.

Interesting tidbit? McMurtry originally wrote the basic idea as a movie with John Wayne (Call), Jimmy Stewart (Gus) and Henry Fonda (Jake) leading the cast only to see it fall apart because of scheduling conflicts. Can you imagine that? If you're looking to kill a couple hours, see if you can fill out the rest of the cast with actors working in the late 1960's and early 1970's. I have, and let me tell you, it's tough. In the meantime, check Lonesome Dove out.

Lonesome Dove (1989): ****/****

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The War Wagon

I love westerns. I love heist movies. They're two of my favorite genres. So what happens when you combine the two? And throw in two of my all-time favorite actors? Oh,'s a movie nerd alert!!! With just an air of fun hanging over the whole story and production, it's hard not to get on-board and truly enjoy the 1967 western The War Wagon.

Fresh out of jail after serving a three-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit, former rancher Taw Jackson (John Wayne) heads home with revenge on his mind. Framed by a local businessman and landowner, Pierce (Bruce Cabot), Jackson wants to exact revenge where it hurts most...Pierce's gold mine. The attempt would seem suicidal though, Pierce paying for an armor-plated wagon outfitted with a Gatling gun and guarded by 33 outriders that transports the gold from the mine to the train station that would prove to be a major deterrent to any would-be robbers. Jackson isn't about to give up though, but he does need some help, including an unlikely partnership with a hired gun named Lomax (Kirk Douglas) with whom he's had a deadly rivalry in the past and has the bullet wounds to prove it. With a small team of fellow crooks, Taw puts his plan into action to rob the armor-plated wagon, the War Wagon. But just how in hell is he going to pull this off successfully without getting shot full of holes?

This is a movie that's just hard not to like. It was a staple on AMC and TNT growing up so I saw it many times, and it's one I always look forward to revisiting every so often. This last time, well, it had been quite awhile. From tough guy director (and a Wayne favorite) Burt Kennedy, 'War' is one of those perfectly straightforward westerns with no pretensions about the changing times or a revisionist view. It's F-U-N, plain and simple, mixing so effortlessly that western setting with a heist story. Put a crew together, give them a crazy, no way in hell this works mission, and let things fall where they may. Not the best, but one of the most purely entertaining westerns to come out of the decade.

So John Wayne and...Kirk Douglas. Please and THANK YOU. The duo had worked previously together in 1965's In Harm's Way and 1966's Cast a Giant Shadow, but this is the best pairing because it just lets these two pros go to work. Yeah, the heist is fun throughout, but you watch this movie for any and all scenes between Wayne and Douglas. The dialogue crackles between them, a rivalry that treads that fine line between joking and deadly serious. There's some genuine menace in the chemistry, but you just sit back and watch things develop. The best part? They're clearly having a blast. An underrated comedic actor to begin with, Wayne gets to show off his funny chops with some great line deliveries, and Douglas is the perfect foil as Lomax, a hired gun who's a bit of a dandy but takes his job supremely seriously, especially with so much potential money on the line. You couldn't ask for a better star duo to lead the adventure film.

Any good heist needs a good heist team so who to look out for? Certainly a motley crew of crooks, including the very white Howard Keel as Levi Walking Bear, Keenan Wynn as Wes, an employee of Pierce's, and Robert Walker Jr. as Billy, an explosives expert with a drinking problem. A Wayne friend and favorite, Cabot looks to be having a ball as Pierce, the sneering, menacing crook with a whole bunch of power. Also cool to see background player Don Collier get a more visible part as Pierce's right-hand man. Also look for Joanna BarnesValora NolandBruce DernChuck Roberson (Wayne's stunt double), Emilio Fernandez, and Gene Evans rounding out the cast.

'Wagon' has a lot of little things going for it that combined make for a significantly better flick. Durango, Mexico was one of Wayne's favorite filming locations including Sons of Katie Elder, The Train Robbers, Chisum and here with 'Wagon.' The Mexican mountains and wilderness provide an intimidating, authentic backdrop to the story. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a gem, big and booming, perfect for an adventure story and one that instantly screams 'Oh, yeah, that's Tiomkin music.' Lastly, an oh so perfectly bad theme song that you can listen to HERE. It's awful, but my goodness, is it ever catchy. I defy you to watch the movie and not to be humming along to the theme days later.

But, ah yes, the heist. There's hints along the way of what Taw, Lomax and Co. are up to, but nothing too specific. So like the best heist movies, as the caper develops, we're in the dark to the exact details, all of that adding a sense of mystery to the proceedings. Nothing too crazy here other than a matter of split-second timing, some dumb luck, and one rather prominent plot hole if you ask me. But there's no point in ripping it to pieces too hard. This is a movie that's meant to be a hell of a lot of fun, and it succeeds throughout on that premise. Wayne and Douglas are pitch perfect together and look to be having a ball.

Sit back, enjoy and let that fun take over from there.

The War Wagon (1967): ***/****
Rewrite of February 2009 review

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Three the Hard Way

In this day and age, it seems the world is tearing itself apart from the inside. The killing, the hate, the violence, it seems worse than ever, especially when it comes to race relations. Where am I heading with this with a movie review? As bad as race relations may have been in the past in the United States, movies were still able to have some fun (in some instances, much, much harsher views) with cliches and stereotypes. Take 1974's Three the Hard Way. It's a movie that instantly gained a cult following, but my goodness, I can't see a like-minded movie hitting theaters in 2015.

Living in Los Angeles, Jimmy Lait (Jim Brown) is a successful music producer who's thrown a curve when an old friend shows up dying on his doorstep, all the while mumbling something about someone promising to "kill them all." Jimmy doesn't make much of it until the friend is murdered while recovering in a hospital. He turns to two friends, Jagger Daniels (Fred Williamson) and Mister Keyes (Jim Kelly), a karate expert, for help, and the three follow the evidence to a startling conclusion. A white supremacist group has developed a serum that when placed in waterwill kill any black person who drinks that water, all within 72 hours. The whites? They remain untouched, an ethnic cleansing just waiting to be unleashed. Time is running out, and with three release points -- Washington D.C., Detroit and Los Angeles -- Jimmy, Jagger and Mister are racing the clock.

Wow. Just wow. What an amazing mess of a movie. I'm all for cult favorites, whole cult genres, and count spaghetti westerns as one of my all-time favorites. 'Three' comes from the blaxploitation genre, well, sorta according to director Gordon Parks Jr. This was a genre aimed at African-American audiences, focusing on the black culture, the black hero and for better or dumb, stupid and/or evil us white folks are. There's a style, a cool factor to these movies that permeates itself through the stories regardless of how goofy (and/or dumb) the stories might get. And let me tell you, this one is D-U-M-B. Thankfully, the cast is pretty cool and there's basically non-stop action through the second half of this flick.

Sometimes, a cool cast can cancel out a whole lot of badness, and that's at least partially the case here. It's really, really cool to see Jim Brown, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly working together. The trio is having a ton of fun to the point the script....well, gets thrown by the wayside. It's three guys B.S.'ing each other, shooting the breeze, with lots of cool "jive" talk. Am I using that word correctly? Huh? Anyone? Okay, moving on. These are three actors capable of carrying an action-driven movie on their own so when you combine them you create UNSTOPPABLE AMOUNTS OF AWESOME. The trio kicks a lot of ass, gets a lot of action in the bedroom and assorted other places and yes, saves the entire African-American community from a dastardly fate that sounds like something ripped out of a D-level James Bond movie or the worst kind of 1960s espionage/intrigue. Blah blah blah cool heroes kicking ass!!!

Seriously though, that story. It's amazing. The villain's name is Monroe Feather (Jay Robinson), and he's obsessed with wiping out all black people in America. There's Doctor Fortrero (Richard Angarola), a brilliant physician who's developed the concoction that can only kill blacks while leaving whites and other races unharmed. And yeah, he looks unkempt and crazy. Too many scenes to count where they talk about their evil, master plan, too many hilarious scenes in general. Obviously, it's meant to be stereotyped and over-the-top and goofy, but this is just great stuff. None of it is to be taken even remotely seriously. Just sit back and laugh. Also look for Sheila Frazier as Jimmy's loving girlfriend, captured and taken as a hostage by Feather and his small army of inept enforcers. Even 1970's thug Alex Rocco comes around to act tough but really do nothing.

Where 'Three' differentiates itself is its action. Things are a little slow-going through the first 40 minutes or so as things are laid out, but once our triumvirate of heroes are introduced and's ass-kicking time!!! They split up and head to our three choke points (D.C., L.A., and Detroit) where they stumble into a world where only action cliches can survive. Our heroes hit everything they aim at while whole squads of bad guys can't hit a the broadside of a barn if their life depended on it (and it does). When it comes to hand-to-hand combat, the bad guys attack one at a time rather than rushing and overpowering their opponent. In the process, an impressive body count is racked up. It ends up being pretty fun along the way.

Overall, things are pretty disjointed, brief scenes of dialogue holding the action together. We get some male bonding in between mixed in with some horrifically odd. Case in point? Three topless women -- three dominatrix -- torture a suspect until he can't handle anymore...and dies. From what though? Seriously, from what? Fear of holding off sexual release? It's a baffling, hilarious scene. There's a whole lot of that mixed in with some very cool location shooting, including some great shots of 1970's Chicago. Fun soundtrack from The Impressions and generally a sense of "Screw you" if you're not on-board. It's not good -- not by a long shot -- but it is mindlessly entertaining because it is so freakishly bad. And seriously, how does Jim Kelly dispatch villains so easily while wearing whole outfits made entirely of leather? One of those mysteries we'll never know the answer to I guess. Too bad...

Three the Hard Way (1974): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 26, 2015

City of Industry

I kinda knew the definition of the term but would have had trouble describing it. So thank you much, Internet, I looked up the term 'neo-noir.' The meaning? A film that uses the similar jumping off point of the classic film noir movies from the late 1940's and into the 1950's while adding something new, something fresh in terms of style or story that wasn't readily available. Today's neo-noir, 1997's City of Industry.

In Palm Springs, ex-con Lee Egan (Timothy Hutton) has bought his way into a potentially highly lucrative heist, one that could net over $3 million. His friend, Jorge (Wade Dominguez), is on-board to help with Lee's brother, Roy (Harvey Keitel), even agreeing to come out of retirement with such a payday awaiting them. Rounding out Lee's crew is their getaway driver, the fiery, feisty Skip (Stephen Dorff). What is the job exactly? Black market diamonds are scheduled to arrive at a Palm Springs diamond broker with a Russian mobster arriving to pick them up. While there's always the potential for craziness and the unexpected, this job seems pretty straightforward if potentially very dangerous. Lee, Roy and Co. go about putting all the pieces together, but with that much money on the line, you can never really fully trust anyone...can you?

So neo-noir, it's one of those weird descriptions. It's vague really, allowing for some personal interpretations depending on the film. When I think of it, I think of movies like the hyper-violent, hyper-stylized flicks like Drive and To Live and Die in L.A. (of which I loved both a whole freaking lot). 'City' is more traditional to its noir roots with its bleak, downright unpleasant world full of betrayals and back-stabbings where money is not only a powerful motivator; it may be the only motivator. I'd never heard of this crime drama from director John Irvin, but it's certainly an interesting flick. 

'City' is an interesting finished product. With its opening credits, I thought I was getting into an uber-stylish crime drama. Hyper-fast editing, black and white photography mixed with color photography, it felt like quite a scene-setter. A bit misleading because Irvin's film isn't that stylish. Hmm, what word to use instead? Let's say grim. Downright grim. This isn't a stylish criminal underworld where small-time crooks win in the end. This is a bloody, betrayal-riddled world where loyalty comes cheap and usually ends up with a knife/bullet (Your choice!) in your back. That lack of all hope reminded me some of so many French crime dramas where there's a sense of doom and foreboding that the characters seem fully aware of...but continue on regardless. Through all that bloody chaos, there's a hard-fought honor among thieves.

Who better to bring that to the forefront that one of the coolest actors ever, Mr. Harvey Keitel! I'd watch the man read a telephone book so watching him take a crack at a mostly silent anti-hero is a step above for me! Keitel's Roy is all business even when it comes to working with his brother, giving him no slack. He's a professional, a businessman when it comes to pulling a job. It's only in the second half of the movie when the story takes a severe turn do we see the depths Roy will go to when he's been wronged. Like the best anti-heroes, Keitel makes it look effortless. He steals scenes without doing much at all, but his presence alone carries whole stretches of movies. When there are outbursts -- whether it be emotionally or physically -- it comes out like a volcano erupting. Little warning but when you see it happen...just watch out. Excellent leading part for Mr. Keitel.

There's no huge star power here for 'City' but what's there is choice. Dorff is excellent at playing the possibly unhinged Skip, a worthy adversary when a massive amount of cash is on the line. Hutton and Dominguez are solid in smaller parts as well to round out the crew. Who else? How about Famke Janssen as Rachel, Jorge's wife who's become increasingly displeased with her husband's line of work. Lucy Liu -- a very topless Lucy Liu -- makes a quick appearance as a stripper who is holding onto some valuable information while Elliott Gould makes an uncredited appearance as a crime kingpin with his hand in everything dark and sinister in the city.

If 'City' has a weak point, it comes in the pacing and too-familiar story. There's a pretty major twist about the 30-minute mark -- I ain't much for giving away spoilers -- that seems to re-energize things nicely...for a touch. Then things fall back into a slower-paced rhythm that doesn't offer much in the way of surprises. The body count rises pretty quickly through the last hour-plus with some startling violence at times. As bleak as the general tone is throughout, the ending is actually pretty hopeful which is unfortunate if you ask me. The whole story seems to be building to something bleak, downbeat and downright unhappy, but that never quite comes together.

Still, there's just enough to give a slight recommendation. It's called the Harvey Keitel Effect.

City of Industry (1997): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Miami Vice

Running for five seasons and 111 episodes on NBC between 1984 and 1990, Miami Vice was a show that helped rewrite the cop television show. Splashy, stylish and colorful, it not only rewrote the genre but more importantly helped re-energize the genre. The impact is easily seen in just about any police procedural released in the years since. So what's the follow-up? Well, naturally an unnecessary film adaptation, 2006's Miami Vice.

Working on a sting operation of a prostitution ring, Miami-Dade police officers Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are called away suddenly when a former informant they've used calls them, talking wildly of a case among all sorts of nasty folks has gone seriously wrong. That case -- with FBI, DEA, drug cartels, Aryan Brothers, and many more involved -- goes poorly quickly, but Crockett and Tubbs get pulled into it as well, the longtime friends and detectives choosing to go deep undercover to hopefully pick up where the previously botched case left off. Can they somehow pull it off? The odds are stacked against them, and if things go poorly again, they've no one to get them out of the situation but themselves. And with all sorts of unsavory sorts involved -- including a potential leak within a government agency -- nothing is easy about this undercover case.

What a mess of a movie....and that's coming from someone who likes the finished product almost in spite of itself. This 2006 adaptation comes from director (and writer/producer) Michael Mann, an executive producer of the original television show and the director of Heat, Collateral, Ali, Last of the Mohicans and several others to his name. The film went way over budget, filming was less than pleasant with some cast drama, and it received middling to poor reviews. The criticisms are all valid with the main one being pretty obvious. Mann wrote the script...if it existed. It's hard to tell. Slow-moving scenes broken up by some intense staring and then a shootout extraordinaire finale. And yes, to repeat, I like this movie.

Story is overrated to the point of being unnecessary in Mann's film. Above all else, S-T-Y-L-E is key. He filmed in digital, giving 'Vice' an equal parts gritty, in your face look with a more polished, clean look. Filming locations in Florida, the Caribbean, Uruguay, Paraguay, they look phenomenal. This is a movie that doesn't have that overall clean, blockbuster feel. It is shot in the darkness and shadows like we're watching the real thing take place. You add in an eclectic soundtrack with everything from Audioslave to Moby and a lot of others mixed in along with a soft, almost trance-like score from composer John Murphy, and the little things come together nicely. Mann's ability as a visual director is never in question in my book. His movies look great and he composes shots with ease and talent, making it look almost effortless. The problem is when it is all style and basically no story.

I've seen a handful of the original Miami Vice episodes -- my parents watched it -- but I know the gist of the show. Mann decided to go out on a limb in many ways, but most importantly, in terms of character. Crockett and Tubbs are friends, buddies, partners in arms. Farrell and Foxx's version? There's decent chemistry between the two Miami-Dade detectives, but we're given no character/relationship background at any point so it's hard to root for them. Farrell gets far more screen-time (rarely a bad thing) as apparently Foxx was incredibly difficult to work with on-set, but it doesn't amount to much. Instead of flesh and blood characters, we get stylish anti-heroes, cops who know how to look cool, how to do a slow-motion walk like a champ, how to walk away from an explosion, how to have menacing conversations where nothing of said is of actual significance. Oh, and yes, I still liked this movie.

This ain't a cop story. It's a stylish, quasi-artsy cop movie with some odd detours, especially Farrell's Crockett falling hard for Isabella (Li Gong), an international drug dealer's right-hand woman. They go to Cuba, dance, drink and make sweet, passionate love in an extended sequence that accomplishes little. Meanwhile, Tubbs watches out for Trudy (Naomie Harris), his girlfriend and member of the team. Cue shower and sex scene! There is some charm in the Crockett/Isabella story, a doomed relationship that you know won't end well. Mann knows a doomed anti-hero better than anyone and Farrell embraces that character, the moody, almost sullen cop who begins to question what he's doing and the lengths he'll have to go to. I just wish there had been even a little character development other than passionate dance scenes and lots of meaningful looks and intense glances among characters.

Who else to look for? Along with Harris, the Crockett and Tubbs' team includes Justin Theroux, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Domenick Lombardozzi with Ciaran Hinds and Barry Shabaka Henley as two key superior officers. John Ortiz is excellent as Jose Yero, a cartel middle-man who suspects Crockett and Tubbs aren't what they're claiming with Luis Tosar as the drug czar hidden away in the Central American jungle. Also look for John Hawkes and Eddie Marsan in small parts.

So in the end, what can I say? I liked the movie. It's cool. Even though it takes itself far too seriously and has absolutely no sense of humor (there's maybe 3 smiles in the entire movie), it is fun. I thought Farrell was pretty good and carries things through its slower portions, especially with his dreamy hair and epic mustache. The style is cool, Mann assembling it all with ease in almost effortless fashion, albeit at the expense of the story. Things build nicely to a bone-thudding finale as an all-out war breaks out on a dock in the dead of night with heavy-duty automatic weapons tearing the silence open. The ending itself is weak, just kinda ends and boom, CREDITS! It isn't a very good movie -- more Blackhat than Heat unfortunately -- but I found myself entertained throughout. A measured final say.

Miami Vice (2006): ** 1/2 /****