The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Jurassic World

So 22 years have passed since the original Jurassic Park was released back in 1993. Glowing reviews, ridiculous box office, an instant fan favorite and classic, it is a great movie that was fresh and innovative and creative and smart and funny. Now I love a good movie franchise, but this particular one had two okay but definitely not great sequels, The Lost World and Jurassic Park III. For years though, another sequel had been in the works that was supposed to get back to basics, and now we get it. Here's 2015's Jurassic World.

For many years now, InGen has its dinosaur theme park -- Jurassic World -- up and running on Isla Sorna much to the delight of visitors from all over the world. The InGen and park staff though is constantly trying to do bigger and better, to amaze visitors who put down a pretty penny to come and visit the park. Now though, InGen may have gone too far. With the island packed with visitors, the park's operation manager, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), is readying for a visit from her nephews who she hasn't seen in years. That reunion is about to be thrown into chaos though when InGen's and Jurassic World's new genetically-engineered dinosaur goes on the rampage. No one on the island is safe with the park's trainer and quasi-dinosaur expert/specialist, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), one of the few hopes of getting things back under control. Is it too late though? Has mankind gone too far in creating something that simply shouldn't have been created? Let the body count blow up in the meantime!

Yeah, 22 freaking years since Jurassic Park originally hit theaters. I was eight years old! It's an interesting franchise because maybe more than most film turned franchise, 'JP' is a pretty perfect stand-alone movie. It genuinely doesn't need a single sequel, much less three. Still, all three are entertaining, and this most recent venture is genuinely good in that perfect summer blockbuster fashion. From director Colin Trevorrow, 'World' isn't a straight remake of the original, but it's almost the same movie. That's not a bad thing. It is pretty dumb with some questions popping up here and there, but it kept me entertained throughout its 124-minute running time. The 2015 film year is shaping up to be a doozy, and this is a big reason why. Grab some popcorn and sit back and enjoy!

The formula is pretty simple, and those who saw the original or read Michael Crichton's novel know what's coming. Introduce a bunch of people, slightly humanize them, build up unbearable tension about dinosaurs that couldn't possibly escape, let those dinosaurs escape and let the carnage loose! Pretty straightforward, ain't it? I'll delve into the cast in a bit, but the coolest addition to the franchise is indominus rex, a new genetically engineered dinosaur that's mostly tyrannosaurus rex but with some DNA from this animal and more DNA from that animal (Twists as to what are actually pretty good). This is one cool dinosaur, or quasi-dinosaur I guess. It is a killing machine, able to detect thermal signatures while also masking its own. Oh, also, it kills for sport more than for eating so there's that! 'World' doesn't take too long getting this genetically-mutated killer out and about, and the movie's at its strongest when dealing with its newest, most bad-ass character.

Now that's not to say that Chris Pratt's Owen Grady isn't a cool character. He is. Pratt is one of the biggest rising stars in Hollywood right now, and he's clearly having some fun here. Part Dr. Grant, part Ian Malcolm, Pratt's Owen trains the velociraptors or as much as one can train raptors (one of nature's all-time deadliest creations). He is the necessary very cool lead character who must lead the way to survival, being a bad-ass at every opportunity. Case in point? He leads his semi-trained raptors in a hunt....while he's riding a motorcycle. Yeah, it's pretty cool. Howard is the all-business, no-nonsense park operations manager, spending the whole movie in high heels and seemingly always on the run. Give them credit though, through all the chaos I thought Pratt and Howard had some pretty good chemistry.

The rest of the characters are pretty cut and dry. Not too much development, just get to know enough about them to decide if they'll be eaten or not. Irrfan Khan plays the ridiculously rich owner of the park, Vincent D'Onofrio is the InGen security head obsessed with turning the raptors into weapons used in combat, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson as two brothers visiting the island (Claire's nephews), Jake Johnson (an excellent, funny, scene-stealing part) and Lauren Lapkus as operations room employees who see everything blowing up, Omar Sy as Barry, Owen's right-hand man and fellow dinosaur wrangler, Judy Greer as the boys' worrying mom back home, and returning from the original Jurassic Park, BD Wong as Henry Wu, the genetic engineering genius who created the new and improved dinosaurs.

I did have issues with this flick. None of those issues derailed my enjoyment, but I would have liked some answers. Other than a few clever wink-wink moments, nothing is really mentioned of how the disaster that happened on Isla Nubar in Jurassic Park...well, did nothing. Jurassic World seemingly opened up a few years later with a ton of financial backing, and yeah, nothing happened about all those deaths. I didn't need anything spelled out word-for-word, but I would have liked some explanation. Also, the attempt to humanize the dinosaurs -- especially the raptors -- sounds cool and it does work in doses, but I felt like the script hit the audience over the head with the premise more and more in the second half. Meh, not a huge deal. Oh, look, Chris Pratt is on a throwback motorcycle leading raptors on a hunt!!! Cooooooooooool.

Most criticisms here are going to go belly up. Yeah, I had complaints. Yeah, I groaned a couple times because characters are too stupid for their own good. But this is what a summer blockbuster should be. A ton of fun, a ton of excitement, and some good, old-fashioned dinosaur action. Fans of the original will appreciate some nods in that direction, and also and more importantly, putting the T-Rex back into the hierarchy it deserves, something Jurassic Park III tried to dismantle. Not a classic, but well worth a watch for an action-packed, genuinely fun two hours.

Jurassic World (2015): ***/****

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

History's Texas Rising

I am a self-admitted, fully nuts, obsessed Alamo nut. I grew up watching Disney's Davy Crockett episodes and John Wayne's The Alamo and have been reading and watching everything I could find in the many years since. A few years back, I found out I was even related to one of the Alamo defenders who died in the infamous 1836 battle. So when I discovered that History was doing a TV miniseries about the Texas Revolution following the battle of the Alamo, I almost lost my mind. Here it is, the recent five-part TV miniseries, 2015's Texas Rising.

It's March 6, 1836, and Mexican forces under president and dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez) have wiped out the Alamo garrison in a brutal, bloody massacre. Some miles to the west, Texas forces under General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) are trying to build an army to combat Santa Anna's troops that severely outnumber the Texans. Much of Houston's staff and many of his men want to turn and fight the Mexicans, avenge the Alamo massacre, but Houston knows -- even though it's difficult -- that he must pick and choose his spot to fight, even if it means retreating much to the chagrin of his men. So as Houston's men move east across Texas, Santa Anna's forces chase close behind, both sides waiting for their moment to strike. Many will be impacted, from a former slave, Emily West (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), to a deaf Texas Ranger named Erastus Smith (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). In the process, a whole bunch of history will be made.

Much like the western genre, the TV miniseries has gone the way of the do-do bird. Basically, it's extinct. History (formerly the History Channel) seems to have found a way to revive it starting with Hatfields and McCoy and more recently the so-so but generally well-received Sons of Liberty. This recent venture is a five-part miniseries, covering about eight months in 1836 following the massacre at the Alamo. It's a daunting task taken on by director Roland Joffe and his cast and crew with tons of moving pieces from real-life historical figures and events, an immense backdrop, characters covering the entire gamut and so much more. The verdict? Pretty good but not great. I think Joffe and his screenplay writers did a pretty admirable job assembling this whole story into something digestible for casual fans and diehard fans of the time and history.

Maybe the biggest thing going for 'Rising' is that the history just isn't as well known as what precedes the story we see. It starts with an effective scene that takes place maybe an hour or so after the end of the Battle of the Alamo. Most Texas Revolution-themed movies use the following history as an afterthought, but here, it's the guts of the story. Plain and simple, it's cool to see the Runaway Scrape with some detail. Houston and Santa Anna are at the forefront, but we also see Colonel James Fannin (Rob Morrow) and the disaster he causes at Goliad. We see President Andrew Jackson (Kris Kristofferson) back in Washington, keeping tabs on the ever-escalating conflict in Texas. We get a genuine picture of the history and the bigger picture of the time and its impact. I won't bore with the history details, but there's also cool parts for Jeff Fahey, Crispin Glover, Chad Michael Murray while also meeting real-life figures life Alamo messenger Juan Seguin and Mexican officer Juan Almonte. Some cool parts.

The focus of course is on two things, Houston vs. Santa Anna and then the early development of the Texas Rangers. Paxton and Martinez both have some fun with their parts, generally avoiding cliches that could have gone really badly. Paxton's Houston speechifies too much, but in the quieter, more personal moments, you feel like you get a picture of the man who became known as the Father of Texas. Martinez is okay but the script has Santa Anna portrayed far more as a straight villain, a bloodthirsty dictator and ruler. By all accounts, this portrayal is at least somewhat accurate, but it plays too much like an over the top Bond villain.

My favorite part of the movie though was those Texas Rangers, led by Morgan's Erastus 'Deaf' Smith. A hero of the Texas Revolution, 'Deaf' (pronounced 'deef') finally gets his due, and Morgan gives the miniseries' strongest performance. He's dying of tuberculosis but he's going to play out his hand as the revolution heats up. A very strong part for an underrated actor. His men include Brendan Fraser as a white man who lived with the Comanches, Christopher McDonald (Yes, Shooter McGavin) as Karnes, Smith's right-hand man, Jeremy Davies as cowardly Knowles, Rhys Coiro as ladies man Vern, Joe Egender as goofy Beans, Stephen Monroe Taylor as outlaw on the run Gator Davis, and Trevor Donovan as Kit Acklin, a good rider, good guy and a trustworthy partner. The scenes focusing on the Rangers were the movie's strongest I thought whether it be on the trail, in camp or during battle. Some fun parts with Morgan, Fraser and McDonald especially standing out.

It's the rare miniseries that is able to juggle so many balls in the air, and 'Rising' has its flaws. For the most part, the historical accuracy is pretty decent with a few liberties taken here and there. Not much is known about the real-life Emily West so the script fills in the holes by adding a love interest with Sam Houston. It feels forced although Paxton and Robinson do have some chemistry. There are too many plotlines, as simple as that. Thomas Jane and Sarah Jones play the Wykoffs, a family moving into Texas with a story that never gets much development. Robert Knepper's evil empresario is too evil for his own good venturing into caricature as well. Things move around a lot to cover so much ground so it's understandable to get mixed up if you're not familiar with the history. History also aired quick mini-movies about a subplot that seemingly got cut for time. Face it. There's a TON to be dealt with, and 'Rising' I thought did an admirable job juggling it all.

What else to look for? I especially liked Ray Liotta's especially dark turn as Lorca, an Alamo defender who though badly wounded survives the massacre and goes on the warpath, murdering all the Mexicans he meets. I also liked the subplot between two real-life rangers, Jack Hays (Max Thieriot) and Bigfoot Wallace (Robert Baker) as they ride across Texas toward the fighting.

I very much enjoyed this History venture into a known part of history that definitely needs more spotlight. It's cool seeing these people and stories so often brushed to the side in the portrayals of Texas history. From the Alamo to Goliad to the Runaway Scrape to San Jacinto to the fallout following as Texas becomes its own republic, 'Rising' tackles a lot and comes through pretty well. I look forward to seeing this one on DVD again soon. Definitely worth giving a shot, especially if you're a history/Texas/Alamo buff!

Texas Rising (2015): ***/****

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Well, the buzz on 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road has been ridiculously, uniformly, amazingly positive. Critically and with audiences, it is finding its spot in the summer blockbuster world. I really wanted to see it, but then when people were absolutely RAVING about it, I N-E-E-D-E-D to see it. So here we are. It took me a couple weeks, but away with one of the best movies of the year!

Years into the future, the world has torn itself apart, the Earth seemingly on the brink of total destruction. The land is a scorched wasteland where water, food and all the necessities for survival are in incredibly short supply. On this post-apocalyptic, scorched wasteland, a drifter named Max (Tom Hardy) is on his own, an armored car to his name with little else. He's captured by the enforcers of a brutal ruler, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), and kept as a prisoner and universal blood donor, but this isn't the end for this quiet drifter. Immortan Joe's brutal dictatorship is up in the air though as one of his sub-commanders, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has gone rogue. The Imperator has hijacked one of Joe's armored convoys and stole five of his beautiful women breeders and is on the run. Immortan Joe rolls out his entire armored army and tears across the desert in pursuit. Along for the ride in his role as blood donor? Max, waiting for his chance to break free.

Holy crazy movie. It's been three days since I saw this movie, and I'm still recovering! Oh, totally in a good way if there was any confusion. Director George Miller directed the three Mad Max movies from the late 1970s and into the 1980s, the trilogy starring Mel Gibson as Max. Miller has stayed busy in the years since, but he returns here to put an incredible new spin on a familiar character and franchise. And that's my rule. If you're going to reboot a franchise, DO....IT....RIGHT. This film takes the elements that made the original Mad Max so popular (some in cult classic fashion), throws it in the blender, adds some new extreme elements -- I would say mind-inducing drugs -- and tears it up. As a post-apocalyptic story, as an action movie, as a gigantically successful blockbuster, 'Fury' is unlike just about any movie you've ever seen and very much for the better.

As a visual medium, in storytelling technique, in its frenetic action, Miller creates a world. His post-apocalyptic world is bizarre and trippy and unsettling and deranged and completely amazing to watch. Whole studies and papers could be written about the visual look of the world. Immortan Joe wears a bizarre suit that encapsulates its lecherous body while also favoring a mask covering his teeth that gives him a predatory look. His army of War Boys wear black pants, no shirts, have shaved heads and are painted an immaculate white. The surviving peasants wear rags, desperately awaiting handouts from Joe and his forces. It's more than that though. It's how they talk, how they interact, the culture we're introduced to, the little excruciatingly cool details. Not everything is spelled out, not everything is explained, but the trip into this drugged out, sand-ravaged world where death is incredibly cheap and even trivial, it all works. All those little things come together to work in perfect fashion, like puzzle pieces clicking into place.

So if you ask me, Tom Hardy can do no wrong. I've loved just about every role he's done, but this one is interesting. This is his first personal starring franchise as he's signed on for several more Mad Max movies, supposedly four. What's remarkable about this part? He says virtually nothing the entire movie other than one late monologue, and that's all strategy and planning, nothing personal about him. This is a performance of presence and owning the screen without much in the way of dialogue. We know little about Hardy's Max Rockatansky other than that he has hallucinations of his daughter, which clicks with the original trilogy. We know virtually nothing about him and are given even less as the money goes along. What are we left with? A man hell-bent on survival even as he's thrust into a horrific battle of life and death that he has nothing to do with. I hope the future Mad Max movies delve into Max's character and background more, but in the meantime, his presence and on-screen persona are more than enough.

Let's be honest though. This movie could have been called Mad Max and Imperator Furiosa: Fury Road. The movie's success hinges on Hardy and Theron. There just aren't many female action heroes, and Theron's Furiosa is a doozy of a success. Hair cropped close to her head, black makeup over her eyes and forehead, one-armed, Furiosa is a true film badass. She's had enough of working for Immortan Joe and steals his women, escapes and plans to resettle in the Green Place, where she grew up. It's cool to see a strong female action hero, on the same level as her male counterpart. There just isn't much dialogue for Max and Furiosa to bond, but through their horrific trials on the run, they do form an uneasy, somewhat trusting partnership. An excellent one-two punch in lead performances.

A cast member of the original Mad Max movie from 1979, Keays-Byrne is an incredible villain, an imposing and intimidating presence who's visual look is as terrifying as the character itself. His rivals turned partners are named the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) and the People Eater (John Howard), their armies of enforcers along for the ride. Representing the War Boys is Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a young fighter so desperately seeking and fighting for Immortan Joe's approval. With names like Toast the Knowing, the Splendid Angharad, Capable, the Dag and Cheedo the Fragile, Joe's breeding women include Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton. Also look for Nathan Jones as Rictus, Joe's muscle-bound son, always by his side ready to dispatch any enemies.

The style and world is awesome. Hardy and Theron are quite memorable. Blah blah blah. This is one of the most ridiculously entertaining, hugely stylized action movies EVER. E-V-E-R. What's special though is that Miller and Co. appeared to have actually filmed much of the action sequences. Novel concept, ain't it? Sure, there's CGI sprinkled here and there, but a majority of the action was filmed with real cars and real people doing some crazy, goofy stunts. This is a 2-hour car chase. That's it and that's all. We get little glimpses of the people, who they are and the world they live in, but this is a 2-hour car chase. Process that. It's crazy and high-reaching when you think about what Miller set out to do and then execute the plan so strongly. Max, Furiosa and the breeders end up on the War Rig, a tricked out, armored oil tanker hauling ass across the desert with warring caravans of scavengers and marauders hot on their trail. The long shots of these murdering scavengers tearing across the desert are beautiful and simple and straightforward, always keeping the viewer apprised of where the action is and how it's developing.

It's hard to put into words how visceral, how adrenaline-pumping these scenes really are. There's just this manic energy on display with each passing scene. As Tyrese said in Fast/Furious 6, it's vehicular warfare....on steroids. Immortan Joe's forces hunt them down with brutal intensity, cars and motorcycles and trucks chasing them across the desert. The action is one thing though. The execution is another. Joe's forces ride into battle to War Boys riding on trucks playing snare drums. One man wearing red footy pajamas is strapped to a truck as he plays a three-pronged guitar that is also...a flamethrower. What? WHAT?!? The score -- heavy drums, heart-pounding throughout -- from Dutch multi-instrumentalist Junkie XL is perfectly suited to the action, adding more energy and chaos (because that's what it needed) to the already energetic, chaotic, frenetic violence. Give the soundtrack a listen HERE. Watch the movie for yourself. It's better seen several times than read in a review.

What a movie. WHAT A MOVIE.  A gusty script from Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris takes so many chances with its sparse dialogue and almost complete lack of characterization. The formula they used instead is pretty perfect. It took me a couple days to really process this one, but I liked and loved it more with each passing day. So freaking good. It shouldn't work this well -- just shouldn't -- but it does in all its unpredictable chaos.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): ****/****

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Road to Perdition

Right up there with pizza, hot dogs, baseball and the Windy City nickname, the city of Chicago is often remembered guessed it. Gangsters! From Al Capone to the Untouchables and a whole lot of violence in between, Chicago's gangster history is well-documented, a feature well covered in film and pop culture. One of the best though? It's not based on a true story, but you can definitely see it happening in real life. Here is the excellent, beautifully told, stylish gangster drama, 2002's Road to Perdition.

It's the late 1920s and young Michael Sullivan (Tyler Hoechlin) is your typical 12-year old. He fights with his younger brother, struggles some at school, and loves reading about heroes of the old west. That relatively peaceful life is about to be thrown for a loop. His father, Michael Sullivan Sr. (Tom Hanks), is a brutally efficient enforcer for an Irish mob boss, John Rooney (Paul Newman), in Rock Island, Illinois.  One night, Michael follows his father on a nighttime job and witnesses a hit that he clearly was not supposed to see. The unintentional incident steamrolls into something far bigger and far deadlier than young Michael ever intended. Now, father and son are on the road, hiding out and simply trying to survive, all the while a sinister hired killer, Maguire (Jude Law), hot on their trail. The elder Sullivan is now looking out for himself, his son, the killer hunting them and at the same time enacting a plan to exact vengeance on those who have wronged him.

That's not my best work putting together a plot synopsis. I don't want to give too much away in terms of the story because there are some genuinely good twists that do come as a bit of a shock. A lot going on in terms of storytelling overall, but getting there is half the fun in this 2002 gangster/crime drama.

There are more action-packed gangster flicks, more mainstream than this film, but I don't know if there's too many better. You look at the entire package, and this is one excellent movie, a classic if you ask me. This is director Sam Mendes' follow-up to 1999's American Beauty, and 'Perdition' is a gem. I'll get more specific as we go, but there's just so much going on and it all flows together. The story is exceedingly simple but with complex layers mixed in. It's not always clear where it's going, but Mendes know where it is going, and that's what is most important. The characters, the story, the filming techniques. It is all pretty flawless if you ask me. My recent viewing was the first in many years, and it resonated more now than in previous viewings. Scary to think 'Perdition' is already 13 years old but this is a film that has definitely held up.

This isn't a perfect movie. But judging it solely based on technical features? It's pretty perfect. The cinematography, the set design, the style, the musical score, the scene-to-scene visuals, my goodness, 'Perdition' is on point. Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall (earning an Academy Award win) is at the helm of a gorgeous movie. It's not a colorful movie -- lots of dark tones -- but entire scenes appear almost as if they were lifted out of a painting. You feel like you're in 1930s gangster-dominated Chicago throughout. The cars, the sets -- including Chicago locations -- the wardrobe, everything feels like you've time-traveled. Some movies, they don't call attention to these things. 'Perdition' does it in effortless fashion. It doesn't call attention to its prowess, it just does it and lets you appreciate it all. Also picking up a nomination (albeit without the win) is Thomas Newman for his musical score, a heavily Irish-themed score that elevates the movie in so many scenes, one after another. Give it a sample HERE.

The guts of the story is the father-son relationship between Michael Sr. and Michael Jr., but also between Michael and his surrogate father of sorts, Newman's Rooney. There's also Rooney's tortured relationship with his own son, Connor (Daniel Craig). Hanks plays against type a bit as Sullivan, dubbed the Angel of Death, a hard-edged man who is far from an emotional father. He struggles to be close with his eldest son mostly because he sees so much of himself in his son. Likewise, the son wants to be close to his father but isn't quite sure of how to go about that. Through the most unfortunate of situations, they're forced to become closer on the road, running for their lives, and with Michael trying to exact revenge against his previous employers. Their scenes together are quiet and understated, two individuals getting to really know each other for the first time. An excellent performance from Hanks as well as young Hoechlin who holds his own and then some.

Across the board, there isn't a weak performance in the cast. As John Rooney, Paul Newman is a scene-stealer in an emotional, quiet part. Not a ton of screentime, but he steals those scenes like a true pro. It's cool as well to see a pre-James Bond Daniel Craig as his weaselly son, Connor, always causing trouble that he can't get himself out of. Also in the playing against type department, Law is perfectly creepy as Maguire, the sinister hired killer who's tracking the Sullivans as they're on the run. Yeah, he's efficient and almost emotionless, but he clearly gets some enjoyment out of his horrifically bloody work. Also look for Stanley Tucci as Frank Nitti, an Al Capone underboss in Chicago, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Michael's loving wife, Liam Aiken as Peter, the younger Sullivan brother, and Ciaran Hinds as an underboss for Rooney who may be in some hot water.

For a gangster/mobster movie, the action isn't left and right machine gun pacing. When it comes, the violence is quick and startling but not horrifically graphic. Because it isn't used as much, when it does pop up on-screen, it is far more emotionally effective. One late shootout is easily top 5 most stylish action scenes I've ever watched, silence and darkness lingering in the air. The immediate follow-up is equally memorable, an extended shot following one character through an elegant Chicago hotel with quite the punch of a finale. The ending isn't especially surprising but it is especially effective. A great movie, one I really enjoyed catching up with and can easily and highly recommend.

Oh, and just as a trivia tidbit, my Uncle Bob is an extra in the movie. He's clearly visible in one scene a little over halfway through the movie as Hanks' Michael walks into a bank. Yeah, he steals the movie.

Road to Perdition (2002): ****/****

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Spy (2015)

First, there was the solid Bridesmaids in 2011. Then a couple years later The Heat in 2013. Following the every two-year formula, director Paul Feig and star Melissa McCarthy have teamed up again for another winner, hitting theaters this past weekend to very solid reviews and a very solid box office showing. Here's 2015's Spy.

For most of 10 years, Susan Cooper (McCarthy) has been an excellent analyst for the CIA, helping agents with her focus on details and all the little things. For years, she's worked with a suave, smooth and efficient agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), and has even developed some unanswered feelings for him. Now though, the CIA is in trouble. The daughter of a crime boss with ties to terrorists, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), has come into possession of a small-yield nuclear device and placed it out there for the highest bidder. An additional problem for the CIA? Boyanov knows the identity of all its field agents so anyone who would be sent to track her would be in even more danger. There's only one option, and that would be Susan. With no field experience and working all those years stashed away in a basement starting at a computer screen, Susan is tasked with tracking and identifying Rayna before she can sell the nuclear device. Heading into the real world of espionage with so much on the line, can Susan pull it off?

Give credit where it's due. When Feig and McCarthy team up, they've had nothing but solid results. More impressive than that though is how they do it. Comedies can be pretty run of the mill, a reason I don't always check new comedies out in theaters. This duo and their talented crews and casts look for familiar angles/stories and try to put a fresh, unique spin on those tried and true techniques. Bridesmaids had the girlish rom-com, Heat the buddy cop relationship and here with Spy, a deftly-handled almost-spoof of espionage flicks like the James Bond and Jason Bourne series. They find what makes those angles work and tweak them here and there for something familiar with something that usually catches you by surprise. Of the three, I'd put Spy right behind The Heat, but this new comedy was excellent. Go out and see it. You shan't be disappointed.

Not everybody seems to like her -- blame Identity Thief and Tammy -- but I'm a big Melissa McCarthy fan. I really, really disliked Identity Thief a few years back, but you had to admire her energy. She commits and goes hard for the laughs. So what about when the movie is good and she's on-board with that energy? As an audience, we're in for some fun. Yes, she's funny, but it's because she's able to switch back and forth effortlessly between impeccable line deliveries and perfect physical humor. There aren't a ton of actresses out there right now who are genuinely funny, but McCarthy is at or near the top of that list. Feig's script gives her plenty of chances for laughs, and she doesn't miss too many. Her Susan Cooper is a quiet, polite, detail-oriented systems analyst...until she isn't. Thrust into a hazardous mission after years of being desk-bound, Susan finds a hard edge that she puts to good use to bring things together. An excellent performance from the very funny McCarthy.

The script certainly has its fun with McCarthy's Cooper, sometimes too much. At times, I thought it went too far beating her down, cutting her out at the knees. When it works though, those moments are very funny. Case in point? Susan doesn't get a glamorous cover...far from it. She gets the chance to pose as a cat lady, a middle-aged mom, and all sorts of other embarrassing covers. Through it all, McCarthy goes for it, smoothing over some of the rough spots.

The movie's strongest moments are in its spoof-like qualities. I should say this clearly isn't a spoof of the spy genre. It just knows the genre, plays it seriously while having some serious fun with all the familiar genre touches. The opening credits play like a James Bond credits song, the opening action sequence has been in countless 007 flicks, and you feel like you're actually watching a Bond flick. The laughs though, my goodness, they're G-O-O-D. Jason Statham absolutely steals every scene he's in as Rick Ford, a grizzled CIA agent and a spy who is ALL that is man. He's seen everything and will let you know he's seen and survived everything the world can throw at him. His character consists of countless line deliveries explaining the harrowing experiences he's made it through, one more ridiculous than the other. I had two favorites. One, explaining how one of his arms was ripped off, but the other arm was able to put reattach it. Two, Ford offering to go into the Face/Off in the one used in the 1997 action movie Face/Off. Priceless stuff.

Some very talented people clearly enjoy working with Feig as a director, especially McCarthy. The cast is so good here, much of it the script but also worth mentioning is that they look to be having a ridiculous amount of fun. Statham is a scream, and Law as his co-worker but still rival agent goes for the more suave James Bond angle. As Statham's Ford explains it, a rivalry of MEN. Byrne hams it up just the right amount as the dastardly evil villain (with a giant hair-do) and has some great scenes with McCarthy as they go toe-to-toe. Along with McCarthy and Statham, my favorite part was Peter Serafinowicz as Aldo, Susan's Italian guide, a ladies man, constantly horny, and rather handsy. Too many good laughs to mention. Also worth mentioning is Miranda Hart as Nancy, Susan's work friend who's similarly bookish, a little mousey and looking for some fun In other supporting parts, look for Allison Janney, Morena Baccarin, Bobby Cannavale, and even 50 Cent making an appearance as himself.

This is a really easy movie to like, even love for some viewers no doubt. There aren't many comedies that are both really smart and really dumb at the same time, but this one qualifies. An extremely talented cast, a good script and unique ideas with people willing to think outside the box a little. Hard to beat that. Definitely go see this one.

Spy (2015): ***/****

Monday, June 8, 2015


That John Ford, he left his fingerprints wherever he went. His classic 1934 war film The Lost Patrol was spun and spun quickly into remakes over the next 20 or so years, including westerns, Last of the Comanches (an underrated gem), a Soviet film using the same premise, and two World War II movies released the same year in 1943, Sahara and Bataan. Today's review. A Pacific setting with Bataan.

In the months following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces sweep across the Pacific against an unprepared American army. The fighting is especially rough on the Bataan peninsula, American forces retreating and defending with ever-dwindling supplies. Small forces are being ordered to hold their positions, including Sergeant Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) and Corporal Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell). Their mission? Blow up a key bridge over a deep mountain pass and prevent Japanese forces from rebuilding the bridge and advancing on the retreating army. They join a small squad that's been assembled to do the job, commanded by Captain Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman), and pull it off, the bridge going up in a huge, ground-shaking explosion. Lassiter is killed soon after though by a Japanese sniper, leaving a command void. Sgt. Dane steps in, pulling the men together as they prepare to hold off a Japanese force that's increasing in numbers by the hour.

World War II is often remembered for the Allied victories like D-Day, Iwo Jima and countless others. The defeats? Not so much. This isn't a defeat. This is the WWII defeat. Outnumbered and under-supplied, American and Filipino forces held out for three months before surrendering and ultimately becoming part of the infamous, horrifying Bataan Death March. How then do you spin that story to an audience during a war where the fighting raged stronger than ever? You don't spin it. You present it almost as is with all the gruesome, hard-to-watch truths. From director Tay Garnett, this is a no-frills, brutally dark and effective anti-war movie that manages to illustrate the heroism of those men fighting on Bataan.

Movies released during a war about said war tend to be straight, out-and-out propaganda flicks, stories and characters meant to inspire and get the audience's patriotic juices flowing. This movie....does not, not in the typical sense at least. Without resorting to any flag-waving tactics, 'Bataan' lays things out there about the heroism of the soldiers fighting on Bataan. The truth of it is that these men were basically abandoned by the government and armed forces because rescue simply wasn't possible. They did a nasty job all the while knowing that the end of the road would not be a pleasant one. Here in 'Bataan,' a small 13-man squad is stationed in the jungle on a remote hillside overlooking a bridge in a mountain pass. This battle will not change the course of the war or even be remembered, but in the face of impossible, almost suicidal odds, these men stayed and fought. A true story? Nothing documented, but you know firefights and battles like this happened, and that's what rings true the strongest.

This ahead of its time WWII flick gets points because of its casting. The squad left behind to do the job features an array of multi-ethnic characters, including white, black, Hispanic and Filipino soldiers defending the bridge. I'm typically hurt or miss about Robert Taylor, but this is one of his absolute best. His Sergeant Bill Dane is the American soldier, a tough, no-nonsense veteran trying to hold his command together. His growling voice, his chin covered with a two-day growth of beard, he looks like a tough NCO you'd want to follow into battle. Some of the movie's strongest dramatic moments have Dane quietly considering if what he's doing is right, if maybe he should give the order to retreat. But no, a soldier's duty is a soldier's duty, even if doing his job is incredibly dangerous and could likely claim both his life and the lives of all his men. Kudos to Mr. Taylor, an excellent, scene-stealing performance.

A forerunner of movies like The Dirty Dozen, 'Bataan' features an ensemble cast of actors from different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. In that's impressive. Along with Taylor and Mitchell, look for Lt. Bentley (George Murphy), the pilot with a busted plane, Cpl. Todd (Lloyd Nolan), the troublemaker, Purckett (Robert Walker), the talkative sailor, Ramirez (Desi Arnaz), the tough Latino out of Los Angeles, Matowski (Barry Nelson), an engineer, Hardy (Phillip Terry), the medic, Katigback (Roque Espiritu), a Filipino pilot, Salazar (Alex Havier), the Filipino scout, Eeps (Kenneth Spencer), an African-American soldier and demo expert, and Malloy (Tom Dugan), the grizzled vet and cook. In as subtle fashion as possible, the cast shows the complete effort of the war, that everyone was involved in fighting and working together. White, black, Filipino, Hispanic, any and all, a cast and story ahead of its time concerning war movies.

Maybe the most striking thing about the movie is its portrayal of violence. We're not talking Peckinpah-esque blood squibs, but there is blood. The violence is brutal and harsh without being graphic. It is quick and hard-hitting, the camera never lingering too long on any one scene. Characters are dispatched without warning, often in shocking fashion. An extended hand-to-hand combat scene late actually has the film sped up, giving the fighting a frantic, chaotic feel. The movie is interested in getting a message across, but again, handles it in incredibly subtle fashion. What is it? Sacrifices have to be made in war, and here, these men are ready to give their lives to hold this otherwise pointless speck on the map. The ending especially works, maybe the only real incident of true propaganda in the entire movie, but it just flows. A very emotionally effective ending.

Oh, and one more thing. 'Bataan' was filmed mostly on an indoor set, a claustrophobic, congested jungle flush with vegetation. Fog rolls in, blanketing the outpost at almost all times. Japanese snipers are all around, an almost entirely unseen enemy just waiting to strike. As far as mood and setting the scene, this WWII film is pretty perfect. The whole movie is for that matter. A gem of a film, one of the first anti-war films I can remember. Gutsy considering it was released right in the midst of the war.

Bataan (1943): ****/****

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure

I've never hid my feelings about sequels and remakes. Sure, they can be lazy and big, old cash-cows, but if there's a need to make more movies or an interesting plotline or character(s), then I'm all for it. Same for remakes. If the original sucked or had untapped potential, then fire away. But the other efforts? The purely for the big payday efforts...yeah, here we are today. I watched 1979's Beyond the Poseidon Adventure because I could, because I'm an idiot and...yeah, here's the review.

It's New Year's Eve and Captain Mike Turner (Michael Caine) is on the Mediterranean Sea on his tugboat, the Jenny, with his first mate, partner and friend, crusty seaman, Wilbur (Karl Malden), and a spunky young woman, Celeste (Sally Field), they picked up at their last port. Turner is in some serious financial trouble and will likely see his boat repossessed very soon. But out at sea, they stumble across the floating wreckage of the S.S. Poseidon as a helicopter flies away overhead. Turner's eyes light up. He claims the salvage rights for the ship and taking a huge risk tries to get onto the capsized cruise ship. Turner isn't alone though. Another ship boards, a Dr. Stefan Svevo (Telly Savalas) explaining his ship heard a distress signal and he intends to help any potential survivors. The ship could sink or explode at any moment, but Turner and Co. head into the wreckage, hoping to find some sort of treasure, money, diamonds...if they can survive.

What the hell? I mean, come on. Really? It took Master of Disaster Irwin Allen (directing and producing here) seven years to get this sequel made after the mega-success of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. I liked the original Poseidon even if I didn't love it. It's hard not to appreciate it for all that it accomplished, influencing whole genres and hundreds of movies since. You know what it didn't call for? A sequel. As in AT ALL. This is an opportunity to make money, pure, plain and simple. Worst than that, it isn't even guilty pleasure good. The cast is interesting as they usually are with disaster movies, but mostly, it is just B-A-D.

It is literally the same movie with one minor change. We've got idiots heading into the sinking ship that is continually rocked with explosions. Sure, the reasons are greed-based (just about everyone can get on-board with that) but really? REALLY?!? And let's think about this for a minute. Does anyone actually believe that Telly Savalas is telling the truth? It's Telly Freaking Savalas. There's simply no way that he is what he says he is. The problem becomes that when the twist is revealed, it is absolutely ridiculous, ending in a gunfight in a cargo hold. So yeah, that happens but the twisting and turning story stretches the limits even for an unnecessary sequel. If it helps your peace of mind (and it should), things don't get better as the running time approaches two hours. It gets worse.

So at this point, the saving grace has to be the star power of the cast. The cast is pretty solid in name recognition, and the formula is the same as most disaster movies. Introduce all our Hollywood stars and see who makes it out relatively unscathed. This was an interesting part of Michael Caine's career, one he's admitted he was in it for the money. There's gems like The Swarm and more into the 1980s, Jaws IV: The Revenge. He was rough in 'Swarm,' but he's actually pretty decent here. He commits to the part/script -- however bad -- and goes for it. Along with Field, Malden and Savalas, there's also Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Shirley Jones, Shirley Knight, Paul Picerni, Slim Pickens, Mark Harmon, Veronica Hamel, and Angela Cartwright rounding out our assorted ensemble of survivors. Give them some sort of personal background, throw them together and let things fall apart from there. It does so in pretty spectacular fashion.

Things get pretty out of control, truly boring and bad in the second half. The twists are ridiculous, and scene-to-scene, it just feels like everyone is trying too hard. Sally Field is at her disgustingly adorable cutest, always ready with a nervous one-liner in the face of impending doom. Slim Pickens hams it up like his paycheck depended on it and other stuff happens with other actors. Meh, just really bad pretty much from the get-go. Not even guilty pleasure good. Just lousy.

Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979): */****