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, March 31, 2015

Highway 301

I was worried about 90 seconds into 1950's Highway 301. Real worried. This crime thriller from the Age of Film Noir looked to be diving into the genre flick...with a warning that crime is BAD. Oh no! Worse? Those warnings come from the real-life governors of three states. So immediately a story that sounded like it had a ton of potential was turning into something not so appealing. Did it drive out of the nasty detour? Thankfully, YES.

It's the early 1930s and a gang of vicious killers and bank robbers are cutting a swath across a three-state area including Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. No job is too big or small and no life is worth more much to this small gang of gangsters that's been dubbed the Tri-State Gang. At their head is an escaped convict, George Legenza (Steve Cochran), who leads the gang with a brutally efficient, sinister hand. If anything (ANYTHING) gets in the gang's way, he'll plug it with a bullet and move on no questions asked, no emotions hanging in the air. The gang's dubious exploits and a trail of dead bodies has caught the eye of the F.B.I. and law enforcement agencies all over the three state area. Legenza and his gang haven't been too interested in hiding their faces, and that decision may come back to bite them. Time is running out and the gauntlet is getting tighter and tighter.

Right up there with war, western and sci-fi flicks, one of my favorite genres is and has been the film noir genre. This 1950 crime thriller from director Andrew L. Stone isn't an out-and-out film noir entry. Instead, it has that distinct noir feel -- mood and style against a dark, often nighttime backdrop -- mixed in with a more straightforward crime thriller. This is based on a true story (read more about the gang HERE) so 'Highway' has the distinct feel of a crime thriller documentary, almost like something TV's Dragnet would focus on in the next two decades. We get that fly on the wall feel. We see both sides, crooks and cops, with characters often addressing the camera directly, especially those on the law enforcement side. It is a style that finds a groove between the noir genre and the more straightforward crime thriller angle, and all for the better.

That blending of genre works because....well, this is a particularly nasty movie for a 1950 audience. Yeah, 1950s film noir and crime thrillers were particularly dark, but there was almost always some flawed, imperfect anti-hero who you could slightly root for. The focus here in 'Highway' does detour some from the gang but not a lot. This is a movie about a murdering, ruthless bloody gang. Cochran is a vile, nasty scene-stealer. An actor who never became a huge star, usually starring in B-movies and appearing on countless TV shows, Cochran is the perfect villain here. His Legenza -- an escaped convict with murder and burglary raps on his record -- is emotionless, his brutal crimes not fazing him in the least. He kills because he doesn't want to get caught. It is a business decision and little else. Something in his way? With the snap of a finger, Legenza will knock you off. Just a terrifyingly effective bad guy who doesn't get the attention he deserves in the genre.

Watch out for the rest of the Tri-State Gang too though. Cochran's Legenza is the head of the snake, but this isn't a bunch to take on lightly. Also look for Robert Webber and Wally Cassell as the most visible of the gang, Legenza's most trusted men. Neither man is as efficiently and brutally cold as their gang leader, but it's close. Adding an interesting angle to the gang is the wives of the members, including the cynical, smart-mouthed Virginia Grey (with Cassel) and innocent Canadian woman Gaby Andre who marries Webber not knowing what her newlywed husband's occupation truly is. It's a cool change of pace within the genre-bender, showing female characters amidst the gangland chaos. Not as visible as the other parts of the game, also look for Richard Egan and Edward Norris to round out the gang.

Director/writer Stone is at the helm of a surprisingly good, interesting flick here. It crackles along at 83 minutes, covering a lot of ground and mixing in some robberies and heists with some shootouts, betrayals and chases along the way. It's never really in doubt how this will end once law enforcement (including lead officer Edmon Ryan) gets heavily involved, but it remains solid throughout as we see exactly how this gang will meet its end. When it comes along, it is a very satisfying finale. Not a well-known film, but one that's easy to recommend. A very dark, cool change of scenery for an at times familiar genre.

Highway 301 (1950): ***/****

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Million Dollar Arm

It's that time of the year again, the best sports time of the year! For the sports fan in your life, there's March Madness mixed in with the home stretch of both the NBA and NHL regular seasons before the playoffs begin. What am I forgetting? Hmm, I'm drawing a blank. Oh, right! It's baseball season! If that isn't as good a time as any for a baseball-themed movie, I don't know what is. I missed it in theaters last year, but here's 2014's Million Dollar Arm.

A longtime sports agent with a solid reputation, J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) has hit a bit of a rough patch. Check that, an EPIC rough patch. The firm he started with a friend and fellow agent has lost almost all of its clients, most of them to retirement, others for various other reasons. The money is running out quickly and the threat of completely losing his business is becoming more and more likely.  He's got to come up with something unique and by pure, dumb luck, J.B. might be onto something. Watching cricket one night, the agent begins to question if he could turn a cricket player from India with no baseball experience into a major league baseball pitcher. It sounds crazy, but maybe just perfectly crazy enough to work. He finds a sponsor who gives him an impressive budget and just a year with which to make the transformation. Traveling to India with limited time, can J.B. pull it off?

Over a two or three-month span last year, I saw the trailer for 'Million' in front of every single movie I saw. EVERY movie. Inevitably, whoever I was with would usually say 'Hey, that movie looks like you.' I took it as a compliment. Sports? Yes, I approve. Baseball? Yep, my favorite sport. Underdog story based on a true story? Yes and Yes, count me in. I enjoyed this movie after a somewhat slow start. Is it anything particularly new or groundbreaking? That would be a big N-O. Still, if you like sports movies, you'll get a kick out of this one.

From director Craig Gillespie, 'Million' is in fact based on a true story, the real-life Bernstein developing his reality contest dubbed 'Million Dollar Arm.' If I have any recommendation, it's this; don't read into the story that inspired the movie. Go in with a clean slate and enjoy the screenplay as it develops. I don't want to go into too much detail, but there is a cookie-cutter feel to the underdog sports movie. It covers a lot of ground and feels a little forced at times but never goes too far overboard. It's the type of story you wouldn't believe if you didn't know it was based in reality. From California to an extended trip to India and then back to sunny California and Arizona, 'Million' is a solid, good, old-fashioned sports flick. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Now as it heads into its final season, I'll admit I've never seen an episode of AMC's Mad Men. Therefore, I don't have a huge background with Mr. Don Draper himself, Jon Hamm. I thought he was very good in The Town but that's about the extent of my knowledge. How about here as agent J.B. Bernstein? It's a good part, not a great part, the character limited by a script that sticks to the cliches when the chips are down. Hamm's Bernstein's is a single, smooth, charming ladies man who finds his single life thrown upside down when his business starts to struggle. We try to humanize him through normal, attractive, perfect fit for him even though he can't see it renter of his backyard bungalow, Brenda (Lake Bell in adorable, every girl mode). This possible love interest teaches him to feel, to be nice to people, to not always look out for himself. Yeah, it's that type of subplot. So while it isn't always Hamm's fault, it does become an issue.

So six paragraphs in, you might think this is going to be a negative review (It sure reads like one). I liked this one a lot, but not because of the Bernstein character who I found generally unlikable. If more focus would have been placed on the Indian cricket players, I think the movie becomes that much stronger. We meet Rinku (Suraj Sharma, of Life of Pi) and Dinesh (Madhur Mittal), two young Indian men with no real baseball experience who are athletically inclined enough they can throw a baseball semi-accurately around 85 mph. Transplanted to America because of that skill, it is the definition of a fish out of water story. With some help from a baseball-loving translator, Amit (Pitobash), who travels with them, they try to adjust, try to learn English and baseball and a new culture, not exactly an easy thing to pull off. In these moments, the movie is at its strongest.

A movie through the boys' eyes would have been fascinating. Instead, we get a movie about the boys through the eyes of J.B.. It is a formula that works, but the story could have been stronger with some tweaks here and there. I really liked Bill Paxton as Tom House, the USC pitching coach trying to introduce the boys to all the nuances of American baseball, and also liked Aasif Mandvi as Aash, J.B.'s friend and fellow agent. Alan Arkin isn't around for long other than to be a crotchety, curmudgeonly old man as Ray, an experienced baseball scout who's past his prime but still has the eye for that special talent. Also look for Darshan Jariwala as Vivek, J.B.'s office manager of sorts who introduces him to all the ways of doing business in Indian fashion.

'Million' does have some surprises up its sleeve in the second half, and things definitely pick up for the better as a potential tryout with MLB scouts approaches. Yeah, there are too many moments that are for the Disney-crowd, family and all that sugary sweet stuff. Still, it is a tried and true formula that when handled, it just works. If you like sports movies, you'll like this one. Remember to stick through the credits as we see the real J.B., Rinku and Dinesh in some great pictures. I like Sharma and Mittal a lot, the two actors able to humanize their parts without resorting too much to any sports cliches. Nothing flashy but a good movie just the same.

Million Dollar Arm (2014): ***/****

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


I've been in a bit of a movie funk of late. I've given some newer flicks a try and couldn't/didn't get through them. The same for some older entries, movies that just didn't pull me in quick enough. Well, it is as good a time as any to revisit some reviews and give them an old-fashioned update. Today's review, 1967's Chuka, an underrated western I caught for the first time as I was just starting my reviews here at Just Hit Play.

Out of the snow-capped, frigid mountains of the north, a man named Chuka (Rod Taylor) rides south into the desert. A hired gun and a saddle bum, he has not set destination but is quickly realizing he's riding into the beginnings of an Indian uprising. As he rides across the desert, Chuka stumbles across a waylaid stagecoach carrying two women, one a woman from his past many years ago, the beautiful Senora Veronica Kleitz (Luciana Paluzzi). He agrees to escort them to the nearest outpost, Fort Clendennon but has no idea what he's heading into. The fort is commanded by a former English army officer now serving in the U.S. cavalry, Colonel Valois (John Mills), who is ignoring all the telltale signs of the coming uprising. Can Chuka convince the stubborn colonel to do something or is the entire outpost doomed to be wiped out by the warring Arapaho warriors?

This was a Netflix find for me way back in 2009. I'd never heard of it despite its impressive cast, much less seen a single minute of it. It left quite an impression on me then, and it did again on this recent revisit courtesy of Encore Westerns. The biggest reason? Made on the relative cheap, it is B-L-E-A-K. This is one dark, nasty western from director Gordon Douglas. It has the feel of a TV movie, but my goodness, it doesn't pull any punches. 'Chuka' is a tough guy movie for guys. Plain and simple. There aren't heroic good guys or even despicable villains, just flawed folks in a hellish situation looking for some way -- any way really -- to get out unscathed and keep on living. If there's no way out? Well, hell, let's have a bloody finish.

One of Hollywood's more underrated tough guys and one of my favorites, Rod Taylor passed away this past January at the age of 84 after a long, distinguished career. This is a dark role even for Taylor, ranking up there with Dark of the Sun as one of his more highly charged tough guy roles. I like his Chuka character, a reflection of where the western genre was in 1967. He's not particularly heroic, thinks of himself for the most part and has a reputation as a brutal gunslinger. It's a cool part because it is so brutally efficient. He is the anti-hero, a flawed figure, and as far as westerns go, you don't see a lot of main characters who are just what they seem. Chuka is a saddle tramp, a drifter, a killer and trying not to get shot in the back because of his bloody, body-riddled past. Taylor is always an above average screen presence, and he looks to be having some fun with this darker part.

How about the rest of the cast? It isn't a huge cast -- that whole B-movie feel -- but what's there, it's pretty preemo. John Mills is the flawed outpost commander, his checkered past floating over him at all times. Redemption? You bet, no matter the cost. Ernest Borgnine has some fun too in a role he specialized over the years, the tough as nails right hand man, playing Sgt. Otto Hahnsbach, Valois' loyal NCO who's served next to him for years. The always reliable James Whitmore plays Lou Trent, the fort's drunken scout who forms a fast friendship with Chuka upon his arrival. Paluzzi unfortunately isn't given much to do other than look worried/distressed, but dang, she's gorgeous. Also look for Victoria Vetri as her traveling companion, Louis Hayward as the cowardly Major Benton, and Joseph Sirola as Baldwin, the stagecoach guard who finds himself trapped in the fort with all the others.

So that whole bleak angle....yeah, this is one rough western. There are some slower portions -- Taylor and Paluzzi reuniting just ain't as interesting -- but the focus is this isolated, lonely outpost with a small army of Arapaho warriors waiting to attack. The odds are (to say the least) stacked against them. The fort's garrison? From Mills' Valois and his officers down to the enlisted men, these are the dregs of the army, all of them screw-ups, foul-ups, thieves, killers and deserters. A massacre seems impossible unless something is done and done quickly. A brutal knockdown fight between Taylor and Borgnine is an exhausting affair and a testament to the two actors who didn't appear to use ANY stunt doubles. When the action does come along, it is surprisingly graphic. It isn't bloody, but it is quick and hard-hitting and uncomfortable. It's quite an ending.

A hidden gem of a western. Sure, it has some flaws, but I'm glad I caught up with it (again). The claustrophobic fort set is a gem, really giving a sense of being closed in by the surrounding Indians. You get a sense of the coming doom, all of it building to quite an ending. Solid cast, surprisingly dark, a refreshingly brutal change of pace. Well worth catching up with.

Chuka (1967): ***/****
Rewrite of March 2009 review

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Counselor

I have a love-hate relationship with author Cormac McCarthy. The highly respected author can flat out write, sometimes too well. His novels are very, VERY literary to the point I struggle to find a rhythm and even enjoy the stories. I'm a little late to the party, but McCarthy bypassed the novel and went right to the screenplay with his first such work, 2013's The Counselor. The reviews are mostly mixed to negative. Where did I fall?

A defense lawyer with a solid reputation but addressed only as 'Counselor' (Michael Fassbender) is joining the riskiest of business ventures against his better judgment. He has become involved with a business partner, Reiner (Javier Bardem), who he hopes to open a nightclub with but that's the far cleaner option. Dealing with some serious money issues, Counselor has gone in on a drug deal involving over 600 kilos of cocaine being transported, the end payday being potentially $20 million. The money is quite the incentive, but is the extreme risk even remotely worth it? The money is just too much to pass on even considering the risk, but even this talented, confident lawyer doesn't know what he's got into with the drug cartel involved. Bottom line is money, and anything that gets in the way is simply collateral damage.

I've read five McCarthy novels; No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, The Road, The Crossing and All the Pretty Horses. McCarthy is a bleak writer. These aren't stories of hope or faith or anything positive. They revolve around death, murder, and generally, a sense that the world is always nearing some sort of apocalypse, an end day. McCarthy is an extremely talented writer, no doubt about it. His books though, they can be difficult to get through because he is so talented. That bleakness, that readable difficulty, it is both positive and negative. I really have to be in the right frame of mind to read a McCarthy novel. If you finish it, you feel like you've truly accomplished something.

So how about McCarthy tackling a screenplay without the middle man of a published novel? That's 'Counselor.' The basic story of an outsider getting involved in a drug cartel is nothing new in films, TV and literature, but McCarthy does manage to put his own unique spin on it. There is NO hope in this world, only greed, death, betrayal and regret. 'Counselor' currently has a 34% rating at Rotten Tomatoes and a 5.4 at IMDB so it obviously didn't sit too well with viewers. I liked it -- as much as you're supposed to like a movie like this -- but my goodness, there are some amazingly obvious flaws. In its bleakness, it tries ridiculously hard in heavy-handed fashion to get that message across. We encounter one stilted, heavy conversation after another about death and life and evil and decent rights and horrific wrongs. In doses, these things work. But one after another? An already heavy, at times tedious story gets even heavier, even darker to the point it can be exhausting.

You know what I've forgotten by this fifth paragraph? 'Counselor' is directed by a talented director, Ridley Scott, who talented actors and actresses seemingly want to work with. Go figure. It's a great cast here, but the characters feel almost like cardboard cutouts. They're interesting because the cast goes for it -- sometimes too much -- but at no point does it feel like any of these people are real. Fassbender does an excellent job in the titular role, but that script, it pretentiously calls him 'Counselor' without ever giving him a real name. Yeah, heavy-handed literary devices! I was worried Bardem would ham it up too much as Reiner, but his part was fascinating just because of what drives the character, and that would be excess. Their scenes together are excellent as are Brad Pitt's scenes with Fassbender. Pitt plays Westray, the Counselor's middleman of sorts who continues to recommend his new partner bail and run before he's too deep into the deal.

Not that the fellas escape unscathed, but the female cast members are done no favor. Ripped straight out of a 1940s film noir and then injected with oozing sex and a general over the top quality, Cameron Diaz plays Malkina, Reiner's seemingly unhinged girlfriend. It's a scream watching Reiner's flashback about a sexual encounter they had in his car. Diaz commits, but the part feels overdone. Penelope Cruz on the other hand is the female goddess, there to represent beauty and love and all that good stuff. Her Laura character is the Counselor's girlfriend (and later fiance), mostly there as something that can be used against our intrepid lawyer should anything go wrong.

Without giving anything away in terms of character and some twists along the way, also look for Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, John Leguizamo, Toby Kebbell, Goran Visnjic, and Bruno Ganz in parts of varying importance and screentime.

It's the rare movie that doesn't have good and bad features. On top of its impeccable cast and time-transplanted film noir plot, 'Counselor' is dripping with tension, a feeling of foreboding and sense of doom, of something horrific to come. That's especially evident in a description of a horrific device used by the drug cartels to take out troublemakers. You hear about it early and then spend the rest of the film waiting to see it in horrifying action. This is one uncomfortable movie, and that's a good thing. Definitely a positive. That doom cloud hanging over the story though, it limits what the story can do. I never felt I had a read on the Counselor (the character). I would have liked some more exposition about the characters (all of them) and the set-up. No, not everything laid out on a silver platter, but a little something. As is the case at times when I've read McCarthy novels, it feels like he's trying to be the most literary person ever. That unfortunately is the feeling here.

Here we sit. Not a classic but not the complete dud so many made it out to be. Sometimes 'Counselor' gets too wrapped up in the sex and violence, but the guts of it is a disturbingly dark story that doesn't pull any punches. Know what you're getting into, but yikes, it is an interesting film experience for good and bad.

The Counselor (2013): ** 1/2 /**** 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Drop

If you're looking for a solid, gritty, hard-edged crime thriller, a good place to start is author Dennis Lehane. Just some of his film adaptations include Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and a great read removed from the crime genre, Shutter Island. Back to basics, Lehane turned his short story 'Animal Rescue' into a feature length screenplay for 2014's The Drop. Remember it? Not many people have even heard of it.

Working at his cousin's bar in a beat-up Brooklyn neighborhood, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) lives a quiet, peaceful life, a self-imposed quiet, peaceful life. He lives by himself in the house he grew up in, goes to the same church service each day and tends bar for Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), a former small-time mobster now trying to scrape by. One day walking home from the bar, Bob hears wimpering from a closed garbage can and finds a bloodied, beaten pit bull puppy inside. He meets the owner of the garbage cans, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and agrees to take care of the puppy until a better alternative comes along for both Bob and the displaced dog. As for the bar, it's not your ordinary bar. It is a drop bar where money carriers working for the Chechen mafia can drop off their gambling money, all of it piling up in a safe before being picked up. That's the set-up at least...until two low-level hoods walk in one night brandishing shotguns and looking for all the money they can find.

If there's a relative complaint to make about this movie...well, it's not necessarily the fault of 'Drop' itself. The issue more is that crime budgets seem to be hitting theaters at an all-time high, and most of them star Liam Neeson. I kid! I kid! I love Liam Neeson...but it's true. From Belgian director Michael Roskam, 'Drop' is an excellent flick featuring an interesting cast, well-told story and a generally somber, moody outlook on life. Calling it 'familiar' isn't necessarily accurate, but this isn't a film that breaks a ton of new ground. Don't get me wrong -- I'm giving it an easy recommendation -- but don't expect anything world-shaking.

None of this is a huge, deal-breaking criticism. I enjoyed the movie a lot and read Lehane's fleshed-out story too that was released as a novel (check it out HERE). Like the best crime thrillers, you feel thrust into this world Lehane's screenplay/story has created. It's a run-down neighborhood in Brooklyn with crime and crooks around every corner. The movie clearly does not have the most positive outlook on life. It rests on the assumption that people are generally pretty nasty, always looking out for themselves no matter the impact on others. Visually, the movie looks crowded, even claustrophobic, with scenes often shot in deep focus. It works. You feel like you're part of the scene. It is a bleak, gritty world, composer Marco Beltrami turning in a solid, mood-setting score. This is a lower middle class world, and there's nothing flashy about it.

Tom Hardy is fast becoming untouchable in my eyes. The guy finds something new with each new role, some new spin or new energy. Reading Lehane's story and knowing Hardy played the Bob character, I was intrigued, but curious in a good way. Hardy manages to make the part his own including an accent that I just can't place! This is one interesting main character. His Bob minds his own business and blends in with the scenery. Something from his past clearly hangs over his head, but we don't find out what until late. The most accurate thing I can come up with is that Hardy delivers a very human performance. Not necessarily sympathetic, but VERY human. Some little touches, some physical awkwardness, his quiet conversations, they all add up to make this a great lead character. As for Hardy, I can't wait to see what he does in the upcoming Mad Max reboot.

Leading the rest of the cast, Gandolfini is his imposing, intimidating self as Cousin Marv, the bar owner who holds quite a lot of resentment over how he lost total control of the bar. Gandolfini tragically passed away before the film was released so this was the actor's last film appearance, and while it isn't flashy, it's a key, solid supporting part. In a role that reminded me somewhat of her part in Dead Man Down, Rapace does a good job as the tortured, beaten-down woman. I think she's an above average actress, but with the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, she's getting typecast a lot in that wounded woman character. There's also key parts for Matthias Schoenaerts as Eric Deeds, an unbalanced local man who's a threat to all around him, and John Ortiz as Detective Torres, an investigating officer in the robbery.

So, yeah, things feel a tad familiar at times. Along with Hardy's lead performance though, the strongest aspect of 'Drop' is its mystery. You don't always know where it is going. We meet a lot of characters, a lot of situations, and though they may seem unrelated....well, they be related. If you find the story to be a touch frustrating -- it does feel like it is meandering at times -- my biggest recommendation is that you should definitely stick with it. There is a genuine twist that works so, so well in the finale because it's just there. It isn't meant to confuse or trick you, but IT WORKS. A highly recommended flick. It wasn't in theaters long and didn't make much money, but 'Drop' is definitely worth catching up with.

The Drop (2014): ***/****

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thunder Over the Plains

Ever heard of a carpetbagger? It is a particularly nasty piece of American history. Following the Civil War, they were northerners who moved into the south looking to make a profit off the Reconstruction Era. You see them briefly in Gone With the Wind, even a John Wayne western like The Undefeated, but because it was such a despicable profession of sorts...well, we're not going to see a whole lot of movies about them. When we do, like 1953's Thunder Over the Plains, they're the easiest of villains to root against.

It's 1869, some four years removed from the end of the Civil War, and the wounds are still fresh from the war. Texas has not yet been readmitted to the Union as a state with tensions high as carpetbaggers ravage the Texans trying to get back on their feet with corruption and high taxes. A Robin Hood-like bandit, Ben Westman (Charles McGraw), has stepped forward and with a small, loyal gang wreaks havoc on the carpetbaggers' efforts to earn their ill-got profits. A Texan who fought on the Union side and remains in the cavalry, Capt. David Porter (Randolph Scott) finds himself in a sticky situation. He tends to agree with Westman's actions, but he's honor-bound by duty to try and bring Westman to justice. All sides are pulling at the captain, both inward and outward, as he deals with pressure from his own commander, his wife, his fellow officers and the $-for-eyes carpetbaggers.

By the 1950s, star Randolph Scott was doing westerns exclusively. From 1945 on, Scott only made two non-western films. Think about that. This was a man who knew what he wanted, what he liked doing at work, and what audiences wanted to see him do. John Wayne would take a similar approach in the latter stages of his legendary career. The issue becomes that other than Scott's pairings with director Budd Boetticher (7 different films) and later Sam Peckinpah (Ride the High Country), his 1950s westerns are typically okay at best and dull and far too familiar at worst. Unfortunately, 'Thunder' falls into that category. While it has some potential and Scott is reliable as ever, it's just missing that special something and ends up going off the rails near the halfway point.

That ends up being the most frustrating part in this western from director Andre de Toth. 'Thunder' has a ton of potential. For a 1953 western, it's surprisingly dark. The post-Civil War setting in Texas during Reconstruction isn't exactly commonplace in the genre. There is a variety of characters with some great heroes and equally awful villains. But in a movie that runs just 82 minutes, it can't sustain that energy. The story begins to meander near the 45-minute mark and limps to the finish. One pretty major subplot isn't even addressed or given a worthwhile yeah, that kinda sucks. Everything gets all jumbled together with too many characters and twists and secondary plots, and the ship never rights itself. A western that could have been pretty good ends up being disappointing and below average.

So while I'm not a huge fan of Randolph Scott's western, I am a big fan of Scott himself. This is a part he specialized in, the resolute, loyal and tough as nails western hero who's going to do what's right no matter what it takes. A sheriff, a cavalry officer, a drifter, he played tweak versions on this throughout the last 17 years of his career and did it well. He's undone by a script that has his Capt. Porter simply trying to keep too many plates spinning. At home, his wife (Phyllis Kirk) incessantly talks about leaving for a different post. At the fort, his friend and commander (Henry Hull) nags and nags without actually offering any help. As well, a new officer arrives in the form of Capt. Bill Hodges (Lex Barker), who resents the posting, isn't too partial about using his new silver pistol and has his eyes set on Mrs. Porter.  It's not Scott's fault. All the way, he's going for it. A true pro even in one of his lesser efforts.

Who else to look for? Buried deep in the credits are Hugh Sanders and Elisha Cook Jr. as the corrupt carpetbagger and the the equally corrupt tax commissioner sticking it to recovering Texas. In the familiar face department, look for Lane Chandler, James Brown and a very young Fess Parker in supporting roles.

I wish I liked this one more. Scott is excellent, and McGraw's Ben Westman is a very cool character that is underutilized. I would have loved to see a movie that focused far more on those two characters and their very interesting dynamic. As is, 'Thunder' disappoints. It has potential, but it never delivers unfortunately.

Thunder Over the Plains (1953): **/****

Friday, March 13, 2015

Kill a Dragon

When it comes to the all-time best tough guy actors, Jack Palance doesn't always get his due. With movies like Shane, Companeros, The Professionals, A Professional Gun and even City Slickers (among many more), Palance put together quite a career. Were they all winners? Not by a long shot with some real stinkers included in the list, but this is a name I'm always happy to see pop up in a movie's credits. It could be great, good, tolerable and sometimes, downright painful, but that's the fun! Where does 1967's Kill a Dragon fall? Read on...

A tiny fishing village near Hong Kong is in trouble. The poor, isolated village has stumbled into a potentially huge payday when some of the villagers discover a shipwrecked boat on their shores packed to the seams with an immense, highly temperamental load of nitroglycerin. The trouble? Though the village claims the nitro by salvage laws, the real owner, a ruthless smuggler and businessman, Patrai (Fernando Lamas), will stop at nothing to get his nitro back. He gives them just three days to turn the nitro over or else he'll wipe out the village. The village's only hope comes in the form of a soldier of fortune, Rick Masters (Palance), who offers to help for a sum of the profits. Masters assembles a small team to help him out, but they are going to need quite a plan. Patrai and his small army are waiting to unleash themselves on the village and time is running out.

I'm a pretty cheap date when it comes to most movies. If I'm entertained, I can look past a whole lot of faults or slip-ups. And every once in awhile, you just need a good B-movie to clear your head. This one? It's a B-movie, it isn't very good, it is pretty dumb, and it is entertaining. Don't expect anything too crazy -- or even particularly good -- but it is a mindless adventure flick made on the cheap that nonetheless kept me interested throughout its meandering but still brisk 91-minute running time. An obvious comparison is a tweaked version of the classic 1960 western The Magnificent Seven (one of my all-time favorites) with 1960s Hong Kong replacing 1870s Mexico. It isn't so noble or righteous in its story. It's mercenaries and smugglers and soldiers of fortune looking for a payday. Is that so bad?

There is definitely a so bad it's good feel to director Michael Moore's film. While I was entertained, not much goes on for much of the movie. Lots of talking, lots of intense stand-offs, with a chase here and there mixed in. Much of the action is saved for the finale in a tense showdown at the fishing village. As for the B-movie angle, it was clearly made on the cheap. My biggest suspicion? The cast looks to have brought their own wardrobe. Case in is too much to watch Palance and co-star Aldo Ray run around Hong Kong in polo shirts, khakis, sweaters and very white sneakers. It is quite the visual look, not your typical tough guy attire but that's part of the goofy charm of this oh so bad but oh so entertaining B-flick. 

Besides his business casual attire, Palance has some fun as soldier of fortune Rick Masters. We learn a little about his smuggling past and his heated rivalry with Lamas' Patrai, but mostly, he's that cool anti-hero who meets each sticky situation head-on, danger be damned. His scenes with Lamas are the high points, two hated enemies talking with smiles on their faces but ready to shoot the other in a flash should the situation arise. Lamas gets to ham it up a bit as the mustachioed villain, always impeccably dressed to boot. Masters' small crew includes Ray as Vigo, a former partner who's fallen on hard times and is a tour guide in Hong Kong and Don Knight and Hans William Lee as Ian and Jimmie, con men partners always looking for a chance at a sizable payday. There's also Kam Tong as Win Lim, the fishing village's leader.

Here's a movie that really has nothing hugely positive going for it, but just the same I enjoyed it. The action is kept under wraps until the finale, but I liked the payoff between Masters and Patrai. It's dumb throughout but entertaining dumb. How many movies can you watch where Jack Palance has this unexplained pull on Asian women wherever he goes? Look for Aliza Gur as hustler, possible hooker and mostly nude (strategically covered) Tisa and Judy Dan as the faithful, loyal young woman from the fishing village, , drawn to Masters...well, because the movie has to have something to do. Stupid, mindless fun, and you've got to stick around for the laughable final scene. So bad but so entertaining. If nothing else, it was filmed on location in and around Hong Kong and Macau so there's that!

Kill a Dragon (1967): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

The Swarm

I'm not always the quickest learner so I'll take the blame for this one. I guess I should have learned quicker. While there are exceptions, there just weren't many good disaster movies in the 1970s and then into the 1980s. So for every Airport, Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure, there are movies like 1978's The Swarm. Yep, another nail in the coffin of a genre struggling to hold on for dear life.

At an isolated army installation in the American Southwest, a heavily armed patrol slowly navigates the eerily empty facility. What the hell happened here? Deep underground at the installation, the investigating patrol finds several dead bodies and a few lucky survivors, including a mysterious doctor, Brad Crane (Michael Caine), who says he's an expert on the world of insects. A much larger army force, commanded by crotchety General Slater (Richard Widmark), arrives soon after, and they're too stunned at what they find and what Crane claims is behind the mysterious attack. The responsibility goes immense swarm of African killer bees. Bees!!!! Making the situation worse, there's no cure for the bees' surprisingly venomous sting and seemingly no one is immune. It looks like nothing can stop the not-so-fast moving bees, and they're heading for Houston.

Sometimes you DO just know. When this 1978 disaster flick from director Irwin Allen -- Master of Disaster flicks -- popped up on Turner Classic Movies' schedule, I had to set it to record. I HAD to. Movies with casts like this don't pop up too often so I had to at least give it a try. Worst case, it's just entertaining in a bad, guilty pleasure fashion, right? Well, that's what you would think. This wasn't even good in a 'So bad it's good' way. It just isn't entertaining. Apparently, I'm not the only one who thinks so. 'Swarm' is on all sorts of worst movies ever made lists and bombed in epic fashion in theaters back in 1978. If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is!

Maybe the most frightening thing to take away from this bee-disaster flick is that there's a director's cut available out there clocking in at 156 minutes. The TCM version I saw was an already painfully long 116 minutes. God knows what else could be expanded on in an additional 40 minutes because I was losing interest in the shortened version at the 60-minute mark. For goodness sake, 'Swarm' utilizes a love triangle featuring Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson and Fred MacMurray (in his last role) as a subplot! Yes, because that's what we need, three Hollywood legends in a senior citizen love triangle in a disaster flick where a swarm of killer bees are the villains. Seems reasonable, don't it? I can't say I'd be too interested in seeking out that longer version of a dud like this.

Star Michael Caine has said this is the worst movie he ever made, and it's hard to disagree. As the insect/bug specialist, Caine looks to be immensely bored throughout. If there's a slightly redeeming quality in 'Swarm,' it's that the cast is epically impressive. Now are any of them given much of anything to do? That would be a big N-O, but still, look at all those Hollywood stars! Along with Caine and perpetually angry Widmark, look for Katharine Ross, Henry Fonda and Richard Chamberlain as some of the scientists tasked with halting the advance of the bees.  Also look for Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke, Bradford Dillman, Slim Pickens, and Cameron Mitchell in other supporting parts, some more painfully forced than others.

Things unfortunately develop in more spoof-fashion than straight disaster flick. How many slow motion bee attack scenes can we witness before it just becomes laughable? Because the movie is about bees, we get one hilarious scene after another about our very talented cast discussing what the bees' intentions are, if they're seeking revenge, if there is a major bee plan to take over the world. It's all done so straight that it becomes spoof-like, and that's never a good thing. The problem is there just isn't that one reason to sit back and watch this one, and that's considering the star power on hand. The cast is given little to nothing to do, the killer bees are a laughable "villain," and the entertainment value just isn't there. Give this one a wide berth.

The Swarm (1978): */****

Monday, March 9, 2015


I'm a 90s child. I grew up watching Will Smith in movies like Men in Black, Independence Day, Enemy of the State, even Wild Wild West which isn't good but man, I like it a lot. His movies in the 21st Century have been fewer and far between, some really good and some really bad. When I saw the previews for 2015's Focus, it looked like Smith was getting back to basics, audience-pleasing turns that will rake in the money at the box office. What's the verdict then?

Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a con man, a world-class con man. He specializes in big but not huge cons, usually working with a team of like-minded crooks. Their targets? Big events, especially sporting events like the Super Bowl. Nicky has years of experience under his belt, and he knows just about every trick in the book. Well, he may have met his match. A beautiful, inexperienced con woman with some untapped potential, Jess (Margot Robbie), approaches him about joining his crew as they prep for a week of cons, thieving and stealing at the upcoming Super Bowl. Against his better judgment, Nicky takes her on and teaches her some of the tricks of the trade, all of which she takes to quickly. Talent is one thing though, money a whole other thing, and a mutual attraction the most prickly situation to arise. With so much on the line, what's in store for the experienced Nicky?

First things first. I wanted to like this movie. I really like Will Smith and Margot Robbie is one of the biggest rising stars in movies these days. Oh, and she's halfway decent looking. I love movies about cons and heists and impossible robberies. That's the movie I thought I was getting. It wasn't. This isn't a heist movie with a will they, won't they subplot. Unfortunately, things are flipped in that sense.

'Focus' could have been pretty good. The opening 45 minutes are pretty cool as director/screenplay-writing combo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa dive in headfirst to the high-class world of con men and their business. When Nicky introduces Jess to all the schemes they can pull with an extensive team of crooks in a public setting, it's that perfect kind of introduction. Fast, stylish and smart, it all blends together in seamless fashion. That's just the introduction though. It's only a jumping off point unfortunately. From there on in, 'Focus' becomes more about the relationship between Smith's Nicky and Robbie's Jess. That's not a bad thing because the duo has a believable, likable chemistry, but...

That wasn't the movie I thought I was getting into. The trailer, the previews on TV, the posters, it all looked like a smooth, darkly funny look into this criminal world. Maybe a little familiar, but who knows? I avoided reviews for the most part -- no spoilers for this guy -- so I could go in with a fresh slate. No matter how good Smith and Robbie are (and they are pretty good), the story still remains that 'Will they? Won't they?' angle that seems more suited to a bad 1990's TV sitcom. As the story jumps in time from New Orleans Buenos Aires, it always comes back to that angle. Charming star power is rarely a bad thing, but 'Focus' relies almost solely on it with a story that had a lot more potential. I never even thought of it as a 'dark comedy' but that's what it is listed as. Even those attempts at humor -- many of them pretty low-brow sex jokes -- fall short or feel forced or both.

So pretty people with chemistry? Yeah, it works. This is the kind of part Smith is cut out for. He can act as he's shown in Ali and Pursuit of Happyness, but I like these parts more. Smith's Nicky is smooth, confident and always seems to be a step ahead. Nothing seems to rattle him...except when Robbie's Jess arrives on the scene. Their chemistry is excellent, but the screenplay simply relies on it too much. It isn't a con movie with a love interest. It's more of a love story with a con angle. Too bad. Also look for Rodrigo Santoro, Adrian Martinez, Gerald McRaney, BD Wong and Brennan Brown in supporting parts. I don't want to explain too much about these parts and ruin any possible surprises. Go in with a clean slate like I tried.

Two things. One, I think 'Focus' is just trying too hard. It so desperately wants to be cool and smooth and uber-suave, but it never quite gets there. The screenplay had a ton of potential but gets weighed down under bad sex jokes, forced jokes and a wandering story. Two, the twists. Movies have become obsessed with delivering a mind-blowing twist(s). The finale here is one twist on top of another, burying the one potential good twist in a sea of other efforts that fall far short. The ending itself is pretty ridiculous, one long exposition after another explaining what just happened, and then, oh yeah, the movie is over. I really wanted to like this one, and I just couldn't get on-board.

Focus (2015): **/****

Friday, March 6, 2015


J.K. Simmons has been working regularly in film and in television since the early 1990s. No doubt you've seen him in one movie or guest appearance after another and maybe didn't know his name. More recently, you probably see him most in TV commercials for Farmers Insurance. Simmons is one of a dying breed though, the character actor. He's getting all sorts of publicity lately and for all the right reasons. Best Supporting Actor wins at the Oscars tend to do that I suppose. Here's 2014's Whiplash.

A freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, one of the most respected music schools in the country, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a drummer with a goal, a passion. He doesn't want to be great at what he does. He wants to be one of the all-time GREATS, and he's willing to do whatever it takes. This isn't just a pipe dream. But as a first-year student, Andrew has his work cut out for him. Practicing one night, he catches the attention of conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who leads a highly-respected and oft-awarded studio band at Shaffer. Fletcher offers Andrew a chance to earn the front spot on the drums and seems like an ideal teacher who will push his students/musicians to their limits. He does and is, but Andrew has no idea just how far this new instructor is willing to go.

It's a funny thing about movies. You can hear all the glowing reviews, see the awards pile up, but sometimes...that movie just doesn't connect. It just isn't as good as it should be. Well, Whiplash is that rare exception. I loved this movie, or as much as you're supposed to like a difficult story like this. From director/writer Damien Chazelle, 'Whiplash' is simply put, a gem. It won three Oscars -- including Simmons' Best Supporting Actor win -- and deserves all the recognition it is getting, especially that post-Oscar buzz. A ridiculously easy movie to recommend.

No point in starting anywhere else than just there, Mr. Simmons earning his first Oscar nomination and win. What a frightening performance. This is the teacher from Hell even if his ultimate goals or end-game is inspired in a way. It is a performance that's hard to look away from, even as difficult as it is to watch. His teaching methods involve belittling students, torturing them in emotional and physical fashion. It's a performance that reminded me of a drill sergeant, specifically R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Simmons' Fletcher pushes and pushes to limits that no school would ever allow, but you've got to suspend disbelief and just go with it. His screaming rants become almost comical in their horrifying natures as he uses slurs, racist taunts, comments on sexuality, their home lives. Anything and everything is on the table. If you want to be great, you have to work for it. You have to earn it.

It is a profoundly good performance, one that has overshadowed Miles Teller's part as Andrew. It isn't as big or showy as Simmons, but it is quite the memorable turn. And also, Simmons' part isn't truly big or showy. It doesn't feel like he's acting. It's just there. This is a human being who's being himself. As aggressive as it is, it feels REAL. Teller is similarly excellent. We see how far he's willing to push himself, right up to the brink of sanity to the point he almost can't take it anymore under his instructor's brutal tutelage. I've seen Teller in lighter movies -- Project X, 21 and Over -- but this is a talented actor with a future in drama. The horrifically uncomfortable chemistry between Teller's Andrew and Simmons' Fletcher is the crux of the movie, the blood and guts of it. Will Andrew snap? Will Fletcher go too far?

Simmons and Teller are in basically every scene with only a couple other supporting parts stepping to the forefront. Paul Reiser is very good as Andrew's Dad while Melissa Benoist plays Nicole, a student at Fordham that Andrew meets. Austin Stowell and Nate Lang play two other possible replacements in Fletcher's jazz studio band.

Where I struggle sometimes to put into words is a movie's style. 'Whiplash' has style to burn. It is filmed in poorly lit practice rooms full of rich lighting and warm, brown and black walls. Simmons' tight black t-shirts and black pants even add a touch of style to it all, another layer. The editing that won an Oscar is quick and keeps things going at an almost frenetic pace, but never overdone in the musical scenes. The camera movements add something to it, something palpable. An energy is there that adds to the ridiculously talented musicians we're hearing. I'm not musically inclined so I was never sure what sounded good/great/bad/awful, but these are fascinating scenes to watch.

Everything builds to an interesting climax, the story in general taking a surprising turn a little after the hour-mark. The more I thought about the finale, the more I liked it. At first, I wasn't a huge fan but think about it and it all comes together. A remarkable, musically-charged finale with a great final shot. An excellent movie. Must-see for Simmons, Teller and all that smooth jazz.

Whiplash (2014): ****/****

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Verdict

For me, Paul Newman will always be amiable outlaw Butch Cassidy. He'll always be Henry Gondorff from The Sting. I've seen a lot of Newman's films from a career that spanned six decades, but not all of them. My biggest gap is probably the 1980s which as I look into it, is a big old knowledge gap. Newman was nominated for three different Oscars for acting during that decade, including a supremely strong performance in 1982's The Verdict.

A Boston lawyer who's fallen on some extremely tough times, Frank Galvin (Newman) isn't what he used to be. Once a promising lawyer, Galvin is an alcoholic, an ambulance chaser who has had only four cases over the previous three years. And he lost every single one of them. There's a new case on his schedule though, seemingly a slam dunk. A young woman giving birth was given the wrong anesthetic and four years later still remains in a coma in a nursing home. The hospital the event occurred in was a Catholic hospital with the archdiocese looking to move on from the incident, looking to settle without going to trial though. A huge payday is in the waiting, both for the plaintiff's family but also for Galvin for his fee. Something clicks in the experienced lawyer's mind though. Something just not right. He turns down a generous settlement and decides to go to trial. Though his intentions are pure, Galvin may be in far over his head.

This 1982 courtroom drama from director Sidney Lumet aired recently as part of Turner Classic Movie's 31 Days of Oscar. It's based off a screenplay from David Mamet of Glengarry Glen Ross and The Untouchables fame among others. Oh, and that Paul Newman guy is pretty good. I'd never seen this movie before -- not even a scene -- but I'm glad I caught up with it. Somber, even downbeat, with a harsh story to tell, it deserves the reputation it has. I loved Lumet's shooting style with an unobtrusive camera that simply films the action. It isn't moving frenetically with zooms and close-ups. Lumet sets the camera up and lets the cast act. Just ACT. We get long, uninterrupted scenes of dialogue where Newman and his co-stars have the audience's full attention. In an age where movies are all about the style, it's refreshing to see a movie so uninterested. Here's the story, the cast, and the acting. Go and do your thing.

The heart of the movie -- not so surprisingly -- is an excellent performance from Paul Newman, a performance that earned him a Best Actor nomination (he lost to Ben Kingsley's Ghandi). This isn't Butch or Gondorff or Fast Eddie, a confident world-beater with a smile on his face. Newman brings to life a lawyer riddled with self-pity who drinks and drinks, trying to put his past behind him. At one point, he was a damned good lawyer but a decision he makes for the good...almost finishes him. It's a fascinating character, one you're rooting for but with a grain of salt. You can't help but wonder how he's going to miss this seemingly gimme of a case up in the courtroom. Most memorable is just the quietness of Galvin. Newman doesn't have huge, LOOK AT ME moments. It is a quiet, subtle performance with the most emotional scene coming in his closing statement. My other favorite? The moment he makes the decision to take the case to trial, a quiet moment sitting by the patient's bed. Just good stuff.

This isn't the deepest of casts, but what's there is choice. Also picking up an Oscar nomination -- for Best Supporting Actor -- is James Mason as Concannon, the defense lawyer who at one point is dubbed the Angel of Death. No plan, no scheme, no bribe is too much for this lawyer who will get his defendants acquitted at all costs. Charlotte Rampling is excellent too as Laura, a woman coming off a divorce that Galvin meets in a bar and starts to help the beat-up lawyer in his case. In a thankless role, Jack Warden nonetheless makes the most of it as Morrisey, Galvin's former professor and current friend who becomes his right-hand man in the case. Also look for Milo O'Shea, Edward Binns, and Joe Seneca in key supporting roles.

Like the best courtroom dramas, 'Verdict' makes you feel like you're there in the courtroom as part of the jury. And as usual, what's my biggest takeaway? The American court system is a frightening one. Nothing is off limits including straight-up cheating, bribes and all sorts of letter of the law garbage. The idea of the court system is impressive, built on an ideal of justice as Galvin describes. In reality, it just isn't the same. Winning the case takes priority regardless of the means. We see that over and over again as the case develops, in and out of the courtroom.

'Verdict' becomes a little predictable in its second half, but it's never dull or disappointing. I especially liked the somewhat open-ended finale with Newman -- again -- nailing a quiet, dignified scene. Yes, it's a courtroom drama, but more accurately, this is a character study of a talented lawyer who's fallen on some hard times and sees a chance at some sort of redemption, both for the family he's trying to get a settlement but also for himself. Just an excellent all-around movie, most notable for Newman's Oscar-nominated performance.

The Verdict (1982): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

James A. Michener's Texas

Well, it's that time of the year again. Time for Alamo and Texas independence-themed reviews! Today's entry is a 1994 TV movie that aired over two nights. I remember watching it, just in that fun stage as I was really getting into history for the first time. Loved it then, liked it years later when I re-visited it, and here we sit, watching it some 21 years since I first watched it. Now I'm 29 and have everything figured out. Right? Right?!? Here's 1994's Texas.

It's 1821 and Stephen F. Austin (Patrick Duffy) is leading several hundred American settlers into the Mexican province of Texas. The settlers will help tame this wild territory that is as wild as they come, all the while doing so as Mexican citizens. The years pass though and tensions begin to rise between the Mexican government down in Mexico City and the ever-increasing number of Americans flowing into the territory. Among the settlers are a widowed mother, Mattie (Chelsea Field), trying to create a new life, a Scottish farmer, MacNab (Daragh O'Malley), who's son, Otto (Rick Schroder), will play a huge role in Texas' future, and a Mexican landowner and vaquero, Benito Garza (Benjamin Bratt), who sees the trouble coming on the horizon. As the 1820s turn into the 1830s, the tensions heat up to the point where war looks more and more likely. The war for Texas Independence is fast approaching.

From the time I saw Disney's Davy Crockett and then John Wayne's The Alamo, I was immediately intrigued by the story of the Alamo. I still am. I'll read, watch, look into anything about the subject so growing up, this ABC miniseries was right up my alley. In the years, I expanded my horizons some to include the entire Texas Revolution. So where do we start? Nine-year old me wasn't quite so harsh on what he watched. 29-year old me? Eek. I still like it because of the subject matter, but my goodness, this miniseries just isn't very good. Sure, condensing 15 years of story into a 3-hour miniseries is a daunting task....but still. The miniseries is based off an immense, humongous, if you hit someone with it you'd knock them out book from author James Michener. Well worth checking out for a good read and a good workout.

The Texas Revolution packed a ton of action into about seven months, something History's Texas Rising will hopefully bring to life come Memorial Day. What do we get here? A love triangle between politically-minded Austin, independent Mattie and fiery Benito. For real? A love triangle? Gag me. That's the crux of the first half of the running time with a surprising payoff in the second half. Come on though, Texas history and we get two guys fighting over the same woman? The budget is somewhat limited, borrowing footage liberally from previous Alamo/Texas movies like 1955's The Last Command and another TV movie, Gone for Texas. I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that a movie made 39 years before doesn't exactly fit in with a 1994 TV movie. The attempt and effort is impressive overall, but ultimately it falls short.

Going for that big miniseries feel, we get some familiar faces in the cast but no HUGE stars. Schroder, Bratt and Duffy are the most memorable characters, bringing them to life where others remain mostly cliches or cardboard cutouts of real individuals. The relationship between Schroeder's young Otto and Bratt's Benito is a high-point, a brotherly relationship developing between the American teenager and the Mexican cowboy. That relationship takes some surprising twists as the war approaches, the two men deciding what's most important to them. Duffy too is strong as Austin, the father of Texas who's left out of the history books far too often. Field's character is interesting but is handed no favors by the screenplay that has love tearing at her from both sides. Oh, the horror!

As far as instantly recognizable Texas personalities go, we also get to meet Stacy Keach as Sam Houston, sneering and growling throughout, and our Alamo trio of Jim Bowie (an excellent if somewhat over the top David Keith), William Travis (Grant Show), and Davy Crockett (John Schneider in a small part). I also liked country singer Randy Travis as Captain Sam Garner, a Texas Ranger commander, and Frederick Coffin as Zeve Campbell, a fellow settler and friend of MacNab's. Anthony Michael Hall feels out of place and forced as the cowardly, big-talking Yancey Quimper. There's also a small part for Maria Conchita Alonso. Oh, and someone named Charlton Heston -- whoever that is -- provides the narration.

While I was still entertained overall, that entertainment came as more of a guilty pleasure this time around. The music is okay, but overdone at times, and the acting ranges from good to acceptable to hysterically overdone. Without a doubt the second half is the stronger half as Texas is plunged into the revolution, but even that's limited. The entire Alamo battle sequence is lifted from Last Command, and the Battle of San Jacinto is about 15 minutes straight of slow motion, blood-squibbed garbage. Probably best suited for history, Texas and Alamo buffs.

Texas (1994): ** 1/2 /**** 

Monday, March 2, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Does the name Matthew Vaughn ring a bell? Well, it's not necessarily a household name...yet. A director, producer and writer extraordinaire, Vaughn has been behind such movies as Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, The Debt, and even the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. His most recent flick, 2014's Kingsman: The Secret Service, is pulling in the dough. Who knows? It might not be too long before Vaughn is definitely a household name.

Part of a secret spy organization working in England with a history dating back to the early 20th century, the Kingsmen, gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth), codename: Galahad, is on a mission in the Middle East, when a fellow young agent is killed saving his life. Back in England, Harry meets the agent's young son and some 17 years later saves him from a nasty encounter with the police. Why the encounter so many years later? Harry recruits young Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton) to become the newest agent, the newest Kingsman. Having grown up on the streets, Eggsy is intelligent, tough and quick-thinking, but he hasn't always lived up to his potential. Now, Harry needs him to live up to it if he hopes to beat the other candidates. Trouble is on the horizon in the form of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), an internet billionaire with a horrific plan to alter Earth's future. The key to it all, that could be feisty, stubborn Eggsy.

Let's give Mr. Vaughn credit where it's due. This is a guy who knows what kind of movie he wants to make, sets out to do it, and screw anyone who gets in his way. No, I'm not saying he's some sort of movie studio bully. It's just that Vaughn makes movies unlike just about any other movie currently in theaters. Helter-skelter, schizophrenic, stylish, smart and equal parts stupid, this is just a ridiculously fun and entertaining movie. It most assuredly is NOT for everyone. The violence is cartoonishly over the top and stylized, the humor a little low-brow at times, but my goodness, what a fun movie.

The British spy movie has a long and rich history, starting obviously with the James Bond/007 franchise. It's the rare movie that is able to put a new spin on the spy genre, but 'Kingsman' does it with violent glee and fun. This is a smart movie, poking fun at the genre without venturing into spoof territory (thankfully). The script from Vaughn and Jane Goldman is self-conscious, some great dialogue scenes between Firth's Harry and Jackson's Valentine discussing the backgrounds of the gentleman spy and the maniacal villain trying to take over the world. Fans of the genre will get a kick out those moments, the quieter, smarter and lower key moments that balance out the general craziness of the rest of the movie.

Reviews were generally pretty mixed about star Taron Egerton, but I came away impressed with the young British actor. He definitely holds his own in the dramatic scenes with quite the cast surrounding him of dramatic star power. When it comes to the action scenes, Egerton shows off his physical prowess, blending in seamlessly. It doesn't hurt that he's got that cocky smirk ready with a snap to disarm a scene with ease. How about some star power though? Constantly wearing the layered look and showing off a flat-brim hat and rocking a lisp, Samuel L. Jackson is clearly having a ball as Valentine, the villain with a plan to save the world by some horrifying means. This isn't a nutso villain. His plan is certainly...interesting, but he's also squeamish around blood, a bit of a goof and loves a good McDonald's cheeseburger. Also look for Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, Valentine's foot-less hench-woman who uses bladed prosthetic legs as deadly weapons. 

The casting of three British actors was what originally caught my eye and kept me interested as a release date drew closer. Enter Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Mark Strong. One of the most talented actors currently working in film and the prototypical British gentleman (on screen at least, he may be a wild man in his personal life), Firth absolutely nails the movie. Let's call it Liam Neeson Mode, a highly respected actor taking on a more fun role. He plays the straight man to all the shenanigans, but man, is he having fun. The same for Strong as Merlin, a fellow Kinsgman and a drill sergeant of sorts, barking out orders with a bit of a Scottish brogue as his potential agents navigate training. Oh, and that Michael Caine guy. Have you heard of him? It's a smaller part, but an essential one. How can you go wrong with that trio? I submit that you CANNOT. Also look for Mark Hamill and Jack Davenport in supporting parts.

The history of the Kingsman would be an interesting prequel in itself, a group of agents and spies with code names from the legend of King Arthur, all criss-crossing the world to stop all sorts of diabolical plots. A highly recommended movie with some ridiculously stylized violence, some great one-liners, style in general to burn, and a 'Screw you' type of attitude. It's the type of movie that doesn't care if you like it. It's just interested in being a ton of fun.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014): ***/****