The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, September 30, 2015


Before his death in 1988 at the ripe, old age of 80, author Louis L'Amour had 89 novels, 14 short story collections and two non-fiction books to his name. Kinda a busy career, huh? He's always been one of my favorites, and a personal favorite (one of many) is one that doesn't always get mentioned as one of his best or most well-known. It's a 1963 western that got a feature film adaptation with the same-named 1971 flick, Catlow.

It's the years following the Civil War in the American southwest and veterans from the war have had to move on to other things, some good, some bad. Ben Cowan (Richard Crenna) is a marshal out on the trail looking for an outlaw wanted for rustling cattle and horses. Jed Catlow (Yul Brynner) is that outlaw, an amiable fella who always has a smile on his face. The problem? Cowan's warrant is for Catlow, but the two men are old friends having served together during the War, making that potential arrest a little more difficult. Well, sorta. Through a series of mistakes and misadventures, Cowan just can't seem to bring his friend in. Now, Catlow could have bitten off more than he can chew. With his gang, the outlaw is heading into Mexico after a recently discovered hidden gold treasure. He's not the only one in pursuit though, with Cowan and others on his trail.

Not quite an American western, not quite a spaghetti western, 'Catlow' lies somewhere in between. Director Sam Wannamaker's western has been basically completely forgotten, lost in a wave of one of the more tumultuous times in the genre's history. It reflects more the past than what's coming, a tongue-in-cheek tone unfortunately stepping to the forefront. That tone does feel a bit weird, a bit forced, especially against the Almerian backdrops. Spaghetti western fans will see a long list of familiar locations, all those locations providing a ton of fun along the way. The score is a mixed bag, two main themes dominating the soundtrack (listen HERE). One is more serious, the other reflecting the light mood, that tongue in cheek angle. The weird thing? Well...

L'Amour's source novel is not light or comedic or tongue in cheek at all. It's pretty standard stuff, and I mean that in a good way. A likable, resolute anti-hero of sorts, a bad guy who's not so bad, a not so trustworthy gang, conniving, greedy female characters, and a treasure that would change any man's life. Getting there is part of the fun so even the story drifts and isn't that is fun. The cast, the winding, often goofy story, the locations, It...Is...Fun. L'Amour's novels are always entertaining, even when the film versions aren't so great. That's a case in point here. Original? No, sir. Entertaining? You bet. Don't expect too much of a coherent story, and you'll be aces., there's gotta be something positive to talk about, right? I'm going with Yul Brynner, one of my favorites and clearly having a lot of fun here as the affable Catlow. His most iconic parts are The Magnificent Seven and Westworld where he plays stoic, almost emotionless gunfighters so it's cool to see him branch out and show off some comedic timing. He's an underrated comedic presence. His chemistry with Richard Crenna is very solid, two old friends who are on opposite sides of the law but don't seem to let that bother them too much. They're always getting each other out of one sticky situation or another, and they're always able to laugh it off in the end. I will say Crenna's Cowan as presented here could be the dumbest sheriff/peace officer I can think of in a western. He continuously walks into one ambush after another and takes his fair share of lead in the process. Still, Brynner and Crenna are excellent together throughout.

The rest of the cast is interesting to say the least. Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, plays Miller, a gunman hired out to bring Catlow in dead or alive (preferably dead). For you Star Trek fans, yes, you do get to see Nimoy's naked ass in all its glory. Talk about bizarre, huh? We need some sexy love interests too and get them in Daliah Lavi as fiery, murdering, betraying Rosita (Catlow's sorta girlfriend) and Jo Ann Pflug as Catherine, the beautiful daughter of a Mexican rancher who falls for Cowan (naturally). Jeff Corey plays Merridew, a grizzled trailhand and Catlow's right-hand man, while Michael DeLano plays Rio, the more treacherous, greedy member of the gang. Also look for Julian Mateos as Recalde, a Mexican officer who Cowan meets on the trail.

Look, this ain't rocket science. It's a fun, pretty mindless American/spaghetti western. It doesn't try and rewrite the genre by any means and is quite content being fun and pretty mindless. Watch it for Yul Brynner, Richard Crenna, Leonard Nimoy's naked butt, some pretty ladies, fun action and cool Spanish locations filling in for the American southwest and Mexico. If you can, watch for it on Turner Classic Movie's schedule. The print they showed was by far the best -- clean, very clean -- I've seen.

Catlow (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, September 24, 2015


When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, English mountaineer George Mallory famously answered "Because it's there." The world's tallest point, Everest has long been a source of the impossible, of reaching up to the heavens and doing something humans simply aren't meant to do. In doing so though, climbers take an incredible risk that often results in death. Nowhere is that shown better than the recently released 2015's Everest.

It is 1996 and Mount Everest remains a climber's dream. Things have changed though as expert climbers now guide expeditions up the famous mountain -- the tallest point on planet Earth -- for hefty sums that hopefully get those climbers up to the top where they become one of the few to accomplish the feat. Among those expedition and guide leaders are Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who have different outlooks on what they do but are both expert climbers. In a crowded climbing season in '96 as many other expeditions go for the summit, both Rob and Scott lead their own teams up. Weeks of preparation and acclimatization ready the teams for a go at the top -- almost 30,000 feet up, the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner -- but no one can know what awaits them on Everest's slopes. There's only a small window to even make a go at the summit, and the window is closing fast.

From director Baltasar Kormakur (Contraband, 2 Guns), 'Everest' is based on the 1996 Mount Everest disaster that claimed five lives (as far as this story is concerned). Obviously, don't read that link if you don't want MASSIVE SPOILERS. The story itself gained notoriety when author Jon Krakauer -- who was part of the expedition -- wrote Into Thin Air, a bestselling book documenting the disaster. It was even quickly turned into an ABC TV movie. This retelling though? Wow. What a moving, uncomfortable and incredibly difficult movie to watch. Trailers and commercials portray this film as more of an adventure story, of spectacle, but it is far-more emotional and personal than I thought. All this is a compliment by the way. It isn't exactly tearing up the box office, but an easy movie to recommend.

Where 'Everest' succeeds best is in its on-mountain portrayal. Much of the first hour is spent establishing the hellish environment the climbers and guides will be attempting to climb. Even base camp is at 17,000-plus feet. By the time you reach anywhere near the summit, you're in what is called 'the Death Zone.' Your body isn't meant to survive in those situations and is literally dying. Kormakur's film gives a window into this terrifying world where ice crevasses and avalanches, frigid temperatures and impending death await around every corner. Even the experts struggle to do it, much less the climbers they're trying to help. The 1996 season for years was the most deadly as the mountain claimed double-digit lives, and you see why. To say you climbed Mount Everest is an incredible accomplishment, but it is far from a given that you will make it to the top.

So that cast...yeah, pretty decent. Jason Clarke is on the cusp of big things, and this is another part that shows off his impressive talent. He's likable, believable and delivers a very real, very human performance as a mount climber who knows the danger but also the glory of making it to the top and finds himself weighing that knowledge in a life-and-death situation. He has some great scenes with his wife (Keira Knightley, excellent as usual) that really help humanize him and give the Rob Hall portrayal another level. Another excellent performance comes from Gyllenhaal (one of my favorite actors) as Fischer, a free-spirit who thinks only legit climbers should see Everest's summit. Hall and Fischer are competitors but still good friends who make a business decision as the final go at the top of the mountain nears. Two excellent performances.

That's not enough though because...well, it just isn't. The main focus on the climbers is Josh Brolin's Beck Weathers, a 40-something Texan with a wife (Robin Wright) and two kids at home, John Hawkes' Doug Hansen, a mailman who's neared the summit twice but come up short both times, Naoko Mori as Yasuko, a climber who's reached six of the seven tallest summits in the world, and Michael Kelly as Krakauer, the journalist writing a story. For the rest of the guide teams, look for Sam Worthington (why is he not in more, better movies?!?), Emily Watson, Martin Henderson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson and Thomas M. Wright. Some good performances, especially Brolin and Hawkes and Worthington, among the bunch to round out an impressively assembled cast.

Two things worth mentioning that come as a surprise and make the movie difficult to watch. As I mentioned, previews, commercials and trailers portrayed 'Everest' as far more of a spectacle flick and adventure story because at its heart, it is. It's human beings doing the impossible and attempting to climb Mount Everest. So looking at it solely in that vein, it is a haunting, beautiful movie where Mount Everest becomes an incredible, eye-popping visual character. The long, intimidating and foreboding shots of the mountain in the distance or from far below are a sight to behold. Aided by composer Dario Marianelli's score, the snow-capped, windy, rocky set-up establishing shots are an easy success and a treat to watch. Then you see a speck of a human being traversing up the mountain and it all puts into perspective how difficult climbing the world's tallest summit really is.

The counter is the depths of emotions that get thrown at the viewer. Quasi-SPOILER alert, but the climb doesn't go anywhere near as planned and several lives are lost. Some of the deaths are quick and shocking as we see the Death Zone tear the climbers up as the frigid temperatures and lack of oxygen wreak havoc. The other deaths are slow and drawn out -- with some surprises along the way -- that produce some truly heartbreaking scenes. Surprisingly emotional with a haunting final shot. Not an easy movie to "like," but a very pleasant surprise and a big success on just about every level, regardless of how its doing at the box office. I definitely recommend NOT reading about the 1996 expedition before going to see this one. Go in with a clean slate.

Everest (2015): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An Enemy of the People

Steve McQueen was the King of Cool. He was Virgil Hilts, Cooler King. He was Detective Frank Bullitt. He was the laconic anti-hero, a superstar on-screen who hated dialogue. So naturally, late in his career he did a complete 180 with a film that has been basically forgotten in the annals of movies. McQueen helped spearhead the film that's based on a Norwegian play from the 1880's. Here it is, 1978's Enemy of the People, the only starring McQueen role I hadn't seen. Verdict? Keep on reading.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (McQueen) is a middle-aged man, a successful, respected and well-liked physician who is also a family man who desperately loves his wife, Catherine (Bibi Andersson), and their three kids. They live in a small Norwegian village, Stockmann mostly responsible for the town's hot springs, known for their healing powers and a bit of a tourist attraction. The good doctor though is worried and his worries are confirmed when he receives a report that the spring water is filled with bacteria that could easily kill. It seems an easy fix; shut the springs down and repair them, diverting the poisoned water. It seems an easy fix. The town, especially the mayor and Thomas' brother (Charles Durning), questions what the doctor's methods are while also weighing the impact of the potential decision. It all seems so simple, but it is so far from it as Stockmann is met with barriers wherever he turns.

This is an anti-Steve McQueen movie. Made in 1976, it was ready to be released in 1977...but wasn't. It wasn't even given a major release, only seeing the light of day briefly in some college towns in 1978. No one quite knew what to do with it because it was such a departure for its star. So what is the verdict? It's good, not great, a little stilted at times, but even just as a novelty, 'Enemy' is worth seeking out. It is based off a play (of the same name) from Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen from the 1880s and is heavy on message and dialogue and general disgust with the establishment and system. So...yeah, a fastball down the middle for the King of Cool, right?

Basically from the moment he arrived as an actor, McQueen was a man of few words. He was a huge presence, able to do something physically or with a look that wiped away pages of unnecessary dialogue. He was the anti-hero, the cool as hell badass you couldn't help but root for. This is by far his biggest departure for a career that was cut short by his tragic death in 1980 from cancer. He's unrecognizable, sporting long almost shoulder length hair and a thick beard. He delves into the role, speaking more dialogue here than he probably did in other movies combined. His presence is still there even with the expanded...ya know, talking. He's a ball of righteous energy, knowing that he's right and something must be done immediately to fix this immense problem facing the town, its town council, its mayor, and the people itself, both now and for the future. 

Steve McQueen is an all-time favorite of mine. He's up there with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in my holy triumvirate of movie stars so it was incredibly cool to see him try something so entirely new and different. As an actor, he didn't want to do the same old, same old. He wanted to jump into new and fresh territory so without a doubt, McQueen's performance is the best thing about 'Enemy.' I think his best acting is still The Sand Pebbles and Papillon, but this certainly belongs in the conversation.

Only two other names really jump out from the cast, Andersson as Thomas' wife, eternally faithful to her husband even when his actions threaten to tear the family apart. An excellent performance from Andersson, the wavering in her face evident as she decides if she should continue to back her husband (even if it's not the most logical thing to do). Durning does what he does best, underplayed, bubbling intensity, usually as a slithering villain you just want to slap upside the head. Two excellent performances. Also look for Richard Dysart as the experienced (somewhat cautious) editor of the local paper with Michael Cristofer and Michael Higgins as his two younger, idealistic writers/editors. Eric Christmas plays Catherine's father (a good twist late about him) while Robin Pearson Rose is excellent as Petra, Thomas' daughter, intelligent, thoughtful and starting to figure things out in life as she becomes an adult.

'Enemy' is at times limited by its budget, giving it the look of a made-for-TV movie. It isn't a crippling flaw, but it is noticeable throughout. The cast is small, and the visual appeal certainly reflects the play's roots with long, extended scenes full of dialogue marking the 109-minute film from director George Schaefer. Things limp to the finish line a bit in the final half hour, leading to a finale that tries to go for a touch of hope, but in reality, this is a downbeat ending no matter what we see on-screen.

An interesting movie with an interesting message. It reeks of the 1970's when no one really trusted in the government, politics and those in trouble across any field. I guess that hasn't really changed in 2015 either, huh? The movie is unsettling in those instances as we see a majority rule even though they're wrong, a mob making decisions because who in their right mind would stand up to them? I liked the cynicism of 'Enemy,' the general darkness and bleakness in its outlook on life. Is there hope? Sure, there's always hope, but sometimes you've got to fight for it a little harder. An interesting movie, especially notable because of its scarcity over the last 30-plus years and an excellent performance from the King of Cool himself, Steve McQueen.

An Enemy of the People (1978): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Freebie and the Bean

Let's get down to business. And I mean business. The buddy cop genre is the greatest genre in the history of cinema. Go ahead. I dare you to identify one that is better. See? You simply can-not. There were sprinklings before here and there, but the genre took off in the 1980's. One of those early sprinklings? An oddball, off-the-wall, politically incorrect comedy from 1974's Freebie and the Bean.

Longtime partners working the Intelligence Unit in San Francisco, Bean (Alan Arkin) and Freebie (James Caan) usually get the job done, sometimes in spite of themselves with their constant bickering. Their latest target? The duo has long sought to put well-known and long successful racketeer Red Meyers (Jack Kruschen) behind bars. After most of a year investigating, they've got the evidence -- finally -- but the key witness can't be put into custody for three more days. The solution? Freebie and Bean must shadow Meyers and make sure nothing goes wrong before they can officially arrest him. There are problems of course. Many people would be in trouble should Meyers testify so a hit man from Detroit (maybe more) has been dispatched to finish him. Oh, and it's Super Bowl week. Oh, and Freebie and Bean might kill each other in the process. What could possibly go wrong?

Reading some reviews and message boards about this 1974 buddy cop flick, I saw a lot of people questioning why this is a movie just about completely forgotten over the years. I'm glad I wasn't the only one to think of that issue. I love James Caan and Alan Arkin, and I'd never even vaguely, remotely even kinda heard of it. Why is that? Well, it's not a classic, but it's pretty good. It is kooky, completely without a story, has tonal shifts left and right, is especially goofy and is incredibly politically incorrect. There are flaws, but my goodness, is it a fun ride.

Arkin and Caan. Caan and Arkin. How can you possibly go wrong? You can't here. Two of my favorite actors working together make it look effortless. As you expect from any buddy cop pairing, the duo has to bitch and moan and criticize and ridicule...even though they're the best of friends. Arkin is Bean, a Mexican officer, all business, no nonsense. Caan is Freebie, wild and all over the place and not one to turn down a free gift here and there (hence the nickname). The story drifts as needed, and you get a sense the script was a couple set pieces, an outline of a story, and just blank sports for Arkin and Caan to improvise, to fire lightning fast insults and jokes and one-liners for as long as they could. Too many classic lines to mention -- most of them foul-mouthed, racist, sexist and generally inappropriate -- but quite the Batman and Batman (no Robin here) to lead the way.

'Freebie/Bean' comes from director Richard Rush and comes as a bit of fresh air considering the time it was released. We're talking cynical cop flicks like French Connection, Bullitt, the Dirty Harry movies and plenty others. It's just a funny movie. That's all and that's it. That's not a bad thing. You sit back and enjoy it because there isn't any messages in sight or anything dark or hard-hitting. These are two cops who are friends and fight like an old married couple bombing their way through San Francisco who stop at nothing to put their case together. If half the city should be destroyed in the process....well, so be it. We had a good time. San Francisco looks great as a backdrop as well, an interesting choice considering so many cop movies were shot on-location there. Moral of the story? As much as I love those previously mentioned flicks, it's cool to see a cop movie do a complete 180.

Who else to look for? Some fun, familiar faces. Kruschen has a ton of fun as Meyers, the racketeer who can't believe how stupid the cops pursuing him really are. Loretta Swit of MASH fame plays his pretty young wife. Also look for Alex Rocco as the conviction rate-minded district attorney, Mike Kellin as the boys' lieutenant, Paul Koslo and Christopher Morley as a couple witnesses, and a scene-stealing Valerie Harper as Bean's possibly cheating wife, Consuelo.

So there's gotta be something wrong...right? It's the bizarre, often out of left field shifts in tone. It's dark and funny and politically incorrect, and then a complete direction change into a never-ending car and motorcycle chase (had...HAD to be an influence on The Blues Brothers) that relies on sight gags and Keystone Cops-esque humor. There's little warning too as things shift, especially toward the end with more than a few crazy twists, some that work, some that are shocking, and one that almost had me questioning the whole movie. Thankfully, it was a twist within a twist in a mystery surrounded by a paradox. Anyhoo, this is all complaining to complain. The movie is a ton of fun with one laugh after another. It's James Caan and Alan Arkin basically spending 2 hours causing collateral damage and bitching at each other in their downtime. If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is.

Freebie and the Bean (1974): ***/**** 

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Last Run

I like crime thrillers. Could you tell? If movies have taught us anything about the criminal underworld in all its glory, it's that it is easy to get into crime but not so easy to get out. You could do a whole sub-genre of films where an aging, veteran crook (a safecracker, a killer, a gun runner) is trying to walk away but someone or something ain't letting him. I stumbled across 1971's The Last Run years ago, and it definitely applies. Kudos to Turner Classic Movies for airing this hard-to-find flick!

Living in a small, quiet fishing village in southern Portugal, Harry Garmes (George C. Scott) leads a day-to-day life that's almost monk-like. He used to be one of the best drivers around, getting the job done no matter what but through some personal and family drama, he ended up in Portugal alone. It's been nine years since he's taken a job...until now. Garmes cuts a deal to be at a certain place at a certain time and drive someone out of harm's way and into France. The plan goes off without a hitch as Garmes picks up young, cocky Rickard (Tony Musante) after a highway prison bus escape, Rickard making him stop in a nearby town for his girlfriend, Claudie (Trish Van Devere). Even though Rickard rubs him the wrong way, Garmes has taken a contract and he intends to keep it, but what exactly is going on? What was Rickard put away for and is someone else on their trail? The border and relative safety can't come quick enough.

I first heard of this 1971 crime story a few years back courtesy of Warner's DVD-on-Demand offer where a disc was burned and sent to you instead of mass-producing it. The price was a little steep so patient movie review guy kicked in, and finally TCM obliged! Reviews were encouraging, a low-key, almost artsy crime drama that seemed to have touches of so many solid French new wave crime movies. Oh, and George C. Scott. That's almost never a bad thing. Well, the movie is okay but nothing special. Filming and production was beset by one thing after another from director John Huston bailing because he fought with Scott non-stop, and also Scott falling in love with Van Devere during filming....and his then-wife was in the movie at the time.

Good formula for success, huh? I don't know how much the production issues came into play, but 'Run' is a tad uneven. Director Richard Fleischer replaced Scott and took the helm, directing a crime drama that is straight forward, underplayed, no-nonsense and boasting all sorts of potential. It does have that Euro-feel of being almost minimalist in its development. The music is kept to a minimum, the focus is kept on the actors, and...well, I don't know. There just isn't much to it. Yeah, there is a sense of impending doom gathering on the horizon, but you've got a pretty good idea of where this is going pretty quick. I was curious to see the twists you know are coming, what exactly Scott's Garmes has gotten himself into, but the twists and payoffs weren't anything special unfortunately. Lots of potential -- but I say it too much -- but you've got to do something with that potential and not stand pat.

Scott was always a huge personality, and as I've learned reading about this production, that wasn't only on-screen but off. He fell in love with Van Devere during filming (and was eventually married) but his then-wife Colleen Dewhurst was actually in the film (playing a prostitute) as well. Fun, huh? Oh, and he chased Huston off apparently. His performance is an interesting one. His Harry Garmes is the definition of a doomed anti-hero. His life has retreated in on itself and thrust back into his past life -- being a hell of a getaway driver -- he sees that what he'd been doing wasn't really living at all. It is a quiet, imposing part with some typical Scott bursts of fire and rage and intimidation. What I'm looking for (usually) in my doomed anti-hero is some sort of sentiment and that wasn't necessarily on display here. I wasn't rooting for him to pull the job off, to get out alive, to get the girl, whatever the case may be. Scott or the script? Your call, but I guess it's both.

Musante and Van Devere are the only other cast members given much screentime. Musante does what he does best as a smooth (probably too smooth) crook who you can never get a read on. Is he telling you the truth or getting ready to stab you in the back? The future Mrs. Scott, Van Devere is okay in a similarly odd part just because it's never quite clear what she's up to. The whole subplot with Garmes and Claudie is forced and doesn't have much chemistry. Along with Dewhurt, look for spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell in a quick part.

I wanted to like this one a lot more, but I keep thinking they were trying to be something, trying to do this, trying too hard. When the twist comes as Musante reveals what's up, I had no idea what he was talking about. Then when the chases start and the bullets start to fly....yeah, still no idea. That can be a problem if you like following the story. 'Run' instead seems content to have you know that those guys are bad guys, and that's all. Any back story is unnecessary unfortunately. There are positives, the Spanish/Portuguese/French locations providing a beautiful visual backdrop and a couple car chases dotting the 99-minute running time. A disappointment unfortunately, but man, am I glad I didn't buy it!

The Last Run (1971): **/****

Friday, September 11, 2015

Rage (1972)

One of the beauties of Turner Classic Movie's summer programming is August's Summer Under the Stars, each day devoted to one star's films. I was able to check out several from George C. Scott that I'd never seen before, including this 1972 timely drama that you can see appealing to all sorts of audiences upset with the government, politics, and the System as a whole. Here we are with 1972's Rage.

Dan Logan (Scott) is a small-time rancher who lives in Wyoming with his 12-year old son, Chris (Nicolas Beauvy). Dan's wife died years before, leaving him to raise his son alone, something he takes to heart and very seriously. They've got a good life on the Logan spread, just father and son making a living. One night they're out camping on a hillside when Dan wakes up to find Chris unresponsive and bleeding profusely from the nose. He races into town to the hospital and Chris is immediately taken away from him. Doctors aren't sure exactly what happened, but one doctor especially, Holliford (Martin Sheen), assures him that everything will be taken care of. Dan too is asked to stay for observation, just to see if anything has happened to him too. What's going on? What Dan doesn't know is that a local army base is covering up an accident with a nerve gas accidentally being released...

Here's a trivia question for you. With what film did actor George C. Scott make his directorial debut? You're looking at it. That would be 1972's Rage. It's an interesting debut for the longtime actor. It's timely. It's hard-hitting, cynical, violent (horrifically at times), intensely uncomfortable so yeah, basically made for an early 1970's audience fed up with any sort of establishment. While it doesn't get too heavy in getting it across, it's safe to say 'Rage' is a "message" film. It wants to get a message across and make the audience get down to basics and think about what the story is really saying. The nerve gas reveal in the above plot line is a relative spoiler. You find out pretty quickly actually what's going on. The point is, it's the start of something. It's what the nerve gas represents.

That being...anyone trying to keep things under wraps from you because as a people, we're too stupid to handle something dangerous. Whether you agree with that is up to you. 'Rage' is a movie for those folks fed up with information being withheld from them, of someone in power dancing around the truth, of that person treading the fine line between the truth and a flat-out lie "for your benefit." Your establishment a-holes? Sheen plays an army doctor working undercover of sorts who really knows what's going on. Richard Basehart is Logan's longtime doctor and friend, quickly realizing the truth as he puts the clues together. Also look for Kenneth Tobey, Paul Stevens, Barnard Hughes, Ed Lauter and others trying to keep things under wraps.

Whether it be from behind the director's chair or in front of the camera, this is Scott's movie. His single father and small-time rancher character is about as archetypal American as you can get. He's created a life and carved it out of the landscape for himself and his son. He'll do anything to protect it. While there are some familiar Scott outbursts, I liked the Logan character most in the quiet moments. Dan is looking out for his son, pleased he sees his boy picking things up quickly as he grows up. We see a lot of this in an extended montage through the movie's first 15 minutes as Dan and Chris interact all over the ranch, ultimately ending up playing checkers while camping next to a small fire.

Also look for Dabbs Greer and John Dierkes in small supporting parts.

I was both intrigued and struggled with the slow pacing here in Scott's feature film directorial debut. The first hour is intensely slow as we begin to realize how bad the situation is, how dangerous the nerve gas really is, and the depths the army/establishment will go to keep that news under wraps. It is about the hour-mark when Logan puts it all together and FREAKING LASHES OUT. We're talking Death Wish meets Falling Down with any other vigilante movie you want to mention thrown in for good measure. He becomes a man possessed to right a wrong done against him. I kinda figured where the story was going, but not to these depths. It is dark. It is uncomfortable, and that's no doubt what Scott set out to do. Life ain't easy, especially when the powers that be have rooted interests in something not getting out.

The ending itself is tough to watch. It's supposed to be. As far as it goes, I wish it would have gone a little further. From the word 'go' we know this won't be a happy ending, but some more revenge and vengeance being dished out would have been so much better. So many more needed to be punished for their actions. Man, I'm getting all sorts of Old Testament here, but it's true. The actual finale is heartbreaking because it doesn't feel forced. There aren't any easy answers so my complaints of wanting more revenge being doled out go unanswered. That's life. It's tough. A depressing movie, flawed at times but interesting throughout.

Rage (1972): ***/****

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

With the Cold War raging in full gear, the 1960's in pop culture was the decade of the spy, of international intrigue, of espionage. From James Bond, Matt Helm, Harry Palmer and Derek Flint in films to Mission: Impossible and Man from U.N.C.L.E. on television, audiences ate up their spy stories as quickly as possible. Me? I love 'em all, great, good, bad and awful. Naturally I was curious then when I found out a movie was being made about one of those 60's television series. It took me a couple weeks, but here we are with 2015's The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

It's 1963 in East Berlin and CIA agent (by blackmail) Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is working a suspect with ties to a brilliant scientist capable of building a nuclear bomb. The problem? There's two. One, the scientist has been missing for years, and the suspect, his niece Gaby (Alicia Vikander), hasn't seen him in just as many years. Two, a KGB agent, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), is also looking for the scientist, creating a bit of a rivalry. There's an easy solution though that goes far above these agents' together to get the job done. With Ilya posing as Gaby's fiance and Napoloen as an antiquities dealer, the trio head to Italy to follow the evidence. What are they going to find? All sorts of glamorous, scandalous behavior with fanatics, lunatics and stashed away Nazis. What could possibly go wrong?

Running for four seasons in the mid-1960's, the original 'UNCLE' starred Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll, capitalizing on the spy craze. I watched the first season and loved it (in all its black and white glory) but lost interest during season 2 as the tone got a little too spoofish for me. Still, the appeal of a franchise being created was pretty cool, and it took years to do and countless cast possibilities and what-ifs roaming around Hollywood. Well, it's here and from director Guy Ritchie, it is a great summer movie that's good for all the right reasons.

For starters, the biggest reason this reboot (of sorts) works so well is the style. My worry was that the series would be modernized for the film, two agents in 2015 working together toward a common goal. My worries were unfounded thankfully! Ritchie's film is set at the height of the Cold War, the nuclear paranoia ravaging the world. On a purely visual, style-based rating, 'UNCLE' is a freaking gem. The look of the movie from the Italian locations is gorgeous, but it's more than just the ridiculously colorful spy flick. It's the clothes and fashions, the cars, the aura hanging in the air, the 1960's gadgets, the little things that when assembled together end up bringing a movie up a notch or two. If you care NOTHING about the story, just sit back and appreciate the visual of one beautiful spy movie. Besides, you know the good guys are gonna win, right? Oh no, spoilers!

One of the cooler aspects of 'UNCLE' is the casting of Cavill and Hammer as our two rival agents. Both are up-and-coming stars who seem destined for bigger and better. We don't go in with the mindset of knowing these stars as if Tom Cruise and George Clooney had been cast, and that's a good thing. We get to know the characters a little bit. Cavill's Solo is a WWII vet turned master thief turned captured agent blackmailed into working for the CIA. Hammer's Ilya grew up in war-torn WWII Russia and watched his father be dragged away, setting something off in his young son. A brutally efficient agent, he is a physical specimen. It can be familiar at times, but the two rival agents getting to know each other angle works pretty well. And again, it doesn't hurt that there is a fresh quality to the casting with two young actors.

The reviews were kinda mixed about...well, a lot, but I really did like Cavill and Hammer. Cavill is so smooth and suave that he's a little wooden in scenes, but he does a good variation on a James Bond-esque thief and pickpocket. Hammer is the straight guy but sells it throughout, committing to the KGB agent seemingly without emotions. Vikander is excellent as their go-between, an impromptu spy trying to keep the two agents from killing each other. Hugh Grant and Jared Harris are brutally underused as two superior agents who are pulling all the strings. As for the villains, they're okay but could have been stronger. Elizabeth Debicki is the most memorable as the fanatical Victoria, a stinking rich nut, with Luca Calvani and Sylvester Groth as her two closest allies. No huge names anywhere in sight, but that's not an issue in the least.

I liked the first hour here and loved the second as the characters and story really hit their groove. We finally get into things, and the action and style mixes seamlessly with the witty banter and impeccable filming locations. The action is especially stylish, including one highlight as Napoleon stumbles across a factory worker's lunch while Ilya evades gunboats hunting him down. We see that action in reflections, in a mirror, and it's silent all the way, Napoleon dead-pan eating a sandwich. A large-scale attack later on an Italian island villa is done in montage and it works in a way I wouldn't have thought. Ritchie and Co. manage to strike quite a balance among all the moving pieces, blending that style, humor, cool characters and cooler action.

Also worth mentioning, the 1960's French and Italian-themed score from Daniel Pemberton, a gem of a score. There are times the catchy score even resembles something out of a spaghetti western. That little touch of flair adds something fun and different to the proceedings. Great score though, liked it a lot. 'UNCLE' isn't tearing up the box office unfortunately, as movie critics are pretty mixed while actual moviegoers seem to be enjoying it. The ending sets things up nicely for any future ventures (hopefully!) as you'd expect. Should there be a sequel, I hope we get a Vaughn and McCallum cameo at some point. Make it happen, Guy Ritchie! In the meantime, check this one out. It's a lot of fun throughout.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015): ***/****

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Friday Night Lights

There have been many, MANY football movies over the years and plenty classics from Remember the Titans to Rudy, We Are Marshall to Any Given Sunday. I've got a favorite though, and it isn't especially close. I watched it in theaters when I was in college, read the book soon after and have rewatched the film many times since. But it had been awhile so I was very glad to catch up with 2004's Friday Night Lights.

It's 1988. It's west Texas, and hopes are high in the town of Odessa where the local high school, Permian, has an epic tradition of success on the football field with the Panthers. Expectations are especially high this year for head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) for the upcoming '88 season. The team is incredibly talented, returning a bunch of veterans, but most importantly star running back Boobie Miles (Derek Luke), a no-doubt future star in college and possibly the NFL. That seemingly perfect season though is undone almost immediately as Miles seriously hurts his knee in the Panthers' first game. Now, Gaines and the entire team must band together to figure something out, to turn things around and do it quickly. It isn't just pressure from within though. The entire town is putting a pressure over the team and program that hangs above the players and coaches like a dark cloud. Can they overcome?

'Friday' is based off the book of the same name by author H.G. Bissinger. He followed the team throughout the 1988 season, eventually writing the book that went on to become a lightning rod for good and bad. The book became more than just a story about sports, but about a west Texas town madly in love, devoted in obsessed fashion to their Permian Panthers. It delved into racism, politics and all sorts of deep-seeded topics. The movie streamlines much of those topics, zeroing in on the football, the head coach and the players who feel so much pressure to win and win big. Emotionally effective, often uncomfortably realistic, it's a gem.

Actor-turned-director Peter Berg has quietly built himself more than a solid reputation behind the camera over the years. This is his best work that I've seen. He films with confidence, giving the film a visual look that's incredibly appealing. During the football action, it is always on the move, with the players and coaches in quick, hard-hitting sequences. The colors are almost washed out, emphasizing Permian's iconic black and white -- simple, straightforward and classic -- uniforms. There are some touches that add that late 1980's feel but never to the point where you feel like you've been hit over the head with the idea. Just some jean jackets and bad hairdos and we're moving on. And also, the soundtrack from Explosions in the Sky, a post-rock band from Texas, the music quasi-trance, quasi-electronic but blending with the story in almost effortless fashion. An underrated, highly memorable score.

Three performances stand out from a uniformly positive cast. Thornton is a gem as Coach Gaines, a talented, bright coach who feels the weight of the town on his shoulders. A snide dig here, a menacing throwaway comment here. He pushes his players and pushes but knows when to pull back a little. Next up, Lucas Black as Mike Winchell, the QB who struggles with pressure and is just a nice, quiet kid who happens to be a good football player. Gaines and Winchelll's relationship is fascinating, coach-quarterback with a touch of father-son mentality. Black is a subtle scene-stealer here, Winchell always being my favorite. Last but not least, Luke as Boobie Miles, the star running back with confidence and cockiness to burn. It's only after his injury we see the true Boobie, including a heartbreaking scene with his uncle, L.V. (Grover Coulson).

The focus is on a handful of players so also look for Don Billingsley (Garrett Hedlund), the fullback who struggles with fumbles, Brian Chavez (Jay Hernandez), the safety who's already been accepted to Harvard, Ivory Christian (Lee Jackson), the almost silent defensive end dubbed 'Preacher,' and Chris Comer (Lee Thompson Young), the third string running back thrust into a far bigger role when Boobie goes down. Also look for Connie Britton as Sharon, Gary's wife who supports her husband through thick and thin.

As a sports movie, 'Friday' is epically successful. What helps it rise above so many other like-minded sports movies is the portrayal of the town and the pressure placed on these high school football players, just teenage boys when it comes down to it. It is almost a cult, an obsessed following begging the kids to win...but it's more than begging. It is an obsession that pushes everyone involved with the program to the brink. Any and every sports team ever WANTS to win, but that is an inward pressure. This is a community that lives and dies with the Panthers, almost defying them to lose. We see that in most frightening fashion in Don's father, played to creepy perfection by Tim McGraw.

Too many good moments to mention. The football scenes crackle with energy and adrenaline. Thornton's Gaines delivers one great speech after another, especially in the finale pre-game. My favorite has him quietly delivering a message to Winchell before a key turning point, smiling and stating "There ain't no curse." Boobie's breakdown with his uncle is heartbreaking as we finally see who he is, not all the sports cockiness. Mike's continuing struggle to live up to expectation, and my goodness, that ending. Just too perfect. If there's any advice I can offer, it's this. Don't go looking on Wikipedia for the true story. If you haven't seen it, go in fresh and enjoy the ride throughout. A sports classic.

Friday Night Lights (2004): ****/****

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Unfinished Business

I'm a big Vince Vaughn fan. I think his part in Wedding Crashers is criminally perfect, one of the best comedic performances I can think of, well, ever. His selections since that infamous 2005 comedy have been pretty hit or miss, including most recently his much-maligned part in HBO's second season of True Detective. But while the source material isn't always good, I typically like Vaughn. So with some nerves, I dove into 2015's Unfinished Business, a comedy that got lousy reviews and did awful in the box office. And away we go!

Dan Trunkman (Vaughn) is at a crossroads in his career. Told he will be getting a 5 percent commission decrease at work on business deals, Dan decides to up and quit, vowing to start his own company in the same field from the ground up. Two employees follow him out the door, Timothy McWinters (Tom Wilkinson), a longtime employee in his late 60's who's let go because he's too old, and Mike Pancake (Dave Franco), a young interviewee who actually wasn't employed but just interviewed for a position. Dan swears he'll get something going....that never really happens. Not right away at least as a year later, Dan is still trying to close his first business deal, a prominent one hanging in the air just waiting to get the handshake done. The problem? His former employer is similarly tracking the same deal, and the only way to get it done is for Dan, Tim and Mike to head to Berlin to wrap things up. Let the international hijinks begin.

Well....the trailer looked pretty funny. That's good, right? 'Unfinished' earned an impressive 11% at Rotten Tomatoes and barely cracked $10 million at the box office. I thought the premise sounded funny, the cast was pretty talented and was looking for some good laughs, so not a whole lot of demands. From director Ken Scott and writer Steve Conrad, 'Unfinished' just doesn't have enough laughs. The story is all over the place, trying to be a hard R-rated comedy while also mixing in some family drama that is dead on arrival. Pick one or the other and stick with it. If you pick wrong, so be it but at least you're not trying to appeal to all sides. It rarely ends well going with both options, and even at just 91 minutes, this comedy gets a tad sluggish along the way.

There are haters and/or doubters out there, but I love Vince Vaughn. He's at his best dealing out lightning-quick jabs, almost always delivered in a subtle, underplayed fashion that leaves you burned later because that insult was so damn good. Playing father and businessman Dan, Vaughn -- like the script -- is kind of trapped in no man's land. His character just seems irritated a lot, mostly because everyone around him is an idiot. He gets his usual rants and ravings in and has a good running bit about being part of a hotel art display, but too often he's left to play the straight man to the antics and shenanigans all around him. His selections in films have left something to desire over the last 10 years, but when given the opportunity, he shows he can still kill it with an impeccable line delivery. I just wish there had been more of that.

As if his co-workers weren't bad enough (more on that to come), Vaughn's character and the movie across the board is undone by the family drama inserted into a comedy that preached an R-rating and looked to be raunchy, nasty and dirty. No such luck, or not enough, or no balance among it all. You choose. There's his loving wife (June Diane Raphael), his bullied, overweight son (Britton Sear) and his daughter (Ella Anderson) who stands up for her older brother. It is a plot line with no life, no energy and would seem more appropriate for a Full House episode.

So Tom Wilkinson and Dave Franco as sidekicks...yeah, that sounds good. But that damn script again has its way. Franco delivers one of the most uncomfortable parts I've ever seen, his Mike Pancake (Yes, that's his name and the joke is beaten to death) a pretty slow young man who's innocent, naive, looking to get laid and, well, seemingly mentally challenged but all at the expense of one joke after another. It is painful. PAINFUL. Wilkinson is a pro but his character is similarly poorly-written, an older, married man who's looking to get a divorce and have some crazy European sex too as long as he's got the chance. So....yeah, that's not good. In tiny snippets, the trio does have good chemistry but they get buried under a sea of repetitive jokes that are short on actual laughs.

Rounding out the cast but given little to do beyond being cliched cardboard cutouts, look for Sienna Miller, James Marsden and Nick Frost as assorted other characters that do stuff.

Just a big disappointment overall. There was some potential for a halfway decent comedy, but that never really comes around. Not enough laughs and too many dumb twists and awkwardly forced family issues to be an enjoyable comedy.

Unfinished Business (2015): * 1/2 /****