The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mackenna's Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Wild Bunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Good Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Wonderful Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 17, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Rolling Thunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Night Before

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Lawless Breed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Lonesome Dove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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