The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Warpath (1951)

Coursing through one story after another, the concept of good, old-fashioned bloody revenge/vengeance seems quite at home in the western genre. Don't it? And sometimes, that's all you need for a good story. Take 1951's Warpath, a decent little western that could have been pretty good. If it had just stuck to its revenge-driven guns...

Riding into a dusty, wind-swept town in the west, a man named John Vickers (Edmond O'Brien) gets off a stagecoach and promptly runs into the man's he long been after. He prods him into drawing first and shoots him dead, but not before getting some information out of the dying man. Vickers is looking for two other men and has been doing so for the previous eight years, always on their trail, always one step too slow. Now, he's got to take it one step further. Those two men he's pursuing have joined the cavalry. What to do? Driven solely by revenge, Vickers joins up too, knowing the regiment the duo enlisted with. That outfit? The infamous Seventh Cavalry, commanded by General George Armstrong Custer. Vickers hopes he can finish his mission, but has he bitten off more than he can chew?

I'm always on the lookout for new westerns, especially harder-to-find B-westerns like this entry from director Byron Haskin. Nothing too fancy here, a pretty straightforward revenge story that's undone by some story choices. It brings together all sorts of genre conventions, throws them in a mixer and you get to watch the finished product, a western clocking in at about 100 minutes that has a somewhat disjointed feel. Not especially good, not especially bad, but worth a watch for genre fans.

Edmond O'Brien is criminally underrated. Westerns, film noirs, dramas, thrillers, this guy could and did do it all. His John Vickers manages to hold things together throughout all the bouncing balls. He's a Civil War veteran hellbent on revenge, looking to avenge the death of his fiance who was shot and paralyzed as an innocent bystander during a bank robbery. He watched her die slowly, wilt away, and intends to exact revenge no matter where it takes him. It's a good part for O'Brien, simmering with rage and intensity as he puts himself through all sorts of trials and tribulations to exact that revenge, often putting himself at great danger to do so. Or is that his plan and has been all along? Hmm, interesting. Something to think about, huh? :)

The cast has some familiar names and faces, helping smooth out the rough patches. Among the cavalry soldiers O'Brien's Vickers finds in the Seventh Cavalry, there's Forrest Tucker, Paul Fix, Wallace Ford, and the always welcome Harry Carey Jr. Also at the fort, Vickers meets the comely daughter (Polly Bergen) of the owner of the general store (Dean Jagger). Wouldn't you know it? She likes Vickers...but she also likes another soldier! Oh, no! Yeah, the story goes down that path. A story that already bounces around too much grinds to a halt in those oh so painful moments.  If you're a western fan, the solid supporting cast overall should pull you in. It did for me!

There's enough here to recommend. It's a solid B-western from the early 1950's, but it certainly has an edge to it. It's a kinda leisurely revenge-seeking trip -- how does it take 8 years to track 3 people down when you seemingly are always on their tail? -- and O'Brien's Vickers seems to take quite a risk enlisting in the army in the hopes of finding two men in an entire cavalry regiment. And as mentioned, the forced love interest never really takes off.

Still, 'Warpath' does take some risks that pay off. It's clearly made on the cheap, including an art insert of the fort walls as the cavalry troops ride in and out. Helping cancel things out are a combination of some western notables. A midway action scene has a twist on the Battle of Beecher's Island, one of the more fascinating, little-known battles in the wild west. Then, the finale is set against the backdrop of Custer's Last Stand, maybe the most iconic moment in American history in the wild west. So yeah, if the ending is a little abrupt -- oh, right, Custer and the whole regiment are dead! -- so be it. It's a fun little western.
Warpath (1951): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, April 10, 2016


While superhero, horror and animated flicks dominate theaters on a week-to-week basis, the western....well, you've got to search out that generally forgotten genre quite a bit more. There's been some options at least in '16, including Jane Got a Gun (pretty good) and Diablo (pretty bad), and a Magnificent Seven remake is even scheduled for an August release. So where does 2016's Forsaken fall? Keep on reading, pardner!

It's been years since the end of the Civil War and John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) is finally coming home. He's spent those years drifting along from town to town, hiring on as a gunfighter, as a hired gun, whoever needs his service with a pistol. Now, he's looking to hang up his gunbelt and move on, settle down, and especially mend his relationship with his father, a reverend, William (Donald Sutherland). Years apart has not mellowed either man with some past wounds still very fresh. John Henry is committed though, and he intends to go straight. That's going to be easier said than done. James McCurdy (Brian Cox), a local businessman, is looking to scoop up all the land for miles and doing so with fear tactics, intimidation and straight-out murder. The only one capable of stopping McCurdy and his own gunmen? John Henry Clayton, who must now decide if he'll strap on his gunbelt one more time.

I rented this western from Redbox this week. The Internet reports that 'Forsaken' was released theatrically in February, but it must have been the shortest theatrical release ever. I look for flicks like this and didn't see it anywhere near the Chicago-area! So however its release was handled, the end result is the same....

It's a good, old-fashioned, traditional western. It doesn't try to rewrite the genre, bringing to life one of the more familiar western stories around. Bad guy wants land, land owners can't/won't fight back, gunfighter must stand up to bad guy. Lather, rinse and repeat! It's Shane and The Magnificent Seven and countless other westerns, but director Jon Cassar is a more than capable filmmaker to have in the director's chair. Filmed in Canada and borrowing some locations from Open Range (along with some basic storytelling devices), 'Forsaken' is content to be a good, old-fashioned western. It looks gorgeous, the score from composer Jonathan Goldsmith is above average and blends well with the story and visual. If you like westerns, this is more than a safe bet. An easy recommendation.

Not surprisingly, 24's Jack Bauer is a pretty easy transition into the western anti-hero. Kiefer Sutherland is very solid as John Henry Clayton, a gunfighter with a checkered past who's looking to go straight. The grizzled, trail-worn look fits Sutherland well, and he slides easily into the genre. His past is doled out in small doses as we see what's driven him to the breaking point. Long story short? He's very good with a pistol but that ability has gotten himself into trouble. There's a cool dynamic -- rather heated at times -- too between the real-life father and son, Kiefer and Donald Sutherland. The elder Sutherland has some unresolved feelings toward his son, long brewing in his gut and struggling to put into words when his son arrives without warning after years away. Surprise member of the cast? Demi Moore -- a welcome addition! -- as a lost love of Kiefer's who's moved on...or has she?!?

Now the fun of the pretty straightforward good guy vs. bad guy angle is that the bad guys can be very, very bad. Dirty, despicable, murdering, conniving, backstabbing folks. Who better for that than Brian Cox? No One. He's clearly having some fun as the sneering villain who you just love to hate. Aaron Poole plays his brutal enforcer while Michael Wincott is a scene-stealer as Gentleman Dave Turner, a well-dressed, polite, lives by a code hired gun who's nonetheless brutally efficient with a gun. It's the best part in the movie, and Wincott's scenes with Kiefer Sutherland are a gem, featuring some great dialogue as two tough guys test out the water back and forth to see where they stand.

Nothing fancy here from beginning to end with a western that clocks in at just under 90 minutes. The action is saved for the finale when John Henry has finally had enough -- you can only pushed a deadly gunfighter so far I've learned :) -- and decides to do something about it. Some cool moments, a good twist, and a satisfying ending to a pretty decent little western. Worth checking out.

Forsaken (2016): ***/****

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hour of the Gun

One of the seminal moments in American history, especially in the 19th Century, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is synonymous with the wild, wild west. It was a gunfight that only lasted 15 or 20 seconds, but the men involved would became famous because of their actions. What about after the gunfight though? What happened next? That is a story that is far less well-known, but it gets a fascinating examination in a mostly forgotten 1967 western, Hour of the Gun.

It's October 26, 1881 in the Arizona silver boom-town of Tombstone. Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp (James Garner), his two brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday (Jason Robards), are heading for a fight after a long-running, long-simmering feud with Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his gang of gunmen, bandits and rustlers. A gunfight ensues with three men -- all outlaws -- killed while Wyatt's brothers are wounded. The fight does nothing to end the feud, only adding fuel to the fire. The immediate response begins in a courtroom as Wyatt, Doc and the Earp brothers are brought up on charges for their actions that led to the gunfight and then for outright murder. This won't be resolved with words though. Too much has passed between the two sides with too many deaths for it to be fixed so easily. Wyatt and Doc live by the gun as does Ike Clanton. Let the bullets fly and those who get caught in the be it.

From the first time I saw 1993's Tombstone, I was fascinated not just by the gunfight at the OK Corral but what happened after it. Unless I'm missing a flick, this is the first western to dive in headfirst to the aftermath. An unofficial sequel from his film 10 years earlier, Gunfight at the OK Corral, director John Sturges turns in a dark, moody, character-driven angle of the story. There's gunplay but not a ton. The story condenses months and months of history into a tightly-packed 105-minutes but one that doesn't feel too rushed. It's a daunting extended stretch to handle but Sturges and writer Edward Anhalt do a pretty solid job condensing and tweaking and twisting here to make it more manageable.

Two years later, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch would kick open the door for the western, effectively starting the genre on a path that proved to be its doom. The spaghetti westerns started it, Peckinpah continued and the revisionist westerns of the 1970's finished it off. Where's 'Hour' fit? Somewhere in between. It isn't a revisionist western. It's just a straightforward, mostly honest, not heroic interpretation of the real-life events. There aren't heroes, just less unlikable individuals. Case in point is Garner's Wyatt, not the crisp, clean, honest lawman he's often portrayed as. Here, he's a hypocrite, blinded with rage and almost completely driven by it. Towns are run by the rich, everything depends on power and money, and that power depends on backstabbing, back-shooting and all sorts of underhanded dealings. This ain't no good guys in white hats vs. bad guys in black hats. A precursor of the things to come in the western genre.

In film or on television, James Garner has a reputation as a likable presence, a sympathetic hero's awesome to see him take these darker roles, like 1970's A Man Called Sledge. As we've learned, Wyatt Earp wasn't necessarily the heroic, noble lawman he's often portrayed as. 'Hour' delves right into that concept. Here, he's a revenge-seeking murderer hiding behind a marshal's badge and a warrant for arrest. It's a fascinating character and not necessarily sympathetic. Garner doesn't disappoint with this darker role. Just wish he had done more roles like this!

The key relationship in all the Earp/Tombstone movies though is between Wyatt Earp, the law officer, and Doc Holliday, the gambling dentist slowly dying of tuberculosis. All Holliday performances pale in comparison to Val Kilmer in 1993's Tombstone, but Robards is pretty damn good and belongs in close second with Dennis Quaid in the otherwise painful Wyatt Earp. Robards does what he always does. He quietly steals all his scenes to the point you don't even realize he's doing it. His chemistry with Garner is impeccable, a friendship with more of an edge than we're used to seeing. Their arguments become heated to the point of lashing out violently. Through it all though, there's an unspoken bond between them, two loners, two outsiders who have found the unlikeliest of friends. Two excellent leading performances.

Beyond Ryan, 'Hour' is light on star power, but that's not a bad thing. Ryan's Ike Clanton is probably the most exaggerated part here with the movie Clanton not resembling the actual historical Clanton. Still, it's Robert Ryan in sneering, condescending villain mode, and that ain't a bad thing. Wyatt's misfit posse includes Monte Markham, William Windom and Lonny Chapman. Their targets include Michael Tolan, Robert Philips, Steve Inhat and a very young Jon Voight. Too many familiar faces from film and television to mention, but also look for Albert Salmi, Karl Swenson and Bill Fletcher among many others.

I can't quite put my finger on it, but I liked 'Hour' much more on this second viewing than the first (it had been at six or seven years). It isn't an easy western to watch, and doesn't do much to pull you in in any sort of obvious fashion. That said, there's just something about it. Filmed in Mexico with cinematographer Lucien Ballard (one of the all-time greats), the movie looks stunning. Throw in one of Jerry Goldsmith's more underrated scores and it all adds up. Listen to the score HERE. It's a familiar story by now, that of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral, but this adult western holds together quite well. Highly recommended.

Hour of the Gun (1967): ***/****

Monday, April 4, 2016

Field of Dreams

I love baseball and everything about it. The Chicago White Sox to the fantasy leagues, going to games to listening on the radio and watching on TV. It is and hopefully always will be my favorite sport. Naturally then, baseball movies have to be the best, right? My list starts with a classic, 1989's Field of Dreams.

Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) is a 36-year old man who owns a farm in Iowa and lives with his wife, Annie (Amy Madigan) and their young daughter, Karen (Gaby Hoffmann). One day while he's out in the expansive cornfields, Ray hears a voice tell him multiple times 'If you build it, he will come..." He doesn't know what to make of the voice and its mysterious message. What could it possibly mean? After hearing the voice repeat itself several times over several days, Ray thinks he's figured it out. Somehow, some way, Ray is supposed to build a baseball field in his cornfield. His reasoning? He thinks if he builds that field, his father's hero, Shoeless Joe Jackson, will get a chance to redeem himself for his actions with the 1919 Black Sox. He builds the field and waits...and waits but nothing happens. Then one night as he mulls over their future with Annie, a man appears out on the field. It's Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) himself. That's only the start though. There's much more to come.

Ask 100 sports fans 'What's your favorite sports movie?' and who knows? Maybe you get 100 different answers! I don't know if it is my favorite, but it's certainly in the conversation with Hoosiers, Rocky, and a whole bunch more I can rewatch over and over again. The TV description of the 1988 film from director Phil Alden Robinson (he also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay) describes it as 'Capra-esque' -- as in Frank Capra -- and it's an incredibly apt description. It's an American story of family, baseball, hopes and dreams, and without being heavy-handed, believing in something mystical, something bigger than us that doesn't necessarily need to be explained. You just take it on faith and go for a ride.

I like The Natural, love Major League and The Sandlot, and swear by any number of other baseball flicks, but 'Field' is up there at the top. Why? Maybe more than any other baseball movie, it loves and respects the game. It appreciates the history, the unspoken connection people have with the sport, and maybe most importantly, the simple beauty of the game. In a late monologue, James Earl Jones explains the power of the game in one of the movie's most effective scenes. Far earlier as Ray meets Joe Jackson, the famous Shoeless expresses his personal love of the game in a simple, eloquent, authentic monologue. The story loves the history of the game, especially the 1910's and early 1920's. Watch it for that love and respect, the classic uniforms, those famous players, the infamous 1919 Black Sox, and so much more.

Who better to lead the way through our mystical baseball story than Crash Davis himself, Kevin Costner? Just a year off Bull Durham (another excellent baseball flick), Costner returns to the sports/baseball genre and delivers -- for me -- one of his all-time best roles. He's a 30-something farmer who knows little about farmer looking for some answers out of life. Instead, he gets a mysterious voice imploring him 'If you build it, he will come.' Costner's Ray doesn't always know where the road will take him, but he believes. Simple as that, he believes. He believes something good is down the road, and that him building a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield has a higher meaning. It has to, right? When everything seems to scream at how illogical the whole thing is, Costner sticks with his gut and keeps believing. Madigan is excellent as his ever-supportive wife, Annie, with him through thick and thin, while 6-year old Hoffmann is equally solid.

Three supporting performances help take the movie from really good into the classic stratosphere, Ray Liotta (relatively unknown at the time) as Shoeless Joe Jackson, James Earl Jones as reclusive writer Terence Mann, and Burt Lancaster (in his final role) as Doc Graham, a former baseball player who became a doctor in his Minnesota hometown. I don't want to give away too much -- for the 6 people who haven't seen this movie by now -- but these performances are pristine. They're perfect. Liotta brings some edge to Shoeless, the mysterious ex-ballplayer who was banned from baseball even though evidence indicates Jackson did nothing wrong. He's got some cards up his sleeves for sure. Jones as Mann makes it look so freaking easy. Based on J.D. Salinger, Mann has retired from public life and is looking to live a quiet, peaceful life. His chemistry with Costner is pitch perfect from scene-to-scene, dramatic and funny. And, oh yeah, Burt Lancaster, a halfway decent actor in his own right (I guess). He's on-screen for maybe 4 or 5 minutes and steals every second he's in. Three great performances.

Also look for Timothy Busfield as Mark, Annie's brother in the real estate business who's trying to convince his brother-in-law to...ya know, not be nuts, and Frank Whaley as Archie 'Moonlight' Graham, a much younger version of Lancaster's Doc Graham. Dwier Brown has a quick but brutally effective part as John Kinsella, Ray's father. As for other players from the '19 Black Sox who show up, look for some familiar faces who make the most out of their quick, but highly effective parts.

The movie itself is a road picture once things get going, the story of a journey both for Ray but also the people and individuals he meets along the way. We see how Ray's decision to build the baseball field affects one person after another, somewhat like the universe is laying out the groundwork for him -- testing him of sorts -- and seeing if he'll follow along. As for the movie itself, it is a visually subtle but very good-looking movie. Always seems to be shot at sunset with all sorts of beautiful light. If not that time of day, that field o' dreams always is bathed in sunlight without a cloud in sight. Composer James Horner (one of the all-time bests) delivers an Oscar nominated-score that is an additional character there all along the way for the story.

So what is baseball best suited for? As 'Field' shows, it is a sport often shared between father and son, the crux of the story here itself. This is a sport with the subtle, charming ability to bring people together. That sentiment leads to one of the all-time great endings ever with a ridiculously strong final 20 minutes. It's one memorable moment after another, one great line after another, all of it leading to one of the more iconic closing shots ever if you ask me. Is it heaven? No, maybe not, but it's a perfect sports movie and just a great movie all-around. Must watch for sports fans and non-sports fans alike!

Field of Dreams (1988): ****/****

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Names like Yakima Canutt, Bud Ekins, Dar Robinson, Chuck Roberson, and Chuck Hayward may not ring a bell as an instantly recognizable Hollywood icons. They should though. These are just some of the thankless stars of the stunt business, doing the crazy stunts the actors/actresses just couldn't. Right up there with that crew (and countless others we could mention) was stuntman-actor-director Hal Needham. Who better to direct the story of an aging stuntman trying to hold on for a little more glory? N-O ONE. Here's 1978's Hooper.

For years now, Sonny Hooper (Burt Reynolds) has been the BEST stuntman working in Hollywood. Versatile in all his stunts, from car chases to aerial acrobatics, chases on horseback to a brutal fistfight, there's nothing Sonny can't do and there is no stunt he'll turn down. He'll try anything. That reckless attitude toward his work is catching up with him. He's now in his 40's and has a laundry list of broken bones and horrifically painful injuries to show for his well-earned reputation. Well, now that reputation is on the line a little bit. Though everyone still respects Sonny and looks to him to pull off the craziest of the crazy, there's a new kid on the lots, Ski (Jan-Michael Vincent), who's showing a similar knack for pulling off the impossible. How far will Sonny go to keep his unofficial title as 'Best Stuntman Around'? Maybe the most dangerous stunt of his career will do it...

Movies and stories about the making of said movies can be funny, dramatic, condescending, pretentious, revealing, and sometimes all of the above. A movie about stunt men being crazy and goofy and generally acting like idiots? Say what you want about Needham's 'Hooper,' but it is fun. It is dumb, slightly disjointed and drifts too much, but from beginning to end, it is F-un. At 100 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome and in the second half does feature some darker (potentially at least) moments. That said, it's a Burt Reynolds movie. Things aren't going to get too dark here. Sit back with a beer and enjoy this one.

Through the general goofiness, the most pleasant part of the story is seeing that behind-the-scenes world of the stunt men. They walk onto the set, do their stunt and...yeah, they're done for the day. Now yeah, those stunts are horrifically dangerous but you get the idea. They're celebrities among the cast and crew, albeit anonymously to the viewing public. Coming from Needham and Reynolds (who got his start as a stuntman), you know the respect will be there with the profession, along with the helter-skelter mindset of these nutcases who willingly put themselves in peril day-in and day-out. The conversation doesn't seem scripted, just guys being guys busting each other left and right. So as mentioned, the story isn't necessarily the most pointed thing around, just a series of connecting scenes linking it all together. Fun though. Definitely fun.

Who better to help us jump into the world of the stuntman headfirst than Burt Reynolds? Nobody! One of the biggest stars of the 1970's, this isn't a heavy acting part -- most of his best parts seem to be variations on his own personality -- but it is nonetheless a strong performance. You get a feel for Reynolds' Sonny, past his prime but still kicking strong. He's seen and done it all in a career that's not young anymore. Now, he has to decide how far he wants to push it. At the height of his star power, Reynolds is excellent. Playing off that familiar new fast gun in the area, Vincent is a good match for Reynolds. It's a rivalry between the dueling stuntmen, but there seems to be a genuine friendship and respect between the two men. Like I said, it never gets too dramatic along the way. The tone and spirit is generally pretty lighthearted.

The cast overall here is pretty impressive, especially if you're a fan of countless guy's guys movies from the 1960's and 1970's. Also keep an eye out for Sally Field (the girlfriend), Brian Keith (the former best stuntman around/potential father-in-law), James Best (Sonny's friend/manager), John Marley (the film's producer), Robert Klein (the ego-maniacal director), Adam West (the star), and even NFL QB Terry Bradshaw has a fun appearance. Also look for Jim Burk as a stuntman and friend of Sonny's. Burk was a frequent performer in John Wayne's later movies and finally gets a part that lets him say a few words.

The best thing going here is the actual stunts. Stands to reasons we're here for a stuntman movie so might as well see some ridiculously cool stunts, right? Reynolds does a lot of his own work, but 'Hooper' runs the gamut in terms of the variety of what we get to see. A whole bunch of craziness -- the movie they're working on seems like a James Bond knock-off -- and all of it leading to a ridiculously choreographed sequence that Klein's director wants shot in one take. ONE TAKE! It's lunacy but just go along with it. The capper? The longest car jump ever as Sonny and Ski are supposed to drive a rocket car over a river where a bridge has recently been demolished. Yeah, crazy, kooky stuff. Make sure to stick around for the end though with Reynolds pulling his usual shtick and breaking the fourth wall.

A fun movie. A dumb movie but fun!

Hooper (1978): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Paths of Glory

What is the sign of an effective anti-war film? What's the mark of a successful entry? ANGER. Frustration. A struggle to believe what you're watching could have actually happened. One of the first American anti-war films is also one of the best, and in general, one of the best movies ever made. If you haven't seen it already, shame on you. Go watch it. Here's 1957's Paths of Glory.

It's 1916 and World War I has been waging for two-plus years. The fighting has bogged down to a standstill, the two sides blasting away from their trenches at each other across no man's land. A French offensive is in the works with one battalion, commanded by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), assigned a key point in the German line. Under extreme machine gun fire, the attack is a failure, Dax's men returning to their own trenches. Someone must answer for the failure though, especially when the division commander (George Macready) demands retribution for the colossal failure. He wants men shot and court-martialed with the high command settling on three men. Three of Dax's men will be charged with cowardice in battle and sit before a court martial tribunal. A well-known criminal lawyer, Dax will defend them...but even the experienced lawyer can't know what awaits.

What a freaking movie. From director Stanley Kubrick (maybe you've heard of him), 'Glory' deserves its place as one of the great war films of all-time but also as one of the best films of all-time in general. Just in terms of story, it is ahead of its time. The cynical, disbelieving tone of its story seems far more in-tune with the late 1960's or the entire decade of the 70's, not the late 1950's. Technically speaking, it is damn perfect from beginning to end. If there's an obvious, glaring weakness, I'm missing it! A phenomenal movie.

The anti-war message is uncomfortable to the point the film is difficult to watch at times. While 'Glory' isn't based on any single incident, stories like this no doubt happened in World War I and countless other wars. Douglas' Dax finds himself defending three innocent soldiers -- Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel -- who will be tried (and potentially worse) for cowardice in battle. He is met at every turn with resistance, countered by men uninterested in a real defense, battling selfish, egotistical maniacs who think solely of themselves, of glory and honor, of promotions and personal gain. If those gains are built on battlefields of men who didn't have to die...well, so be it. Kubrick's film does not pull a single punch. This is war. This is death. This is so much worse than you could have imagined it.

A star before and a star after, Douglas is at his all-time best here with a performance that definitely belongs at the top of his career. His Colonel Dax is a capable officer, a more than capable lawyer, but most of all, he's simply a good man. He's honest, an idealist and genuinely looks out for the well-being of his men. Dax is sick of war but knows the quicker it's over, the quicker he and his men can go him. Douglas does a lot with an understated part -- calm, cool and collected -- as he bides his time. It is in the final act that Douglas gets to stretch his legs with a fiery, pissed-off, beyond frustrated, beyond anger performance that resonates long after the movie's over. Dax's fire and passion shows through best in an outburst as he condemns the actions of one of the selfish, clueless commanding officer who remains oblivious to anything and everything around him. But kudos to Douglas though with a performance that allows him the chance to show off the full scope of his ability.

This is Douglas' film, no doubt, but there's strong performances all over. Adolphe Menjou and Macready are terrifying as the upper-crust commanding officers who look at war with a sort of fog covering their eyes. No one could be this selfishly inept, could they? Their scenes show the depths of their ignorance, of an old-fashioned way of looking at war. Equally despicable are Richard Anderson and Wayne Morris as two officers, both ignorant in their own ways; Anderson with his haughty arrogance, Morris his drunken cowardice. In Meeker, Turkel and Carey, we get the gamut of reactions, seeing how different individuals respond to a situation so hopeless and stupid that it baffles the mind. When nothing at all makes sense, how do you rationalize such a profoundly stupid decision made by countless people seemingly smart enough and powerful enough to know that decision simply shouldn't be made?

Released 11 years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey is usually remembered as Kubrick's best, usually followed by A Clockwork Orange. I think 'Paths' belongs with 1960's Spartacus as the director's best. Just 29 years old at the time, Kubrick already shows what an immense talent he is behind the camera. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave movement, Kubrick's camera becomes an additional character, especially in beautiful unedited, long takes navigating the claustrophobic frontline trenches. We're there with the troops in the bloody, muddy, rat-infested trenches. Going over the top into the death zone known as 'no man's land' is far worse though where men are chewed up and spit out by the hundreds and thousands. Then, we're off to gargantuan French mansions, the picture of decadence and elegance, where the high command makes all their brilliant decisions. The musical score is minimalist to say the least, all the focus on the performances.

Just too many memorable moments to mention. Basically any scene in the trench is memorable, a perfect example of how to film an uninterrupted tracking shot. The attack scenes are harrowing, and the courtroom scenes -- in those French mansions -- make you feel physically ill as you watch the court martial develop. Emile Meyer is memorable as a priest desperately trying to click with the potentially-condemned men, and Turkel is a scene-stealer in a dialogue-heavy scene talking about how soldiers want to die. Through it all, Meeker is at his career-best as the soldier who finds himself on trial for all the wrong reasons. It all leads to one of the more memorable moments I can think of in a war film, anti-war or not. Filmed at an expansive German villa, an extended military procession is an incredible sequence to watch, both aesthetically and emotionally.

An all-timer. One of the greats and a film every movie fan should see at least once.

Paths of Glory (1957): ****/****

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Gift

Just a few weeks ago with Jane Got a Gun, I mentioned what a big fan I was of actor Joel Edgerton. He's shown a chameleon-like ability as an actor who's taken all sorts of different roles as a star who is definitely on the rise. Well, he can add another category to his resume. He's now a director too, making his feature directorial debut with 2015's The Gift.

Having moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), is excited about their new start in a new city. Simon has a new job with a ton of potential for advancement and Robyn gets to start her own business as well. All is peachy or so it seems. Out shopping one day, they run into Gordon 'Gordo' Moseley (Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon's. The encounter is awkward after so many years, but that's only the start. Gordo starts by dropping off some presents unannounced at their new house. He starts dropping in without warning, often when Simon is at work and Robyn is home alone. Robyn isn't sure what to make of Gordo but tries to think the best of the situation. Simon, his work friends and their new neighbors, they're not so convinced. What is Gordo up to? Is he up to anything? There's more to every story. It's just a matter of finding out...

I must have seen this trailer about 384 times last spring and summer in advance of its August 2015 release. I felt like I'd seen it already so didn't try too hard to catch it in theaters. Well, enough time has passed. The verdict? Highly-recommended adult thriller. Go watch it. Apologies if the rest of the review is a tad vague, but this is a story that you should definitely go into without too much information. It's going to be far-more effective if you have no idea what's coming next.

First-time director Edgerton clearly has some talented both behind the camera but with the script as he penned the screenplay too. 'Gift' jumped out and grabbed me and never really let go. The biggest thing going for this thriller is its subtlety from beginning to end. There are no car chases or explosions or random bits of nudity. It is all tension and scene-setting, a cloud of anxious doom hanging in the air as to exactly what's gonna happen next. Edgerton hits the ground running. It's not just a tolerable first-time effort. It is a genuinely skilled, crafted thriller that keeps you guessing throughout. 'Gift' is the definition of a slow burn. When the technique flops, it drags the whole movie down in a boring haze. When it works, you get that queasy feeling in your stomach as the story unravels and we see what's really going on.

You can't say that with so many in-your-face thrillers that are all about shock value. There's a sense of mystery from the word 'go' here with the big reveal coming about halfway through, but that's far from the end. Edgerton's screenplay has its fair share of secrets to reveal in the second half, including a very well-handled "Oh, NO!" finale. A smart, underplayed thriller.

Basically a three-person cast on display here with some other smaller parts fleshing things out. You could see this developed in a way as a stage play. Bateman and Hall are excellent together as Simon and Robyn, a married couple looking for a fresh start. Why is that? Like everything else, the reveals come with time. It is definitely safe to say though that not everything is as simple and straightforward as it seems. We learn why the couple ended up in Los Angeles, and that both husband and wife are dealing with some inner demons that pop up at the worst time. It is in these tension-building moments where we learn these things that the story excels. We're never quite sure if we're hearing the full story, if we're hearing everything we need to hear. Both are incredibly talented actors, both of them getting to show off their range with each new frightening development.

Edgerton smartly uses the less-is-more mindset in playing Gordo, and more imporantly, in revealing the truth of the character. When he's on-screen,  we see a socially awkward individual who seems to be trying really hard to fit in. When we don't see him, it feels like his presence is still there looming over our story and characters. If you need more of a compliment for an actor's performance, I can't think of it. Though we learn much about him, Gordo remains a mystery. We don't see his home or much about his background. We don't see him interact with basically anyone other than Simon and Robyn. There's some good questions brought up as to what the character's intentions were from the beginning. Did he always have this plan? Did he adjust on the fly as certain revelations are revealed, as certain people show their true colors? Another mark of a subtle, unsettling thriller. Let the audience decide.

I can't recommend this one enough. It is original, unique and interesting from beginning to end. Where so often a thriller based on a twist falls flat when the twist doesn't deliver, 'Gift' takes that moment and uses it to surge forward to the end, saving some unpleasant surprises for the second half. Definitely worth a watch. Whether it be on-screen or from the director's chair, Edgerton clearly has a future in whichever role he chooses. I look forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve next!

The Gift (2015): ***/****

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

Sports and underdog movies go together like peanut butter and jelly, like salt and pepper. As a sports fan and a moviegoer, there's something warm and inspiring about those stories of people who just shouldn't be able to do what they do. Are they box office gold? Not usually, but they often enough find their niche with audiences sooner rather than later. The latest entry into the underdog genre is a good one, 2016's Eddie the Eagle.

Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) is a 22-year Brit who's always had one dream; he's long wanted to be an Olympic athlete. He's overcome some physical ailments growing up and has bounced from hoping for the Summer Olympics and then doing an about-face for the Winter Olympics. After narrowly missing out on making the British team as a skier, Eddie decides to go for it as a ski jumper...except he's never worked as a ski all. Eddie moves to a training site in Germany and starts from the ground-up. After some painful but affirming jumps, Eddie seeks out the help of Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a former US champion who's fallen on some hard times. Bronson thinks Eddie is nuts to continue with the training but when he sees his stubborn new student just isn't going to quit, he gets on-board, hoping to help Eddie from not dying on the slopes. Their biggest goal? Getting Eddie to qualify for the 1988 Calgary Olympics.

One piece of advice if you're going to see this sports-themed story. Don't read too much about Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards and his story/background. If you feel like ignoring my advice, check it out HERE. I wanted to go in fresh, go in clean, and I enjoyed it that much more because of it. Even if it is a familiar story of an underdog, not knowing exactly where it's going pays off some big dividends.

Have you seen Rudy? Rocky? Cool Runnings? Hoosiers? Countless other flicks I'm missing? If you answered 'Yes,' then you know exactly what you're getting into with 'Eagle.' That's not a bad thing. If you liked those movies, you'll like/love this story from actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. There is simply something charming and reaffirming about underdog sports stories. You can call it cliched, stereotyped or cheesy, but as a sports and/or movie fan, it will always be fun to see those stories, especially when they're based on true stories, like here. The story sticks to the truth -- mostly -- and does condense some parts of Eddie's life and training for the sake of a streamlined movie. The gist of it is there though, a strong-willed athlete who doesn't grasp the concept of 'You can't' or 'You shouldn't' because he wants nothing more than to obtain his goal of being an Olympic athlete. Can't we all get on-board with that?

Last seen saving the world from a diabolical mastermind -- in Kingsman: The Secret Service -- Taron Egerton jumps head-first into the titular role of Eddie the Eagle. In a meatier role than Kingsman, he gets to show off his range a bit and doesn't disappoint. For one, he did some work to get Eddie's look down. Egerton is a good-looking kid but with some poofy hair, a goofy mustache, his glasses, you buy him as a pretty close dead-ringer for the real-life Eddie. Go ahead. Google it. The physical mannerisms, the face scrunch, the physical ticks, the squint, Egerton does a heck of a job. Just as a performance, it's excellent. It's likable. It's sympathetic. 'Eagle' hits a home run in the most necessary part of the sports underdog story. You need to like him as a viewer. You need to root for him to achieve his goals. Double-check in that department! Looking forward to what's next for Egerton, a very talented young actor.

What does a good underdog need the most? A tough-talking coach who won't take no crap! In steps Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman. His Bronson Pearcy is a combination of Eddie's real-life coaches so don't check the history books (or Wikipedia) for his name. Jackman does what he does best, throwing his crazy amounts of energy into the role, providing a great counter to Egerton's Eddie. His falling out in the ski jumping community left a nasty taste in his mouth but now he has his surprising chance to return. Egerton and Jackman have a pretty perfect chemistry, easy-going, believable and always entertaining together. They play well off each other in a relationship that has its fair share of ups and downs through their training. Pointless but cool tidbit? Egerton and Jackman filmed a greeting that aired before the movie which I thought was a nice touch. Didn't look scripted or overdone, just two friends talking about a movie they're proud of being a part of. Pretty cool.

Not a huge cast overall, but a good one just the same. Jo Hartley and Keith Allen are excellent as Eddie's parents, equal parts supportive and frustration as Eddie continues to chase his dream. Christopher Walken has a small part -- but a welcome one -- as a former coach of Bronson's who's a figurehead of sorts in the skiing community. Also look for Tim McInnerny, Edvin Endre, Iris Berben and the then the always welcome as always Jim Broadbent as a BBC TV commentator.

'Eagle' follows the familiar formula of the underdog rising to the occasion. We get some fun training montages set to a fun 1980's themed soundtrack -- the score itself sounds like a cheesy 80's electronic score -- and all those nice little touches. My suggestion is simple. Go along for the ride. The ski jump footage is obviously CGI at points, but it is fun. Fun. There's some great moments, especially in the final act as Eddie runs through roadblock after roadblock, one person after another trying to stop him. No spoilers here, but it's pretty unnecessary. The movie wouldn't be here if there wasn't a happy ending. But just because you know where it's going doesn't mean you can't enjoy that ride. That's what works so well, what works so well in all sports underdog stories. You know what the end game will be and you still enjoy it.

An easy movie to recommend. Give it a shot!

Eddie the Eagle (2016): ***/****

Monday, March 7, 2016

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier

The name David Crockett is pretty instantly recognizable. One of the biggest heroes in American history, he accomplished a ton in his 50 years on Earth, a hunter, politician and through his actions at the Alamo, a tragic, mysterious icon. But the thing that people most often associate with Crockett is actually the Disney treatment, 1955's Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier.

It's the mid 1810's and Tennessee hunter and farmer Davy Crockett (Fess Parker) has joined the local militia to help General Andrew Jackson (Basil Ruysdael) combat the revolting Creek Indian tribe. Joining him is his friend, George Russel (Buddy Ebsen), as they join the army. Crockett's exploits of scouting, hunting and fighting begin to pile up and his name (and legend grow). It all starts the backwoods frontiersman down a road that will take him to the state legislature for Tennessee and ultimately to Washington City as a US Congressman. Always on the move though, always looking for new fresh and unexplored land though, Crockett and Russel end up in San Antonio, Texas at a beat-up old mission, the Alamo, joining the fight for Texas independence against Mexican general Santa Anna and his army of thousands.

Aired as part of Walt Disney's Disneyland TV program in 1955, the Davy Crockett craze began with three hour-long episodes, with two more episodes filmed and shown on TV later that year. I was lucky enough to buy the DVD collection of all five original episodes years ago, and man, was it cool to watch it. It's rather pricey here at Amazon if you were looking to purchase it. 'Frontier' is actually about 90 minutes long while the three episodes in their entirety ran about 150 minutes or so. In the infancy of TV, this was a craze that swept across the country. Kids everywhere needed a coonskin cap and desperately waited for each new episode. Before the Internet, Twitter and all our other modern idiocies, this was a CRAZE. It's easy to see why.

It all starts with the casting of Fess Parker as the famous Tennessee frontiersman, David 'Davy' Crockett. As presented, this is more of a portrayal of the legend of the man, not who he actually was, and that's okay. Quick with a joke, a smile, a welcoming line, Parker becomes Crockett in a career-defining performance. It becomes difficult not to picture Parker as Crockett. He's an explorer, a frontiersman, one who lives by a code, who wants to know he's doing right and then go ahead. He's not content to sit still and is always working toward something. His homespun jokes, his easygoing manner (until he's pushed/cornered), the Crockett we see is maybe not the most accurate portrayal of the actual historical man. Instead, maybe it's what we'd like to think of the man. Again, this is more the myth, the legend of Davy -- not David -- Crockett but it works on so many levels from beginning to end. Parker at his absolute best.

What does a hero need? A sidekick. A friend. A road trip buddy. In steps Buddy Ebsen -- also in a career-best part -- as George E. Russel, a friend and confidant, a fellow deadshot with a rifle, and Davy's conscience at times as they navigate Indian wars, politics and ultimately, a life and death situation at the Alamo.  Most importantly, it's easy to believe in this friendship. Parker and Ebsen have the best kind of chemistry, natural and easy-going. These are our two heroes with Ruysdael's Jackson, William Bakewell, Pat Hogan, Helene Stanley, Mike Mazurki rounding out the cast.

The part of Crockett's life that always fascinated me was him ending up in the Alamo. The Disney version is a streamlined version of the battle but that doesn't take away from its effectiveness. Crockett, Russel and their two new companions, Thimblerig (Hans Conried), a down on his luck gambler, and Busted Luck (Nick Cravat), a down on his luck Comanche warrior, actually ride into the mission during the battle, not before it. Where there was a light-headed air at times with some comedic relief through the first two episodes, it's hard to pull that off with a story that ends with a massacre. Surprisingly dark, unsettling at times, it's nonetheless a perfect example of why people have been drawn to Crockett for going on 200-plus years. He fights for the underdog. He fights for what he believes and he's willing to sacrifice a ton for it, maybe even his life. As for the final assault on the Alamo, it's quite the iconic ending. We see Davy swinging his empty rifle at charging soldiers. We never see him die. It's a more effective, moving ending that way.

In our Alamo portion, also look for Kenneth Tobey as Jim Bowie and Don Megowan as William Travis, the other two heroes of our Alamo Holy Trinity. Some cool moments, including the infamous drawing of the line -- those willing to die cross over -- and Ebsen's Russel stepping in as the Alamo messenger who rides out looking for help...only to find none and still come back. The highlight remains for me the night before the attack, Davy quietly singing a song he's written about Tennessee. The men in the Alamo know what's coming, a somber, thoughtful cloud hanging in the air. A very effective ending for an excellent movie/show overall.

It was a lot of fun catching up with this Disney classic from Parker and Ebsen's scene-stealing roles to the instantly recognizable theme (Listen HERE), this was a gem then and it is now. Highly recommended in whatever format you can find it. I'm hoping to review the final two episodes soon as well, work/schedule permitting! In the meantime, DAVY...DAVY CROCKETT, KING OF THE WILD FRONTIER......That's me singing if you couldn't figure it out.

Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955): ****/****

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Quiet American

For the United States, the Vietnam War officially began in 1965 as American forces officially became involved in the fighting in Vietnam. Of course, American advisors had been on the ground in Vietnam for a decade-plus trying to help swing things toward the American way and away from the Communist way. A particularly nasty period leading to a far nastier period, it's shady and dark and very hush-hush, very Cold War. Not too many films address the pre-Vietnam War time. An exception? From 1958, The Quiet American.

It's 1952 in Saigon and the political situation in Vietnam is on the verge of exploding as Vietnamese insurgents have begun to fight back against their French colonist rulers. Everything is seemingly in the balance just waiting for someone to strike the match that sets it all off. Living in the city is Thomas Fowler (Michael Redgrave), a middle-aged British journalist working as a war correspondent on the almost-daily updates of the fighting. He lives with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong (Giorgia Moll), and is quite comfortable in his living situation in spite of the fighting and death around him. His peaceful arrangement changes though when a young American (Audie Murphy) shows up in Saigon. Working with a friends of Asia organization, the American takes an immediate liking to Phuong, putting the young woman in quite a spot. Now, Fowler -- with a wife back home -- must decide what is most important to him.

This 1958 historical drama from director Joseph Mankiewicz is based on a novel by author Graham Greene. As for the finished product, Greene was less than pleased with some rather major changes made from his source novel. Mankiewicz too was displeased with what the studio had done to the version he had written and then directed. I haven't read the novel, but I have seen the 2002 version of the film (starring Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser) that's supposedly a lot more in line with Greene's original. Moral of the story? Issues those involved may have had, 'Quiet' is worth a watch for any number of reasons, flaws considered and flaws aside.

My feeble mind can only grasp so much Politic. That's right...the upper-cased Politic. That was my worry about this 1958 drama. Though it is a personal story among three people in Saigon, the political situation in the city (and the world on a bigger level) is the basis. I wasn't always sure what they're talking about, but it's fascinating to watch it develop. Basically, everyone has their motives, the French, Communists, Americans and those that would benefit from a third force taking an active role in Vietnam, in this case those dastardly Americans. Mankiewicz filmed in Vietnam in 1958 -- so not the most peaceful filming location -- which gives 'Quiet' an authentic air of actually being a part of what we're seeing on-screen. Filming was less than smooth sounds like as demonstrations and violence rocked the city. How about that for adding that layer of reality?

The basis of the story is one of my least favorite storytelling devices....well, ever. It's the love triangle among Redgrave's middle-aged journalist, Murphy's noble, naive, idealistic American, and Moll's innocent Phuong who simply wants to be happy. The historical backdrop certainly helps alleviate the pain, but mostly, it's the acting talent involved. Mankiewicz's script lets these potential cardboard cutouts be red-blooded individuals (mostly). Redgrave is excellent as Fowler, the journalist going through a mid-life crisis of sorts at the worst possible moment. It's a challenging character because he isn't sympathetic, is a bit too whiny but all under the umbrella of being a stodgy British gentleman. He's passive aggressive and with a touch of condescending for good measure. By far, that's the best performance.

Murphy wasn't the first choice to play the titular, unnamed character, just part of a checkered production that saw some huge names drop in and out of filming. Murphy takes a rap sometimes for his wooden acting, but I thought he was excellent here. The biggest change made from Greene's novel is in the character, Murphy's American presented as a heroic, naive, honest, genuinely good individual while his backstory and motive for being in Vietnam are never truly explained. The 2002 version did not have that problem. Redgrave and Murphy play well off each other, Moll keeping up throughout with a thankless part. Also look for Claude Dauphin as a scene-stealing police investigator, Bruce Cabot, Fred Sadoff, Kerima and Richard Loo in key supporting parts.

There are issues with the story's pacing and as I mentioned, I get lost at times in the politically-heavy scenes. But as a movie? It's very good. I liked the movie-watching experience a lot. Filmed in black and white, 'Quiet' looks great, humid and sweaty and sun-drenched, a perfect backdrop for that politically and love-charged Saigon. The storytelling techniques work well -- giving away the ending in the opening scene, the rest told in flashback -- and the acting is solid all-around. A lot to recommend for an oft-forgotten drama.

The Quiet American (1958): ***/****

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Deja Vu

The thought of time travel in film rattles my brain. It's never as simple as John Smith goes back in time and explores. There are dire consequences and horrific consequences for each and every action!!! Cue intense, foreboding music! When handled correctly though -- or as much as my feeble mind can grasp -- it can be a gem, like 2006's Deja Vu.

It's Fat Tuesday in New Orleans when late in the morning the Canal Street Ferry explodes in a fiery blast that claims 500-plus lives. There is little doubt the attack was the work of a terrorist with countless law enforcement agencies descending on the town to investigate. Among them is ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) out of the New Orleans office. A dogged investigator, Carlin follows the clues, trying to find out why a suspicious corpse ended up in the explosion's aftermath. He's approached by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer) leading a special investigative team that has some special technology at its disposal. They say it enables them to compile satellite images to see what happened some four days before. Carlin goes along with it, starting to piece it all together, all in hopes of finding some clue that will lead them to the terrorist bomber. It isn't long though before he figures out the "satellite" description is garbage. Somehow, some way, he's literally looking back in time...

What a fun, smart, stylish movie. Like I mentioned, time-travel movies are inherently complicated to the point it is difficult/impossible to 1. Keep up with it and 2. Not shake your head at the goofiness of it. With director Tony Scott at the helm, it has some of the stylistic elements of his previous efforts, especially Man on Fire, Spy Game and Enemy of the State. The quick cuts, the rapid camera movement, the unique shooting angles, it's all there, combining with a memorable score from Harry Gregson-Williams to add that great secondary layer to the story.

For me though what sets 'Deja Vu' apart from so many time travel movies -- Back to the Future to The Terminator, Looper to Planet of the Apes and many more -- is its creativity. It seems to revel in that creativity, that original, generally unique idea. How so? SPOILERS Carlin figures out they're not looking back in time, they're literally watching the past happen through some time-bending technology this investigative team has stumbled upon. Plot holes, time discrepancies aside, it's so cool as a premise. Scott's clearly having some fun with the time-bending concept, especially with a bit of technology that allows Carlin to wear a goggle headset so the time-traveling moves with him, what he sees through the goggles is what happened previously. Wwwwwhhhhaaaatttt? The premise injects some crazy energy into the always fun car chase sub-genre. Just watch this extended chase scene, sit back and smile, take it all in.

There is something eternally watchable about Denzel Washington in just about any movie he does, from heavy drama like Philadelphia or Glory to more mainstream, fun affairs like 2 Guns, Out of Time and Deja Vu. His Doug Carlin is a career agent with the ATF, and a good agent at that. He's a dogged investigator, stubbornly pursuing his cases, especially a terrorist attack that tears apart a city with the deaths of 500-plus people. Washington is so good, so effortless, it's just a pleasure to watch him do his thing. He's calm and cool...until he isn't like when he pieces it all together and figures out exactly what kind of technology he's working with. The case develops around the dead body of a beautiful young woman (Paula Patton) from New Orleans, Carlin wondering what he could have done to save her. Could he have done something different? Not one of his best performances, but just about any Denzel is good Denzel.

Dezel is the star, and Paula Patton gets a chance to shine in the final act, but who else to look for? Doc Holliday himself, Val Kilmer, has some good chemistry as Carlin's quasi-counter, not always telling the full truth while not lying either. His team includes the always reliable Adam Goldberg, Erika Alexander and Elden Henson. As for the villain who we see in all sorts of different ways courtesy of the time-bending story, Jim Caviezel is perfectly creepy, a so-called patriot but an unhinged one willing to go to horrific measures. Bruce Greenwood is a high-ranking FBI official on the case while Matt Craven appears briefly as Doug's long-time partner in the field.

It can be so easy with time-traveling stories for things to derail and do so quickly. That's not the case here with a story that manages to hold it all together under some post-movie scrutiny. The multiple storylines (and timelines) hold together when you really (really) think about it. Through it all, it's fun, even a final act that comes across as a little forced, a little too gimmicky. Still, 'Deja' is ridiculously fun from beginning to end with a finale that's frustrating a touch, but mostly, it just works so well. So freaking entertaining. Highly recommended, a great time-bending thriller.

Deja Vu (2006): ***/****

Friday, February 26, 2016


I love westerns, but by 2016, it can be genuinely hard to bring something new to the genre. To any genre really. It's tough. So what do you say about 2015's Diablo? It's a western with some potential to be pretty decent...but it just ISN'T. It's not very good, but there is a twist. A good twist. What's your take though? Is that twist enough to save an otherwise mediocre-to-bad movie?

It's 1872 in the Colorado Territory and a young rancher, Jackson (Scott Eastwood), is woken in the dead of night. His home, his barn, his corrals are on fire, and he sees three men riding away to the south with his wife. He rides out in the morning having to make up time and miles on the trail, all with the hope of getting his wife back and exacting revenge on the men who kidnapped her. Nothing will come easy though in the pursuit as Jackson meets all sorts of obstacles though. His biggest obstacle? That could be himself as his violent past threatens to tear him apart before he can catch up and save his wife. Can he somehow do it?

As I write today's western review, I check the count and see that I've written 245 western reviews since starting my movie review blog. I've been in a good place lately, watching and re-watching westerns as quick as I could. So while this western from director/writer Lawrence Roeck didn't get a theatrical release (that I'm aware of), I had to give it a shot. The verdict is pretty straightforward. Though there's potential, it simply isn't very good. I'll give westerns the benefit of the doubt for the most part but this one has too many holes.

What's most disappointing is that Roeck and his crew are clearly fans of the genre. Filmed in Alberta, Canada, 'Diablo' is a beautiful-looking film. This isn't the sun-drenched desert vistas you might expect in a western. This is the snow-capped mountains, the frigid air, the bundled-up cowboys so that's pretty cool, an interesting change of pace. The shots of Eastwood's Jackson riding through the mountains, across a snowy ridge, cutting across the horizon, they're first. The movie's only 82 minutes long, and I'm betting 30 minutes are simply establishing shots of a rider riding. Helicopter shots, overhead shots, from the side, from the other side, from behind, straight-on....oh my goodness. It's repetitive and repetitive and repetitive. The same for the musical score. It's appropriate but it tries to be too big and epic-based when the story just doesn't call for it. 'Diablo' knows and respects the western genre but can't quite get there.

Then there's the twist. Looking back on it and the build-up, there are hints as to what's coming. I didn't pick up on them at the time. Either they're too subtle or I just take the western at face value too much (See it and you'll understand my issue; read 'dumbness.') Reading some message boards, some other critics' reviews, the twist is pretty divisive; love it or hate it. For me, it took me by surprise completely. I didn't see it coming. I thought it worked...but it is underutilized. No spoilers, but the reveal comes at the hour-mark after a painfully slow first hour. Then when we should be reveling in the reveal, the movie ends 15 minutes later. The credits roll at the 77-minute mark. We waste so much time getting to that point that it feels completely -- no check that, COMPLETELY -- wasted. I'll give credit where it's due, and the final scene ends on a creepy shocker, but again, it is almost all potential.

The son of the legendary Clint Eastwood (still the coolest), Scott Eastwood has been working in film and television since 2006 and he seems to be taking off a bit in the star department. He's still developing though as an actor and struggles at times when he doesn't get any help from the script. Eastwood does show his skill though, but in a short movie with so many moving pieces, he kinda gets lost in the shuffle. Who else to look for? Some cool names, some recognizable faces including Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Tzi Ma, Camilla Belle, Jose Zuniga, Adam Beach and Joaquim de Almeida as some folks who pop up along the trail. Most aren't around for more than a scene or two, but it is cool to see them in a western story. Just wish the source material was a little stronger.

Too bad in the end. With some tweaks here and a fleshed-out story there, we're talking a pretty decent little flick. There's just too many holes here. A short movie is almost unbearably slow, the dialogue is some of the most stilted I've ever heard, and a potentially really cool twist never gets a chance to take off. I'll ever so slightly recommend it for the gimmick, for that twist, but other than that, probably for diehard western fans only.

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


So....mortality....kinda sucks, huh? We only get one crack at this life so you might as well make the best of it with what little time we have, right? Well, what if we weren't limited to just one go-around? What if we had another chance, maybe multiple chances? It's a potential-filled dilemma, one with countless layers. If we could, should we? I missed 2015's Self/less in theaters but was able to catch up with it on DVD.

A real estate mogul who has piled up fortunes on top of fortunes in a career spanning 40-plus years, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is quickly dying of cancer that is spreading throughout his body. With doctors telling him he only has months to live, Damian undergoes a dangerous medical situation called 'shedding' where his mind/psyche are transported to the body of a much younger man, a body grown/built genetically in a lab. So while his body may have failed him, his mind won't, giving him a chance to live on and accomplish so much more as a younger version of himself (Ryan Reynolds). New and improved Damian dives into his new-found life, celebrating, partying and living life like he was actually running out of time. It all seems too perfect...and it is. Damian begins to feel funny, begins to question exactly what's happened. Can he figure it all out before something even more dangerous happens to him?

Ever heard of a movie called Seconds? Ha, well I have! I even reviewed it for you! You can read my review from 2010 HERE. It's got 6 whopping views so...yeah, it's a threat to go viral any second. 'Self/less' is a tweaked remake of the 1966 flick from director John Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson. It's a very 1960's movie with a fabulous ending, one that almost saved the movie for me. But that's my rule. If you're going to remake a movie, do one that has little to no reputation or has a ton of untapped potential. This version? It takes the basic premise and goes from there, doing its own thing.

What if you weren't tied to your physical being? What if your conscious could be moved to another vessel? In this frightening age of science, who knows? Maybe that's not too far away...if it hasn't happened already. Director Tarsem Singh turns in an unsettling, creepy thriller with that potential-filled premise. It received pretty negative reviews -- although fans seem to like it -- and bombed at the box office, making just $12 million. Not good. I liked it though, taking the remake and stylizing it and building up some great scenes of doom. It moves at a lightning-pace early on once Damian goes under the procedure, and I wish it would have slowed down a little bit, let it breathe and develop. It's always entertaining though and worth a watch.

This Ryan Reynolds fella, he's been in the news lately for a little movie called Deadpool. Heard of it? Yeah, it's doing pretty well in theaters. He's always been an immensely watchable actor through drama or comedy, but his HUGE movie never seemed to come along until Deadpool. As young Damian, Reynolds is us, he's the viewer. He's trying to piece it all together, knowing the pieces just don't quite fit...but not quite able to figure out why. I'll always think of Reynolds as motor-mouth, fast-talking Van Wilder, but he's shown previously and does it again here that he's quite capable of heavier drama into anti-hero territory. A very solid lead performance!

Now officially into badass, screen legend territory, Kingsley has some fun and gives the film some muscle early on as older Damian, a ruthless businessman who sees his clock running out. Just wish he'd been around longer! The always-solid Matthew Goode plays Albright, the suspiciously smooth doctor who offers the seemingly-dangerous medical procedure that moves psyches without too much risk. Victor Garber is a welcome addition as one of Damian's business partners and friend, making key appearances at the beginning and end. As for the rest of the cast, I don't want to give away too much about what's going on so...look for Natalie Martinez and Derek Luke in key supporting parts!

My theory I write about often is my Christmas Eve theory. Sometimes it's more fun not to know what your presents are. The build-up, the anticipation! 'Self/less' is a rare movie where the payoff works. So does the build-up. The mystery and all those unanswered questions do a great job building the tension as young Damian begins to figure out exactly what's happened. My biggest issue is that 'Self/less' didn't know how to wrap things up. The last 25 minutes or so degenerate into unnecessary action pyrotechnics with car chases (that's actually pretty cool) and a chase and gunfight. I liked that simmering tension and unease through the first 80 minutes more. So thankfully, my issues aren't deal-breakers. An enjoyable thriller with a cool premise and good cast. Worth a watch for sure.

Self/less (2015): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 22, 2016


I was raised as a Catholic, going to church every weekend with my Dad and my sister. Over the years, I've mostly left organized religion behind. I struggle with my beliefs in religion, of a higher being, of faith in general. Through the ups and downs though, I've always been fascinated with the story of Jesus. Whether he was the Son of God or just a man (or both), it is a truly interesting, layered individual, one we'll never fully know. Slinking into theaters this weekend is 2016's Risen, the story of how Jesus' supposed Resurrection from the dead sparked quite a tense situation in Jerusalem.

Stationed in Jerusalem -- in 33 A.D. -- a Roman tribute, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), is in command of a veteran legion tasked with helping keep the peace. Upon arriving back at the garrison having put down a small rebellion in the hills, Clavius is summoned by the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). While Clavius was away, Pilate ordered the crucifixion of  a preacher from Nazareth who was causing problems on all fronts. Now that the preacher is dead, it is feared by many in power that the man's message of resurrection from the dead in 3 days will now incite more disbelief, more fervor, more fight against the Romans. Sure enough, on the morning of the third day, the body is missing from the tomb it had been buried in. What happened? Was the body stolen? Is there something more powerful going on? With Pilate's less than patient mandate to get the job done and do it quickly, Clavius must get to the truth of it all. What really happened to the preacher from Nazareth known as Jesus?

Semi-SPOILERS AHEAD For those that believe Jesus is the Son of God, the thought he rose from the dead is a matter of truth. For others? It's far more incredulous. I don't know where I stand exactly on the subject. I'd like to believe, but I just don't know. 'Risen' -- though it keeps you guessing throughout -- attacks the subject as if Jesus (called by his actual name, Yeshua) did in fact rise from the dead. It's not overtly religious as a film, but your personal beliefs-faith-convictions will no doubt impact what you take away from the film, or if you even like it. I liked it a lot for all the right reasons. End of Semi-SPOILERS.

In the heyday of the EPIC roadshow film hitting theaters -- the 1950's and 1960's -- historical epics were quite common in theaters, specifically biblical epics. How then do you inject some life into a sub-genre that's long since lost its popularity? With an original story like this! Director Kevin Reynolds wrote a screenplay with Paul Aiello that turns one of the most famous stories in history -- Jesus' death and Resurrection -- into a mystery, a police procedural of sorts. How genuinely original and creative is that? If it sounds too straightforward...well, it is a perspective on a familiar story just waiting to be told. Some general background info and knowledge wouldn't hurt here either going in. A lot going on, a lot of names and history so while it's never out-and-out confusing, it could be a lot to juggle if you're unfamiliar with the story and its players.

One of the archetypal characters in biblical epics were non-believers who wanted to believe -- sometimes against their better judgment -- who are then brought into the growing Christian faith. In steps Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a longtime Roman soldier who's grown weary of the life full of death, blood and destruction. When instructed to find out what happened to Jesus, he doggedly pursues the clues of a case that just seems too impossible to be even remotely true. A man couldn't really rise from the dead now, could he? The transformation Clavius goes through is believable and very effective because Fiennes does such a fine job with the lead performance. An underrated actor all around, he's one of the best things going here in 'Risen.' We see a man tortured inside by his own doubt, comparing everything he knows and believes to all those things that you have to take on faith (no matter how difficult). A layered performance, a fascinating character and our point person in solving one of history's great stories and mysteries.

This isn't an all-star cast full of thousands. There's some recognizable names and faces with an ensemble cast that fills in around Fiennes as necessary. Firth is excellent as Pilate, given some depth here and not just as a cardboard cutout, the easy villain. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy himself) plays Lucius, Clavius' young aide, inexperienced but wanting to learn. Who else to look for? A lot of familiar names if you're familiar with the story, including Mary Magadelene (Maria Botto), Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) , and Jesus' disciples, most notably Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan).

Filmed on-location in Spain, 'Risen' has that sun-drenched, sandy, dusty look of so many past epics from The Greatest Story Ever Told to King of Kings, Ben-Hur to Gladiator and so many others. In that sense, Reynolds' film feels like a bit of a throwback to biblical epics of old, albeit with such a cool twist leading the story. How do you prove a man did or didn't die? Finding his body and quickly before it rots to the point it can no longer be identified. In 33 A.D. in the heat of the desert...that's not long. It's never slow-moving, always moving forward, always working toward something bigger in a finished product that runs 107 minutes. There are times I thought it dragged some in the second half when things should have been picking up momentum, but the ending itself -- and some twists along the way in getting there -- certainly make up for it.

In an odd way of looking at 'Risen' as a police procedural of sorts, the story works as it drops hints and clues where it's going. The story we follows begins with us being thrown right into the tail end of Jesus' crucifixion, and away we go from there. There are references to the bloodied crown of thorns, the shroud of Turin, several Bible passages about the days and weeks following the death and Resurrection -- specifically the Upper room -- which we just don't know much about other than some vague(ish) references. The best thing going here (along with Mr. Fiennes) is a moving performance by Cliff Curtis as Jesus, a quiet, dignified performance that just works so well. I don't want to give too much away, but it's an excellent appearance. The second half does take some surprising twists that lean toward the more religious nature so be forewarned going in.

But taking it all in, I loved it. A bit of a throwback to days of old with Hollywood historical epics mixed in with some new elements of a biblical detective story. Fiennes is excellent, but the whole cast is very good. It's not making much money in theaters, but the reviews are fair to middling (with some that actually liked it) so take advantage during the Lenten season and go see this one. And that's from a heathen like me!

Risen (2016): ***/****

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Moonlighter

Not often remembered as one of Hollywood's great on-screen couples -- I'm totally stealing Turner Classic Movie's Ben Mankiewicz's introduction! -- Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck worked together four times during their illustrious characters. Double Indemnity is a classic, and I loved the Christmas-themed Remember the Night. Let's add a third to the list with today's review, 1953's The Moonlighter.

Wasting away in a jail in a small western town, an outlaw, Wes Anderson (MacMurray), has been captured for cattle rustling and is awaiting trial. Outside the jail though, some restless cowboys don't want to wait for that trial though, and through a case of mistaken identity, the wrong man is lynched, leaving Wes to escape with his life. He's torn up inside because a relatively innocent man (a hobo) died for absolutely no reason and struggles with how to handle the guilt. The only thing Wes knows is the outlaw life, whether it be rustling or bank robbing, and that's right where he reverts back to with no other options available to him. As Wes puts together a plan to rob a bank -- with some help from an old partner and his down-on-his-luck brother -- he finds out that a woman from his past, Rela (Stanwyck), is on his trail and looking for some answers.

I love westerns. I thought I'd like this generally forgotten, low-budget(ish) entry to the genre from director Roy Rowland. I was wrong. It's just not very good with too many negatives that cancel out some of its elements with some potential to offer. Good cast? Check. Story with rapid changes in tone? Double check. As soon as there's something to sit back and enjoy/appreciate, there's something equally frustrating that cancels it out.

That starts with the Wes character, MacMurray getting a rare chance at a villainous character. Sounds good, right? Can't go wrong with a star often associated with Father Knows Best and several Disney movies as a cattle-rustling outlaw...until you can. The script is rough. It starts off promising as we meet a grizzled Wes who hasn't shaved in days and is patiently sitting in a jail cell. When everything goes to hell with a lynching of mistaken identity (new band name?), so does the character. Wes' guilt is too much, and he takes it out on the lynching party. It's played like we should feel for him as he's wracked with guilt over what happened, but yeah, I'm not seeing it. His "revenge" is pretty weak too, roping some of the lynchers and then dragging them for awhile. He ropes Jack Elam (because Jack Elam was a villain in EVERY 1950 western) and we're not necessarily sure how much he does so there's that, but come on, if he's full of angst and vengeance, do it right. Make him pissed off and vengeful!

Further removing any edge off the character is the reliance on the love story. MacMurray and Stanwyck had unquestioned chemistry, but again, there's little reason to feel sympathetic for their stories. A tortured love from the past is typically a western-killer, especially when Stanwyck's Rela admits that "her love was too demanding, too strong" and that her demands Ugh, gag me. That's weak. And true love if you ask me! There's also a wasted subplot that doesn't live up to its potential with Wes' younger brother, Tom (William Ching), now engaged to Rela but struggling with where he's at in life. Never quite lives up to its dark potential, including the final act after a genuinely good -- if somewhat telegraphed -- 'twist.' Meh, why go with interesting when you can go with never-ending love full of passionate hugs and adults rubbing cheeks with their love?!?

Also look for Ward Bond as Cole Gardner, Wes' old partner, another rare opportunity for an actor who typically played good guys to get a bad guy role. Along with Elam, look for familiar faces John Dierkes and Morris Ankrum in small parts.

Just a western that tries too much. It's 75-minutes long and tries to tackle way too much. It even has an intermission! It starts off very strong but derails following the lynching scene, including a bizarre flashback as Wes starts to exact his revenge on the lynching party and the town. The scene develops with an intense tone of doom but ends up playing like a spoof. 'Moonlighter' is unfortunately never truly able to recover. It isn't awful -- there's simply too much talent on display -- but it sure ain't good either. Worth it as more of a western novelty than anything, especially with MacMurray, Stanwyck and Bond leading the way.

The Moonlighter (1953): **/****