The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, January 31, 2016


Over the 1950's and 1960's, World War II movies were a dime a dozen hitting theaters. Even with the abundance of movies though, some theaters of war were often ignored, or at least covered less. Case in point? The Italian Campaign as Allied forces took Sicily and then Italy in horrific fighting that claimed thousands and thousands of lives in what some said/say was a waste of manpower. So while 1968's Anzio may not be a good movie, I can't help it. I'm a fan so sue me.

It's early 1944 and the fighting has dragged to a stalemate between Allied and Axis forces along the Monte Cassino line. The Allied forces are planning an invasion in Italy above the fighting as Cassino, intending to land some 70,000 troops north of the fighting at the port of Anzio. Among those landing is a war correspondent, Dick Ennis (Robert Mitchum), who will tag along with an American Ranger battalion (specially-trained infantry) as they hit the beaches. An expected hot landing is anything but...the troops hit the beaches with little to no resistance. There's no German forces for miles. On a patrol into the Italian countryside, Ennis and a corporal from the First Special Service Force, Jack Rabinoff (Peter Falk), discover just how open the countryside is. Back at the Allied beachhead though, no one on the general staff believes them. While the Allies dig in and establish a strong beachhead, the Germans take advantage, assembling a line as deadly as anything the war has seen.

If you're looking for a more detailed description of the Battle of Anzio, check out the Wikipedia page. I'm currently reading Alex Kershaw's The Liberator, an excellent read that explores the fighting in Italy in some detail. What's here in this 1968 war film is a condensed version with some embellishments and names changed. The actual battle of Anzio was a horrific miscalculation on the parts of the Allied commanders who made cautious decisions that ended up costing thousands of lives needlessly in fighting that could have been easily avoided. See? We learned something today!

'Anzio' itself is an interesting mess of a movie. It's from the 1960's, the age of the big, epic war films like The Great Escape, Battle of the Bulge, The Guns of Navarone, a trend that would continue into the 1970's. From director Edward Dmytryk (and Duilio Coletti in whatever the "Italian version" is), 'Anzio' is part of a trend of flicks dubbed Macaroni war movies (instead of spaghetti, get it?!?), films made with mostly Italian backing albeit with smaller budgets. Dino De Laurentiis produced the war film, bringing a respectable budget that's seen in landing shots where landing crafts empty of hundreds of soldiers hitting the beaches. There is a big budget feel (some of the time) as this story develops about one of the most costly battles of WWII. More detail later, but there's also truly odd moments sprinkled throughout, giving Dmytryk's film an off-balanced feel to the proceedings. More later!

Two performances here have always appealed to me, Robert Mitchum as war correspondent Dick Ennis, a character very loosely based on famed writer Ernie Pyle. Interesting tidbit? Mitchum earned an Oscar nomination for his performance in 1945's The Story of G.I. Joe, the story of Ernie Pyle in Italy! Ennis is a frontline guy, always sticking with the troops at the front even when he doesn't have to be. Mitchum treads that fine line between looking worn out and being interested, but that laconic, tired look favors Ennis well. He's sick of war, sick of stupid orders and commands that costs unnecessary lives. A good performance for Mitchum. As for Falk, it is an...interesting performance. His Jack Rabinoff is a SOLDIER. He loves fighting. He's good at it (maybe too good), and his backstory of how he ended up in the First Special Service Force is quite revealing. Again, there's some odd moments, but Falk brings a ton of energy, some humor to the part that's hard not to like.

This quasi-epic war film resorts to more familiar territory in the second half. Following a horrific German ambush, a small group of Rangers, including Ennis and Rabinoff, must get back to their own lines to report what the Allies are about to march into. If it's familiar, so be it. It's more at home. It's more comfortable. Among the survivors, look for Earl Holliman as the capable Sergeant Abe Stimmler, Reni Santoni as Pvt. Movie (always ready with an impression), an underused Mark DamonThomas HunterGiancarlo Giannini, and Joseph Walsh. In the epic vein, we also get unnecessary cameos from Robert Ryan and Arthur Kennedy with Kennedy at least getting something to do. Ryan is in two scenes, and he only speaks in one! Also look for ever the German, Wolfgang Preiss as Field Marshal Kesselring, the Allies' opposition across the line.

Where 'Anzio' falls in parts is its odd tone and general lack of epic qualities, even though it thinks it is an epic. It is NOT. It's a good, old-fashioned war flick. Simply put, it tries to cover too much ground in 117 minutes. The song that plays over the opening credits, This World is Yours (listen HERE), is awful. Truly out of place. The score itself is hit-and-miss, but when it works, I liked it a lot. As for the tone, this is a story that just refuses to pick one tone and go with it. Is it dark? Is it a light war film? While things are somewhat ironed out (not really), we get a painful scene of Falk's Rabinoff sitting in an ambulance with three prostitutes as he sings "Bye, Bye Blackbird" with them. There's another scene later where he does the same thing. What the hell is going on?!? Don't even get me started about the general combat tactics here either, highly-trained American troops charging into machine gun fire without even raising their weapons or trying to throw a grenade at the nest. Meh, run!!!

Now all that said, I've always liked this movie and held it up on my most recent reviewing. I love the Italian filming locations, especially the shots of Rome. I've always been a big fan of Mitchum and Falk, and even considering some script idiosyncrasies, they're both pretty good here, as is the whole supporting cast. Through all the general craziness and oddness, there's some...oddly charming. The action is harsh, including a late battle between our survivors and four German snipers, and from beginning to end, it is entertaining. It ain't a classic. So be it. It's very entertaining.

Anzio (1968): ***/****
Rewrite of May 2009 review

Thursday, January 28, 2016

We Are Marshall

So what's better than a sports movie? A sports movie with underdogs! As a movie lover, there are few things better than rooting for the underdog against some behemoth favorite. And wouldn't you know it? Most of the best underdogs are the real ones. Take the true story of the 1971 season for the Marshall Thundering Herd football team. A remarkable story, one that was turned into one of the most underrated sports movies around, 2006's We Are Marshall.

It's November 14, 1970 and the Marshall football team has just lost a late-season game to East Carolina. Flying back to campus in Huntington, the plane crashes just a mile short of the runway, killing all 75 people on-board including the coaching staff and most of the team. It is a tragedy that rocks the campus and college town, leaving the administration to decide if the next football season should be suspended. Following raucous, loyal support from the fans, Marshall decides to go forward with the upcoming season, hiring a little-known but energetic coach, Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey), to build the program up from nothing. With just a trio of players remaining from the team, Lengyel has his work cut out for him as one barrier and roadblock after another awaits. As Jack says though, sometimes it's more than just about winning. It's about giving it your all.

What a crazy, incredible true story. Director McG turns in a gem, an excellent sports story that hits all the right notes. It's difficult watching this in 2016 without thinking "How would a tragic incident like this play out in '16?" Like so many other sports movies tend to do, 'Marshall' actually does a good job of sticking to the truth, to the real-life people and events that developed following the plane crash. Maybe some smaller, quieter moments are tweaked and twisted, but the history and guts of the story are spot-on. That really appeals to me because McG and Co. aren't pandering to the audience for emotional responses. It's a heartfelt story about how the people, the students, the families, the football players coped with such a horrific. life-taking incident.

This is an interesting leading part for star Matthew McConaughey, featuring some of the best of his work. He plays Jack Lengyel, a coach who takes on the gargantuan task of starting a program from the ground-up with just three returning players, no coaching staff and lingering doubts about if they should do this. McConaughey brings a ton of energy to the part, and that's what Marshall needs. Quirky, funny, and very real, it is an excellent performance. He's taking on this difficult job for all the right reasons, which we see in a couple of the movie's most effective scenes. In the football scenes, he throws himself into the action with reckless abandon and it shows, adding something necessary to the proceedings. This isn't a part that will go down as one of McConaughey's best, but I certainly think it should. He's rarely been better.

Watching the new coach arrive, we see how he interacts with so many different people in so many different ways. In a movie featuring several very strong performances, Matthew Fox is a scene-stealer as Red Dawson, a coach who was supposed to be on the doomed plane but changed plans last second. Now, he's dealing with horrific amounts of survivor's guilt. His scenes with McConaughey are heart-breaking, funny, and like two brothers getting to know each other. Next up, Anthony Mackie (a favorite here) as Nate Ruffin, a star player who wasn't on the plane and now feels he must start up the team again as if it is his calling. He pushes and pushes himself through injury and the pain of losing his teammates. And last but not least, David Strathairn as Marshall President Donald Dedmon, tasked with making the decision to not suspend the football team and then back Jack in his crazy plan to get the team going again. Three excellent supporting parts.

Because this isn't a movie just about football, also look for Ian McShane as the father of one of the players who died in the accident. His son was engaged to a cheerleader, Annie (Kate Mara), who similarly struggles with what to do in the wake of the crash. January Jones and Kimberly Williams-Paisley have thankless roles as the coaches' wives.

Running 131-minutes, 'Marshall' covers a ton of ground with a lot of characters, but things never feel too rushed. We go from the crash to the aftermath to the coaching hire to building the team, practice through the first two games. The football -- from the practices to the games -- has a great energy, especially the movie's last game as Marshall looks to do the impossible. The soundtrack? A drum-heavy college marching band playing as the different plays develop, drumming in step with the on-screen action. It's a cool, stylish moment that anyone who's ever been to a college sport event with a marching band will definitely appreciate. The soundtrack itself is heavy with some classic 1970's rock, adding another welcome, nostalgic layer to the story.

A gem, one that as I read some critics' reviews, I see I may be on an island with my love of 'Marshall'! I'm a sucker for sports movies across the board, but this one is really, really good. Highly recommended.

We Are Marshall (2006): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Kirk Douglas is a Hollywood legend. With too many classic films to his name to mention, from Spartacus to Paths of Glory and countless others in between, Douglas is one of the few who deserves that legend status. What's so crazy about his career? He didn't have a climbing period of supporting roles, bit parts and background players. He dove right in, starting with a hugely important part in his screen debut, 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

It's 1928 in the up-and-coming town of Iverstown in Pennsylvania when three teenagers from vastly different backgrounds and upbringings are witness to a horrific crime that results in murder. The truth never comes out though, putting the three teenagers on again, vastly different paths into the future. Fast forward to 1946 when the now grown-up Sam Masterson (Van Heflin) drives back into town looking to get his car fixed. He discovers that the other two teenagers have married, with Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) having become one of the most powerful businesswomen in the state with all sorts of public influence. Her husband, Walter (Douglas), is an equally powerful district attorney with political aspirations but really, it's Martha pulling his strings. Now after so many years have passed, the secret that bonds the trio threatens to tear everything down. Martha and Walter are convinced Sam is looking for a payoff. What is his intention exactly?

This is a flick that's hard to peg down. Not quite a romance or a mystery, not quite a thriller or film noir. Instead, director Lewis Milestone's film manages to blend all those elements into one very solid movie. At different points, it is all of those disparate pieces, providing a wave of different tones that might not work together but somehow...they just do. Filmed in black and white, there's a dark, shadowy and sinister look to it all. As well, there's that vein of small-town Americana where everyone has their secrets but no one ever gets called out on them. I will add it is an odd film when you take it all in, but there's something oddly appealing about it, the romance-thriller-mystery-film noir final product.

What holds it all together for me was the characters. We've got four main characters, all of them very human, very flawed and very vulnerable. I don't want to give spoilers away to the opening intro (it runs about 20-25 minutes) but it does involve a murder. If that doesn't provide some pyrotechnics some 17 years later, I don't know what will! Stanwyck, Heflin, Douglas and Lizabeth Scott as a troubled young woman brought into the years-old drama are all on-point in bringing their characters to life, the ensemble working quite well together. They all get their moments to shine and none disappoint. The chemistry between Stanwyck and Heflin is smoldering, as is between Heflin and Scott. In an age of movies that had a tendency to get a little overdone in the acting department, 'Strange' manages to harness all the melodrama and keep it relatively reserved (thankfully!). This is an acting movie, and the actors don't disappoint!

I came away especially impressed with Douglas in his first on-screen appearance and his first-ever film role. His Walter O'Neil is a product of his childhood and later, his marriage to Stanwyck's Martha. As Heflin's Sam points out, he's still a scared-looking little kid. Knowing where Douglas' career would go (and go quickly), it's startling to see him as an alcoholic, sniveling, weakling of a man. What's better? He nails the part. There's a perfect intensity to the proceedings, but he's perfectly believable as a grown man who can basically make a decision for himself. An underrated actor, Heflin delivers one of his best performances as Sam Masterson, a gambler, a WWII vet and with a checkered past to his name who still remains confident that something will come along because...well, because it always has before. Excellent parts for all four leads.

If there's an issue here, it's the pacing. At 116 minutes, 'Strange' can be a tad on the slow side. We spend a lot of time just introducing our characters and laying things out, most of an hour-plus actually. It's only then the wheels go into motion as we start to figure out what everyone's intentions are. What is Sam's plan? Is he interested in blackmail or is he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? What is Scott's Toni's background? Does Martha still have feelings for Sam? A lot to deal with for sure in the closing 45-50 minutes. So that said, I enjoyed the first hour more with its sense of mystery and foreboding doom hanging in the air over this budding industrial town. I was surprised by the ending itself because I just wasn't sure how dark this story would go...but it goes.

An excellent flick all-around, definitely worth checking out.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946): ***/****

Monday, January 25, 2016

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Some three-plus years later, the 2012 Benghazi attack is still a bit of a mystery. Well, sorta. What prompted the attacks? How much was the American government aware of...and still potentially chose to do nothing? It is a messy, nasty business, a horrific incident that claimed four American lives and threatened many more. So a movie adaptation about the attack....we're talking potentially very messy, very uncomfortable. What's the final verdict on 2016's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi?

It's late summer 2012 and Jack Silva (John Krasinki) arrives in Benghazi where he's met by Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale). Rone is the leader of a six-man security team of a classified CIA outpost in Benghazi, meant to provide security for the intelligence-gathering agents and also, the U.S. diplomatic compound about a half-mile away in the city. Jack is the newest member of the team, six men, each with a variety and abundance of military training to their name. They serve six months at a time at the CIA annex, but things are especially tense in Benghazi, a city and a country in Libya still recovering from a civil war a year later. Intelligence reports indicate an American embassy could come under attack somewhere around the world. But on the night of September 11, 2012, over a hundred gunmen attack the diplomatic compound with a U.S. ambassador on-site. A half-mile away, Rone and his security team must decide what to do. Listen to orders and stand down? Or do what they believe is right and head for the under-attack compound?

First things first, the book. This film is based on Mitchell Zuckoff's book of the same title. HIGHLY recommended. Check it out HERE. The movie is not difficult to follow, but the book is able to delve into the people involved and the incident as a whole with a little more detail. An excellent companion piece, book and film working very well together. An excellent read.

My biggest concern going in? Michael Bay is the director. Would it be too much Michael Bay? Come on. You know what I mean, all those little touches you've come to expect out of movies like Armageddon, The Rock, The Transformers movies and many more. How do I put this nicely? Bay is not...subtle. This is a true story that requires at least a little subtlety. Not a ton, but some. So with this action-heavy thriller, it thankfully is not too much. Yeah, there are slow motion action set to a sweeping score, shots of the billowing American flag against a Benghazi backdrop, the vivid colors and the hyper-fast editing. Like anything though, it works better in doses and Bay never overdoes it. Thankfully, '13' is able to tread that fine line right down the middle. 

Nowhere is that more important than tackling the prickly political issues permeating throughout the Benghazi incident. How much was the Obama administration -- especially Hillary Clinton -- aware of? Was the lack of assistance intentional? Following in the book's footsteps, '13' doesn't go down that path. This isn't a film specifically interested in the politics. It is instead solely interested in the men on the ground, the CIA annex security team as they undertake a horrifically dangerous mission, undermanned and outnumbered, navigating a city where anyone and everyone could be an enemy waiting for a chance to pick them off. There's no uniforms, no way to identify those who are with you and those who are against you, until they starting shooting at you. In other words, basically a worst case scenario for these highly-trained, efficient warriors who quite literally have to make a life or death decision when gunmen attack the U.S. diplomatic compound.

These were real men, real soldiers with years of experience. We follow the story almost entirely through their eyes. As they see and figure out what's going on, we see and figure it out with them Along with Krasinki and Dale, look for Pablo Schreiber (frat boy Tanto), David Denman (Tanto's all-business handler of sorts), Dominic Fumusa (Tig) and Max Martini (Oz). One criticism many reviews had was the thin characters, a lack of depth. I disagree. It isn't a character study of these men. We learn little snippets about most of them, a majority of family men with wives and children back home. It just isn't a character movie. It's a specialist-type movie, men in combat, tried and true under the harsh reality of live fire. They come alive in a firefight and struggle to cope at times when the shooting stops. I thought Chuck Hogan's screenplay did a great job showing the camaraderie among these men as they experience a potentially hellish six-month tour at this dangerous, remote outpost. 

Who else to look for? David Costabile as the frustratingly stubborn CIA station chief, Meypan Moaadi as a local who works at the CIA annex and is enlisted as an unlikely translator, Matt Letscher as US ambassador Chris Stevens, Demetrius Grosse and David Giuntoli as his personal bodyguards, and Toby Stephens as Glen 'Bub' Dougherty, the head of the security team 400 miles away in Tripoli.

Where '13' takes off so effortlessly is when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2012 begin as the sun is setting on Benghazi. It isn't quiet long as heavily-armed gunmen descend on the diplomatic compound, setting the bullet-riddled night with a shock. Bay films his story on the ground with the security team, always giving a sense that we're right there with them as they navigate the streets, as they explore the compound, and then as they desperately defend their own annex. This is visceral, frightening combat. Death is sudden and quick without warning. What '13' does so well is to build up the tension, both in the daytime hours before the attack but also the quiet moments in the dead of night when the security team gets a moment to regroup. Is help coming? Any help at all? How many gunmen are massing to attack outside the walls? If help is slow arriving, how long can they hold out? Can they? It produces some very moving, emotional moments as the team must face some unpleasant realities.

The violence is quick and startling, graphic but not obscene. It is almost matter of fact without trying too hard to glamorize anything we're seeing. Here it is. Here's what happened. Deal with it. It is only in the final scenes that things got a little too heavy-handed for me in delivering a message that is patriotic, pro-American while sending a message to the government officials and those in charge who watched what was going on in Benghazi and did nothing (apparently. We'll never know the full truth). When it works though, this is a gem, a surprising one at that. The book was excellent, the truths of it all incredibly unsettling, frightening and very inspiring as to what these men went through. Highly recommended. I loved this one.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mysterious Island (1961)

It's been awhile since I've reviewed anything like this, but it's long overdue. It's time for a Ray Harryhausen-themed review! Master of pre-computer and CGI effects, Harryhausen is a legend and for good reason. He did for movies what had previously seen impossible, bringing creatures -- real and otherwise -- to life, meant to impress, terrify and produce wonder and scale. Though I've long been aware of it, having seen bits and pieces here and there, I'd never seen in its entirety 1961's Mysterious Island, until now!

It's late in the Civil War in 1865 in Richmond and a small group of Union prisoners, led by Captain Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), is plotting an escape from Libby Prison. Their means of escape? A hot air balloon tethered near the camp. The group manages to let the balloon loose but it gets caught up in a horrific storm unlike any ever seen before. Harding's men drift through the air for days and days until finally they discover there's no land beneath them. Finally after many days in the balloon, the escaped prisoners crash in the ocean somewhere and manage to survive by reaching a nearby island. Everyone survives as they explore the island that seems to offer at least somewhat abundant supplies of food and water. Can they be rescued? That may not be the biggest of their concerns. This island has some secrets waiting to be revealed.

What a fun movie. In the vein of Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson, 'Mysterious' plays on that shipwrecked backstory and throws some twists into the movie. Director Cy Endfield brings to life Jules Verne's novel of the same name (a sequel to two previous Verne novels), a story full of the unknown and crazy prehistoric creatures and one of my favorites, a great sense of foreboding and hanging doom in the air! What exactly do the island's secrets hold? The island/beach scenes were filmed in Castel-Platja d'Aro in Catalonia, Spain, a suitable replacement for a Pacific island supposedly ignored by passing time. Throw in a score from composer Bernard Hermann and you've got a winning formula.

By 1961, Harryhausen was an established effects man with movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, It Came From Beneath the Sea, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and 20 Million Miles to Earth to his name. If there's a weakness in 'Mysterious,' it's that there's not enough of Mr. Harryhausen's work! What's there is excellent, but I wish there was more. Our intrepid heroes on the island must battle a giant crab, an immense prehistoric bird, and a gigantic cephalopod as they explore their new surroundings. The stop-animation technology stands out like a sore thumb with an almost washed out, grainy look in the background now, but it's crazy to know the depths Harryhausen went to in bringing these impressive creatures to life. I just wish there was more of them! Still, what's there is excellent (with some other surprises along the way) and should definitely be entertaining, enjoyed and appreciated!

Now how about are characters who could potentially be fodder for these giant creatures? Along with Craig's heroic Captain Harding, look for fellow prisoners, cowardly Herbert (Michael Callan), heroic soldier, Neb (Dan Jackson), and war correspondent, Spilitt (Gary Merrill), with a Confederate prisoner in tow, Pencroft (Percy Herbert). For good measure, our heroes are joined by two shipwrecked ladies, the very lady-like Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece, Elena (Beth Rogan). A good ensemble, nothing flashy without any huge star power, but some fun characters trying to piece together the island's secrets and mysteries.

Verne's most memorable character in his stories is the iconic Captain Nemo, a brilliant man capable of inventions far ahead of his time, and an extremist idealist at the same time. His hatred? He wants the world to be at peace. Totally at peace. Here, he's played by Herbert Lom who shows up in the third act with a potential rescue but with some secrets of his own up his sleeve. Lom is excellent as the iconic Nemo, bringing a sense of menace and calm all mixed into one. We're not always sure what to think of him or what his intentions are because he's so eerily calm. The problem is that when he arrives, out goes the mystery. The payoff simply isn't as good as the build-up. By the finale, things seem a little rushed and then it just ends. A somewhat disappointing finale to an otherwise enjoyable flick. A bit of a measured recommendation, but definitely still worth seeking out.

Mysterious Island (1961): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fools' Parade

So you know what sounded pretty awful? The Great Depression. Man, I'm good at writing introductions to these reviews, aren't I? For every well-known Depression-era movie out there, it seems like there's that many more generally forgotten in a wave of flicks. Here's one I stumbled across on a cable movie channel recently and simply couldn't pass up because of an impressive cast, 1971's Fools' Parade.

It's 1935 and three convicts are being released from a West Virginia penitentiary, including Mattie Appleyard (James Stewart), Lee (Strother Martin) and Johnny (Kurt Russell), all of them having served their sentence for varying crimes. They're driven to the train station by a vicious prison guard, Doc Council (George Kennedy), who ominously states that he'll see them soon. The trio boards the train with plans of opening a general store down the train line, using Mattie's hard-earned savings as a bankroll to get things started. There's a problem though as they get further away from the town and penitentiary. Mattie's check -- earned and saved from 40 years in prison -- can only be cashed back in Glory...where they've been less than pleasantly told to never come back. If they do, Council will be waiting for them. That's not their only problem. Council may not even be waiting that long to hunt them down...

From the older classic like The Grapes of Wrath to the newer entries like O, Brother, Where Art Thou, Depression-era flicks are a cool little genre of flicks that doesn't always get a ton of attention. Maybe it's the whole soul-killing tone of these flicks. Maybe. I don't know. The 1970's especially had some cool entries, including this flick, Emperor of the North Pole, Hard Times, Paper Moon and Dillinger among others. 'Parade' belongs in that group. It's dark(ish), gritty and has the look and feel of one of America's roughest historical stretches.

So why then does this 1971 drama with some light comedy touches have virtually no reputation? Virtually no following? Well, for starters, it most definitely and assuredly is very, very odd. I can't specifically put a finger on said oddness, but it is. It's there. Maybe as close as I can get is the tone, or lack of. From director Andrew McLaglen and a screenplay by James Lee Barrett, 'Parade' is just a bit of an oddball flick. It's able to build up an impressive sense of doom early on but it never quite takes off. Things slowly derail as the 98-minute running time nears its finish. Still, this is a movie that's never dull or boring. Very watchable, just odd.

Sometimes, an all over the place tone comes in second to something, anything else that's far more appealing. Here, that's easy. It's the cast. That cast. We mostly follow our three recently-freed crooks in Stewart, Martin and Russell. Stewart's Mattie served a 40-year sentence for killing two men, Martin's Lee six years for bank robbery, and Russell's Johnny a shorter sentence for an incident with a girl that's generally left unexplained. The story doesn't linger long on our trio's past criminal transgressions (wisely), instead focusing on them trying to start over again, albeit at different points in their lives. I especially liked Stewart as Mattie, sporting a bizarre-looking glass eye, the oldest of the three who most strongly wants that fresh start. He stashed away all his money during his 40-year sentence (earning a ridiculous-sounding $25,000) and now meets all sorts of roadblocks in getting that cash. Martin's Lee is seemingly a little simple-minded in his obsession with putting together a general store inventory while Russell's Johnny is stubbornly loyal to Mattie. Still, there's something charming about the trio, and there is a solid chemistry among the group.

An interesting cast all-around. When he wanted to, George Kennedy could play one interesting bad guy, and that's on display here. It's just creepy watching him. You're rooting for him to get his due and get it badly. Who else to watch for? An unrecognizable Anne Baxter as a madam who's fallen on hard times, William Windom as an unlucky traveling salesman, Mike Kellin and Morgan Paull as Doc's oddball killers, Robert Donner as a train conductor, Katherine Cannon as Baxter's lone "girl," and David Huddleston as the greedy bank owner. Quite the eclectic bunch!

I can't quite put my finger on it as to 'why' exactly, but I very much enjoyed this movie. Though the subject matter is dark, it is an easy-going, mostly pleasant movie. Yeah, it is a touch slow at times for a movie that runs just 98-minutes, but it is never dull. The West Virginia filming locations are an ideal backdrop for the story as well, giving it an authentic sense of watching where this story would have actually happened. Worth a watch. Apparently, it's somewhat difficult to find so here's my help to the situation. I watched it on Retro, a movie channel coupled with the Encore package on cable. It's a movie I recommend tracking down. Hope you enjoy it!

Fools' Parade (1971): ***/****

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Skin Game

You know what isn't particularly funny? There's no way this introduction isn't in poor taste but...slavery! In recent years, even movies like Django Unchained that were fan favorites and critically loved caused a stir because of its slavery subject matter. So movies like Django, 12 Years a Slave, miniseries like Roots, the subject matter is played straight. That is NOT the case with 1971's Skin Game, a pre-Civil War story with comedy and drama rolled into one.

It's 1857 in Missouri when two men ride into a small town. Quincy (James Garner) is a plantation owner with some money problems, meaning he has to sell one of his slaves, Jason (Lou Gossett Jr.). He gets several hundred dollars for him and they part ways, Quincy onto the next town with Jason waiting to travel with his new owner. Well, that's what you'd think at least, what the supposed-plantation owner and his slave want you to think. In reality, they're con men, going from town-to-town, Quincy "selling" Jason to one plantation/land owner after another and getting out of town while Jason manages to escape in one way or another. The plan has worked well for quite a while now with a hefty bank account waiting for them back in Chicago when they decide they've had enough. Jason, he's had enough as he's the one taking more risk. Quincy, he'd like to travel to a couple more towns and pull off their successful con. What could possibly go wrong?

I've long been aware of this 1971 comedy-drama but never caught up with it. Thank you, Turner Classic Movies! It was worth the wait. From director Paul Bogart -- and an uncredited Gordon Douglas, I imagine there's a good story there -- it takes a touchy, potentially explosive subject matter in slavery and manages to tread the fine line between funny, at-times dramatic and just in poor taste. Come on...slavery. There's just nothing funny in that department. 'Game' doesn't minimize it or make light of it, instead attacking one of the most horrific periods in American history from the side. Considering it that way, it's actually pretty smart. Two con men looking to make some serious cash out of the sale of fellow human beings, now that is creative and certainly unique.

Playing on an oddball variety of a familiar storytelling device, Garner and Gossett have a ton of fun with their odd couple, buddy relationship. We don't learn too much about them, only that they've been con men for several years now piling up the cash with their risky play in each new town. We do learn that Jason was born a free man in New Jersey and chooses to do this, an important detail in my opinion. In a brief, quickly-cut flashback, we also see how the duo met, a fun aside and a necessary one that shows and tells a lot about these two. Sure, there are differences between the two men, but they're cut from the same cloth. The chemistry between Garner and Gossett is not in question with plenty of laughs and some great dialogue flying back and forth throughout the 102-minute running time. A great buddy combo to lead the way.

Also look for Susan Clark in a fun part as Ginger, a fellow, con woman who crosses paths with Quincy and Jason at some inopportune moments. Brenda Sykes plays Naomi, a slave who Jason meets and wants to buy her freedom. Ed Asner is perfectly slimy as Plunkett, a slave trader with brutal tactics and no regard for his "merchandise." As for assorted slave and plantation owners, look for Andrew Duggan, Parley Baer, George Tyne, J. Pat O'Malley, and Henry Jones. Also watch for a quick appearance by Royal Dano as violent abolitionist John Brown.

There are some portions in the final act that run a tad sluggish with a story that has some pretty decent surprises. It tends to drift at times, but for the most part, this is an interesting story. I'm mostly recommending it though for the unique, inventive story and the spot-on, perfect chemistry between James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. This isn't a movie that breaks any new ground, but it deserves more of a reputation than it currently does. Worth a watch for a creative story, unique setting in the pre-Civil War south and a very solid cast. Give it a watch!

Skin Game (1971): ***/****

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Interview

Okay, here's a question for you. A movie -- a comedy at that -- is in the works that focuses on the assassination of a controversial world leader. There's plenty of talent involved, but it's a movie that focuses on the assassination of a controversial leader. Oh, and did I mention it's a comedy? What could possibly go wrong? Nothing if you ask me. It took me a bit, but I caught up with 2014's The Interview.

As far as celebrity journalism goes, there's no one in the business better than Dave Skylark (James Franco), host of the incredibly popular Skylark Tonight. It's so popular in fact that Dave and his friend and producer, Aaron Rappaport (Seth Rogen), and the TV crew have just celebrated the show's 1,000th episode. Still, Aaron can't shake the thought that what they're doing has little to no journalistic integrity. It's only then that the duo finds out that Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), president/dictator/leader of North Korea, is a huge fan of the show. Somehow, some way, Aaron manages to arrange an interview, albeit one in North Korea at un's palace. There's a catch though. Before Dave and Aaron head to North Korea, they're approached by the CIA with a slight favor. The Central Intelligence Agency has developed a plan to kill Kim Jong-un, and they need Dave and Aaron to pull the job off. Simple, right?

Rogen and friend and frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg wrote this movie in the late 2000's and updated it when Kim Jong-il died in 2011. From there...well stuff happened. There's a ton of drama that happened getting this movie made to the point it was never released in theaters because of hackers and all sorts of international intrigue. I'm not gonna waste my breath and explore that so read about it HERE if you're interested.

The end result? What's the final verdict? It's a mess of a movie, mostly entertaining but I feel like there's a better movie somewhere in the ingredients. I debated even reviewing it because I'm still wrapping my head around exactly what I just watched. Rogen and Goldberg co-wrote and co-directed this horrifically dark, downright stupid at times comedy, and it's got a lot of their familiar touches, most of them pretty good. The weirdest part is that they took this potentially brilliant idea of dark comedy -- killing a world leader -- and dumb it down with lots of bathroom humor (A LOT of it) and generally stupid laughs. What I'm still debating is it a truly brilliant movie? It's so freaking bizarre basically from the get-go that I can't really decide. It's a mess, but it is a beautiful mess. I can say that comfortably.

What I do know is this; even when the laughs are so stupidly dumb you have to shake your head, Seth Rogen and James Franco commit and go for those laughs. They're perfect together, a result of a longtime friendship that's seen the duo work together in more than a handful of movies. Some scenes you just get the sense they're improvising the entire thing, just two buddies screwing around seeing who can come up with the better line. Franco's Dave is so incredibly dumb and naive at times that he's a demented charmer. Rogen's Aaron is the straight man, but he gets more than his fair share of laughs. Even when the material resorts too much toward the bathroom variety, I couldn't help but laugh at times because these two goofballs just go for it and swing for the fences in terms of laughs.

The real scene-stealer though is Randall Park as North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. How do you play one of the most controversial world leaders currently living in power? Like THIS. Oh, my goodness, this part is hysterical. Sure, he's evil but that doesn't mean you can't have fun with it, right? Park's Randall struggles with confidence issues, is like a fangirl around Dave, struggles to embrace his love of margaritas and Katy Perry (he questions if he's gay), and generally is just trying to find himself in this crazy, mixed-up world. If Park just played Jong-un as a lunatic, dark and maniacal, it would not have worked this well. He steals every scene he's in. Also look for Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey, the CIA point agent working with Dave and Aaron, and Diana Bang as Sook, Jong-un's minister of propaganda who will preside over the interview that will air live on TV around the world.

I thought the movie was at its strongest in the first hour. It's a good mix of smart and dumb, treading that fine line. Things fall apart some in the second half as our boys have to improvise in their assassination attempt. Here comes the bathroom humor (quite literally) and some surprisingly graphic violence and some of it all mixed together for good measure. The finale does have some surprises up its sleeve, but it almost lost me getting there.

So yeah, I'm not sure. Maybe a second viewing sometime down the line will help me cement my feelings about the movie more. For now, there were parts I loved and parts I hated. Taking it all in, there's just enough to give a decent recommendation. Just be forewarned. This movie is something else. That's the best I've got. It's truly something else.

The Interview (2014): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Professionals

The western is my genre, my spirit animal, my go-to when I'm looking for a type of movie I just know I'll like. There are very few so-called "perfect" westerns out there, but I've got my favorites. Some are obvious, highly respected and known by even non-western fans. One that seems to get lost in the shuffle at times? A classic, a true gem, and one I never tire of, 1966's The Professionals.

It's 1917 and the Mexican Revolution is still raging strong all over the country. Along the U.S./Mexico border, four men, Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), have been brought together to perform a dangerous mission. The little group, each of them a specialist in one way or another, has been hired by rancher and oil tycoon Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) to ride deep into Mexico and rescue his wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), who's been kidnapped by a bandit and revolutionary, Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Maria is believed to be stashed away in a hacienda in the mountains with Raza's small army standing guard. This quartet is the best of the best with few equals, but even this job seems to be too much, especially if they haven't been told the whole truth of what they're riding into. Can they pull off the job?

Aired recently on Turner Classic Movies, host Robert Osborne introduced the movie stating that director Richard Brooks deserves more of a reputation, of a following for a career that produced six Oscar nominations and plenty of good to great to classic movies, as a director, producer and writer. For me, this is easily his best work. It's one of my favorites, and I always enjoy catching up with it. Mutually appreciated by both audiences and critics, 'Professionals' is one of the best westerns of the 1960's and really, one of the best westerns of all-time. It picked up two Oscar nominations, one for Brooks' directing and one for his script. Not a flaw in sight. Sit back and enjoy this one, hopefully with a big tub of popcorn.

Let's get the boring technical stuff out of the way. Boring, but necessary. Brooks earned a Best Director nomination for blending a movie that features the technical, storytelling, characters, humor, action and visual look. With filming locations in the Valley of Fire, Death Valley, along with Nevada, California and Sonora, the visual appeal is evident. On the trail thanks to some key landmarks, you're always aware of where you are. As well, the traveling and action scenes are aided immensely by composer Maurice Jarre's score, especially the main theme. Listen HERE. Throw it all together, and you feel like you're right there with our Professionals in the sweaty, sun-baked desert where bandits and revolutionaries are there behind every rock waiting to ambush you.

The cast is pretty insane in terms of pure talent and star power, but with each repeated viewing, it always comes back to the script for me. Adapting a western novel called 'A Mule for the Marquesa,' Brooks transformed a good book into a great movie. This is a story that loves it characters, both the good and bad, and more importantly, knows them well. The script absolutely crackles, Lancaster and Marvin especially relishing delivering one memorable one-liner after another. I can't think of too many westerns that have the ability to tread that fine line between serious action and a sense of humor. Read IMDB's memorable quotes HERE. What's impressive? Even out of context, they still can put a smile on your face, give you a good laugh. When you actually see Lancaster, Marvin and Co. deliver said lines? Oh my, you're in for a treat.

I love a good men-on-a-mission movie, and this one belongs right at the top with The Magnificent Seven, The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen as my favorites. Seriously...Lancaster, Marvin, Ryan and Strode...oh, and Palance, Cardinale and Bellamy! That sound you hear is my head exploding from awesomeness. Brooks' script introduces our characters with lightning-fast ease and we get to know them in that quick flash. Marvin's Fardan is an ex-soldier, a leader, an organizer and a planner, Ryan's Ehrengard a horse wrangler, a cowboy and the very best, Strode's Jake an expert tracker and scout and specialist with bow and arrow, and last but not least, Lancaster's Dolworth is a mercenary, a philosophizing dynamite expert. That is a ridiculously talented cast with a lousy script, but combined with Brooks' script, the end result is some of the most memorable western characters ever with a story to boot. You can't pass that up now, can you?!?

When I think of Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin working together here, it puts a smile on my face. Their Bill Dolworth and Rico Fardan are the heart of the movie, mercenaries, soldiers and adventurers who are good friends who have worked together in the past, including previously in the Mexican Revolution. They too have a history with Palance's Raza, making their job a touch more difficult. What the script and actors do so effortlessly is bring these characters to life. They're tough, rough-hewn men who live by their word and their hard-fought ability to survive. They fight because they're good at it, and maybe, just maybe, they like it a little bit. Their one-on-one scenes are some of the most memorable in the entire movie. When you throw the always reliable Robert Ryan and Woody Strode into the mix, you're in for a treat.

Okay, we need an actor in the mid 1960's to play a Mexican revolutionary....naturally, it's Jack Palance! His Raza though is an underrated character, an equal to our Professionals, a somewhat disillusioned fighter who fights on because he loves Mexico, the people, and wants those in power out.  Then there is Claudia Cardinale, maybe the most beautiful woman to ever grace the screen. Her Maria has some tricks up her sleeves as we're introduced to her about halfway through. Bellamy is perfect in his part, beginning and end, as the worrying Joe Grant (or is he...). Also look for Jorge Martinez de HoyosJoe De Santis and Rafael Bertrand in key supporting parts. In a scene-stealing part, Marie Gomez plays Chiquita, one of Raza's soldiers who has a history with Lancaster's Bill.

What's funny about 'Professionals' is that it isn't an action-heavy story. Yes, there's gunfights, chases and some memorable sequences, but it isn't a 2-hour action scene. It's the better for it. We get to know our characters really well in quick scenes featuring Brooks' snappy dialogue. When the action does come, is it ever worth it, especially the pre-dawn attack on Raza's hacienda deep in the mountains. Loud and chaotic, it is a gem. The other action is on a smaller-scale, tightly-edited firefights in claustrophobic canyons. So if there isn't an overabundance of action, who cares? The general tone of the movie aids that cause. It's not just a western. It's also a buddy flick, a heist movie, a chase story, a love story, a history lesson of sorts, and with a bit of a twist mystery in the second half of a 117-minute feature film.

They don't come along much better than this. One of those perfect action-adventure movies, one that's hard to poke holes in. A phenomenal cast, a memorable script, and all you can ask for in a western. A true classic, for fans of the genre and even those who aren't.

The Professionals (1966): ****/****
Rewrite of a March 2011 review

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Yellow Tomahawk

Every so often, I just need a good, old-fashioned B-western. It doesn't have to be great or even particularly good, but I need that dose of WESTERN. So while 1954's The Yellow Tomahawk is pretty run-of-the-mill, I liked it. Entertaining, surprisingly violent and with a cool cast, it's a solid western that's worth a watch.

Riding out of the wilderness, frontiersman Adam Reed (Rory Calhoun) finds himself being chased by Cheyenne warriors. He's cornered and looks to be in trouble until his blood brother, Cheyenne warrior Fire Knife (Lee Van Cleef), steps in, all of it a show to arrange a meeting. Fire Knife has a warning and a message he would like delivered. The U.S. cavalry is building a new fort nearby with a commander, Major Ives (Warner Anderson), who lead a bloody massacre months prior against a peaceful Indian camp. His reputation has preceded him with Fire Knife passing his message along to Reed. What is it? Tell Ives to stop building the fort and risk an attack that will wipe out the partially-assembled fort. Reed rides down to the fort and passes it along but Ives isn't having it, doubting the truth of the threat. What awaits for the small garrison and the soldiers' families who have traveled west? Reed sees the writing on the wall but no one else seems to believe what's coming.

Nothing flashy here, nothing too crazy. From director Lesley Selander, 'Tomahawk' is nonetheless an entertaining, pretty solid western that isn't limited by its budget or limitations. A longtime director in film and television, Selander is a pro at spinning a movie like this. So often, westerns are town-bound. limited by a fake-looking set that never allows the story to breathe. This particular entry does not have that problem with virtually no sets! The cavalry building a fort allows for no sets other than a couple half-assembled walls. It was shot on-location at the Kanab Movie Ranch and Fort, giving the story a cool, intimidating, scary sense of the openness of the desert and wilderness. You're all alone out there, and with the threat of an imminent Indian attack, there's no place to hide.

A star of B-westerns who often played supporting roles in bigger budget pictures, Calhoun is a favorite of mine. He plays a memorable, roguish good guy, a solid anti-hero with an edge who is quite comfortable in the western and in the saddle. His Adam Reed character, a frontiersman and scout of sorts, is interesting because of his hinted-at backstory. It's never told in detail, but it appears he lived with the Cheyenne at some point, his brotherhood and family connection with a young Lee Van Cleef as warrior Fire Knife. If there was a little more time to breathe ('Tomahawk' is a very pleasant 82 minutes), maybe we could have learned some more about out hero. Still, what's there is pretty cool.

No A-listers on-hand here, but that doesn't detract from an overall good cast. Peggie Castle (Lily Merrill on TV's Lawman) is the necessary love interest, a beautiful woman visiting her fiance, a cavalry officer, at the budding fort. She's no damsel in distress either, a welcome addition to the genre. Noah Beery Jr. has some stereotypical fun as Tonio, an ay-ay-ay Mexican horse wrangler with a beautiful Indian girl, Honey Bear (Rita Moreno), who follows him around. As the stupidly blind officer, Major Ives, Warner Anderson is frighteningly uncomfortable, portraying an officer that was probably all too familiar in the wild west. Also look for Peter Graves (gold prospector) and Adam Williams and James Best (cavalry troopers) in key supporting parts.

One good western after another followed a simple formula. Introduce a disparate group of survivors and individuals, throw them into a survival situation with an ever-present Indian war party, and see who makes it out. After an intense, tension-building first 30 minutes or so, that's what 'Tomahawk' uses as a base. We follow a small group of survivors of an Indian attack trying to get across the desert to safety. The action itself is pretty intense in itself, especially the Cheyenne attack on the hastily-built and poorly-defended fort. It's not hugely graphic -- it is still 1954 after all -- but the violence is incredibly rough and if it had been shown on-screen, whoo, we're talking one nasty picture. The ending too is pretty honest for a mid-1950's western, something that surprised me, caught me off-guard a little bit.

A solid western overall. Worth checking out.

The Yellow Tomahawk (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 11, 2016


Early in high school, I decided I want to go into journalism, specifically hoping to be a sports reporter/beat writer. I loved sports and still do and currently have a job with the Chicago Tribune as an editor. Even in my eight years since graduating college, I've seen journalism change drastically. God knows where it will go in eight years. Naturally, I was psyched to see 2015's Spotlight, a movie that shows how important journalism is and should continue to be. Oh, and it's a damn good movie.

It's 2001 at the Boston Globe and the Spotlight desk, led by editor Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton) with its three-man staff, focuses on big, deep, investigative stories that sometimes take months and even years to develop into something. The Globe is getting a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who wants the Spotlight team to investigate an untold story, one that's gone untouched for years with only a story written here and there. He wants the team to explore the story of a Boston priest who was brought up on charges for child molestation and all the gory details. Even as investigative journalists, they've got their work cut out for them, dealing with the Catholic church and victims that don't necessarily want to be interviewed. Even with that said though, Robby and his team have no idea the depths of what they will find as they investigate deeper and deeper.

A quasi-journalist myself, I'm a sucker for all journalism movies from All the President's Men to State of Play to Kill the Messenger and many more in between. I think movies like this are relevant more than ever now in 2016 as newspapers continue their descent into oblivion of sorts. Where will journalism -- especially print journalism -- go from here? Will it survive? Can it? Movies like 'Spotlight' show a need for this sort of investigative reporting, hard-hitting storytelling and dogged journalists who pursue the truth because someone, anyone has to do it. I loved this movie. It's getting all sorts of Oscar buzz, and it will no doubt pull some serious nominations (and hopefully some wins too). It deserves any and all of the buzz it is getting.

Director Tom McCarthy jumps into this film with a refreshing thought. Simply put, he wants to tell a story. There's no explosions, huge twists, pyrotechnics, nudity or violence to speak of. It is a straightforward, elegantly-told story that tells just that, a true story. Much like The Big Short, 'Spotlight' tells a story that is astonishing in its truth, discomforting down to your very toes and unsettling to the point it can be hard to believe you are in fact watching something that actually happened. The story drifts along with the investigation as it gets deeper and darker, the Spotlight team truly understanding the depths and horrors of what goes on with priests in the Catholic church. It's not often you see films like this that are just so perfectly professionally done. It doesn't need a ton of style or an in-your-face mentality. Like its main characters, McCarthy's film simply is looking to find the truth and tell a story.

'Spotlight' is a film that respects its characters and what they do without glorifying them. These reporters want to tell a story, sometimes ones that are incredibly difficult to track and nail down. Some pretty talented actors were picked to bring these real-life reporters to life, including Keaton's Robby, Mark Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes, Rachel McAdams' Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d'Arcy James' Matt Carroll. In brief snippets, we get to know about them and their personal lives, nice touches that help us as we go along with the investigation. There isn't a weak performance in the group, and they feel incredibly authentic in bringing them to life. Even when it seems like they've hit a dead-end, they keep looking, keep investigating, even when the truth sounds impossible. Schreiber too is excellent as new editor Marty Baron with John Slattery doing a fine turn as Ben Bradlee Jr., an editor with the Globe who plays an integral part in the clergy cover-up investigation.

But wait...there's more! Because the above-mentioned performances weren't enough, right? I think Stanley Tucci has the ability to walk into a room and steal every scene he's in, an ability he shows off here as a lawyer who wants to do right, who wants to fight for his clients, often the victims and survivors of clergy abuse. Also look for Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, an uncredited Richard Jenkins lending his voice to a key role over the phone, and Len Cariou.

Working off the true story, McCarthy tells his story on the ground, in the newsrooms and cramped offices, at the reporters' desks with their desktop computers, phones ringing and notebooks in hand in just about every passing scene. We see them on the phones, pursuing leads, digging through old clips and paperwork, and you get the sense of this is what journalism IS and what it SHOULD BE. It feels authentic. It feels real, and that's why the movie is so criminally straightforward and memorable. 'Spotlight' does not pull any punches. This is the true story of a horrific cover-up that you just shake your head at that something this horrifying could go uncovered, unreported for so long. Will it bring home a bunch of Oscars? Who knows for sure? I know this though. It definitely should.

Great movie. Go see it.

Spotlight (2015): ****/****

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Sea Chase

First and foremost, John Wayne was one of the screen's most iconic cowboys. Sure, he took some detours along the way as soldiers, cops and on occasion, as sailors and captains. It can be kinda odd seeing him at see instead of in the saddle, but some of the ventures are pretty good, especially 1955's The Sea Chase. And it's not just the Duke that's interesting, but some generally unique choices in storytelling and tone. And away we go on the high seas!

It's the late 1930's and the German steam freighter Ergenstrasse, commanded by German captain Karl Ehrlich (Wayne), is in port in Sydney, Australia. Ehrlich has fallen from some impressive heights in the German navy because he refuses to support the Nazi party, but he's a supremely capable officer with a solid reputation among fellow sailors. Then the whole world is turned upside down when World War II breaks out, leaving the Ergenstrasse far from home and badly under-supplied. Before they slip out from Sydney though, Ehrlich is visited by the German consul who thrusts a German spy on-board, Elsa Keller (Lana Turner), who has important information and needs to get back to German soil. The British Navy doesn't want to let Ehrlich's ship get through though, setting off a cat-and-mouse across the Pacific and Atlantic of who can out-maneuver the other.

This isn't a movie remembered as one of John Wayne's best, but from the star's weakest decade overall, it's a pretty good entry. It isn't a classic, but I found it damn entertaining, director John Farrow at the helm (shipping/sailing pun intended) of a war thriller that's been generally forgotten. John Wayne as a German captain during WWII? Even if he despises the Nazi party, that's a risky play for a star associated with America and patriotism. 'Chase' was filmed in Australia and Hawaii, its sun-drenched locations giving the thriller one purty look. It isn't flashy, but it certainly gets the job done.

So Wayne as a German captain works surprisingly well. He commits himself to the part in the same way he would a cowboy or a soldier. His Karl Ehrlich is a career man, someone who lives by his word and expects others around him to do the same. Nothing is aggressive or heavy-handed about the background, just that Wayne's Ehrlich has little use for Hitler and the Nazis and is paying for those feelings by being sent to captain the far-off German steamer with no value and no hope of promotion. He knows getting back to Germany will end in trouble for his own future, but it is his duty and he feels compelled to do it, troubling results be damned. He looks comfortable to in the role and compared to some of those 1950's duds -- like The Conqueror or Blood Alley -- it's a classic!

In a long, distinguished career, Wayne wasn't always given too many roles with love interests. Okay, that's not true. Love interests other than Maureen O'Hara. Some reviews seem to disagree with me, but I thought the Duke and the lovely Lana Turner were pretty good together. They've both got somewhat checkered pasts and neither has a future that seems too pleasant, but those two stubborn kids, wouldn't you know that they end up falling for each other a tiny bit? Oh, sorry, SPOILER. A good pairing, the only time these two Hollywood legends worked together. It's a very solid pairing.

If a John Wayne at sea love story isn't your thing, the supporting cast here should pull you in. They're not always given a lot to do in a 117-minute running time, but the character actor star power is ON-POINT here. It's cool just seeing all these fellas together, starting with David Farrar as Napier, Ehrlich's friend and a British officer leading the chase, and Lyle Bettger as Chief Officer Kirchner, a die-hard, loyal follower of the Nazi party who's gonna cause all sorts of problems. As for the Ergenstrasse crew -- and I take a deep breath -- look for Tab Hunter, James Arness, Richard Davalos, Luis Van Rooten, John Qualen, Paul Fix, Alan Hale Jr., Peter Whitney, Claude Akins, John Doucette, and Adam Williams. Not bad, huh? Movie nerds will definitely appreciate that character actor-studded cast.

There are some slower portions during the midsection as Ehrlich and the Ergenstrasse improvises and picks up some supplies at a remote Pacific island. It's necessary though as we get to know the persistently stubborn captain and his beautiful German spy on-board. The international intrigue though picks up, especially when Bettger's Kirchner goes on his own and makes a dangerous command decision that puts the whole crew at risk. There's nothing too flashy from beginning to end, but this is a pretty solid sea thriller, meant to be watched on a rainy Sunday afternoon or late at night with some popcorn. A cool change of pace for the Duke with the beautiful Lana Turner and a fun supporting cast. Definitely worth a watch.

The Sea Chase (1955): ***/****

Friday, January 8, 2016

The Ridiculous 6

Haha people are so dumb. Did you read THIS story? It says that Netflix has stated that 2015's The Ridiculous 6 got the most-ever views for a movie in its first 30-days upon its release. Hahaha why would you watch that crap? Ah, so, yeah, I watched that crap. Call it morbid curiosity, but I watched it. If this doesn't prove that I'll watch just about any western, I don't know what does. And away we go!

An orphan who has lived with the Apaches most of his life, Tommy (Adam Sandler), a.k.a. White Knife, has grown into a respected warrior who's a specialist with knives. One day, a famous bandit named Frank Stockburn (Nick Nolte) rides into the village claiming to be Tommy's father, and that his long-lost treasure is not too far away. Before they can go get it though, a vicious gang of killers swoops in and kidnaps Frank. Stunned at the revelation his father is alive, Tommy is in hot pursuit behind the bandits, but he's in for another surprise. Out on the trail, he keeps meeting the seeds of Frank's past. That's right, he meets five half-brothers, including Ramon (Rob Schneider), Little Pete (Taylor Lautner), Herm (Jorge Garcia), Chico (Terry Crews) and Danny (Luke Wilson). Working together, can the six brothers save their long-lost father from certain death?

To say this flick had a checkered production would be an understatement. Originally supposed to be released by Warner Bros., it was dropped. Netflix scooped it up and on things went! During production, 'Ridiculous' caused a stir when some of the Native Americans working on-set walked off, upset with the movie's portrayal of Indians. My thought there is 'Really? What did you think this was gonna be?' It all led to that point where I saw the trailer for the movie and thought "Oh, come on, that can't be good if Netflix had to showcase it rather than a theatrical run.' So what's to say of director Frank Coraci's straight-to-Netflix western? Well...

It's pretty awful. There are some laughs along the way -- genuine laughs -- but they're generally lost in a sea of recurring jokes that go nowhere, awful characters, and a story at 119 minutes that is a touch on the long side. I've mentioned my worries about comedic westerns early and often as I've written these reviews over the years, and the same issues are here. If you don't handle it right, it's just goofy to downright dumb. Coraci (a frequent Sandler director), Sandler and co-writer Tim Herlihy clearly know the western genre. They pick and choose some stereotypes here and some cliches there and mix it all together into one jumbled-up mess. Some of the end results pay off with laughs while others flop.

Two things ultimately got me through this flick. Okay, maybe 3. 1. I wanted to write a review. Look at all those movie stars! 2. I love westerns. 3. Okay, it was just 2. Adam Sandler's movies aren't meant to be classics. They're supposed to be fun. So what I did like here was the often very stupid dynamic among the actual Ridiculous 6. White Knife is the stoic anti-hero, Schneider's Ramon, the Mexican bandit, Little Pete, the mentally challenged idiot (a truly painful performance to watch), Garcia's Herm, the mute, mammoth mountain man, Crews' Chico the saloon piano player, Wilson's Danny the gunfighter looking for redemption. The group even...sings (so there's that) about finding their Dad. There are some good gags here, including Chico "revealing" to his brothers that he's actually black (gasp!). Same for a scene where they discuss their ridiculous skills and talents, The payoff is worth it.

Who else to watch out for? I liked Will Forte as the leader of the Left-Eye gang, bandits who have shown the commitment to the gang by tearing out their right eyes, including Clem (Steve Zahn), already down to one eye when he joins the gang. I won't give away all the surprises -- you can do that by looking at the full cast listing -- but it was cool to see guys like Harvey Keitel (a gunslinging saloon owner), Danny Trejo (bandit leader), Steve Buscemi (barber/doctor in a truly disgusting scene), and John Turturro (Abner Doubleday introducing baseball to Indians) pop up here and there. Plenty more familiar faces pop up here and there so keep your eyes peeled throughout for some good, some bad and some just plain dumb.

What's unfortunate I thought was that there actually was a fair share of potential for a western spoof/satire here. I did laugh here and there throughout. Unfortunately, most of that potential gets swept away in a sea of donkey diarrhea scenes (twice), one scene of bathroom humor after another, jokes about third nipples, odd special effects overdone sight gags and generally that feel that a 13-year old giggled his way through writing the screenplay. I'm not giving it a positive rating, but it isn't so awful that it's not worth a watch, at least to experience the mostly badness mixed with the at-times goodness.

Now what about a sequel...

The Ridiculous 6 (2015): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


In very understandable fashion, Hollywood legend Sylvester Stallone is protective of his legacy, of his movies, of his iconic characters. No character from Stallone's career is more iconic than Rocky Balboa, the boxer from Philly and the Italian Stallion himself. He had been approached about playing Rocky again, turning the offer down until he saw the script for this movie, 2015's Creed. He made the right call if you were wondering. It is a gem.

An angry young man, about 12 years old, Adonis Johnson is taken in by Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of the late fighter Apollo Creed. Since his own mother died some years before, Adonis has bounced around the system going from group home to group home with a couple stints in juvy. Now, he's got a chance to amount to something. He learns he's the illegitimate son of Apollo, his father dying before he was born. Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) grows up, tries to lead his own life, all the while boxing on the side and teaching himself as he goes with some natural talent kicking in along the way. In his late 20's with some wins to his name, Adonis decides he wants to pursue boxing full-time, leaving behind everything he knows in Los Angeles to move to Philadelphia where he hopes to train and make something of himself. First up in Philly? Trying to convince Rocky Balboa (Stallone) himself to train him. That may be easier said than done.

From what I've read, Creed director/writer Ryan Coogler (Aaron Covington co-writing the screenplay) had approached Stallone previously about revisiting/rebooting Rocky from a different angle. Finally, Stallone saw a script he didn't just like but LOVED. With some gentle nudging from his wife, Rocky himself chose to come back again as the Italian Stallion. Here's the finished product. Long story short? It works so freaking well. If you're going to reboot a beloved series and one of the most beloved characters ever, this is how you do it. It isn't good. It's great.

What works so well is the respect Coogler, Covington and Jordan have for the franchise without being too nostalgic. Yes, it's cool seeing Rocky back on the streets of Philadelphia, but 'Creed' is able to find that perfect middle ground in between. It isn't too new. It isn't too nostalgic. Rocky is a hugely important character, but it's not his movie. It's young Adonis and aging Rocky. Coogler films in Philadelphia (necessarily and appropriately), giving the story a gritty, authentic feel. While it is polished, it is not overly polished. The camera is there through the training, through the fights, through the dialogue, and it's right there with the characters. It seems simple, but it gives you that feeling you're right there with the action. When you're down in the trenches, you feel the twists and turns far more than when you're watching from a distance.

Michael B. Jordan is an actor I've been aware of for several years, but this is the first role I'm actually seeing him in. Consider me a huge fan. What a great, subtle but heated and intense part for the young actor who is definitely on the road to bigger and better things as an actor and a movie star. I think the biggest compliment I can give to this performance is that -- like the film itself -- it feels very real. The emotions don't feel forced or awkward or twisted. This is a young man in his late 20's and is trying to find himself, find some answers about who he is and who he wants to be. As well, Adonis has to live up to his family name, something he doesn't want to be tarnished because of something he does or doesn't do. In a very nice touch, we also see his developing relationship with Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who lives in his building who's slowly losing her hearing. A ton of chemistry between the duo in a very believable relationship.

The heart of the movie though is the father-son, mentor-student relationship that develops between Adonis and Rocky. It is heartbreakingly perfect. Though they are at different points in their lives, they're also looking for the same thing; friendship, and more simply, a friend. I thought it was an appropriate choice not to stereotype Rocky or make him a cliche. This is the Rocky we know, just an older Rocky now in his late 60's. He's lost his wife and best friend but still runs his Italian restaurant in south Philly. When he meets the persistent Adonis, he resists at first at his request to train him but ultimately gives in. What results is spot-on. Sports cliches, training montages, it could all be overdone or too much, but Stallone's commitment to the part levels it. This feels like an authentic relationship from the moment we see the two together, and without giving away any spoilers, the way the Adonis/Rocky relationship grows is perfect for the tone of the story.

'Creed' doesn't focus on a long, long cast. It picks its characters and goes. Rashad is excellent in a smaller part as Adonis' adopted mother and Apollo's widow. Tony Bellew is excellent as "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, a British fighter, the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world, with Graham McTavish as his trainer. Also look for Wood Harris and Ritchie Coster in key supporting parts.

Ready for a surprise (relative)? 'Creed' doesn't feature a whole lot of time in the actual boxing ring. Sure, there's training sequences as Adonis develops his boxing ability, but there's really only two fights (and one's relatively short, if effective). What's that mean? When we are in the ring, there is some FREAKING ENERGY. I won't spoil it, but Coogler keeps that camera moving without much in the way of editing. Very few cuts, but the camera is there shoulder-to-shoulder with our fighters. It's an impressive job shooting a sport that would probably be a lot easier to shoot with said hyper-fast editing.  As for that final fight, Coogler makes a brilliant choice. We haven't heard the Rocky theme to this point, but at an absolute perfect moment....oh, well, it's good. I'm getting chills just thinking about the moment.

Pretty much nothing to complain about here. Too many good, memorable, spine-tingling moments to mention, and I don't want to spoil them if you haven't seen the movie. Michael B. Jordan is excellent and an incredibly believable boxer/athlete. Sylvester Stallone steals the movie, reprising his Rocky role in a performance that will no doubt earn him a Best Supporting Actor nod and hopefully win it. He deserves it. The performance is that good. The whole movie is. I can't recommend it enough, for fans and non-fans of the Rocky series. Loved it.

Creed (2014): ****/****

Monday, January 4, 2016

Top 10 of 2015

My, my, how time flies. I got a job this past April that ate up a whole bunch of my free time so I wasn't able to watch as many movies I have in previous years (or simply as many as I wanted to watch). That said, it was a pretty good year for flicks, especially in theaters where one franchise I love after another had new releases from Fast and Furious to James Bond, Mission: Impossible to Jurassic Park and plenty in between. And lastly, remember, this isn't the BEST or the most critically acclaimed films. I'm a cheaper date than that. It's what entertained me the most. Click on the movie title for the full review. Here we go! (And remember, these are movies I watched between January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2015).

10. Interstellar (2014)
One of the first movies I saw in 2015, I'm still not quite sure what the movie was about or its ultimate message. What do I know? I loved watching this film from director Christopher Nolan. The scale, the scope, the musical score, the immensity of space, the beauty and terror of open space, it all adds up. Matthew McConaughey leads an all-star cast with some surprises along the way. An excellent movie-going experience.

9. Stretch (2014)
Nothing smooth about the production of this mostly-ignored crime thriller with plenty of laughs. Originally intended as a theatrical release, it ended up on straight to video-on-demand. I loved it. Patrick Wilson plays Stretch, a down-on-his-luck actor turned limo driver and his crazy night on-duty and all the kooky characters he meets along the way. A lot of fun with the underrated Wilson's narration providing some memorable laughs.

8. Dom Hemingway (2013)
When done right, it's always fun to see celebrities step out of their comfort zone and play some hilariously off-center leading parts. In steps Jude Law as Dom Hemingway, a longtime crook recently released from jail and looking to get paid for keeping some well-guarded secrets to himself. What a crazy, funny, ridiculous, dark, bizarre movie, but much like Stretch, it JUST WORKS. Law is an absolute scene-stealer over and over again in this oddball British crime thriller.

7. John Wick (2014)
"A hit man comes out of retirement when mobsters kill his dog." What a deceptively dumb plot description...which is only half-true. This is my most pleasant surprise of the year, Keanu Reeves as the titular hit man, who, yes, is avenging his dog but there's so much more going on with his reasoning. Stylish, violent and a really cool cast inhabit a special kind of hitman world. I might have tweaked the ending, but a minor complaint in a bullet-riddled action movie that's a hell of a lot of fun.

6. The Martian (2015)
I loved Andy Weir's novel 'The Martian' and was appropriately psyched for the Ridley Scott-directed film adaptation. Matt Damon is stranded astronaut Mark Watney, left behind by his crew and feared dead during a sandstorm. Can he survive? Can he hold on for a rescue...if he can somehow get in contact with Earth? Damon is phenomenal as the brilliant Watney, always ready with a sarcastic comment or biting one-liner. The rest of the cast...well, it'd take quite a while to list the cast. Not a weakness in the entire movie.

5. Inside Out (2015):

I didn't even try and review this one. My feeble brain couldn't handle it. What a smart, creative, truly inventive movie, the story of Riley, a young girl moving with her parents to a new town and new school. We see her life through her emotions, Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), as they run her life from a control panel in her head. Too many smart, funny moments to even mention. A perfect movie for both kids and adults.

4. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)
It's been fascinating watching the Mission: Impossible series develop over these last two movies. Like the Fast and Furious movies, they tweaked and rejigged things nicely, turning an espionage series into an action-packed espionage series that pushes the limits of gun battles, stunts, chases, heists and so much more. Tom Cruise returns as heroic, no stopping him agent Ethan Hunt with newcomer Rebecca Ferguson stealing the show as a rival agent who's intentions aren't known. So much freaking fun.

3. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985):
Oh, my. Just "oh, my." The French Connection is a heck of a movie, but this may be William Friedkin's best film. William Petersen is Richard Chance, a no-rules, roguish Treasury agent on the trail of the counterfeiter who murdered his partner. This is a procedural cop drama/thriller on absolute freaking steroids. Dark, cynical, brutal, horrifically stylish, a movie that lingered in my mind for days later. Ssssssssssssoooooooooo good.

2. Furious 7 (2015):

Hi, I'm Tim, and I love these movies. Much like the Mission: Impossible movies, these are movies built around characters we've come to love and action that stretches the limits of any reality but is so absolutely fun you don't even care. Full of action -- car chases and otherwise -- this sequel was a hell of a lot of fun with Vin Diesel leading the way and Jason Statham joining the cast as the villain. Style points? A moving tribute to star Paul Walker who died tragically in a car crash as the movie was being made. I lean toward wrapping up the series on a high note, but there's too much money involved. Curious to see where things go from here, but I'll be there throughout.

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015):
Like Inside Out, I debated even writing a review, but I struggled through it. All I could think while watching this franchise reboot from director George Miller was "This is what movie-going experiences should be like more often." Tom Hardy says about 38 words the entire movie as Max, a drifter in a postapocalyptic world, with Charlize Theron as a scene-stealing...well, just see the movie. The simplest of stories here, but let's cut to it; this is a 2-hour chase scene that barely takes a breath, rarely sits back and relaxes for more than a minute or two. This is a movie that stuck with me long after its first viewing. W-O-W. Just wow. What a movie.

So that's it. That's 2015. I watched significantly less movies, but it was quite a year for movies. What movies just missed out on the Top 10? If I did another list, it would include (in no particular order) Whiplash, The Verdict, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Everest, Chef, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and one of the bigger pleasant surprises of the year, The Man from UNCLE.

Bring on 2016!