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): ****/****