The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, January 30, 2009

Never So Few

After reading a bio on director John Sturges the last couple of weeks, I thought I'd go back and watch some of his movies, starting with 1959's Never So Few starring Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida. The basic story is a good one that hasn't been dealt with in many WWII movies. Sinatra is Capt. Tom Reynolds, an OSS volunteer leading a group of Kackins, Burmese guerillas, in Burma in 1942-43. I can only think of two other WWII movies that even deal with that part of the war, Objective, Burma, a great action movie with plenty of flag-waving, and Merrill's Marauders, the story of 3,000 US volunteers trekking across Burma to take out a Japanese airfield.

When I first saw the movie a few years back, I was glad I found because of the subject matter. But when I saw what a great all-around cast was in it, I started to wonder how it'd slipped through the cracks since its release. I figured it out quick enough, it's an average war movie that's pulled down by a completely unnecessary love story. The story of Reynolds and his Kachin guerillas is the high point of the movie with some impressive action sequences, an ambush on a bigger Japanese force, a surprise attack on the Kachins' Xmas party, and an assault on a heavily guarded Japanese airfield.

Too bad of course the love story was added. It doesn't work for any number of reasons. For one, Sinatra and Lollobrigida had little to no actual chemistry. Two, it takes far too long to develop. The movie opens with an ambush and the aftermath and then spends most of 45 minutes to an hour with Reynolds and his 2nd in command, British officer Danny DeMortimer, back in civilization as Reynolds and Lollobrigida's Carla meet.

Having said all this, I did buy the DVD so there must be something positive, right? Sinatra is pretty good as Reynolds, although he does sport a ridiculous goatee early in the movie. Richard Johnson as DeMortimer has some funny moments and is a great character, a good counter to Reynolds. The whole supporting cast is good, Charles Bronson, Peter Lawford, Dean Jones, Brian Donlevy, Phillip Ahn, and Robert Bray. But most of them aren't given much to do because so much of the story's focus is away from the OSS volunteers and the Kachins.

The main reason to see Never So Few is a pre-stardom Steve McQueen. The 29-year old actor had been in several movies and was fast becoming a TV star as Josh Randall on "Wanted: Dead or Alive," but in a supporting role here as Cpl. Bill Ringa, McQueen steps above the material to show what he can do with very little. It's a relatively small part, but Ringa is what I came away from the movie remembering. He's cold-blooded, and a natural fighter, ready for anything if it helps the group. It was definitely a sign of things to come as McQueen teamed with Sturges again a year later in The Magnificent Seven in a somewhat similar role.

So overall, an average movie that could have been better, but it's a guilty pleasure for me. Worth checking out, but don't expect a classic.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Netflix Review 2: Hang 'Em High

After the huge success of Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, Clint Eastwood returned to the US and quickly made an American western, Hang 'Em High, that bears quite a resemblance to the basic style of the spaghetti westerns. I've avoided watching Hang 'Em High for years for a couple reasons, I always figured it could never live up to the Dollars movies, and reviews were always mixed. While I enjoyed the movie, my worries were pretty dead on. It was an average western that would not be remembered if Eastwood wasn't starring.

Eastwood is Jed Cooper, a small rancher who has recently bought 100 head of cattle. As he's driving the herd home, Cooper is stopped by a nine-man posse who say he stole the cattle and murdered the rancher even though he's got a bill of sale. They string Cooper up and leave without making sure he's dead. A marshal happens to be riding by and cuts the man down before he dies. After his innocence is proved, Cooper takes a job as a marshal in the Oklahoma territory and starts to hunt the men down one-by-one.

Very much influenced by spaghetti westerns, this movie just doesn't live up to what it could have been. Looking at the cast, I was blown away by all the names, but I guess I should have learned by now. Big cast full of big names: characters aren't developed much at all. Ed Begley plays Capt. Wilson, the leader of the posse who is terrified of Cooper's revenge, but he basically disappears for huge chunks of the movie. Inger Stevens is the obligatory love interest, a woman with a past who's also looking for revenge. Stevens is gorgeous, but her part is as bland as they come.

The rest of the posse is similarly underwhelming despite some big names including L.Q. Jones, Bruce Dern, Alan Hale JR, and Bob Steele. These parts could have been great, add Strother Martin, Dub Taylor, and Warren Oates and you've got a perfect posse.

Three parts, along with Eastwood, stand out. Pat Hingle, always a good slimy villain, is an ideal counterpart to Cooper as Judge Fenton, a power-hungry official who wants statehood for the territory no matter what he has to do. He becomes so obsessed with justice you're not sure if his mind is all there. Ben Johnson, a real-life cowboy, makes a brief appearace as Dave Bliss, the marshal that rescues Cooper. Just by being in the movie, Johnson gives it credibility. Gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw plays Sheriff Ray Calhoun, a peace officer who may be working both sides.

But that's just three supporting roles, Dennis Hopper makes a bizarre one-scene cameo as the Prophet, a crazed, bearded prisoner, and James MacArthur shows up to lead a crowd in prayer at a hanging as the Preacher. It's just all too weird. The movie tries too hard to be a great western. The music is overdone and loud, although some good parts sound like Morricone's soundtracks, but it takes away from the movie overall.

The DVD is cheap with a somewhat grainy widescreen presentation and a trailer I've included the link for that's pretty revealing. Don't watch it if you haven't seen the movie. Overall, I was disappointed with this 1968 western, but there's enough to recommend, especially Eastwood, Hingle, and Ben Johnson.

Hang 'Em High (1968): **/****

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Far Horizons

Certain stories are synonymous with Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were supposed to move across the country and settle the land, with maybe the most well known story being that of the Lewis and Clark expedition. It's too bad then that the only movie made on the subject was such a bust, 1955's The Far Horizons. Just about all school kids know the story of Lewis and Clark and their expeditionary party being helped out by a Shoshone woman, Sacagewea. Now of all the actresses in the 1950s, who would be the most unlikely one to play the young Indian girl? If you guessed Donna Reed, you're a winner!

The surprising thing is that Reed isn't even the most distracting aspect of the movie. Her performance is actually pretty good, even if she looks ridiculous. That casting has to rank up there with John Wayne as Genghis Khan or Omar Sharif as Che Guevara as the most bizarre to ever come out of Hollywood. What was the worst part of the movie was Fred MacMurray as Meriwether Lewis. Talk about a wooden actor. This role could have been played by any number of people, Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, anybody but MacMurray who just seems out of place.

His counterpart, William Clark, is perfectly cast with Charlton Heston filling those shoes. Heston made a career out of big, lavish historical epics and period pieces, and for good reason, his performances were always very strong whether it be as Moses or Michelangelo. But the movie plays loosely with historical fact, which isn't a sure deal-breaker, but so much could have been done with the story. Prior to leaving, Clark proposes to Julia Hamilton, who Lewis has been a friend with for years and is sweet on. She accepts and so the tension begins.

Along the trail after meeting Sacagewea, Clark starts to fall for her, making Lewis mad at him for falling in love and at the same time forgetting about his fiance back in Washington. That's right, one of the best stories in American history has turned into a love triangle, a completely inaccurate one at that. It's just an odd movie from beginning to end. I'm a sucker for historical period pieces, but this one is not worth it. Watch "Horizons" for the gorgeous location shooting in Grand Teton National Park, but don't expect much else.

The Far Horizons (1955): **/****

Monday, January 26, 2009


Somewhat disappointingly, Defiance has struggled at the box office these last two weekends so before it completely slipped out of theaters I went and saw it today. Really, how can a movie with Daniel Craig going up against Nazis not be worth the price of admission? I ended up liking it, but not loving it. First off, it's not the action movie it has been presented as in the trailer and commercials on TV.
That's not a bad thing here as the action scenes are highly effective and feel very realistic. For one, not everyone hits at what they aim at. I "love" action movies where the good guy always hits his mark. It kind of takes the suspense out of things. Back to the movie though, it tells the story of four brothers, the Bielskis, who take to the woods in 1941 Belorussia, now German-occupied territory, after SS squads and local police start rounding up Jews, some of whom are shot on the spot and others transported away to ghettos and labor camps.

By far the strongest part of the movie are the two leads, Craig as Tuvia Bielski, the oldest of four brothers who emerges as a leader, and Liev Schreiber as Zus Bielski, the second oldest who loses his wife and child to the death squads. Hiding in the woods, they begin to draw attention, in a good way, as other fleeing Jews look for safety. Soon, the Bielskis must start to protect and provide for hundreds of fleeing Jews who start new lives in the relative safety of the woods.

Tuvia and Zus are about as different as two brothers can be, but they have one obvious thing in common; survival. Tuvia does not want to fight back against the Germans unless absolutely necessary. His 'defiance' will be by living the life they tried to take away from him. Zus couldn't disagree more, he wants to take the fight to the Germans and ends up joining a Russian partisan outfit. The tension between the brothers drives the movie as we see the two paths diverge and meet again several times in the story.

Back to the action, there are several running firefights including a few as the Bielskis first take on the Germans, learning what's effective, and then developing into bigger battles. The finale is a good one, director Edward Zwick is no stranger to moving battle scenes, as the Bielskis and Co. are caught out in the open by a German tank and supporting infantry. Watch the finale to 1989's Glory (massive SPOILERS if you haven't seen the movie) and tell me it isn't one of the most powerful battle scenes ever made. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it. My issue with the adversaries, the Germans, is that no face is put with the "bad guys." They're more of a presence than anything, looming in the woods and towns waiting to strike.

Because the movie is mostly set in camps in the woods, parts do drag a bit in the middle in between battle scenes. Other than some slow-moving scenes in the middle, and a forgettable score by James Newton Howard (typically as reliable a composer as is out there), this is a WWII drama worth recommending, notably for the performances of Daniel Craig, quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, and Liev Schreiber. It's a moving tale of survival based on a little known true story from WWII that shouldn't disappoint. Just don't blink or it may already be out of theaters!

Rating: ***/****

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Devil at 4 O'Clock

Years before the disaster genre became popular in the 1970s with movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, a movie called The Devil at 4 O'Clock was released with all the makings of a disaster movie, good special effects, ensemble cast, and in this case, a less than happy Hollywood ending. I was kind of surprised reading the reviews for 'Devil' which were generally lukewarm, sometimes negative and rarely positive. It caught me off guard mostly because I really enjoyed it, especially after a somewhat slow first half hour.

In one of his later roles in his great career, Spencer Tracy plays Father Matthew Doonan, a priest on a remote Tahitian island who's lost his congregation. Years before, he helped build a children's hospital for lepers causing the citizens to basically shun him, even though the leprosy isn't contagious. But anyways, the damage is done, and after almost 20 years living and working on the island, a replacement, Father Joseph Perreau (Kerwin Matthews), is being sent to the island. Onboard Perrau's plane are three convicts on their way to a prison on Tahiti to serve 8-year sentences.

So after characters are introduced, everything hits the fan. The volcanic island comes to life, spewing lava and molten rock high into the air. Doonan insists on trying to get to the hospital before lava flows reach the children, but he can't find any help to get up there until the three convicts step up to the plate with hopes of having their sentences commuted. Frank Sinatra leads the three convicts as Harry, a self-proclaimed bum who falls for Camille (22-year old Barbara Luna), a blind woman working at the hospital. His partners are Marcel (Gregoire Aslan), a Frenchman who loves life and everything about it, and Charlie (Bernie Hamilton), a skeptic who's always had to look out for No. 1. As the lava makes its way down the mountain, can the unlikely group of four make it in time?

Most well known for his singing abilities, and rightfully so, Sinatra's acting career has always been underappreciated. With the right role, the Chairman of the Board got to show off his range, in dramatic parts like From Here to Eternity and straight action/adventure movies like Von Ryan's Express or thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate. This is one of those parts as Harry transforms from a down-and-out bum on his way to prison to a man looking to save those in serious danger.

Sure, parts of the movie drag on a little long, but the characters are believable and likable, even the convicts, and the Hawaiian locations don't hurt at all. The story deals with issues of faith, beliefs and principles without being preachy about it as well. It is a movie that has flown under the radar all these years, surprising when you consider the two leads in Tracy and Sinatra. It's not a perfect movie, but it's definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cat Ballou

Westerns have always been my favorite movies ever since I started watching John Wayne movies and Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. While I've tried to see as many as I can, one type of westerns has never appealed to me; comedy westerns. Sure, there are exceptions, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Blazing Saddles come to mind, but mostly I enjoy serious/dark westerns with some humor laced throughout the movie.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies though, I can add another likable comedy western to my list, 1965's Cat Ballou starring a pre-"Hanoi Jane" Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. The genre was a-struggling mightily by the mid 60s and this was before Leone's Dollars trilogy so Cat Ballou wasn't your typical shoot 'em up western. Fonda is Catherine "Cat Ballou, a young schoolteacher who turns to crime to get revenge for her father's death.

Reading that, you'd think it was a pretty dark western, but it's pretty much just the opposite thanks to two great parts by the same actor, Lee Marvin. Pretty much relegated to supporting parts and TV guest spots, Marvin got his big chance here in dual roles as Kid Sheleen, a drunken gunfighter past his prime, and Tim Strawn, a vicious killer who murdered Cat's father.

Here's Kid Shelleen's introduction

It was a part that earned Marvin his one and only Oscar nomination and win. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Jane Fonda was pretty easy on the eyes, and her role as Cat Ballou is one of her best. Cat Ballou caught me off-guard, but I can highly recommend it.

Lee Marvin ****/****

Cat Ballou ***/****

Monday, January 19, 2009

Charles Bronson is cooler than you; Netflix review: Mr. Majestyk

So after signing up with Netflix this summer, I've been catching up with a lot of movies that in the past I either couldn't find or couldn't afford. I pay about 10 bucks a month and see eight or nine movies a month if the mail cooperates. After watching the Death Wish movies on AMC last week, I was in a Charles Bronson state of mind so Mr. Majestyk went to the top of the queue.

Bronson plays Vince Majestyk, a Vietnam vet who now owns a 160-acre spread where he grows melons. It's harvest time and the crops needs to be brought in which leads to trouble when local a-hole Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) brings in his own crew to work Majestyk's fields for cheap. Vince is having none of that, and after a shotgun showdown, including a rifle butt to Kopas' crotch, he finds himself in jail.

Cue classic 70s villain Al Lettieri (The Godfather's Virgil Solozzo) as mafioso hit man Frank Renda. An escape attempt goes wrong, and Majestyk ends up on Renda's bad side. Majestyk now just wants to get his melon crop in before it's too late so he agrees with the evil "fuzz" to be bait to see if Renda will come back and finish him off.

All-around, a good Bronson action drama when the stone-faced actor was at the top of his game in the years following the first Death Wish. Bronson will never be called a great actor, but he was always a presence on screen, whether it be as a supporting part in John Sturges' 1959 WWII story 'Never So Few' or here when he was a bankable action star. He handles the action well, especially in the final shootout, and his attempts at humor work.

The rest of the cast is solid, especially Lettieri as the villain you love to hate. Linda Cristal (Flaca in John Wayne's The Alamo) is Nancy, a migrant worker who starts off working for Majestyk but ends up dating him, and Koslo as local troublemaker Bobby Kopas is a good counter to Lettieri's tough guy.

The DVD is a good buy, offering widescreen and standard presentations, with a short trailer the only special feature. Not a classic, but certainly worth a watch.

*** out of ****
Mr. Majestyk trailer from Youtube

Starting another blog.....part 27

Well, maybe it isn't 27 attempts, but it sure feels like it sometimes. I've attempted blogs before as part of classes, as a sports fan, and as an aspiring sports writer, but none seem to stick whether it's boredom or something important that takes up my time, like a new season of Rock of Love on VH1, you really can't go wrong with that show. My name is Tim, I'm 23 years old and live in Chicago. I write for a local paper, the SouthtownStar, as a stringer for the sports desk, and am hoping to catch on somewhere as a staff writer.

Stringer- Noun, a writer who does whatever is asked of him for little pay and is typically low on the totem pole. Benefits include being hassled by parents who disagree with what you write and gate attendants who think you're trying to chisel them out of $5.

Anywho, as you may have heard, the newspaper business is in trouble thanks to the beauties of the Internet. Lots of cuts, papers are shrinking, and sometimes disappearing completely, so as a writer almost two years of college, go Hoosiers, I've seen this happening. Everyone I talk to says go to the web, but that's easier said than done, and blogs don't pay so well. But anyways, here I am.....again.

I'll write a little bit of everything here, sports, movies, books, predictions for Rock of Love, that sort of thing, the big issues. Hope you enjoy it.