The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Young Billy Young

Starting his movie directing career in the mid 1960s, Burt Kennedy found a home in the western genre and rarely left it in a 20-year span. None of the Kennedy westerns are classic, far from it, but they are about the equivalent of the hour-long serials from the 1930s. Nothing groundbreaking with good guys tangling with some ornery bad guys, but they are always entertaining if nothing else.

Kennedy worked with a wide variety of tough guy actors in these westerns, including John Wayne, Glenn Ford, Henry Fonda, Ben Johnson, Yul Brynner, Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas and Robert Mitchum. Just like director Kennedy, many of these actors are remembered for their parts in westerns over the years. Mitchum especially never really left the western behind, joining with Kennedy for the 1969 oater Young Billy Young just two years removed from minor classic El Dorado.

Based loosely on a novel about Wyatt Earp's involvement with the Cowboy gang following the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Young Billy Young feels like a mash-up of several different stories all rolled into one. A great opening sequence has two young gunfighters, Billy Young (Robert Walker JR) and Jess Boone (David Carradine) sneaking onto a Mexican troop train and completing a hit on a Mexican general. In their escape, Jess abandons Billy when his horse throws up, and it's only by pure luck Billy escapes.

Billy makes it to the next town on the back of a burro, but it's not long before he guns down the town's sheriff for cheating in a card game. With some help from a gunfighter, Ben Kane (Mitchum), passing through town, Billy escapes a posse on his trail. He tags along with Ben who's on his way to a new job, working as a deputy in a roughshod town with no law and order run by slimy John Behan (Jack Kelly). The odds are against Ben, but he's got revenge on the mind as he looks for the man (John Anderson) who killed his son years ago in a jailbreak.

As if that wasn't enough, a saloon/dance hall girl, Lilly (Angie Dickinson), takes a shine to Kane, but Lilly is Behan's girl and doesn't take too nicely to Ben stepping in. There's more that is revealed in terms of plot twists that won't be spoiled here, but it's nothing too new that you won't have seen before. The only problem is that with all these different storylines about revenge and friendships and shootouts, the 89-minute running time is all sorts of convoluted. Maybe another 30 minutes could have served the movie better, but it's not a deal breaker.

Some characters get short-shrift, like Anderson's gunfighter who shows up in town, disappears for awhile, and then reappears with little warning for a final showdown with Mitchum (a disappointing end for that story). It would have been interesting to see two storylines, Billy and Jesse and then Ben's revenge dealt with exclusively, but what's there is entertaining nonetheless. It doesn't hurt that the movie was filmed in Old Tucson and looks great.

With the cast, Mitchum provides credibility just by being there. It's the type of part for the veteran star that he could do with no heavy lifting. He shows up, acts cool, shoots some baddies and gets the girl. Made the same year as he made Easy Rider, Walker JR gets a more mainstream role here as Billy who with Mitchum's older, more experienced gunfighter make a good old vs. young buddy pairing. Carradine's a good villain (when wasn't he?) while Kelly sneers as Behan, I guess loosely based on the real-life John Behan. In a role similar to her part 10 years earlier in Rio Bravo, Dickinson again plays a strong female character with a checkered past and even as little as she was height-wise is a good match with Mitchum.

So what's not to like with a western with a more than capable cast, some nice location shooting, plenty of gunfights, and Robert Mitchum singing the theme song? Maybe Burt Kennedy wasn't the best director around and one without much of a personal style, but he put together some exciting westerns during his career. Young Billy Young is certainly one of them, an oater that will keep you interested from start to finish.

Young Billy Young (1969): ** 1/2 / ****

Monday, September 28, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock's fascination with ice princess blondes is well-documented over the course of his career from Grace Kelly to Eve Marie Saint to Kim Novak. The director said blondes showed up better on the screen, and that if he used brunettes, the audience would be instantly suspicious of them. Of the three mentioned above, I enjoyed the movie or movies they were in, but with one Hitchcock blonde, Tippi Hedren, I just don't understand her appeal.

Early in her career, Hedren didn't make that many movies, but two she made with Hitchcock rise above everything else she did, The Birds and Marnie. Her character was annoying in The Birds, but the movie as a whole made up for it so I was able to look past my initial dislike for the character. Not so easy with Marnie which rests almost solely on her performance.

Hedren plays Margaret 'Marnie' Edgar, a woman in her late 20s who moves around to the bigger cities on the east coast, gets a job in an office, and after a few weeks on the job proceeds to rob the office safe. Getting away with several thousands dollars, she sends some to her mother (Louise Latham) and then moves on to another job. But after a handful of successful jobs, Marnie pushes her luck to far and is caught by her boss, Mark Rutland (Sean Connery).

Completely under his power as to what Mark can do, Marnie has no way to escape. Mark presents two options, one, go to the police and turn her in, or two, marry her because (GASP!) he's fallen in love with her and try to figure out why she's a compulsive thief. That's not all that's bothering Marnie though, she freaks out when she sees anything red, and she won't let any man touch her, not to mention all she wants is a hug from her mother.

The movie builds and builds to this big revelation but doesn't really offer anything to keep the audience excited or even interested in the meantime. At over 2 hours -- runtime of 131 minutes -- this is a dialogue-heavy movie as Connery's Mark tries to unravel the mystery that is his frigid wife Marnie. It just feels like a lazy effort from Hitchcock with Marnie's tendencies and phobias introduced early and just repeated over and over again until it's time to reveal the twist.

When the twist does come, it's not much of a surprise at all. SPOILERS It's basically a rehash of Psycho, and it's been hinted at the whole movie. If you haven't figured out that something traumatic happened to Marnie during her childhood about halfway through, you're probably not paying attention. Maybe it was shocking at the time, but watching it over 40 years later, it comes across as ho-hum. If nothing else, the flashback reveal does give a young Bruce Dern one of his first movie appearances.

On to my feelings on Hedren. Kelly, Saint, and Novak, among others, all had something that made them likable onscreen. Kelly is probably the most similar to Hedren with her prim and proper attitude, but there was something personable about the future Princess of Monaco. With Hedren, you just get this high and mighty holier than thou feeling. And because she's in basically every scene in the movie, it can be a bit of a drag with her overacting and wooden deliveries combining into one behemoth.

Looking at Hitchcock's career as a director, he made over 50 feature films and most of them are considered classics or at the least high-quality thriller and suspense movies. But with Marnie, I just didn't understand its appeal. It is slow-moving from the beginning, and the performances come across as too stagey. I'll stick with Psycho or North By Northwest until someone convinces me otherwise about this clunker.

Marnie <---trailer (1964): * 1/2 /****

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Golden Compass

Is there a harder task when it comes to making movies than turning a book, a respected and much-loved book, into a big screen movie? First, there's almost no way to appease all the fans because there's no way you can do everything right. Second, many books would be better presented as a miniseries with plenty of time to develop plotlines and characters. Unfortunately, 2007's The Golden Compass falls into the category of a less than successful translation from book to big screen.

Just last week I finished the first book of author Phillip Pullman's trilogy dubbed His Dark Materials on a recommendation from my aunt and cousin. I typically avoid series like this, Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia, Twilight, but this one sounded interesting. It takes place in a universe similar to ours in a time that's hard to classify (Victorian England, early 1900s maybe?) that is full of great characters, an exciting story and a darkness to the proceedings that surprised me. Unfortunately, the movie struggled to deal with the story.

For one, director Chris Weitz says he shot enough footage for a 2.5-3 hour movie, but the final running time is a crisp 113 minutes. In other words, a lot of the story got left on the cutting room floor. There is a ton of potential in Weitz's movie, but it never lives up to what it could be. A 3-hour movie could have helped remedy this, but as is the story is muddled at best, characters go in and out for long stretches of time with little development, and the ending is changed pretty drastically from the book's ending which comes as a complete surprise and a perfect springboard for the rest of the series, which I am looking forward to reading. The plot description's going to be a doozy so brace yourself.

Living at Jordan College in England, Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan, a young girl growing up without a care in the world as she explores the college and city with her friend, Roger (Ben Walker). One day her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) comes to visit her but to also ask the college for funds for a trip to the North Pole to explore a route to other worlds. Lyra desperately wants to go along, but Asriel refuses and leaves her behind. But strange things are happening, children are disappearing, including Roger, with no clues left behind as to what happened. For Lyra, a beautiful, polished woman of the world, Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) shows up asking if she'd like to be her assistant. Before she leaves, the president of the college pulls Lyra aside and gives her something, a Golden Compass, a device that can reads people's true intentions.

Everything is not so rosy as it seems with Mrs. Coulter, and it's not long before Lyra and her daemon (soul in animal form) Pantalaimon (voice of Freddie Highmore) must escape and head to the north in search of Roger and the other lost children. Along the way, she meets a variety of characters including John Faa (Jim Carter), Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay) and the Gyptian people, Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), a Texan aeronaut, Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), a helpful witch, and Iorek Byrnison (voice of Ian McKellen), an armoured bear exiled from Svalbard, home of the bear kingdom.

Overwhelmed much? I read the book, and I'm a little overwhelmed at the amount of information thrown out there in the story. The obvious difference is that Pullman's book has a lot more time and space to introduce these many characters whereas the movie has about 2 hours to get this all accomplished. It's a shame because the casting is strong across the board. As Lyra, 13-year old Richards was a perfect choice. Craig makes the most of a small appearance as Asriel, and Kidman as Coulter is a nice twist on the typical character she plays. McKellen's voice didn't work for me as Iorek, but an armoured polar bear? Still cool. Sam Elliott is as always, very cool, as Scoresby.

Reviewing this movie is tough because there is A LOT going on, and a lot I could complain about from the overuse of CGI to the alterations to the story and the order it is dealt with to the different ending. Big picture is this, the movie as is in its 2-hour form is not very good. I don't know how much better a 2.5 or 3 hour movie could be, but it certainly couldn't hurt. I'd say give Pullman's book a try and then give the movie a try, not the other way around.

And I feel like I have to mention the Catholic Church's objection to this movie which I think is ridiculous. The Catholic Church is that paranoid guy who thinks everyone is always talking about him regardless of whether they actually are. In this case, a thinly veiled dig at the Church has a "Magisterium" trying to make its believers follow blindly with no thought. Like I said with the objections to the Da Vinci Code, if anyone takes their beliefs from a movie or a book, basically a work of fiction, the Church has bigger issues to worry about. End of rant.

The Golden Compass <----trailer (2007): **/****

Friday, September 25, 2009

Buck and the Preacher

Just more proof that studios don't have to rely solely on remakes and rehashes? 1972's Buck And the Preacher, a western documenting the story of former slaves moving west in the years following the Civil War. It's a unique story that I can't even think of a similar movie to compare it to. But no, we get remakes of remakes or high quality movies like 'I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell' which I haven't seen but feel safe saying it's not an instant classic. The stories are out there, studios just have to find them.

In his directorial debut, star Sidney Poitier presents a story unique in both its presentation and characters. But before I get long-winded, it all boils down to this; the story of African American families moving west for a new, better life following the Civil War. Westerns so often focus on the gunfighters and the Indian wars that stories like this get lost in the shuffle. Black characters are often supporting characters or in the background but not here. The main characters are all black, and to be honest I can't think of another western even remotely like it.

Trail guide Buck (Poitier) makes his money guiding wagon trains of black families west with hopes of establishing them with new lives in their new found freedom. The memories of the Civil War are still fresh in people's minds and maybe more importantly, the prejudices and racism still exist. Group of riders called 'Nightriders' harass and terrorize these wagon trains, shooting them up and scaring them into heading back east. One particular group, led by a man named Deshay (Cameron Mitchell), attacks one of Buck's trains leaving them with no money and little food to last out the coming winter.

Forced to work together with a con man preacher (Harry Belafonte) he keeps crossing trails with, Buck must think of some way to not only get money for the stranded wagon train but also avoid Deshay and his men. The unlikely duo is forced to take drastic measures, enlisting the help of Buck's wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) along the way as Deshay's murdering posse closes in to finish them off.

A buddy movie rolled together with a story that actually has to say something worthwhile, Buck and the Preacher was a pleasant surprise for me. Reading about it in advance, I got the sense it was a comedy, and while there are several funny moments, it's much more of a serious drama. Poitier as Buck is the typical western hero, resolute in his plans and a man who's word is as good as gold. He will stop at nothing to help the people he's promised to lead. Belafonte gets the scenery-chewing role as the Preacher, a man always ready with a Bible verse but who will also pull a gun on you if need be. Their uneasy friendship/alliance is a pleasure to watch from beginning to end, and in some ways reminded me of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with their bickering.

Background information is slowly filtered out about Belafonte's character, but even then it is a hard character to read. He is clearly out to help himself, others be damned, but when backed into a corner he fights as hard as anyone else. The finale is a good one as Buck and the Preacher seem to be cornered on a rocky summit with a posse quickly surrounding them. As Buck's wife Ruth, Dee is a strong presence with Poitier. It's a small role, but just like her husband, Ruth is willing to stand up for what's right when the time comes. As the villain, Mitchell isn't given much to do other than look menacing, which he pulls off well.

Other important supporting parts include Enrique Lucero and Julie Robinson (Belafonte's wife in real life) as an Indian chief and wife who is a somewhat unwilling ally of Buck. While the movie's focus is on the black families moving west, it's interesting to see the interaction with the Indians. It's two different groups of people, but in many ways they are very similar in the way they were treated by other cultures, especially whites. It's just one more aspect of a unique, interesting western with a message. Definitely give this one a shot.

Buck and the Preacher <----trailer (1972): ***/****

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Magnificent Seven recapping

Some movie fans have the Star Wars series or others the Lord of the Rings epics. Me, I go in a different direction from the sci-fi epic. Westerns have always appealed to me ever since I started watching John Wayne movies or reading Lous L'Amour stories. So I'll pass on those science fiction series and stick with the Magnificent Seven series instead.

Looking at all four movies, made between 1960 and 1972 with Elmer Bernstein's musical score the only common link among the four, it's easy to rank them. There's the original, 1960's The Magnificent Seven, which is a classic and consistently ranks among the top 10 westerns ever made and for good reason. The cast is full of up and coming actors like Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn and is anchored by the always steady Yul Brynner.

It's sort of a mix between the old school westerns of the 1940s and 1950s and a preview of what was to come in the 1960s when there was more of a middle ground with westerns. There weren't always good guys vs. bad guys. The original doesn't show these gunfighters as romantic characters, instead portraying them as men drifting through a life that is empty with little to hold them in one place.

To be fair, the three sequels all explore those ideas, some more successfully than others, but the trio of movies goes through quite a transformation. Brynner leaves after one more movie, 1966's Return of the Magnificent Seven, only to be replaced by George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef, both leaving their own personal imprint on the Chris Adams character. Each movie puts together a new group of seven gunfighters and ultimately ends up killing off about half of them, but more on that later.

What I like so much about these movies is they try hard to get the idea of the wild west across. Maybe it's a romantic ideal of what the wild west could or should have been in my head, but it's something I like to look for in westerns. In each group of seven, the less than perfect gunfighters join up for any number of reasons, but usually come around to one thing. They're doing something right after years of doing what they wanted to or needed to do. The odds are always against them, but they have a chance to do something on principle, something they can believe in. The cost is a pricey one for these gunfighters with many of them getting killed in the process, but they chose to stay and see things out until the end.

All other things with story and action aside, I like these movies so much because of the casting. The original speaks for itself in terms of the stars it produced, but the genre formula of a team of specialists/experts allowed some pretty cool groups of actors to work together. They weren't all big stars, some were just really solid western character actors, but in most cases they made the most of the parts. Where else could you see a list of performers like Brynner, McQueen, Coburn, Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and then Eli Wallach as the villain? And that's just the original. Onto the sequels, you get Warren Oates, Claude Akins, James Whitmore, Kennedy, Monte Markham, Reni Santoni, Bernie Casey, Joe Don Baker, Luke Askew, Pedro Armendariz JR, and Van Cleef.

Now with all that seriousness out of the way, I do have to bring something up about the Chris Adams character over the course of the 4 movies. Let's go with the assumption that he's the same character even if he's played by 3 different actors. So he assembles 4 groups of seven for a total of 23 different men. When all is said and done, 15 of the 23 are dead (I won't spoil who). You'd think sooner or later word would get around that maybe these jobs this Chris fellow is selling aren't worth it. "Yeah, sure, here's $20, wanna go get shot up in a suicide mission?" Ah, just me rambling with something I've always wondered about, I still love 'em.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): ****/****
Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) ***/****
Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966): ** 1/2 /****
The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972): * 1/2 / ****

And one more thing I have to point out, what movie fans have been clamoring for all these years. A remake of The Magnificent Seven done in...LEGOS! I'd say something about someone having too much time on their hands, but who am I kidding? I sat down and watched the whole thing. The scary part? It's pretty dead on. Enjoy.

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four

Attack Force Z

Can a movie having a cheap budget actually be a good thing? Maybe with less expectations heading in, moviegoers enjoy a movie more when a B-movie lives up to or exceeds the already low expectations. I know I look at big Hollywood blockbusters differently than I do a cheapie B-movie because it's unfair to compare the two. An Australian WWII movie, 1982's Attack Force Z, was clearly made on the cheap, and while not a classic, certainly provides some bang for your buck.

Relatively unknown in the U.S., 'Attack' has achieved a bit of a cult following since its release, not because of the quality of the movie, but because of the casting with Mel Gibson and Sam Neill having starring roles. Gibson had been in a handful of movies already but was not well known to audiences yet with and Mad Max not yet released in the U.S.. Neill similarly was an up and comer in the Australian movie industry. If you pick this movie up because you stumble upon these two names, like me, it's certainly interesting to see these two not-yet stars in an early role.

Based on an actual incident in WWII, 'Attack' tells one story of a Force Z, an Australian commando unit, stationed in the Pacific. It's late in the war in 1945 when a five-man commando team is dropped off by submarine at a Japanese held island. Their mission is simple; find a plane that crashed in the days before several miles inland. An important passenger that could quicken the end of the war was on board, and the commandos must either rescue him or make sure he's dead. With some help from the local resistance, the commandos start the search and rescue mission amidst Japanese patrols all around.

At a brisk 90 minutes or so, this is not a movie with a lot of back story about characters, plot, and the general context of the war. The objective of their mission isn't even revealed until almost an hour in. With little time to waste, a good share of war movie cliches are used to keep the story moving. From those cliches though, the movie doesn't pull any punches. Just minutes after the opening credits, one of the team is wounded and is killed by his own team so he won't fall into enemy hands. The message is one is safe and any one of the remaining four could be next.

Going to the cliches, we get a variety of characters in the team. Gibson is Capt. Kelly, an inexperienced officer leading his first mission and therefore trying to prove himself as a leader. John Phillip Law plays Lt. Jan Viech, a Dutch soldier joining the Australians who falls for a local girl, Chien Hua (Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang in a solid part) with Neill starring as Sgt. Danny Costello, an experienced commando who is starting to question the actual effect these missions have on the course of the war. Rounding out the team are Chris Haywood as Sparrer Bird, the radioman, and John Waters (no, not that John Waters) as Lt. King. Chun Hsiung Ko plays Lin, the local resistance leader helping out the team who is also more than capable of handling himself in a fight.

Even in a situation ripe with tension -- five men moving through a jungle crawling with Japanese soldiers -- the movie lacks a certain energy early on. The commando team gets split up, but there's never a sense of urgency on the mission, and when the twist is revealed as to who they're trying to save there's never any explanation as to how the man's going to end the war, he just will apparently. Shot on location in Taiwan, the locations feel authentic with a sense of claustrophobia as the jungle seemingly closes in, but something is missing that I can't quite put my finger on.

With the mission though, the action starts from the beginning. With a smallish budget, these aren't huge battle spectacles, instead they're small skirmishes with the team shooting it out against roaming Japanese patrols. The finale is exciting and well-shot by director Tim Burstall as the commandos team with the resistance to fight the Japanese in the cramped, winding roads and alleys of a village near their getaway. The ending delivers another twist, and the shootout isn't a glamorous one. The commandos aren't superheroes who are invincible in battle, like in war these men can be shot and killed. Too often movies forget that, and make the characters Rambo-like heroes, but not here as the commando team dwindles down late.

Not a movie I loved but one I'd recommend to war movie afficionados. It's interesting to see up and coming actors like Mel Gibson and Sam Neill in early starring roles, and there's enough small-scale action to keep you interested until the shootout in the finale. I couldn't find a trailer at Youtube, but here's a couple scenes for your viewing pleasure, one and two, no major SPOILERS to worry about.

Attack Force Z (1982): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Magnificent Seven Ride!

Probably the darkest and most cynical of the four movies, 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride! is undone by any number of things starting from the apparently very cheap budget which affects the sets, the story, and surprisingly enough, the musical score from composer Elmer Bernstein. Ah, who knows? Maybe the studio thought adding an exclamation point in the title would fix all those problems. Close, but no cigar United Artists.

A good place to start is with the story/script. It's basically two movies which if done separately might have been good, or at least two hour-long TV shows. But of course, that might be too easy to do. My main issue though is simple, the new Magnificent Seven aren't even introduced as a group until an hour into the movie. Say what you want about the first three Mag7 movies, but Chris in anyone of his forms was putting together each group of 7 within the first 15 minutes or so. Not so here which starts a completely different storyline before even getting to a new group of specialists.

Now with a badge on his shirt, Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) is a marshal in a small western town with a new bride, Arilla (Mariette Hartley). Chris has built himself up quite a reputation as a tough law officer, but his wife convinces him to let go of a young prisoner she believes made one bad mistake. He does, but the boy joins a gang and during a bank robbery, they kidnap Arilla and ride out. Chris, joined by a writer, Noah Forbes (Michael Callan) trying to document his heroics, head out after the gang, only to find Arilla raped and murdered and the trio of youngsters split up.

Out on the trail looking for them, Chris meets an old friend, also now a sheriff, who is trying to stop a bandit and his gang from attacking their town. Chris declines the invitation to help, and it's not long before the friend and his posse are shot down. Feeling guilt for what he chose not to do, Chris finds the town, sans men, now occupied by just the widows, including Stefanie Powers (with some big 70s hair too) with the gang's return seemingly imminent. With no other option, Chris and Noah recruit five prisoners from the Tucson Territorial Prison (think crappy Dirty Dozen story) to help them defend the town.

The Seven: Van Cleef is an interesting choice to replace Yul Brynner and George Kennedy as Chris. A huge star because of his success in Europe, Van Cleef brings an edge to the character we haven't seen before. For him after losing his wife, he plans the town's defense like a suicide mission fulling expecting to die in the process. An interesting twist on the character for sure. In the quasi-McQueen sidekick part, Callan plays Noah as a whiny, cheap writer who questions Chris' actions, only to...gasp...come around in the end. It could have been a cool character to add to the mix, but Callan comes across as just plain annoying.

Now for the Mag7: Convict Style which seems like an easy way to keep the story moving by taking an idea from a different movie. Making it worse, none of the five convicts are developed much at all. There's Skinner (Luke Askew) and Pepe (Pedro Armendariz Jr), two gunfighters who'd like nothing more than kill Chris, Walt (William Lucking), the strong, silent type good with a shotgun, Hayes (James Sikking), a former Confederate officer adept at planning battle strategy, and Elliott (Ed Lauter in his first movie), the explosives expert. The only ones making much of an impression are Askew and Armendariz, more so because they act cool than any sort of development they have.

The "Villain": In the original, Eli Wallach's Calvera is introduced, disappears for an hour and then returns with a vengeance late. In 'Ride!' the lead bandit has one line the whole movie (a classic delivery of 'Vamanos!' if you ask me) and is played by acting powerhouse Ron Stein, a stuntman known for his parts in the Planet of the Apes TV series as 'First Gorilla.' The villain is totally wasted here and not a presence at all.

Another test of how good/bad movies can be is the groan test. How many times watching the movie do you groan at some cheesy line, horrible special effect, or set falling apart in the background? This one has its fair share including my personal favorite, 'I, Chris, degrade your woman!' in a message to Stein's De Toro character. Also, the widows left in town were gang-raped by De Toro's men and just found out their husbands are all dead. They sure cozy up to these new men awful quick, including Chris (wife raped and killed) snuggling up with Stefanie Powers (gang-raped, husband murdered, has to care for children...) days after all the bad news hits. Now that's a good script.

Besides the lack of a good story, the film has the look of a made-for-TV movie because it was filmed in the Hollywood backlots on a variety of generic looking sets straight out of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. The positive to take away is the final battle as De Toro and his men finally attack the town, but even then it's a measured positive. We know little to nothing about these men, but are supposed to feel something for them when they begin to drop like flies? Yeah, good luck with that. A disappointment all around and a sorry end to the four Magnificent Seven movies.

The Magnificent Seven Ride! <----trailer (1972): * 1/2 / ****

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

National Treasure

Following the huge mega enormous success of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, it wasn't long before any number of similar adventure stories with a historical edge were on the market, in books, on TV and of course at the movies. Some were clearly rush jobs to capitalize on the success, but others were done right and benefited from it, like 2004's National Treasure.

With a very similar style to Da Vinci Code, National Treasure is a never slow down, rocket paced adventure story with a historical background. When comparing movies, 'Treasure' is light years ahead of the movie version of Da Vinci Code which just took itself too seriously. The Disney-backed movie doesn't have to worry about that with over the top, ridiculous action and bad guys that never seem that scary.

Of course any movie with Nicolas Cage in the lead automatically gives a movie a bit of the tongue in cheek feel to the proceedings. How couldn't it with the actor's great delivery of cheesy one-liners and a constant need for Cage to run at some point during the movie? No two ways about it, these are the roles Cage is perfect for. He's not so much acting as playing himself, or at least what I like to think he's like in real life.

Cage plays Benjamin Franklin Gates who as a pre-teen is told by his grandfather (Christopher Plummer, perfect in a one-scene cameo) about a treasure dating back to ancient times that's been involved and moved through history over the last several thousand years. First, it was the Egyptians, then the Knights Templar in the Crusades and then the Freemasons once the treasure apparently reached the U.S. The Gates family has spent almost 200 years searching for this mythical treasure, and Benjamin, now an experienced treasure hunter, seems to be getting closer to it.

Following a clue to the Arctic Circle with millionaire and all-around questionably moral millionaire Ian Howe (Sean Bean), Ben finds another clue that says the map to the treasure is on the back of the Declaration of Independence. After a falling out with explosions of course, it's a race between Ben and his sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) against Ian and his henchmen as to who can get steal the Declaration first. The movie from there on out is basically one big chase with elements of a heist movie thrown in for good measure.

The chase takes Ben and Riley to Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York and a couple hidden locations in those cities that I won't spoil here. Trying to steal the Declaration, they also pick up a 3rd member, Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), a fellow history geek working as a supervisor at the National Archives, and a 4th, Ben's dad (Jon Voight) That's part of the fun though, instead of just an exciting chase movie, you get an exciting chase movie with history which is fun to see even if it's not historically true.

Director Jon Turtletaub filmed in all those cities at locations like the Archives, the Lincoln Memorial, Independence Hall, and even a chase below New York City. Could I tell you half of what the clues were? Nope, I don't even remember them. The story moves so fast it's hard to keep up. Keep this in mind, Cage is the good guy and Bean is the bad guy. And dddddone.

Because it is a fun Disney action movie, you have to know there's a happy ending. Even the FBI agent, Sadusky (Harvey Keitel), tracking them down is a pretty amiable guy. Bean is good as the semi-menacing villain meant to look meaner than his character actually is. As I said before, Cage is pitch perfect, Bartha gets all the good one-liners as the smart ass sidekick, and Kruger looks good in a part that doesn't require her to do much more. Voight similarly looks to be having a ball with his fun supporting role.

Here's another review that might sound negative, and it definitely qualifies as a guilty pleasure, but it's a non-stop thrill ride that's a lot of fun. Shut the old brain off for 2 hours and enjoy. The actors seem to be having as much fun on-screen as we're supposed to be watching it, and that always helps. Good old-fashioned action/adventure with some cool historical elements added into the mix.

National Treasure <----trailer (2004): ***/****

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Guns of the Magnificent Seven

Now this may just be me, but George Kennedy doesn't resemble Yul Brynner too much. After two Magnificent Seven movies with Brynner as the star, the third movie starred a new 'Chris' leading a new 7, Kennedy. Of course the posters over at IMDB have to nail this down. So is he the same character? A different man named Chris? Did he undergo extensive plastic surgery? Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea.

Three years removed from Return of the Magnificent Seven comes director Paul Wendkos' take on the popular series, 1969's Guns of the Magnificent Seven. It's a departure from the first two movies with Kennedy, a year removed from his Oscar from Cool Hand Luke, stepping into the saddle. But where 'Return' was basically a rehash of the original classic, 'Guns' gets points for originality both in story and casting. Also, having Elmer Bernstein's score doesn't hurt, especially with some new notes in the music.

Deep in Mexico, a revolutionary leader, Quintero (Fernando Rey) is captured by a sadistic Mexican colonel, Diego (Michael Ansara), who runs a prison that resembles a fortress more than anything else. One of Quintero's most loyal followers, Maximilliano (Reni Santoni) heads north to look for help in getting Quintero out of prison before it's too late. In a border town, Max finds a man named Chris (Kennedy) who's in the process of saving another man, Keno (Monte Markham), from a lynch mob. Chris agrees to help out and assembles a group of specialists to help him in the prison break. They seek help from a local bandit Lobero (Frank Silvera) and his gang -- quite a change of pace since the 1st one, huh? -- but the odds still seem impossible.

The Seven: Kennedy is more than capable of handling the lead role, and while he doesn't look like Brynner at all, he brings the same characteristics to the part; loyal, honest, and always willing to stand up for the downtrodden. As for the other six, this is by far the most unique group when comparing the three sequels. Markham as Keno, the Steve McQueen right hand man role, isn't given a ton to do after his introduction, but as a right hand man, he does what he's supposed to; look cool while helping the leader. Santoni's Max is a youngster with little fighting experience but who wants nothing more than to join the fight.

In adding a black character, Bernie Casey's Cassie, a dynamite expert, the dimension of race is added and even more so with another member of the seven, Slater (Joe Don Baker), a one-armed Confederate gunslinger. Cassie and Slater would seem to have nothing in common, but a friendship develops when they realize how similar they really are. James Whitmore, as solid as ever, plays Levi, an aging knife fighter who's settled down with a family but takes the job for the $. Adding some depth to the character, Levi bonds with Emil (Tony Davis), a young Mexican boy looking for his father. Unfortunately, the 7th member, P.J. (Scott Thomas) receives little development which is a shame because a expert gunfighter/rope thrower dying of tuberculosis has some potential.

The Villain: A definite step up here after Emilio Fernandez's part in 'Return.' Michael Ansara plays Diego to a T. He's a sadistic commandant trying to snuff out the revolution in his district no matter what the cost, especially when it comes to torturing his prisoners. One torture scene midway through the movie shows a creative way to take care of prisoners, bury them in sand up to their throats and then trample and suffocate them with horses walking all around them. Ansara's Diego isn't as developed as much as Calvera or Lorca, but he's just a straight bad guy and sometimes that's all you need.

Some critics said this movie is too slow-going and to be fair, there isn't a ton of action. But really, none of these movies are action-packed. Characters are introduced, we get to know them, and then throw in the action so that when some of the 7 do eventually die, their deaths mean something emotionally. The finale in 'Guns' is on par with the shootout at the end of the original. Finally ready for their assault, Chris leads the 7 and a small group of farmers in an attack on Diego's prison, dubbed the 'Cave of the Rats,' and his 200-man garrison.

It's loud, chaotic and violent, and completely different from the rest of the series. For one, the 7 go on the attack instead of waiting to be attacked against larger numbers. Second, two characters are killed almost at the outset of the battle, and for awhile it looks like the plan might actually fail. Semi-SPOILER I'm convinced Max was supposed to die, he gets absolutely riddled by at least 3 Mexican soldiers, but he's there at the end, apparently just wounded. This would have been the first Mag7 movie to kill 5 of the 7 END OF SPOILER. The attack is a great action sequence from start to finish, and the prison set looks pretty cool too, and even with some other surprises as to who survives and who doesn't to keep you guessing.

A worthy sequel to the original for sure. It does justice in every way while still putting its own spin on a familiar story. Good casting and a strong script that really fleshes out the new members of the Magnificent Seven with a great, action-packed finale. Next up...the finale, The Magnificent Seven Ride!

Guns of the Magnificent Seven <----trailer (1969): ***/**** (Best tagline ever: 7 Against 700; They Just Couldn't Lose!) MASSIVE SPOILERS: Cool fan-made video breaking movie down

Saddle the Wind

With my review a couple weeks back of Duel in the Sun, I pointed out how much certain westerns seem related to many Greek tragedies. When you think about it, it's pretty easy to turn one into the other. As families spread across the U.S. in the 1800s, just about everybody had problems/conflicts that could only be resolved amongst the members of the family. Before westerns got too cynical in the 1960s, many American westerns used the Greek tragedy formula, including 1958's Saddle the Wind.

The key to pulling off that transformation from Greek tragedy to the wild west is in the relationships. 'Saddle' has this in a quasi-love triangle between two brothers who own a ranch in a mountain valley and the saloon girl one of the brothers brings home to be his wife. It's the type of story that if you can't predict how it ends, you definitely have not seen enough movies or read enough books. Director Robert Parrish and writer Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone do just enough with the story though to make it different, including a twist on the ending you can see coming a mile off.

In a lush, green mountain valley, two ranch owners live peacefully, Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), a grizzled old rancher who has come to despise violence and everything it brings, and Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor), a reformed gunfighter trying to move on from his checkered, bloody past. Coming back from selling part of their herd, Steve's younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes) returns home with a fiance in tow, a saloon girl, Joan Blake (Julie London) who supposedly sees a better life than she's used to. Tony has also purchased a new pistol with a hair-trigger to boot.

Everything seems fine at the Sinclair's Double S ranch but in the span of a few days, two people arrive in town, both causing trouble in their own way. There's Larry Venables (Charles McGraw), a gunslinger as fast as Steve's ever seen gunning for the older Sinclair, and Clay Ellison (Royal Dano), a former Union soldier who says part of the valley rightfully belongs to him. Steve is forced to deal not only with these two problems, but also from Deneen and then his hot-tempered younger brother.

The family conflict comes across as authentic with a nice dynamic between Taylor and Cassavetes. Steve grew up caring for his younger brother, who in the process started to idolize his gunfighting older brother and now that he's full grown, he intends to be just as fast with a six-gun as Steve. Tony's intentions are good, he just wants to protect his brother (who doesn't wear a gun now), but caught up in the moment, a new side of him is revealed. Thrown into the mix is London's saloon girl who quickly sees maybe she didn't make a wise decision siding with fiery Tony.

Except for his lead role in Bataan, I've never been a huge fan of Taylor. He comes across as too wooden sometimes, but his role as Steve is the best I've seen yet. The reformed gunslinger is nothing new in a western, but Taylor brings humanity to the part as a man who genuinely regrets his past actions. As for Tony, who better to play hot-tempered, quick on the trigger brother than Cassavetes? Bordering on the obsessed with his drive, Cassavetes is the anger to Taylor's calm. London plays a strong woman, too often left behind in westerns, and even gets to serenade Cassavetes in an awkward, out of place scene.

There aren't any true villains here, but McGraw and Dano at least provide the lighter fluid for this fire. Gravelly voiced McGraw is intimidating and gruff as the new gunslinger in town and Dano as the beaten-down farmer looking to make something for his family provide strong support. Crisp makes the most of his part as the stodgy old ranch owner while recognizable character actors Richard Erdman, Ray Teal, and Douglas Spencer round out the supporting cast.

As is the case with the more story-oriented westerns, the action/gunplay is left by the wayside for most of the movie. Two gunfights are high on tension, but they're over in the blink of an eye, and the final shootout isn't much of a shootout at all. This isn't a complaint, I just felt the need to point it out so anyone watching the movie isn't expecting 100 minutes of western shootouts. It's a well-told story though with believable characters and good performances from Taylor, Cassavetes, and London. I couldn't find a trailer, but here's two scenes from later in the movie with semi-SPOILERS, one and two.

Saddle the Wind (1958): ***/****

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Violent City

Charles Bronson's career can be broken down into two easy categories, a pre-mustache stage and a with-mustache stage. In the early half of his career, Bronson played roles with some depth that allowed him to show off his range. But in the late 60s sometime after Once Upon a Time in the West, a nicely maintained mustache showed up and from then on in, Bronson became more well known as a vigilante with any number of movie roles.

Of course it's not fair to say Bronson was a one-trick pony, he made some quality movies in the 70s, but the role of a vigilante is surely what he was typecast as in the second half of his career. He was also pretty adept at playing the stone-faced tough guy, like in 1970's Violent City, an Italian crime thriller based and shot in New Orleans. This was the first of two hitman movies he would make, including the much-better The Mechanic several years later.

There are problems here that stem from the location shooting with director Sergio Sollima admitting he loves shooting in America on the DVD special features. And to his credit, Sollima found some unique spots for his location shooting. But in too many sequences, he's clearly in love with the city and just wants to show it off. One sequence that goes on too long has Bronson boating through the swampy marshlands outside the city. It serves no real purpose other than to show the area and in the process slows the movie down to a halt.

Bronson plays Jeff Heston, a freelance hitman. He's hired by a race car driver (who's not even in the cast listing now that I look) to perform a hit, but in the aftermath, his employer turns on Heston. Before he's arrested, Jeff discovers this and plans to get revenge on his boss and girlfriend, Vanessa (Jill Ireland), who looks to be involved in the double-cross. Jeff does his time in prison and is released only to find more problems have come up. Vanessa is now married to a New Orleans mafioso, Weber (Telly Savalas), who wants Jeff's services as a hit man for the sake of 'the family.' A lifelong 'orphan,' Jeff wants nothing to do with the mob and has to fend for his life as he plots his revenge. I'll give Italian crime thrillers and spaghetti westerns their due, they don't take the easy ending too much.

Nothing new here with the revenge plot and a fair share of betrayals and double crosses. Sollima starts things off with a bang though, a wordless 10-minute car chase in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands that wraps up with a nice little shoot-out SPOILERS sort of, it's the start of the movie. The complete lack of dialogue works in the opening scenes, but in subsequent scenes, the lack of conversation is noticeable and not in a good way. Another chase, this time on foot through New Orleans, takes place about halfway through, but up until the finale Violent City is somewhat short on action.

Bronson had his fair share of critics during his career, but I'm not one of them. With the right part, he could really show off his chops. He wasn't just a tough guy, but he so often played parts like that people forget what he could actually do. This isn't his best role, but he is still a strong lead. Bronson's wife Ireland starred with him in 16 movies by my count, and while she's not the greatest actress overall, this is one of her better ones. So often playing prim and proper, Ireland plays the femme fatale to perfection. In a large cameo role, Savalas hams it up as the mafioso trying to hire Bronson.

It is an Italian crime thriller so what would it be without a score from Ennio Morricone? Listen to more of it here and here. Sollima said Morricone fell asleep during a screening of the movie, but when he turned in the score it was just right for the story and tone of the movie. With a movie like this that I had some trouble getting into, Morricone's score certainly helped. Good performances from the three leads, strong Morricone score, some good action, and a surprising ending. Not a great movie, but an enjoyable enough way to spend 100 minutes.

Violent City <----trailer (1970): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Return of the Magnificent Seven

Made six years after the original, 1966's Return of the Magnificent Seven might as well been made 60 years after the original. Westerns were no longer the rage in the U.S. so the sequel was filmed in Spain and has much more the feel of the spaghetti western genre. The only returning actor, Yul Brynner, leads the cast with two new actors portraying characters who survived the original, and Elmer Bernstein's score comes back as well. And while it doesn't have the same depth or charm as the original, the first Mag7 movie is still a good one.

The sequel picks up 10 years after the conclusion of the first movie. Chico (Julian Mateos instead of Horst Buchholz) is still living in the village he helped save with his wife Petra (Elisa Montes) and son. But one day, a gang of bandits ride into the village and basically kidnap every male and march them out into the desert. Petra goes for help, finding Chris (Brynner) in a nearby border town. Assembling a new group of seven, with Vin (Robert Fuller instead of Steve McQueen), Chris rides south to rescue Chico and the other men from the village.

What they find is a small city being built in the middle of the desert, the workings of an eccentric rancher, Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernandez). Lorca needs all these men to build the town and most importantly, a church, in honor of his two sons who were killed on the location during a recent uprising. Chris and the six bully Lorca out of the way, but the Mexican rancher won't go quietly, forcing the Mag7 to hole up and try to defeat Lorca and all his gunhands.

The new Magnificent Seven: With two more sequels to go, I'll get this out of the way now. You can't cast a movie with the caliber of actors that were in the first one. Brynner is back, and we do get some background information on him which is cool to find out about. McQueen was reportedly offered the part of Vin but chose not to reprise the role unfortunately. It's an average western as is, but with him, it might move up a notch. Fuller is capable enough but doesn't bring a ton of personality to the part. And in the upgrade department, Mateos makes a good Chico. For one, he's actually Hispanic, not German.

On to the new members of the seven, led by Warren Oates and Claude Akins, two great character actors ideally suited for key supporting roles here. Oates plays Colbee, a gunslinger with a wandering eye for the women, signing up with Chris when he hears about a village occupied by only women. It's a funny part, but one with some darkness to it as Colbee explains some of his background with Chris. Akins is Frank, a gunman looking to get himself shot up for the guilt he holds from something in his past. Also joining the group are Virgilio Teixeira as Luis, a Mexican bandit Chris frees from jail, and Jordan Christopher as Manuel, a young Mexican boy inexperienced with guns looking for somewhere to belong.

The Villain: Eli Wallach set the bar about as high as it could go with his part as Calvera so it would be difficult to live up to the original. Emilio Fernandez (Mapache in The Wild Bunch) just isn't as strong an opponent as Wallach's Calvera, and that's with about five times the amount of gunmen with him. His back story is interesting, but it makes him seem like a weak old man, not an intimidating, half-crazy madman. Fernando Rey has a small part as the wise village priest.

Overall, that's the problem with this first sequel. At 95 minutes, 'Return' is 33 minutes shorter than the first movie. The script seems thrown together in a rush job once the seven are assembled. Then, once the situation is laid out, it's basically 35 minutes of siege fighting as Lorca and his men attack the seven in a half-built church. The action scenes are well put together, if a little ridiculous (especially the finale), but with little build-up they're just there. The same issues are there with Chris and Vin questioning what they've done all these years, surprisingly enough producing some emotional moments.

Part of me wants to say that if this movie was just released on its own with no predecessor, it'd be a more highly regarded movie. But following in the rather large footsteps of the original, it would be almost impossible to match the enjoyment and excitement. 'Return' is worthwhile and an entertaining western in spite of some flaws, but don't expect a classic going in and you should be okay.

Return of the Magnificent Seven <-----trailer (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, September 14, 2009

State of Play

In a time when newspapers nationwide are going down the drain, it's interesting (and nice to see) that a movie with an impressive ensemble cast deals with the inner workings and conflicts of what goes on in a newspaper's newsroom. State of Play struggled at the box office, but hopefully it does better in rentals because director Kevin McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) has put together a strong thriller that balances the every day work of journalists with the intrigue of behind the scenes Washington D.C.

When dealing with the current state of newspapers in a movie, there's certain things that can't be avoided; the online vs. print rivalry, a good story vs. tabloid stories that might sell more papers, the morality of publishing a story, conflict of interests, and of course, big business. Will anyone let us print this story? State of Play clearly did its research in handling these subjects whether it be the look of the fictional Washington Globe's cluttered, chaotic newsroom to the rivalry between a print writer and a young blogger. It's the little things that make the movie more believable, and much easier to get into the world of what's going on.

Old-school newspaper reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is very good at what he does, but with the changing times of newspapers, he refuses to change with the technology. So when two dead bodies turn up, Cal goes to the scene for his story. Across town, a woman is killed in a subway station, or was she? It turns out the woman was an aide to Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) and as more information becomes available, she was also having an affair with Collins. His editors start to put the squeeze on Cal because during his college years he was roomate with who else? Collins.

The two cases/stories start to evolve and working with a young online writer, Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), Cal begins to accumulate a lot of evidence that the two cases are seemingly related. Collins and his aide were working on a case against PointCorp, a private corporation full of ex-military personnel who serve in the Middle East and around the world providing security. Could PointCorp have really ordered a hit on Collins' aide? Would they really go that far? So starts a twisting, turning story that kept me guessing right until the end.

Working as a team, Crowe and McAdams work well together, a journalistic Odd Couple. Crowe's Cal is wary of working with the young blogger but comes to see her as a colleague, a fellow reporter. It can be tricky making journalists' work compelling to watch because much of it is tracking down phone numbers and calling people, knocking on doors trying to get information, but with a handy montage the job is that much easier. The journalistic detective work provides much of the bulk of the story, but it never drags as a possible conspiracy unfolds.

As the Making of Documentary discusses, it would be hard not to compare this to All The President's Men, the true story of how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took down the Nixon administration that was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. State of Play pays homage to its predecessor while putting its own spin on the story. One scene in particular jumps out as Cal hides in a parking garage from a man believed to be a PointCorp assasin. Shot among the shadows, it's a great scene that sent a chill down my back at the surprise intro of the killer. And overall, the movie has a good balance between the newspaper side and the thriller aspect without overdoing or overstaying its welcome on both.

Crowe and McAdams together leading the movie is a good example of what strong casting can do, but the supporting cast here is just as important. Helen Mirren is pitch perfect as Cameron, the Washington Globe editor who must balance selling newspapers with getting that perfect story out there. Robin Wright makes the most of a smaller part as Anne Collins, Stephen's wife who has a past with Cal also. Affleck may be a little young for the part, but he pulls it off well as the suave, sophisticated Congressman seemingly on the rise. Jason Bateman as a seedy PR guy and Jeff Daniels as a fellow representative looking to help Collins also leave a good taste in your mouth.

As a reporter for a paper here in Chicago, I couldn't help but smile when I saw this movie's trailer. Journalists as heroes saving society from the government?! Count me in! The story is an exciting one that easily brings the viewer in and keeps them involved trying to unravel those deep, dark, scary Washington DC conspiracies and mysteries. Great ensemble cast and a story based off a BBC miniseries makes this one well worth a watch.

State of Play <----trailer (2009): ***/****

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Naked and the Dead

When I think of author Norman Mailer, one thing comes to mind. Big books, real big books. I haven't read any of Mailer's stories, partly because I get intimidated when I see a paperback I could knock someone out with if using it as a weapon. His take on WWII in the Pacific, based on his own service, was a huge hit upon its release and surprise, surprise, turned into a movie of the same name, The Naked and The Dead.

Now looking at a reissue of Mailer's novel, the Amazon listing has it as over 700 pages so any movie version is going to have to cut things out. The 1958 movie clocks in at 131 minutes so I tried to keep that in mind while watching it. TCM's Robert Osborne said the novel upon its initial release was a huge success because of its 'salty language' with plenty of four-letter words and its frank way of dealing with some touchy subject matters. Of course, a movie from 1958 had to strip much of that away with censors. So right off the bat, the movie already has two strikes against it, but I'll move on.

The story centers around an American infantry battalion on an unnamed Pacific island midway through the war. Three main characters step to the front, giving the viewer a good sense of all the different ranks in the battalion. First, there's Sgt. Sam Croft (Aldo Ray in a part he was born to play), the leader of an intelligence and recon platoon that is understrength after several campaigns on the front lines. His men hate him almost to a man, and he gives them good reason. Croft is sadistic, killing unarmed prisoners callously and then prying the gold teeth out of their mouths. Second, there's Lt. Robert Hearn (Cliff Robertson), a young officer with connections back home. Translation = Earns a job far from the front lines. And third, there's General Cummings (Raymond Massey), the battalion commander obsessed with casualty estimates and striking fear into his men's hearts, often for pointless power trips.

I liked the idea of seeing the war from different perspectives, from the high-ranking general to the men on the front line. With war movies, it's typically one or the other. But in the execution, something doesn't translate. The first 70 minutes are extremely reliant on dialogue scenes meant to flesh out the main characters. Maybe this was the purpose, but none of the three are particularly likable. Croft is pure evil, Hearn is a cocky, arrogant spoiled son of a you know what, and Cummings borders on the crazy. These early scenes drag on too much.

The pace picks up when a twist to the storyline is thrown in. On this Japanese-held island, Cummings' advance has slowed to a halt. He puts into action a plan that should break the stalemate, but he needs behind the lines info. Croft and his platoon are selected to go behind the Japanese lines and set up an observation post for their advancing battalion mates. After pissing off Cummings, Hearn is given command of the platoon. So now, they're not only tangling with Japanese patrols, but a fight for power between Hearn and Croft.

The patrol segment is by far the better part of the movie. There's a natural tension as Croft and his men walk through the jungle (Panama substitituing for the actual Pacific) trying to get to their objective while avoiding the Japanese. What I enjoyed most in the movie was Croft's platoon which includes Richard Jaeckel, William Campbell, James Best as the bible-thumping, drawling medic, Jerry Paris and Rat Packer Joey Bishop as two Jewish soldiers, Robert Gist, and L.Q. Jones at his overacting best. Jaeckel and Jones are really the only ones given any development, and reading the book reviews it seems the platoon's back story was sacrificed from the 700-page plus behemoth.

For a WWII movie, the action is pretty sparse and when it comes along, it's pretty disappointing. The gunfire sounds like prop guns and the explosions look as staged as a movie explosion can be. As mentioned before with the censors, the violence is often off-screen, like a Japanese patrol burning in a lit-up field, and comes off as too tame. It's hard to judge a movie for the time it was made in, but if this movie was released in the 90s we're talking a Pacific version of Saving Private Ryan.

So compared to other WWII movies in the 50s and 60s, this one is pretty average but a lot of my complaints come from the censors. Director Raoul Walsh tried to make the definitive, honest look at a platoon of soldiers in the Pacific in WWII, but it is hamstringed by any number of forces working against it. Worth a watch for Aldo Ray's performance and the list of character actors who make up his platoon, but otherwise this one's only worth it for diehard war movie fans.

The Naked and The Dead (1958): **/****

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Guns of Navarone

Author Alistair MacLean was a master of thrillers, suspense and adventure in his long career. Of all his books though, two have become classics unto themselves thanks to the movies that resulted from their stories, 1969's Where Eagles Dare and 1961's The Guns of Navarone. Both movies share similarities, but when comparing them 'Navarone' is the better movie and has helped serve as a blueprint for adventure movies ever since.

In both MacLean novels, the setting is WWII with an almost suicidal men on a mission story. Everything points against an expert team getting the job done, but somehow they pull through in the end. No real spoilers there. In Navarone, it's 1943 and the war is still up for grabs. In the Mediterranean on the Greek island of Kheros, 2,000 British soldiers are trapped with no way of escaping. Allied Intelligence learns the Germans are planning an assault on the island with only a week to prepare. The Allies plan to rescue the men on Kheros, but there's a problem. The only way to get ships through is a channel near the island of Navarone where two huge radar-controlled guns will sink anything in range.

With time running out, Commodore Jensen (James Robertson Justice in a great cameo appearance) assembles a crack team of operators to get to the German-held island of Navarone and destroy the guns. First up, Captain Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck), a guerilla fighter in Crete who's survived 18 months behind enemy lines and who has a special talent that will come into play. Joining Mallory is his partner in Crete, Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), a Greek officer extremely capable with his hands, a knife or a sniper rifle who also has an ax to grind with Mallory. The duo will lead the team of British commandos that include Maj. Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle), Cpl. Miller (David Niven), the explosives expert, Pvt. Butcher Brown (Stanley Baker), a specialist with machines and knives, and Pvt. Spyro Pappadimos (James Darren), a young soldier adept at killing.

The commando team must sail to Navarone and get onto the island by scaling a 400-ft cliff. They will receive help from 2 Greek resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala), but even with that help, they must deal with horrific weather conditions, German patrols getting ever closer, and the mounting evidence that a traitor is among the group.

In the trailer (link later), Peck somewhat arrogantly states that this may be the most exciting adventure movie you will ever see. I'd normally have an issue with someone telling me that, but I find it hard to disagree with the statement. At a somewhat leisurely 156 minutes, the movie flies by with director J. Lee Thompson letting the tension and momentum build as the team tries to overcome the odds to blow up the guns and save the men on Kheros. The movie puts together a series of great set pieces, including the team arriving at Navarone in a heavy storm and then having to scale a supposedly unguarded 400-ft cliff. Thompson doesn't rush these scenes and lets them develop.

For an adventure movie, there isn't a ton of action. It's more of a build-up with anticipation of what could happen if something goes wrong. You're constantly on edge that at any moment the Germans could close in and capture the team. So with an average amount of action, it's the actors who benefit the most. Peck is an ideal choice for the unlikely leader who must step into a command position, and Niven would seemingly be out of place in a WWII adventure movie, but he's perfect. Early on, Niven's Miller is a mood-lightener with his almost constant one-liners. It's as the movie progresses, that Niven becomes the conscience, debating about the futility of what they're doing. Great parts for both actors.

And while Peck and Niven are very good lead, Anthony Quinn makes this movie special. His Andrea Stavros is a man of few words who lets his actions speak for themselves. He lost his wife and children early in the war and seeks revenge on the Germans and also Peck's Mallory who he holds responsible. One of the coolest scenes has Stavros holding off a German patrol with only a sniper rifle on a mountainside. He later meets the team, arriving at the predestined location before them, greeting Mallory and Miller with a calm 'Good evening, gentlemen' while he smokes a pipe. In a long line of great characters, this is one of Quinn's best.

Watching this movie every year or so, it never gets old. Aided by one of Dimitri Tiomkin's best scores and a great script from producer Carl Foreman, it truly is one of the best action/adventure movies ever. Also look for a young Richard Harris early as an exhausted 'bloody' pilot. Exciting from beginning to end with a chaotic final act, The Guns of Navarone is one of the best men-on-a-mission movies you'll ever watch. If you haven't seen it, the DVD is a cheap one and worth a blind buy. If you don't want to buy it, check out Youtube where you can see it part-by-part.

The Guns of Navarone <-----trailer (1961): ****/****

The Wrong Box

Like any sense of humor, British humor can be an odd thing. There's the very dry laughs where the proper Englishman chuckles softly to himself, but then's there is also the Monty Python, Benny Hill slapstick that's played for the out loud laugh. A movie virtually unknown to American audiences, 1966's The Wrong Box, provides a perfect pairing of both senses of humor with a great cast and a tale of confusion and trickery.

The story begins simply enough with the signing of a 'tontine' where 20 young men are entered into a lottery. Their fathers pay $1,000 pounds for their sons which will be put into a bank account and allowed to grow. The last surviving son will be rewarded with all of the money. So it begins and the years pass, 63 to be exact, with the boys growing up and some meeting their maker in an inspired scene that had me rolling. Then, it comes down to 2 brothers, the Finburys, Masterman (John Mills) and Joseph (Ralph Richardson), who live next to each other but haven't spoken in 40 years.

Joseph is away on vacation with his two nephews, Morris (Peter Cook) and John (Dudley Moore), so when Masterman finds out they're the only two remaining men, he sends for him with a very made-up deathbed message. Masterman intends to kill his brother and give all the money to his grandson, Michael (Michael Caine), to help pay off the family debt and also put him through medical school. Morris and John catch wind of the news and are thrust into an awkward situation when the train they're riding on crashes, and they believe Joseph was killed. The money is so close, and they believe all they need is Joseph to outlast Uncle Masterman for a few days. Not so fast though, Joseph is very much alive.

So starts a story that bounces around and all over the place with far too many cases of misunderstanding and scheming to even mention here. If it all sounds ridiculous, it is but don't be scared away. The humor comes out of these ridiculous situations and the crazy reactions these individuals have to 'solve' their problems. Having the two brothers live next to each other provides for an easy use of general confusion as boxes intended for the other house goes to the wrong one. Some unnecessary but still funny title cards help move things along.

What makes this work from start to finish is the casting. Mills and Richardson as the two longlost brothers are dead-on. Mills is made up to look like he is on death's doorstep but he's really anything but as the scheming, murdering brother, and Richardson nails the part of the clueless brother who collects facts and bores people to death with everything he's learned. Caine is even funny in an early part as the straight man, including a possibly forbidden love with his cousin Julia (Nanette Newman) who lives with Uncle Joseph. The best part of Caine's role is his scenes with Peacock the butler (Wilfrid Lawson), the weary, tired, slow-moving house attendant who hasn't been paid in 7 long years.

In the more slapstick scenes, Cook and Moore as the bumbling but still devious brothers provide their fair share of laughs, especially Moore who can't curb his interest in working class women. And in a small but still funny cameo, Peter Sellers plays Dr. Pratt, a clueless drunk of a doctor who provides Morris with a death certificate for his dead grandfather which you can check out here and here. I've never been a huge fan of Sellers, I just don't get some of his humor, but he's too much here, making the most of his two-scene appearance.

The movie isn't available in DVD format, and VHS tapes can be a little expensive to track down but good news from Youtube! A user has kindly made The Wrong Box available broken up into 10-minute segments. The link earlier is Part 1, and you can go from there if you wish to watch the rest of the movie. It's not well known at all here in the States, but I'm glad I stumbled across it. Dry and slapstick humor, it's laugh out loud however you look at it.

The Wrong Box (1966): ***/****

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Revolver (1973)

Watching Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds recently, part of the fun was picking out the director's musical choices for his soundtrack. I recognized a good amount of the tracks, including many from Ennio Morricone, but one really caught my attention for the first time, Morricone's 'Un Amico.' It's used perfectly in Tarantino's WWII movie so I investigated and found out it was originally used in a 1973 Italian thriller called Revolver.

It's a movie from director Sergio Sollima who made no bones about getting his political beliefs into his movies. Some work better than others, The Big Gundown is a classic, because sometimes the political preaching can get to be a little much, especially in westerns where that element is unnecessary to add to a story's depth or lack of. I liked Revolver because Sollima's feelings are mostly left out of it, and what's there is actually a worthwhile commentary on society.

The problem isn't with the political undertones, but the pacing of the first hour. It's the type of movie that throws everything at you with seemingly unrelated storylines and lets the plot develop. That's fine in itself in some cases, but the story is so muddled at times with Revolver I was never quite sure what was going on for the first 60 minutes. The story rights itself when things are explained and makes that last half of the movie much better and much more enjoyable.

Coming home one day, prison warden Vito Cipriani (Oliver Reed) finds his wife (Agostina Belli) is gone from their apartment. The phone rings, and a mysterious voice at the other end says she's been kidnapped, and the only way he'll get her back is to free a prisoner, Milo Ruiz (Fabio Testi), from his jail. Vito struggles with what to do but ultimately decides to do it. The only problem? When he frees Milo, the criminal has no idea who would want to help him out of prison.

In another storyline that seems to have no link, a higher-up politician is murdered while leaving his office by an assasin on a motorcycle. It's not long before the police find him, kill him and destroy the motorcycle and have a friend of the killer, folk singer Al Niko (Daniel Beretta), identify what's left of the body. Of course, the stories do connect at the movie's midpoint, and it generally works. Some unexplained scenes now make sense, and the unfolding of the rest of the plot comes together.

The somewhat political message of the movie is that society has ways of guarding itself against danger, laws, police, government, but that sometimes all it takes is for one man to take a revolver and right a wrong. Reed's Vito is put in this situation when faced with a decision on trading Testi's Milo in exchange for his wife in a prisoner exchange. He knows Testi will most likely be killed so as a warden and former police officer can he rationalize one life for another? That question certainly makes for an interesting resolution.

While other characters bounce in and out of the story, it's Reed and Testi that carry the movie. On the DVD, an interview with Sollima talks about how you can throw just about everything else away. It's a movie about a good guy, Reed, who's not so good, and a bad guy, Testi, who's not so bad. Known as much for his drinking ability as his acting career, Reed is an incredible presence here, a brooding, intense, driven man who will stop at nothing to get his wife back safely. Testi, often known for his looks more than anything, provides a strong balance as the criminal thrown into the middle of a situation he has little to no control over. All other things aside, the movie is about these two men and their unlikely partnership, a buddy movie on steroids if you will.

Other nice touches include the French and Italian shooting locations, and a gritty style Sollima had by then become known for. Here's the opening, which features 'Un Amico' with lyrics which isn't as effective as the song itself. The rest of the Morricone score isn't his best and seems too similar to some other scores he'd done. But the main track is a keeper and is used perfectly in the opening and especially in the final scene. While it may have been difficult getting there at times, the ending is worthwhile to say the least.

Good casting and an intriguing storyline but it takes too long getting there. Worth a watch but don't expect a classic. Here's the DVD interviews in two parts, one and two, with Sollima and Testi interviewed. SPOILER ALERT though, don't watch the interviews if you don't want the ending ruined.

Revolver <----trailer (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hart's War

Following WWII, a whole sub-genre of movies came out dealing with a part of the war that you'd think would be hard to turn into a movie, the prisoner of war story, examples being The Great Escape and The Bridge on the River Kwai. There were others, but those two have stood the test of time over the years. But at a certain point, the stories must have dried up. Then came 2002's Hart's War.

A mix between a courtroom drama and a prisoner of war story, the movie walks that fine line between both types and is mostly successful although there are major problems with the ending. Money was clearly spent on making Hart's War look and feel authentic from the winter locations in the Czech Republic to the gaunt appearances of the actors. As much as I love 1963's The Great Escape, I can admit those prisoners sure looked like they were living a decent life. Not so much here.

It's December 1944 and Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell) is escorting an officer to the front lines. A Senator's son, Hart is destined to work at a desk until the end of the war so he takes his chance to get away from HQ. But on the road, his jeep is attacked by German paratroopers posing as American MPs and he is sent to a German Luft Stalag, a prison camp. Right away, something is wrong because the ranking American officer Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis) bunks Hart with the enlisted men even though there is an open bunk in the officers barracks.

That's the least of Hart's problems though when two new prisoners are brought to the camp, two black fliers, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lt. Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon). The prisoners' true colors come out, and it's not long before Archer is framed for robbery and summarily shot by the German guards. It looks like a frame-up organized by Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), the ringleader of the racist prisoners. Only a few days pass before Bedford's dead body is found in the compound, Lt. Scott standing over the body. In a court martial/murder trial, Lt. Hart (a 2nd year law student at Yale) is assigned defense council for Scott in a case that looks like it will have no hope of being fair.

The first hour or so hits all the right notes of a tense prisoner of war drama. Like Hart, the viewer is seeing everything for the first time. The conditions are cramped, the food is of low-quality, and it's freezing cold in the German winter. Even when the murder/courtroom drama is introduced, the movie still stays on the right track. It's a twist that comes with about 30 minutes to go where the story comes apart. It even goes beyond Lt. Scott's trial in a twist that doesn't quite make sense and stretches the imagination just a bit too far.

SPOILERS if you don't want to know the twist, stop reading SPOILERS Col. McNamara is using the trial as a diversion for an escape attempt combined with some sabotage of a nearby munitions plant. There's no real hints of what's to come, and when it does come on-screen, it's never fully explained. For example, where did McNamara and Co. get their hands on German uniforms, and then rifles and explosives for God's sake? It's a prison camp deep in Germany, and I don't care how bad the war is looking, German guards wouldn't trade cigarettes for rifles and explosives. End of SPOILERS.

Anywho, on to the rest of the movie. The casting is good, especially Farrell in one of his first starring roles. His Hart is a torn character, one trying to prove himself because of who his father is but also what he did under interrogation after being captured. He's put on the defensive right away, and at least for me, he's the one I was rooting for in the end. Being appointed defense counsel, Hart is put in a lose-lose situation, especially when he finds out the trial is a sham. As his opposite, Willis has the less developed character but still makes the most of it. McNamara is a career soldier, a West Pointer who wants to prove he's still in the war.

Two other parts are key to the movie's success, especially Howard as Lt. Scott. Locked away in a cell for long portions of the movie, Howard rises to the occasion when given the chance. His testimony on the stand is one of the best scenes in the movie and really illustrates what black soldiers/fliers had to go through in the South during WWII. The one good thing about the ending is Scott's reaction which could have come off as cheesy and cliched, but Howard sells it. The other important part is Marcel Iures as Colonel Visser, the German commandant who does everything he can to keep the camp running and in order, even if that means helping an inexperienced Hart at the trial.

As a fan of WWII POW movies, I wanted to love this movie and for about an hour I did just that. I really got the feel of what living in a prison camp must have felt like, especially that feeling of claustrophobia and being packed into an environment you can't get out of. The courtroom drama is not as good but still worthwhile, and that's what makes the sudden shift in story so disappointing. A good movie, but certainly a flawed one.

Hart's War <-----trailer (2002): ***/****