The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Starting in 1970, British novelist Patrick O'Brian wrote 20 books in a series that's been dubbed the 'Aubrey-Maturin' series. O'Brian's books explore a very specific time -- early 19th Century as England battled Napoleon and France -- and clearly hit a nerve with audiences. You don't put out 20 books with the same characters if somebody isn't buying them, or maybe that's just my take. I tried reading one of these books when I was 10 or 11 and struggled in the early pages and never finished it. But after watching 2003's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a film adaptation of O'Brian's novels, I think I'm going to give them another shot.

Adventures on the high seas have been popular in just about every form of entertainment from movies to TV to literature to stage. Some are based in truth like Mutiny on the Bounty, others are just good stories like Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Something about traveling across the vast oceans clicks with audiences, maybe the romanticism of a time gone by? Who knows for sure, but the setting is a prime choice for a jumping off point for a story in any of its forms. Even released in 2003, 'Master and Commander' has the distinct feel of a movie from Hollywood's Golden Age.

A title card sets the stage quickly, it's 1805 and the H.M.S. Surprise is off the coast of Brazil. The Surprise's Captain, Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe), has been given orders to track down and destroy --if possible-- a French privateer, the Acheron. Encountering the Acheron in a thick fog bank, Aubrey and the Surprise are caught off guard against the bigger, faster and more powerful French ship. After a heavily one-sided victory, the Acheron sails south thinking it has delivered a crushing blow, but Aubrey will follow his orders to a T, and he's going to get his ship. If not, the Acheron may reach the Pacific Ocean where it can wreak havoc on British trade.

While director Peter Weir's movie made almost $100 million in the U.S. alone, it has been critiqued as a bit of a flop considering the $150 million budget. But box office struggles aside, this is a hidden gem for fans of historical and period pieces which come along few and far between. From the language to the wardrobe to the sets, this makes you feel like you're on the ship with Aubrey and his crew. And other than action scenes in the beginning and the end that serve as bookends, 'Commander' is all about showing what life was like aboard an early 19th century British man of war.

And with a running time of 138 minutes, Weir gets significant time to tell that story. As a viewer, we see how the crew and officers live (the officer live a little better than crew, surprised me too) as they sail around South American and Cape Horn into the vast Pacific. The conditions are brutal, death is seemingly always right around the corner in any number of ways, the food is slop, and worst of all, a French privateer seems to have the ship's number. At times, the pacing can be a little slow but never to the point where I felt like I was bored. Some parts here and there could have been trimmed some, but that's a minor complaint.

With roles in movies like Gladiator, 3:10 to Yuma, Cinderella Man, here in 'Commander' and next year in the new Robin Hood movie, Crowe has carved himself a nice little niche in the historical genre. One of my favorite actors around, Crowe always delivers a strong performance while also making his characters sympathetic. His Jack Aubrey, 'Lucky Jack' to his men, is liked and respected by his men even when forced to make the most difficult decisions. At heart, they know Aubrey will look out for them. Reuniting after working together on A Beautiful Mind, Paul Bettany is quiet, understated and almost steals the movie from Crowe as Dr. Stephen Maturin, the Surprise's highly intelligent surgeon and naturalist.

The duo have a great dynamic together, Crowe the intelligent veteran warrior and Bettany the intellectual conscience, even playing a duet together (a very moving use of Luigi Boccherini's La Musica Notturna Delle Strade Di Madrid' No. 6, Op. 30). Aubrey and Maturin are long-time friends so that dynamic is strained at times as the captain must decide what's best for his ship while the doctor looks out for the individual and the morality of the situation. With a good but not great cast behind Crowe and Bettany, these two actors dominate the screentime. Others impressing include James D'Arcy as Lt. Pulling, a young officer on the rise, and Max Pirkis as Blakeney, a teenage midshipman forced to grow up amidst a war on the high seas.

If you're a fan of older movies that were content to just be entertaining (like that's a bad thing), this movie is for you. It's a beautiful movie to look at with some great visuals of 19th century warships chasing each other across miles of ocean, and then builds to a visceral, chaotic finale. As if that wasn't enough, the ending is a bit of a cliffhanger with the above Boccherini opera used as the sountrack. A great movie all around, especially worthwhile for Crowe and Bettany's performances, this won't disappoint.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World <---trailer (2003): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Angels and Demons

As good as Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons were, what happened to them when turned into a movie? The books aren't great literature, but they're damn entertaining so a team of director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks should be a sure thing in helping the transition from bestselling book to blockbuster movie. But for whatever reason, something has not clicked with either movie. 'Da Vinci' in movie form was downright boring at times, and sadly, so is the sequel, 2009's Angels and Demons.

Like many fans of Brown's novels, I was caught up in the Da Vinci craze upon its release and after loving that one sought out Angels and Demons which actually is a prequel in the storyline. I raced through both books in a day or so each unable to put it down. Brown's style lends itself to cranking through chapters at a time with cliffhangers seemingly every few pages. So I somewhat naturally figured a movie would be easy to do off this subject material. Who knows, maybe I didn't think it through, but I was wrong in a big way.

After the pope dies, cardinals from around the world descend on Vatican City to choose a successor from their ranks. One night, four of the cardinals are kidnapped with a foreboding note, they will be killed an hour apart somewhere in Rome, all of this leading up to the complete destruction of the Vatican by a powerful, deadly substance known as antimatter. Worse than that, the act has been done by the Illuminati, a long-time enemy of the Catholic church only know exacting their revenge. The deceased pope's camerlengo, Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) calls in Professor Thomas Langdon (Hanks) to help solve the mystery.

Upon arriving in Rome just hours before the murders are set to begin, Langdon discovers a way to save the kidnapped cardinals. Centuries before, Galileo created a path for people to join the Illuminati if they could follow four clues leading to four different locations. These places are all over Rome and Vatican City so with help from a beautiful Italian physicist (Ayelet Zurer, because every movie needs a beautiful Italian physicist) Langdon starts a race against time to save the cardinals that will take him all across the city.

If this makes sense at all, Howard's 138-minute version of Brown's book feels rushed for the first 90 minutes or so. Howard does not have the advantage of having hundreds of pages of background to set the stage for what's about to happen. Too bad because in place of that all-important background we get lots of scenes of Langdon explaining the historical importance and symbolism of what we're hearing. The book allows this to happen as an aside that doesn't take away from the pacing of the story. In movie form, it brings the high tension to a screeching halt while Langdon pieces together historical mysteries that have stumped brilliant minds for hundreds of years. Langdon on the other hand can figure them out in mere minutes.

Some of this has to be attributed to the sometimes mind-bogglingly bad screenplay which bounces around so much and so quickly it can hard to keep up. Granted, the book is basically one long, extended chase sequence, but there's time here and there for a breather. Not so here as the last half hour to 45 minutes goes from bad to worse and keeps on climbing on the ridiculous meter. I loved Brown's novel even more than 'Da Vinci' but can admit I thought parts of the ending were horribly out of place. The movie takes that one step further on a badness scale, but I won't ruin that here for you. I'll let it be spoiled elsewhere.

While I don't think Tom Hanks is the right choice to play Langdon, the movie's faults are not his own. The dialogue is stilted beyond belief and rarely comes across as believable. Hanks tries to make the most of it, but almost every line of dialogue he has is either a history lesson or a smart-ass comment. Zurer's Vittoria Vetra character has been relegated to background duty here, going from a great character in the book to a sounding board here for some of Langdon's mystery-solving. McGregor is a bright spot -- although the character loses a lot of necessary background from the novel -- with Stellan Skarsgard and Pierfrancesco Favino making the most out of their parts as Vatican security supervisors.

I hate putting this because I realize I sound like a pompous ass, but the book is miles ahead of the film version. Transitioning a beloved book to the big screen is a daunting process, no doubt about that, but it just hasn't worked here with either of Brown's source novels. As for Howard, he makes a beautiful movie -- it'd be hard to make Rome/Vatican City not look good -- but too many changes are made that were made for no obvious reason. Stick with Angels and Demons the novel and avoid this stinker. God help us when The Lost Symbol hits big screens.

Angels and Demons <----trailer (2009): * 1/2 /****

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Iron Man

Here's a novel concept for you. When casting an action movie, a superhero movie, don't just pick the biggest, burliest actor around and hand him a script full of ridiculous one-liners. In the last few years, the big budget action flick has gone down a different route, cast some of the best actors in Hollywood and give them a starring role, actors like Christian Bale, Edward Norton, and Robert Downey Jr.

For one, it's fun to see these actors in roles that aren't so buttoned-down and right out of a purely dramatic product. I'm all for the Oscar winners, but seeing a movie and being entertained can be enjoyable too. The changing trend though isn't just to cast a big name actor and let the thing go. The two most recent Batman movies come to mind as examples of then filling out a supporting cast that equals the star power, like Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, Cillian Murphy and on and on. Following this formula is 2008's Iron Man, one of the best superhero movies out there.

Born with a brilliant mind and the resources to build quite a life for himself, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) has everything in life; money, cars, women, huge houses and a generally ridiculously over the top lifestyle. As head of Stark Industries -- the world's biggest weapons manufacturer -- Tony puts his skills in engineering and innovation to good use, creating all sorts of new weaponry that hopefully can bring peace to the world. Demonstrating one of his weapons in Afghanistan for U.S. armed forces, Starks' convoy is ambushed and he's captured by a terrorist group dubbed the 'Ten Rings' led by the power-hungry Raza (Faran Tahir).

Kept as a prisoner in a mountain cave, Stark is forced into building the very weapon he was demonstrating for the terrorists. But with some help from another prisoner, Yinsen (a small but memorable part for Shaun Toub), Stark builds a complicated suit of iron with weapons and hydraulics that helps him escape, but not before he sees piles of Stark Industries weapons in the caves. Returning to the states, Stark builds another suit, even more complicated, and goes about righting wrongs that his company has done with help from a close friend and army contact, Col. James Rhodes (Terrence Howard). What's worse, all the evidence points to his partner, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), as the one selling the weapons.

For a long list of reasons that would take two or three posts, I really enjoyed this movie from start to finish. The top reason is by far Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in an inspired bit of casting. Over his career, Downey has had his fair of struggles with drugs and police, but he's always been a great actor which he shows off here. He somehow makes Stark a likable fellow with a perfect blend of humor, toughness and genuine sympathy. Topping it off, Downey seems to be enjoying himself and doesn't take himself too seriously. His introduction to flying is one of the movie's best scenes (about seven minutes into this clip which continues into Part 7) and just keeps on building.

Anyone who's read any of my reviews of newer movies knows that CGI is one my biggest pet peeves in action movies...when it's handled poorly and overused. Not so here as the CGI elements blend seamlessly into the story like this scene with Iron Man tangling with two fighter jets. The ending gets a little crazy but it's never too much. The action in general is fast-paced but coherent, and overall not overdone. For a 126-minute long movie, there isn't a ton of action to begin with. Large chunks of the story are spent on Stark developing and creating his suit, and they're great chunks of the story that bring the character to life.

The supporting cast is mostly three roles, Bridges' Stane (the obvious villain), Howard's Rhodes, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts, a woman who basically tries to keep Stark's crazy life as controlled as possible. Paltrow hadn't been in a big budget movie since 2004 as she started a family with Coldplay's Chris Martin, but it's great to see her back with a good role. She's got chemistry with Downey but also holds her ground with him. Bridges revels in the bad guy role, and Howard is a good second banana as Rhodes. Howard has been in the news for basically having his part recast without him knowing it which is a shame because as much as I like Don Cheadle, Howard was a good fit.

Every so often a movie surprises you, and this one qualifies for me. Great casting, some phenomenal action sequences and across the board a hugely entertaining movie. I knew little to nothing about the character from comic books and still loved it. Also, stick around for a post-credits scene at the end of the movie with Samuel L. Jackson making an appearance. You won't be disappointed. And more good news, Iron Man 2 due out in May 2010. Count me in.

Iron Man <----trailer (2008): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Driver

As far back as the silent Keystone Cops series, movies have had car chases. In the late 60s, Bullitt and The French Connection opened the door for a slew of car-chase related movies that continues to this day. Name a halfway decent action movie from the last 30-40 years, and there's a good chance there is a car chase. Who knows what attracts audiences to them? Ridiculously cool cars gunning it across country and through crowded cities just sounds fun.

But with car chases, and I'm not talking racing movies, there are few movies directed to the most important thing in the chase -- the guy behind the wheel. Released in 1978, The Driver just does that, focusing almost completely on the man driving the badass car(s). Director Walter Hill handles a movie that could have been a color film noir movie with the typically cool anti-hero, the femme fatale, and the dedicated, driven cop trying to catch the rebellious main character. It's the type of movie that almost borders on the pretentious with characters addressed as their occupation -- the Driver, the Detective, the Connection -- but pulls back just enough not to be obnoxious.

When a crook/robber/underworld thug is trying to pull off a job, there's one person that can significantly help his chances get away. Everyone knows him simply as the Driver (Ryan O'Neal), the best getaway driver and wheelman around. The police are fully aware of who and what he is, especially the Detective (Bruce Dern), but they're never able to pin any of the crimes on him, and he always gets away to pull off another getaway. But the Detective has been pushed too far so he goes about setting up a trap that even the Driver can't escape from.

The plot is straightforward with little diversions to take away from the heated and on-going battle between the getaway driver and the police officer trying to bring him in. There's a rivalry between the men that O'Neal and Dern pull off perfectly. O'Neal's Driver is quickly aware that he's being set up and still take the job if for nothing else than to prove he can do it, and more importantly he's smarter than a cop. O'Neal isn't a great actor, but playing the strong, silent type works nicely for him. Dern is a scene-stealer (as he usually was) as the slightly crazy detective who will risk anything to catch his rival.

Director Hill clearly knows what he's doing with an often minimalist story that focuses so closely on style over substance, especially with the chase scenes that bookend the movie. The opening as the Driver attempts to escape from the police (watch it HERE) is a great intro as to what type of movie you're about to watch. It also features one of the best endings to a car chase I can remember. The finale -- check it out here with SPOILERS of course -- is even better, combining some great stunt driving with a sometimes unbearable tension as O'Neal drives a souped-up pickup truck chasing down a Firebird.

Watching the chase scenes is easier to appreciate because O'Neal did just enough driving to make it seem believable. Sure, a stunt driver probably did most of it, but the viewer actually sees O'Neal behind the wheel. It sounds simple, but it helps a lot. And one of the reasons I'll always love older movies, no fake-looking CGI could ever replace good old fashioned stunts. In these chase scenes, Hill doesn't mess around with a loud blaring soundtrack that tells you how to feel. Just like Bullitt, The Driver's chase scenes are almost silent other than the sounds of the engines chugging along trying to outdo each other. Definitely some of the best car chases around because they don't mess with the formula. Simple, straightforward and exciting.

With the rest of the cast, a few names jump out but it's O'Neal and Dern's movie to win or lose. Isabelle Adjani is the Player, a young woman in desperate need of money who provides an alibi for the Driver after the opening getaway. If there was a love interest, Adjani would be it, but the story doesn't have time to waste with a love story. Ronee Blakley is the Connection, the woman who sets the Driver up with jobs and seems to have some sort of past with him but that could be me overanalyzing. Felice Orlandi and Matt Clark are two of Dern's fellow detectives working the case and Joseph Walsh and Rudy Ramos are Glasses and Teeth, two crooks who need the Driver's services.

A quasi-existential chase movie that's a lot of fun to watch, especially for any fans of car chases in the vein of Bullitt, The French Connection, and Two-Lane Blacktop. Stars Ryan O'Neal and Bruce Dern look to be having a good time making it, and director Walter Hill turns in a taut, exciting story dominated by car chases at either end of the movie. Car junkies shouldn't miss this one.

The Driver <----trailer (1978): ***/****

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Don't Make Waves

When it comes to movies, I can B.S. my way through a lot of different films, westerns, war, action, adventure, and comedy to sound remotely intelligent. Then there's those genres that I've never really had much of an interest in and typically avoid the bubonic plague, stuff like musicals, horror, musicals, torture porn, and even musicals. One I've always been aware of but had no real interest in investing any time was a staple of the 60s (so I hear) was the beach/surfing movie. My previous knowledge extended to a Family Guy spoof so really involved as you can see.

Not having ever sought out a beach movie, I stumbled across one on TCM last night called 'Don't Make Waves' released in 1967. The listing sounded stupid enough -- a swimming-pool salesman gets mixed up with beauty queens and bodybuilders when he falls in love -- and the cast didn't sound half bad so I gave it a shot. That's not fair I guess, the two leads sounded interesting, Tony Curtis who I wouldn't typically associate with a light-hearted beach movie, and Italian beauty Claudia Cardinale, an actress I often associate with darker, more serious movies. So with little expectations, I jumped right in.

Traveling to California in his beaten-up, broken down VW Bug, Carlo Cofield (Curtis) pulls over at a hillside rest stop overlooking the Pacific for lunch, only to have his car roll down the mountain and blow up when a woman's car's bumper hooks his and carries it away. The woman, Laura Califatti (Cardinale) offers to bring Carlo to her apartment while she finds the insurance papers. Of course, she can't find the papers so he stays over that night and is woken up by some incessant knocking at the door. Laura opens the door for Rod Preston (Robert Webber in top form a-hole mode), the married man she's having an affair with.

Rod wastes little time kicking the half-naked Carlo out of the apartment, forcing him to sleep on the beach. He wakes up early the next morning and decides to go for a swim, only to be knocked out by a surfboard belonging to a bikini-clad skydiver, Malibu (Sharon Tate). Waking up to see her, Carlo is quickly head over heels and decides he's got to break Malibu and her bodybuilding boyfriend, Harry (David Draper), up so he can swoop in. Carlo's best option? Blackmail Rod into giving him a job with his swimming pool company and begin to woo Malibu. That enough for you? I just wrote two whole paragraphs about the plot in a beach movie, and I'm pooped.

That's just skimming the surface of what's going on in this always entertaining and often ridiculous 97-minute beach movie. Director Alexander Mackendrick made some good movies in his short career, Sweet Smell of Success and The Ladykillers among others, but this one is all over the place. The first 30 minutes are a good start that provides some actual laughs, but once Carlo's plan goes into action the story goes all over the place. Famous ventriloquist Edgar Bergen makes an odd appearance without his dummy as an astrologist going by the name Madame Lavinia, and then Joanna Barnes pops in here and there for a few scenes as Rod's ignored wife.

There are some genuinely funny scenes, but the story bounces around so much it's hard to remember them. Everything leads up to an uniquely bizarre ending as the various storylines come together to be resolved, in where else? A seaside house about to slide down the hill end over end into the ocean. Let's face it, you get some good thinking done in a situation like that. With all this craziness going on, it would have been nice for even a little background. Curtis' Carlo goes from down on his luck dupe to a sophisticated con man in the matter of a scene or two, no explanation given. What gives?

As for what pulled me in, Curtis and Cardinale are good leads. I've always been a fan of Curtis as a comedic actor, and he doesn't disappoint here. Cardinale is drop dead gorgeous, and this is one of the few early movies where she wasn't dubbed so you get to hear her heavily accented English. Mackendrick also displays Cardinale in various stages of undress throughout, but one-ups himself with Sharon Tate. Almost always in a bikini, Tate gets an extremely subtle trampoline jumping scene that goes on for nearly two minutes. Before her career was tragically cut short when she was murdered by the Mansons, Tate clearly made an impact judging just by the amount of fan videos put up on Youtube for her part as Malibu.

Now with all this said, complaints, bitching, criticisms, I was entertained from start to finish. It's a stupid movie with so much going on that a fair share of things gets lost along the way. Come on now, there's Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, gorgeous southern California locations, body builders, bikini-wearing skydivers, Edgar Bergen 'playing' a girl, and Jim Backus playing himself. How can you lose? Scary thought, this was based on a book which I might just have to check out. If curious at all about this odd little gem, here's Part 1 of 10 at Youtube with the Byrds singing the theme.

Don't Make Waves <----trailer (1967): ** 1/2 /****

The Beguiled

Give Clint Eastwood credit for doing everything possible to avoid being typecast early in his career. Fresh off the success of the Sergio Leone Dollars trilogy and American westerns Hang 'Em High and Two Mules for Sister Sara, Eastwood went for a number of different roles that could not have been further from the wild west gunslinger. Do I even need to mention Paint Your Wagon? While Eastwood never fully left the western or cop genre, it's always interesting to see these departures from the typical Eastwood part, like 1971's The Beguiled.

A major disappointment in theaters because of some not so truthful marketing, The Beguiled was the third teaming between Eastwood and director Don Siegel and it wouldn't be their last as they worked together in the Dirty Harry series too. Siegel was known for his tough, hard-hitting movies that included westerns, war movies and police stories. So working together on a Gothic, off-beat Civil War suspense thriller was really a departure for both actor and director. Surprisingly enough, the combination works in an odd way.

While walking through the woods looking for mushrooms, 12-year old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) stumbles across a wounded Union soldier. She's able to drag him to the School for Young Ladies she lives in in southern Louisiana. The owner of the school, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page), decides to treat the soldier's wounds before turning him over to Confederate forces so he can be sent to a prison camp. Soon enough, the Union soldier comes around and introduces himself as Corporal John McBurney (Eastwood). Seeing an opportunity, McBurney takes it and starts going to work on the men-starved women living at the school as he recovers and builds up his strength.

This is about as off-beat a movie as Eastwood has made and for that reason one of the best. It's completely different from any other movie he stars in. Shot on location in Louisiana, 'Beguiled' has the feel of a Gothic horror movie. Using an actual Southern home for outdoor shooting, there's a feeling of authenticity that would have been lost with a Hollywood set. The house is surrounded by brush, shrubbery and plant life, giving an intense feeling of claustrophobia right from the get-go. There's a sense that anything could be hiding in the brush -- Union or Confederate soldiers -- and who knows when it will reveal itself.

Credit goes to composer Lalo Schifrin and cinematographer Bruce Surtees for creating such a beautiful but unsettling movie. Schifrin's score varies from whimsical to downright scary depending on the scene. Surtees' camera work relies on shadows and darkness in the vast hallways of the Southern plantation home. Combine these two and the with the ever-changing tone of the movie, you've got a surprisingly moody Civil War story. It has elements of horror and suspense that work so well together leading up until the final scenes which provide quite a twist. Several scenes make me wince just thinking of them, but I won't spoil them here.

Probably speaking here more than in some of his earlier movies combined, Eastwood plays against type as Cp. John McBurney, or McB to his friends. He's a hustler and a con man in many ways, seducing any of the young women who come close to him, especially school teacher Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman in a great part). McBurney's going to do whatever it takes to avoid being sent to a Confederate prison camp, no matter how many people he has to trick. As his counter, Broadway actress Page is a worthy foe, a woman in charge of an isolated school for young women. Her Martha knows she probably shouldn't keep McB on, but also feels a need to have a man around the grounds. The other girls include Ferdin in a scene-stealing role, Jo Ann Harris as Carol, the sexually curious 17-year old, Darleen Carr as Doris, the fiercely patriotic Southerner convinced they should turn McB in, and Mae Mercer as Hallie, Martha's slave.

Completely surprised by how much I enjoyed this movie. Different from what you might normally expect from a Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel movie, but keep an open mind and this one could catch you off guard too.

The Beguiled (1971): ***/****

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Country Girl

Something about stars who died too soon endear themselves to audiences, actors like James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Grace Kelly. In a movie career that lasted barely six years, Kelly made just 11 movies, more often than not playing a glamorous leading lady with style too spare. And why not? She is one of the most classically beautiful women to ever appear on the silver screen. But years before Charlize Theron figured it out, Kelly went completely unglamorous in a role that won her the only Oscar of her career.

The movie was 1954's The Country Girl based on a Clifford Odets play and also features some great performances from crooner Bing Crosby and always reliable William Holden. Fifty-plus years later, the film feels slightly dated and comes across as somewhat boring visually. It's a play turned into a movie that never left the stage for lack of a better description. But visuals aside, The Country Girl relies almost solely on the success of its three stars to make this movie memorable, and in that way it is a great success. Kelly won the Oscar for Best Actress, Crosby was nominated for Best Actor, and somehow Holden was snubbed a nomination for one of his best performances.

With just weeks to go before his play opens in theaters, director Bernie Dodd (Holden) is still looking for that ideal lead. He picks Frank Elgin (Crosby), a past his prime performer who's fallen out of the limelight after years at the top of his game. Dodd's producer and financial backer, Philip Cook (Anthony Ross), is not so convinced that Elgin is the right man for the job, but Dodd insists and demands and gets his way. Elgin has gone through some struggles over the years since the tragic death of his son, including a long stretch where he downed bottles of liquor as quick as he could find it.

But even with all these warning signs, Dodd continues to work with Elgin because he thinks he'll catch lightning in a bottle with his performance. As the opening day draws near, Dodd sees more and more how Elgin's wife Georgie (Kelly) controls her husband's life in almost every way. Then as a result, Frank seems to suffer, especially in his on-stage performances. But what Dodd is seeing is not the whole picture as Elgin puts up a brave front when talking with the director who stood up for him. When he's with his wife, Frank is a quiet, worried man who lacks any self-esteem and blames himself for their son's death (which is revealed in a flashback). Can director Dodd figure this out in time to save his show and job?

There are other background and supporting characters here and there, but Kelly, Crosby and Holden dominate the movie and a scene doesn't go by that at least two of these three aren't in. Kelly beat out Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Wyman out for the Oscar, an award she fully deserved. The costuming department dulls down Kelly's beauty as much as possible, having her wear a large pair of glasses, putting her in quiet, dark clothes, and pulling her hair back. Filmed in black and white, Kelly looks like a mother in her mid 30s who has suffered through some horrific stretches in her life.

Her performance is solid throughout, but she takes it into another gear late in the movie in a confrontation with Holden's Dodd after Frank has started drinking again. Obvious SPOILERS but check it out HERE courtesy of Youtube several minutes into this clip. Too often, a beautiful actress or a handsome actor isn't respected for their acting abilities because they're just so nice to look at. And while Kelly was always a strong presence in her roles -- including her movies with Alfred Hitchcock -- her part in The Country Girl shows that she can handle a darker, meaty character. A fully-deserved Academy Award often remembered more for her beauty and style than acting ability.

As for her co-stars, Kelly had a ton of chemistry with both Crosby and Holden. She'd work with Crosby again in High Society two years later and with Holden the same year in The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Crosby is known for his singing and dancing ability more than anything (White Christmas is a personal favorite), but his boozing performer here is a less than pleasant fellow with his fair share of personal flaws. During the casting process, Crosby almost turned down the role because he thought he was too old, but the fact that he was significantly older than both Kelly and Holden works well in terms of the character. Just like Kelly, not your typical Crosby, but one that shows he was not just a song and dance man.

Now for Holden, who was probably one of the biggest male stars in Hollywood in the 1950s, with classics like Sunset Blvd., Bridge on the River Kwai, Sabrina, and Stalag 17 among others. Often criticized for basically playing a variation of...well, himself, he was the lone actor here not to get an Oscar nomination. To be fair, it was a loaded year, here's the 1954 nominees. As an audience, we see what the Elgin's marriage is like, but Holden's Dodd is in the dark. For all he knows, Georgie is a controlling, manipulative wife when really she's trying to protect her husband. But Dodd is always likable and sympathetic, a driven career man trying to avoid a flop of epic proportions.

A dated movie that is very 1950s, but in a good way. Youtube has it available in segments, starting here with Part 1 of 11. Filmed entirely on indoor sets, the movie won't lose any scope if you watch it on your computer. It's a movie that depends on the characters with nothing else to distract from a sometimes heartbreaking story about a couple struggling through their marriage and the director just trying to make a successful play. Highly recommend this one.

The Country Girl <----trailer (1954): ***/****

Monday, November 16, 2009

American Gangster

Any star/director combo that turned out a movie as good as 2000's Gladiator basically gets a free pass from me. I'll pretty much watch anything that comes as a result of that duo, star Russell Crowe and director Ridley Scott, working together again. It took a little while, but they did team up together in 2007's American Gangster, based on a true story as well. And as if those two weren't good enough, throw in Oscar-winner Denzel Washington into the mix.

With a Scott-produced and directed movie, it's obvious what you're going to get from the finished product. There's going to be an air of professionalism with the movie that some directors just can't produce. Great performances from the leads is almost a given, and probably most importantly of all, it'll be an entertaining movie, so much so you might not realize how real or authentic the story feels. American Gangster has all this (almost), but never reaches it's potential for whatever reason thanks to some rather leisurely storytelling. To be fair, I watched the extended DVD version which clocks in at 173 minutes opposed to the theatrical version's 154 minutes so keep that in mind as I complain.

It's 1969 in Harlem and Frank Lucas (Washington) is at a crossroads. His longtime boss/friend/father figure Bumpy Johnson -- basically the king of New York gangsters -- has died, and everyone else in NY thinks Frank's going to go with him. But Frank goes into business for himself, traveling to war-torn Vietnam to arrange a deal for a consistent supply of heroin into the U.S. which he names 'Blue Magic' for street sale. That's all Lucas needs as he takes off and the money starts rolling in, carrying him higher than even the Italian crime families. Then, there's Richie Roberts (Crowe), an honest detective infamous in the force for turning in $1 million dollars when he could have kept it for himself. Directed by supervisors, Roberts sets up a force to take down the heavy hitters in the drug industry, and sure enough, the evidence leads to a mystery man no one knows anything about, one Frank Lucas.

The story covers about seven years from Lucas' rise to his eventual conviction and jail time. It never feels rushed, and the proceedings are always pretty clear but Scott takes too much time setting things up. The first hour is downright boring and almost lost me. I realize he has to establish a background for the next two hours, but he takes a little too long. The second hour is a little better as things start moving along, but it's still not up to par with a typical Ridley Scott movie. The third hour saves the movie from being a complete bust as there's a sense of urgency, an excitement that was missing from the previous 120 or so minutes.

What surprised me most here was that Washington is not at his best. For me, Denzel is about as bankable a star as Hollywood has right now, and I'll watch him in just about anything -- maybe even read a phone book. But his Lucas is too subdued most of the time with a few quick outbursts of extreme violence, including maybe the movie's best scene because it shows the paradox Lucas has created. Like the 1972 classic The Godfather, Lucas wants to provide for his family and protect them as best he can, breaking the law be damned. He will do anything to keep them safe, including his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) and loving mother (Ruby Dee in an Oscar-nominated supporting role).

In the same way I look at Washington, I look at Crowe. They're both actors, not movie stars. Crowe is the highpoint of Gangster as Richie Roberts, a cop trying to juggle his chaotic home life and divorced wife (an underused Carla Gugino) and the task force he's been assigned to take down the drug producers and suppliers. A New Zealand native, Crowe pulls off a pretty decent Jersey accent too in helping make Roberts the sympathetic cop. The story demands it, but a major problem is that Crowe and Washington don't have a scene together until the last 30 minutes. Their meeting (<----SPOILERS) is another great scene, and the following conversation is reminiscent of De Niro and Pacino in the coffee shop in Heat. It is scenes like this that show the potential of how good the movie should have been, but never is.

With an almost three-hour long movie, Scott fills out the ranks with a phenomenal supporting cast. Some are better than others and more than a few are left by the wayside as the story moves along, but that's almost a given with a cast list this big. Rapper RZA and John Hawkes play two members of Richie's task force, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Common, and T.I. as some of Frank's family, Ted Levine as Frank's police supervisor, and even Cuba Gooding Jr and Armand Assante as two of Frank's underworld 'contacts.' And since the movie doesn't paint Lucas as the bad guy, that part goes to Josh Brolin as the Special Investigations detective Trupo who's not too proud to take a bribe, lots of bribes.

It's disappointing writing an average review of this movie because I wanted to like it, and I was expecting a lot more. Something just doesn't click though. I won't go as far as saying it's a boring movie, but there's no heart to it, no real energy to keep things moving over an almost three hour movie. Sure, there's positives from the casting to the great 70s feel to the story, but I was expecting more. Still worth a watch though because an average movie with Crowe, Washington and Scott is still better than a ton of other new releases. Check out one of the all-time best trailers for a recent movie below.

American Gangster <----trailer (2007): **/****

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Human Factor

In an interview he did for the special features The Human Factor DVD, George Kennedy says that growing up watching movies his favorite stars were not even stars. As a youngster, Kennedy chose the character actors as his favorites. It's only fitting then that the long-time actor -- still chugging along at 84 -- is a prime example of how good a character actor can be. Rarely given starring roles, the character actor was always given 4th or 5th billing but often enough stole the show. Actors like Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, and Warren Oates made careers out of those supporting roles.

So with a supporting actor Oscar to his name for his role as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke, Kennedy became one of the most dependable Hollywood character actors in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s including a close association with a long list of disaster movies. But having seen enough of those supporting parts, it's always nice to see those actors get a shot with a starring role. In one of his few lead parts, Kennedy steps into vigilante mode in 1975's The Human Factor.

Working for NATO in Italy, electronics expert John Kinsdale (Kennedy) returns home one night to find police ringing his house. His wife and three children have been brutally murdered execution-style and there's very little in the way of evidence or clues to point to the murderers. With some help from the somewhat dimwitted Italian police chief (Raf Vallone), Kinsdale goes about using what little evidence the police do have to track down the killers. His co-worker, Mike McAllister (John Mills), agrees to help out so the duo uses their state of the art computer technology to get readouts on the killers.

As Kinsdale and McAllister continue to use all the facilities at their disposal, quite illegally as well, the evidence points to an extremist group (led by Thomas Hunter and producer Frank Avianca) demanding prisoners be released from prisons all over Western Europe. If the prisoners aren't released, more and more American families living in Europe will be brutally murdered. McAllister thinks they should go to the police with all the information they've obtained, but Kinsdale has other plans. He's not going to settle for a lifetime jail sentence for the terrorists, he's going to go after them himself.

In the vein of Death Wish or the Dirty Harry movies, 'Human' relies heavily on the idea of your average citizen being pushed far enough where his only option is vigilantism. At 6'5 and 250 lbs., Kennedy is quite a presence in the Paul Kersey/Harry Callahan role. His Kinsdale has one motive in life; kill the group who killed his family. If he gets killed in the process, so be it. Kennedy pulls off the scenes that require a ton of intensity nicely, but also nails the quiet scenes, like when he finds one of his daughter's dolls in the terrorists' hideout. Mills is more than solid in his own right as Kinsdale's sidekick, and Vallone is all right as the clueless Italian cop.

Critiques around the movie deal with its use of technology which at the times must have seemed pretty innovative. We're talking computer-to-computer hookup, probability software, programs that analyze evidence quicker than ever before. So watching this now in 2009, we're basically talking your average, run of the mill CSI episode -- feel free to pick which city. I'm betting this wasn't the intent when director Edward Dmytryk made the movie, but 'Human' is quite a time capsule for an early representation of technology.

While those technological segments can drag some, the movie really picks up speed once Kennedy goes vigilante. An otherwise mild-mannered guy, Kinsdale does anything and everything if it will help him get his family's murderers. One interesting scene that Dmytryk apparently winged on-location was a car chase through Naples with Kennedy manning a boat of a station wagon. In its ridiculousness it becomes an exciting chase scene. By far though, the best is saved for last in a hostage situation that is visually reminiscent of the Munich hostage situation. Fed up with formalities and negotiating, Kinsdale takes matters into his own hands in a bloody shootout with an ending that allows the viewer to make up his/her own mind on what happens.

A pretty mindless Italian crime movie that benefits from a strong performance from George Kennedy in the lead and John Mills in an underused supporting part. Slow moving at times, but the final 30 minutes make up for it, especially the finale. Here's a short TV spot if the trailer below doesn't convince you.

The Human Factor <---- (1975): ***/****

Thursday, November 12, 2009

We Were Strangers

Thanks to the local cable provider's high quality product, the three movies I taped off of TCM Monday night turned into one and a half movies. With about 5 minutes to go in 1979's Cuba, the screen freezes so I sit it out for a minute or two. Then onto the fast forward and next thing I know I'm 45 minutes into the next movie. Great, grand, awesome, but in looking for that bright spot the third movie, 1949's We Were Strangers, made it all the way through without any freezes...thankfully.

The theme for TCM's Monday schedule was Cuba so the common thread among the three movies I attempted to record was assassination, murder, coups, and generally death and mayhem around every corner. Cuba has never been a real model for stability, especially in the 20th Century beginning with the Spanish American war through several revolutions after that and then Fidel Castro's dictatorship dominating the country from 1959 and on. All this political instability provides some interesting storylines and settings, often told directly and frankly, politically correct feelings be damned.

It's 1933 in Cuba and the senate has ruled that any congregation of more than three people is illegal because those folks must be plotting some evil revolutionary plans. Following her brother's murder at the hands of the Porra (the secret police like the SS or KGB), China Valdez (Jennifer Jones), pronounced Chee-na, seeks out the resistance movement. She hopes to find a way to kill the man, Ariete (Pedro Armendariz), who shot her brother in cold blood. Instead, she is set up with Tony Fenner (John Garfield), a mysterious American, involved with the resistance.

Fenner concocts a detailed plan that could bring about the end of the current dictatorship. Using China's house that stands near a cemetery, Fenner and his small crew of revolutionaries will dig a tunnel under the street into the cemetery until they reach the tomb of Vicente Contreras, a local higher-up and businessman. His plan calls for the group to murder Contreras, and when all of the government powers that be -- including the president -- show up, they will set the bomb off and hopefully knock out the Cuban power structure. But as Fenner's crew works, Ariete stays on their trail, suspicious of what they're up to.

Released just four years after the end of WWII, 'Strangers' is incredibly frank in dealing with its subject matter. China, Fenner and the group believe they are in the right in attempting to assassinate Cuba's president and his cabinet. As presented, it is a rather nasty government that callously murders its citizens believed to be working against them so that makes it easier to side with the revolutionaries. Still, it is about as straightforward as possible. The collateral damage of innocents is mentioned but considered worth the death toll that a bomb will produce. But whether the group is in the right or not is beyond the point. 'Strangers' tells the story of a group of assassins which is a difficult subject to handle. Credit to tough-guy director John Huston for pulling it off so well.

This was the first Jennifer Jones part that I actually thought was pretty good although to be fair I've only seen two others. Jones was not a classical Hollywood beauty with her somewhat exotic look so she was often cast as minorities, Spanish, Asian, Native American, and here, Cuban. Her China is a strong female character looking for revenge. She's believable and completely sympathetic in the part. As the tough guy lead, Garfield is a good choice to play Fenner. Before his sudden death in 1952, Garfield made himself quite a name as a star, and it's easy to see why here. With little in the way of backstory or even in lines, Garfield's Fenner is a tough, no-nonsense leader. Typically playing good guys in a trio of John Ford westerns, Armendariz pulls off the villain perfectly, the secret policeman with little to no scruples. The rest of Fenner's team includes Gilbert Roland as Guillermo, a dock worker, Wally Cassell as Miguel, a bike mechanic, David Bond as Ramon, a law student, and Jose Perez as Toto.

With some rather obvious green screen efforts filling in for outdoor scenes in Havana, some scenes have a fake look to them as Jones and Garfield 'walk' through the downtown area. Other than those studio-manufactured backdrops, 'Strangers' looks like a typically dark, shadowy film noir. Filmed on soundstages for China's house and cellar, the characters are always half in shadow with faces covered and those shadows dancing around the floors and walls. It's a great looking movie -- not a surprise with Huston directing -- and an interesting time capsule of how a movie from the late 1940s handles the touchy subject of assassination. Well worth a watch.

We Were Strangers (1949): ***/****

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ten Tall Men

The Dirty Dozen may be the most well-known, but director Robert Aldrich's WWII convicts-turned-commandos adventure is just one in a long list of movies that used the same basic formula. Start with a suicide mission that is almost certain to fail -- but almost always succeeds in the end -- and add in a heavy dose of unwilling participants who want nothing to do with it. A good place to start? Go to the local prison/penitentiary and recruit some convicts. They come cheap and can't really make demands, and if they don't make it back, well too bad.

Aldrich's classic perfected this formula with Lee Marvin leading a group of 12 prisoners sentenced to death or extended prison sentences. But to say that formula is limited to just war movies would be wrong as westerns, historical movies, and action/adventure also put their own personal spin on the idea. Even Michael Bay's The Rock used Sean Connery as a prisoner turned savior. Making this premise easier to spin comes easy for French Foreign Legion stories, like 1951's Ten Tall Men, where this international group of soldiers often came from the dregs of society to begin with.

So starts Ten Tall Men where Sgt. Mike Kincaid (Burt Lancaster) and his two corporals and close friends Luis Delgado (Gilbert Roland) and Pierre Molier (Kieron Moore) return to their Foreign Legion post in Tarfa with a prisoner. Kincaid gets thrown in the stockade for going after the acting unit commander's girlfriend (Mari Blanchard). Put in the cell next to the prisoner he brought in, Kincaid finds out the Rif tribes are organizing and plan to attack the city in less than a week.

Approaching the unit commander, Lt. Kruger (Stephen Bekassy), Kincaid offers a proposition; let him take out a group of prisoners currently rotting away in the cells and slow up the Rif tribes until the regiment can return to help defend the city. Kruger somewhat suspiciously approves so Kincaid rides out with Luis and Pierre and seven prisoners in tow. Now, the tough sergeant must figure out how to slow up the upcoming attack while also keeping his guardhouse squad under control. Kincaid decides on a risky plan, kidnap the daughter (Jody Lawrance) of one of the chieftains who is responsible for bringing the previously warring tribes together.

'Tall Men' was released a year before another Lancaster movie, The Crimson Pirate, that while dealing with vastly different subjects, is similar in tone. Both movies were made to be as entertaining as possible with no deeper meanings or awards aspirations. Filmed in Technicolor, this Legionnaire story is colorful, full of action and over the top characters. Even when the evil Rif tribesmen, led by Gerald Mohr's Khalif Hussein, start to track down Kincaid's squad there's never a real sense of danger because in the end you know Kincaid's going to get the job done, and of course, get the girl, the Rif princess who hates him at first but ultimately falls for him. Totally didn't see that twist coming, right?

This is the type of role that Lancaster was born to play, extravagant, over the top, a lover of life who's always ready to flash his famous grin at whatever is put in front of him. Later in his career, Lancaster played a fair share of more serious, low-key characters, but this is him at his best. And less than five years removed from his screen debut in The Killers, Lancaster -- a circus performer before he got into movies -- does almost all his own stunts. In the Beau Geste/Gunga Din vein of the trio of friends, Roland gets to be the flamboyant 'Mamacita'-shouting Spanish legionnaire and Moore plays the equally nutty Frenchman. The convict squad Kincaid puts together includes Michael Pate, John Dehner, Mike Mazurki, George Tobias, and Nick Dennis.

With a Foreign Legion story, there isn't as much action as one might expect where its predecessors like Beau Geste and Gunga Din (even if it isn't Foreign Legion) were heavy on the gunfights and shootouts from the start. What's here is decent although a lot of it is tongue in cheek. As opposed to the Legionnaires gunning down Rif tribesmen, there's a lot of fistfights and hand to hand struggles. Let's face it, what solves a dispute better than a good old-fashioned brawl with crazy sound effects? The story though is a lot of fun, giving star Lancaster and the cast a chance to ham it up for some exciting action. A nice enough way to pass 90 minutes.

Ten Tall Men (1951): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Fourteen Hours

In 1951 renowned director Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole hit theaters and tanked in a big way. Watching it now almost 60 years later, it's easy to see why. It's ahead of its time in dealing with criticisms of media, mob mentality, even society in general. Basically, 'Ace' doesn't pull any punches. It tells a story and doesn't care how you feel about it. Released the same year as 'Ace,' Fourteen Hours deals with a similar subject but never rises to the same level as Wilder's forgotten classic.

Combining a documentary-like filming style and an impressive list of character actors given a chance to step into the limelight, 'Fourteen' tries to do a lot of things. The premise -- a man standing on a ledge on the 15th floor of a New York hotel and ready to jump -- doesn't seem to bode well for a feature-length film. But that's for later because I've got some complaints about that man out on the ledge.

Delivering breakfast to a 15th floor room at the Rodney Hotel, a waiter (Frank Faylen) loses track of where the hotel guest is in the room. Looking around, he notices the curtains blowing all over the room. Sticking his head out the window, he sees the guest (Richard Basehart) standing on the window ledge. Far down below on the empty New York streets, traffic cop Charlie Dunnigan (Paul Douglas) spots the man on the ledge and races inside the hotel to try and help. So starts a day-long media event as Dunnigan and seemingly all of the NY police force try to talk the man down, first trying to find the man's name and then looking into his background.

That sort of storyline opens the door for a long list of possibilities. At the heart of the movie is Basehart's man on the ledge and Douglas' flat-footed traffic cop, the only man Basehart will talk to. But feet away in the hotel room and the adjacent hallway is a throng of people, cops, reporters, hanger-ons trying to help or hurt the situation. Far below on the streets, NY turns into gridlock as crowds gather to see whether the man will jump to his death. A group of cab drivers place bets on which hour he will jump while waiting for the traffic to clear. Additions like that reminded me of 'Ace' in its cynicism of human nature, but 'Fourteen' balances that out with a love story between two strangers, Jeffrey Hunter's Danny and Debra Paget's Ruth.

As the man on the ledge and the average Joe cop trying to talk him down, Basehart and Douglas dominate the screentime, but that doesn't mean a long list of varying characters is left behind. Agnes Morehead and Robert Keith play the man's overbearing mother and the father who abandoned his family, Howard Da Silva as police commander Moskar who leads the rescue effort from the hotel room, Martin Gabel as Dr. Strauss, a psychiatrist trying to figure out Basehart's background and mental make-up, Grace Kelly in her screen debut as a divorcee watching the proceedings from a nearby building, and Ossie Davis and Harvey Lembeck as two on-looking cab drivers looking to make a buck.

The premise -- as interesting and tense as it is -- has some holes that probably needed to be dealt with. First, the biggie, Basehart gets out on that ledge early in the morning and stands there for (like the title says) 14 hours. But once Douglas' cop shows up, the man starts asking for cigarettes, glasses of water and coffee. Whenever any effort is made to bring him down from the ledge, he starts freaking out, screaming 'Get back or I'll jump!' Basically, that's my problem with the character who, credit going to Basehart, comes across a whiny, shrill, not mentally all there individual. I'm not sure what it says about me, but after the fifth or sixth freakout at seeing a cop or net, I was rooting for him to jump. And on the reality meter, he's up there 14 hours and drinking water and coffee. The dude's gonna have to use the bathroom at some point. Come on now.

My complaints aren't enough to not recommend this movie, just enough to detract overall from a worthy story and bring down an above average movie to an average flick. Great cast, some very cool uses of New York as the story's backdrop, and an interesting premise that for the most part delivers. Look for 14 Hours, but also track down Wilder's Ace in the Hole, a forgotten classic from a great director.

Fourteen Hours <---- typically overdramatic 1950s trailer (1951): **/****

The Final Countdown

A whole sub-genre of history/sci-fi has been devoted to one idea; using variations of time travel, if you could change history, would you? Imagine going back to November 1963 and being in the Dallas Book Depository and stopping Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting John F. Kennedy JR. Think of going back even further and killing a young Adolf Hitler. That's just two examples, but the obvious follow-up is could changing one person's life affect millions of others? So goes 1980's The Final Countdown.

It's 1979 and defense contractor Warren Lasky (Martin Sheen) has been chosen to take an advisory trip on the U.S.S. Nimitz, a US Navy nuclear carrier stationed in the Pacific. On board, Capt. Yelland (Kirk Douglas) welcomes Lasky and offers to help in any way he can. Others, like Wing Commander Owens (James Farentino), aren't so convinced Lasky's there to help. All personal grudges are thrown to the curb when the Nimitz sails into a horrific storm unlike anyone onboard has ever been through. On the other side of the storm, everything seems to be okay. The carrier can move as quickly as ever, all weapons and communications systems still work, and the crew is all right.

But something's not quite right. The radio is broadcasting Jack Benny shows, the radio frequencies and codes are years past their usefulness, and oddly enough, Japanese fighter planes are seen in the vicinity. Lasky, Yelland and crew figure it out; the Nimitz has somehow traveled back in time. It's December 6, 1941, just hours before the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The debate starts immediately as to what they should do, intervene and prevent the attack and change history or do nothing and let America's involvement in WWII come to fruition?

Time travel is about as complicated as anything presented in science fiction. Shows like Lost and Flash Forward and countless movies have dealt with the subject with all it's little wrinkles and differences. Sheen's Lasky wonders aloud 'if we stop the attack and therefore stop America in WWII, do we cease to exist because the line of time that caused us to be there is now altered?' It's the type of conversation that hurts your head just thinking about it and all the possibilities. But that's the fun of the premise; what if?

The build-up and the mounting clues as Yelland tries to figure out what is going on are the high points of the movie. The problem is in the final 30 minutes as Yelland makes his decision on what to do with his attack force of almost 100 modern jet fighters. The problem? It's a cop out ending. There is no ending. Recently, Quentin Tarantino rewrote history with his Inglourious Basterds, and I found myself wishing 'Countdown' did that too. But it doesn't, settling for an ending that makes sense but doesn't do anything risky. It's a safe decision, and unfortunately one that brings the movie down a notch. There is a worthwhile twist in the final scene, but not one to steer the movie back on course.

A positive to take away is the casting with veteran star Kirk Douglas taking the lead as Capt. Yelland, the commander of the USS Nimitz. Yelland must decide what to do in a situation no Navy officer ever figured on having to do, change history or follow orders. Sheen gets the more showy part as Lasky, the defense contractor always looking for alternatives. It's his character that believes with one fell swoop the whole timeline of history could be altered for the better. Farentino is also good as Owens, the amateur historian and expert fighter pilot. Charles Durning and Katharine Ross play Senator Samuel Chapman and his aide Laurel who living in 1941 become the unwilling participants aboard a time-traveling carrier. Ron O'Neal is also good as Cmdr. Thurman, Yelland's right hand man.

This is a science fiction story ripe with potential that never really delivers in the end. Too bad because even with a disappointing ending, 'Countdown' is still a movie I'd recommend because the premise is so interesting and out of the box of normal movie storytelling. Good cast, especially Douglas and Sheen, and some great footage aboard an immense US carrier. Dated special effects be damned, this one is still worth seeing.

The Final Countdown <----trailer (1980): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Slaughter Trail

If there's anything one thinks of in a western it's the cowboys vs. Indians, the gunfighters, the cattle drives, the outlaws. One thing I clearly don't associate westerns with is singing, whether it be musicals like Oklahoma! or even singing cowboys like Gene Autry. They just seem out of place. 'Hey, I just saved the pretty school teacher from bandits, let me get my guitar out and sing about it a little!' So you might ask, how do you make it worse? Combine the two with a ballad soundtrack that runs throughout and not singing cowboys, but singing cavalrymen. That evil combination comes to fruition with 1951's Slaughter Trail.

With a brisk running time of 78 minutes, director Irving Allen apparently did not have enough in the way of a story for a feature length movie. By my guess, there's about 30 minutes of actual story and 48 minutes of ballad soundtrack and various asides with characters bursting into song. There's not enough here to make a worthwhile Gunsmoke or Bonanza episode much less a theater-released movie. Other westerns have used a ballad-like sountrack, High Noon comes to mind, but never this much. Four and five minutes pass as a cavalry troop rides across the desert, not a word spoken, with the 'Slaughter Trail' ballad booming.

There's also six different musical numbers thrown in with the story when the ballad isn't blaring. Some fit better than others, like a dance at a fort in Arizona, but most seem thrown together to make the movie a little longer. At one point, Andy Devine's Sergeant Macintosh actually hands another soldier a guitar and asks him to play so he serenades the troopers. How sweet. All this happy singing is just out of place in a story that a typical B-western could have handled nicely, or at least better than this clunker.

Working together to knock off stagecoaches and the money/gold/jewels they're carrying, outlaw Ike Vaughn (Gig Young) and Lorabelle Larkin (Virginia Grey) hit the jackpot when they discover a purse full of diamonds onboard a stagecoach. Ike passes them off to Lorabelle for safe-keeping so he and his gang can get away. But as they run, the gang steals three horses from a small group of Navajo Indians, killing two of three. The one survivor returns to the tribe where the chief calls for war because the white men broke the treaty. At the nearest outpost, Fort Marcy, the commander, Captain Dempster (Brian Donlevy) has to figure out what to do in hopes of stopping what could be a bloody rampage.

This B-western story is nothing new or inventive, but it is a good story if nothing else. There's never enough time spent on that story though for it to be any good. There are some limitations with the budget as seen in the finale. The Fort Marcy set is a great, expansive outdoor location that was used in a long list of movies in the 40s and 50s. It's situated in a small valley ringed by hills. But when the Navajos attack, they're attacking on wide, dusty plain in the middle of nowhere. We never actually see the warriors in the same shot with the soldiers firing at them. There's also the angle that Donlevy's Dempster takes about the three outlaws. He won't turn them over to the Navajos, instead posting them outside the walls to apparently be brutally killed. Ends justify the means I guess.

Known as much for playing the evil villain as much as anything, Donlevy gets a crack at playing the heroic good guy and does pretty well as he looks out for his daughter and the fort and even tries to work some magic with Grey's Lorabelle, a forced movie relationship if there ever was one. He even compliments her, 'That was quick thinking,' when she picks off an Indian about to kill someone. Smooth talker that Capt. Dempster. Young as Ike Vaughn is all right, the outlaw with the maniacal laugh. Devine is his typically annoying, braying self as the apparently veteran cavalry sergeant.

On to one more thing that bugged me that I can thank all the John Wayne movies I've watched for helping me spot. Chuck Hayward was a long-time stunt man who always got bit parts in westerns and war movies, a face you'd probably recognize, if you've seen enough of these movies. In Slaughter Trail, he plays two bit parts, one as the Indian survivor in the beginning and two as the Indian scout working for the cavalry. At one point, his two characters are actually in the same scene together. Talk about a small budget, but that is just impressive. A stinker all around, I fortunately could not find a trailer for this gem. Steer way clear of this one.

Slaughter Trail (1951): */****

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Haunting

I don't watch horror movies. I just don't. I can't tell you how far back this goes, whether I saw some creepy horror movie that traumatized me or what, but I typically steer clear of them (you know, just to be safe). There are exceptions, the black and white monster movies made between the 1930s and 1950s like Dracula, Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and some assorted others like The Omen. But other than that, I steer clear unless pushed into watching one. On Halloween, TCM did two full days of scary/horror movies so I figured I'd at least try one, 1963's The Haunting.

Maybe it's the gore in horror/slasher movies I don't like because just getting scared doesn't bother me. Seeing someone's guts slashed out is a different story so I've avoided the torture porn movies like Saw and Hostel in recent years. The Haunting relies almost completely on your imagination scaring you so I can get on board for that. Director Robert Wise doesn't use cliches or any tricks to catch you off guard, he just presents something that you can hear, but not see and let's your mind do the rest. Pretty effective when you compare it to a mass murderer like Freddy Krueger or Jason slashing and stabbing their way through countless victims.

A long-time student of paranormal activity, Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) has arranged with the owners of a supposedly haunted house, Hill House, to conduct an experiment as to whether the huge New England home does have evil spirits inside. Built in the years after the Civil War, Hill House has a history of strange occurrences and weird happenings that include some grisly deaths (all introduced in the opening prologue). Markway assembles a small group who have experience in one way or another with the paranormal, the supernatural. Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) as a child was part of the only documented encounter with a poltergeist, and Theodora (Claire Bloom) has vast expertise with E.S.P. and therefore knows what those around her are saying. Last, there's Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn), a skeptic who stands to inherit Hill House and looks forward to the cash it will bring him.

So the group of four prepares for a possibly extended stay at Hill House to see if the rumors are true. At first, nothing happens but each night unexplainable incidents start to occur. Doors close on their own, lights go on and off in the dead of night, musical instruments play themselves, and loud, crashing sounds race up and down the hallways. An individual with some mental health issues to begin with, Eleanor starts to suspect that the house and its spirits want her and no one else. The ending comes as a bit of a twist, not a nice, tidy finale but one that certainly works for the story.

Shot in black and white, the Hill House sets deserve billing with the cast. Director Wise shot the movie in black and white so right off the bat, it's dark and shadowy as the night drags on and the house guests start to experience all the eccentricities of the house. The hallways wind endlessly with countless doors that look exactly alike. Each room is filled with piles of art, statues and furniture so there's a claustrophobic feel. Topping it off, the statues and gargoyles are all perched at eye level and above as if they're looking down on the goings on in Hill House. All of this adds to the creepy mood that do make the scarier moments work so well.

Telling the story, Wise doesn't use shocking moments or really even reveal anything as to an explanation for Hill House. It just is haunted, and to be fair, any explanation would have come across as false or not lived up to expectations. Because the viewer never sees a spirit or a ghost, your imagination has to picture what exactly is making that noise out in the hall, like this scene where Eleanor hears a man and boy talking in the dead of night. Composer Humphrey Searle is not subtle in its execution but does push the frightening scenes along when it needs to, including some quick cutting and memorable camera work from Wise.

With the small cast, Harris is excellent as Eleanor. Her invalid mother she cared for over the last 12 years has died recently, and from her backstory we know she's got some guilt issues about her mother's death. She is looking for a new life because after so many years she now has some freedom, but she doesn't exactly know where to start and thinks that maybe Hill House is the place she's been seeking. Bloom, Johnson, and Tamblyn are all very good in their parts as this foursome dominates the screentime. Bloom's Theo develops a close friendship with Eleanor (leading some critics to believe there's a lesbian connection because of course, two women who are close in movies must be lesbians) while Johnson starts to look out for Eleanor and question whether he should have brought her along. Tamblyn gets some of the lighter lines as the cynical heir who doesn't quite believe in ghosts or first.

Look at this way, if someone who doesn't enjoy horror movies liked the movie, it has to be pretty good, right? It's not a terrifying movie or one full of shock value. The Haunting lets you decide how scary everything is. Youtube has the movie broken up into segments, starting here with Part 1 of 11.

The Haunting <---trailer (1963): ***/****

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys

Ah, the buddy movie where two seemingly different people team up to save the world. Nowhere was the buddy idea used more than westerns, like Butch and Sundance, Blondie and Tuco, or Llewelyn Moss and Anton Chigurh. Okay, maybe not that last one. Director Burt Kennedy uses this formula in his 1969 comedic western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys with a retired marshal working together with his outlaw rival to stop a train robbery.

Between 1966-69, established star Robert Mitchum made eight movies (so much for slowing down later in your career). Six of the eight were westerns ranging from near classics, 1966's El Dorado, to average, Young Billy Young. Mitchum seemed to know what his fans wanted, and from reading his biography, he actually enjoyed making westerns, he stuck with the genre. Why fix something that isn't broken? What sets 'Good Guys' apart from many wild west stories is that it deals with the closing of the west, but with some humor. We're not talking the grandiose violence of The Wild Bunch here.

In the town of Progress, U.S. Marshal James Flagg (Mitchum) tells the mayor, Randolph Wilker (a very funny Martin Balsam), that a gang has been spotted in the area. Leading the group is Big John McKay (George Kennedy), an old rival of Flagg's believed to have been killed in a bank robbery in Texas on the Red River. Flagg guesses that the gang is going to knock off a train carrying $100,000 for the new bank in town, but Wilker has another idea. The mayor retires Flagg -- ceremony and gold watch included-- and puts his own man in charge, leaving the marshal to take matters into his own hands.

Flagg pursues the gang but ends up a prisoner with who else as his guard, McKay. The gang has been taken over by a young outlaw, Waco (David Carradine), who doesn't have much regard for the veteran outlaw. Rescued by an old mule skinner, Grundy (Douglas Fowley), Flagg heads back to town with a handcuffed McKay. But when the chips are down, the marshal/outlaw combo realize they need to help each other so Flagg and McKay team up to stop Waco's gang from hitting the train, deciding they can't attack the train if it doesn't stop in Progress.

For the first hour or so, the comedy here is pretty low-key as Mitchum's Flagg deals with the forward-thinking mayor who's more concerned about the upcoming election than anything else. In Progress, the crowded, paved streets are covered with cars while Flagg rides through on his trusty horse. The humor is saved for the finale as Mitchum and Kennedy hijack the train with Waco's gang riding to catch up and Mayor Wilker leading a posse of cars, wagons, horsemen, and railroad push carts in pursuit. There's a great helicopter shot of the prolonged chase that is a site to see.

As the rivals who aren't so different, Mitchum and Kennedy bring the movie up a notch from what would have been a much lesser western without strong actors in these roles. It's the early 1900s and for better or worse, the duo has 'outlived their usefullness' as technology and the changing times have pushed gun-toting peace officers and bank robbers out the door. After they return to town, the two have a great scene as they discuss what used to be and how things aren't like they used to be. Flagg's been relieved of his duties and McKay has been left behind by his gang. So with nothing else to do, the former marshal and the former outlaw say 'what the hell?' and team up.

I'll recommend this movie mostly because of Mitchum, a long-time movie star, and Kennedy, who was still relatively new to movies after spending years in guest starring spots on TV shows. As always, Mitchum has this ease of making characters likable, and it's nice to see him in a good guy role. He was known for playing roguish brutes who were ultimately good, but Flagg is good through and through, even getting his own theme song. Kennedy gets some good laughs as McKay and has some great chemistry with Mitchum in their scenes together. Other cast members include Tina Louise as a married woman looking for a fling with the mayor, Lois Nettleton as Mary, the owner of the boarding house who is with Flagg, and John Davis Chandler as Deuce, a psychotic member of Waco's gang. Carradine is given little to do and has no background as Waco, but Carradine was intimidating and a good villain just standing there.

Absolutely nothing spectacular about this one --check that, the New Mexico locations are beautiful-- but as you've most likely figured out, a western has to be bottom of the barrel for me not to find something redeeming about it. Watch this one for typically strong performances from Robert Mitchum and George Kennedy and a great supporting part for Martin Balsam. Couldn't find a trailer on Youtube, but that's a good thing. The one featured on the DVD special features was unintentionally corny while also giving away the ending.

The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Certain movies just don't need to remade, plain and simple. Of course, that doesn't mean they aren't remade like the original The Flight of the Phoenix from 1965 starring James Stewart, Richard Attenborough and a really solid supporting cast. It's a minor classic in it's own right and a memorable story of survival in awful conditions. So fast forward almost 40 years, and what do you know, remake!

When it hit theaters in 2004, I was one of the few -- very few, the movie made just over $20 million and was out of theaters in two or three weeks -- who went and saw it. The trailer sucked me in, and it looked like a good old-fashioned adventure movie. Decent cast? Check. Desperate survivor story in exotic location? Double check. Gun-wielding desert nomads? Oh, yes, very much so. Maybe it made a difference, but I hadn't seen the 1965 original when I saw the remake, who knows, but the remake, 2004's Flight of the Phoenix, is definitely worth a watch.

Flying to a desolate oil drilling location in Mongolia, pilot Frank 'Shut it down' Towns (Dennis Quaid) and his co-pilot AJ (Tyrese Gibson) are supposed to pick up all crew and equipment with the well not producing enough results. On-site company rep Ian (Hugh Laurie) never told team leader Kelly (Miranda Otto) the news so the well being shut down is news to her and her crew. Towns takes off heading for home, but the cargo plane runs into a horrific sandstorm that causes him to crash-land hundreds of miles off course in the Gobi desert.

So with enough food and water to last a month if rationed correctly, Towns and the survivors decide to wait for rescue. But after days of no sign of help, one of the survivors, a mysterious man named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi) who was an airplane designer back home, says they can build a new plane out of the wreckage and fly home, most importantly before their supplies run out. Unwilling at first, Frank decides to go along with the seemingly impossible plan. Can the survivors accomplish the impossible as supplies dwindle?

Where the original went more for the drama in this life-or-death situation, the remake went more for entertainment value. One example? While rebuilding the plane, the survivors dance to Outkast's 'Hey, Ya!' Water be damned! There is the obvious conflict as the group decides what to do, but one thing they can all agree on is that if Elliott wasn't so important, they'd string him up as quick as they could. Credit goes to Ribisi who steals the movie as the arrogant, egomaniacal Elliott as he goes toe-to-toe with Quaid's Towns in a power-struggle. If there was a villain in a story where everyone is supposedly working together, it would be Ribisi.

The biggest differences between the two movies are two additions, Miranda Otto's character (can't have an all-male cast) who is a good add to the cast, and the arrival halfway through the movie of a roving band of gun-wielding smugglers. The smugglers/nomads drop in and out of the story as necessary -- making a key appearance late in the movie -- and do provide the movie's coolest scene, a tension-filled confrontation as Ian, AJ and Rodney (Tony Curran, the tough Scottish roughneck, the coolest survivor) see if they can trade for supplies without knowing if the smugglers intend to you know, kill them. With Massive Attack's Angel providing the sountrack in the scene, it's a shadowy, eerie, beautifully shot scene.

With the script placing certain limitations on characters, the cast does the best they can with what's given. The original, based on a novel by Elleston Trevor, spent a lot of time developing Towns, his co-pilot and the crew. Quaid is as reliable as ever as Joe Everyman, the unwilling leader trying to keep everyone alive, as is Tyrese as his sidekick/co-pilot. Joining Otto and Laurie is Curran, rapper Kirk 'Sticky Fingaz' Jones, Jacob Vargas as the Mexican cook Sammi, Scott Michael Campbell as Liddle, the fella who just wants to see his family, and Kevork Malikyan as Rady, the wise Middle Easterner.

Comparing original to remake is tricky because it's the same basic premise, a pretty ingenious one if you ask me, that goes down a different road in the execution. The original keyed in on story, characters and conflict, and doing it all believably. The remake went more for some action, a few laughs here and there, and some cool if not well-developed characters. The surprising thing is, the original is a better movie, but the remake is more fun to watch.

Flight of the Phoenix <----trailer (2004): ***/****