The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday Affair

After being arrested for possession of marijuana in 1948, Robert Mitchum had his work cut out for him in the eyes of the studio. How could audiences go see the movies of a man who would do something so horrible? Hindsight here is of course 20/20 -- audiences didn't care both at the time and in the long term -- but nutbag himself Howard Hughes insisted Mitchum clean up his act some, including acting in a sweet, little Christmas movie, 1949's Holiday Affair.

From his days as a supporting bit player to later in his career as a big-time movie star, Mitchum played a huge variety of roles, but they were often based in one similar character...a laconic but still tough, very capable man who usually ended up on the good side, usually in a film noir or a western. Sure, there were exceptions like his villainous turns in Night of the Hunter and Cape Fear where's he is downright frightening, but typically he took roles that were in his wheelhouse. But of all the Mitchum movies I've seen, Holiday Affair is the first, wait for it, romantic comedy I ever saw him in.

Mitchum plays Steve Mason, a department store salesman with dreams of heading to the west coast to design sailing boats. He's an all-around good guy, if a little quirky. But one day at the store, he doesn't turn in Connie Ennis (Janet Leigh), a comparison shopper looking for the best deals around town. As a result, Steve gets fired. Connie offers to take him to lunch -- because that makes up for losing your job -- and Steve ends up helping her the rest of the day posing as her husband. He even helps bring some of her purchases home where he meets Carl (Wendell Corey), Connie's fiance, and her 6-year old son, Timmy (Gordon Gebert), who's father was killed in WWII.

Well, Carl is no idiot and sees that right away Steve is a bit of a threat to his idyllic little life he's got planned out (I shouldn't say that, it makes it sound like Carl is an evil genius). Making it tougher, precocious Timmy clicks right away with the quirky Steve. Seeing he's caused a bit of a stir, Steve excuses himself and leaves but that's not the end for him and Connie and Carl and Timmy. Set in New York in the days around Christmas and New Year, this was a harmless enough romantic comedy. I didn't spoil how the ending goes, but if you can't figure it out, you haven't seen enough romantic comedies.

For a change it is nice to see Mitchum play completely against type. Just like other actors often typecast into a certain part -- John Wayne comes to mind -- Mitchum had a ton of ability onscreen. He was an actor, not just a movie star, so seeing him do some comedy is great after so many parts where he is a tough detective or a roaming gunfighter. The same goes for Janet Leigh who was often in big period epics like The Vikings or darker roles like Psycho or The Naked Spur. As a single mother, she's trying to stay connected with her deceased husband while caring for her son. Now to Corey, who's perfect as the other guy schlub, the man who starts with the girl but is destined not to get her in the end. It's only a matter of how long before it happens. Also look for a young Harry Morgan in a great one-scene appearance as a police lieutenant trying to figure exactly what's going on with Steve, Connie and Carl.

Nothing really spectacular about this one at all with a generally cheap TV feel to the story. Eight-year old Gebert is surprisingly good for a child actor, handling his scenes well enough with Mitchum, Leigh and Corey to the point he's not overshadowed. He does have the syndrome so often present in romantic comedies; kids that say things no real kid would ever say, but it's never obnoxious. Even with nothing to set this apart from most other B-movies, it's enjoyable and it is hard to mess up a Christmas movie. Couldn't find a trailer, but TCM has four clips available to watch.

Holiday Affair (1949): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Man Called Sledge

After a string of successful movies throughout the 60s but still a couple years away from the success of The Rockford Files, James Garner was at a bit of a crossroads in the early 1970s. He had a failed TV show that lasted only a season and a couple of movies that have pretty much been forgotten. In other words, ripe pickings for a review because I love one of them, an odd spaghetti western from 1970 called A Man Called Sledge.

With so many spaghetti westerns, what makes them a so-called 'spaghetti' is the style, but there's also the cast, crew, locations and of course, the financial backing. 'Sledge' is a bit of a departure from that successful formula with four American actors in the lead roles and a former American TV star as the director in Vic Morrow (who also makes a quick cameo). There's nothing really dynamic or different about 'Sledge' but it's an enjoyable enough western, and it's always interesting to see a 'good guy' actor take a crack at playing a villain as Garner does here.

After a botched stagecoach robbery, Luther Sledge (Garner) and his partner, Mallory (Tony Young), head for a saloon where Sledge meets his girlfriend, Ria (Laura Antonelli), and Mallory gets involved in a high-stakes card game. Mallory is killed for supposedly cheating after an impressive winning streak so Sledge is on his own and rides out to find the rest of the gang. On the trail though, he notices someone following him and ambushes him. It's a saddle bum known only as the Old Man (John Marley), and he's got a proposition for Sledge. A prisoner in the fortress prison nearby for 20 years, the Old Man knows all about the gold shipments stored in the prison from the local mine.

Hearing that as much as $300,000 is contained in each shipment, Sledge is instantly intrigued by the news. But there's a catch; the shipments are guarded by 40 heavily armed soldiers (Morrow is the mountain man looking guard in the lead) and a wagon-mounted gatling gun. At the first site of trouble, the 40 guards close up ranks and prepare to defend the gold. Sledge and his gang will almost assuredly be killed in any attempt so what can they do? Get at the gold on an inside job, as prisoners at the prison, so they won't have to worry about the professional guards picking them off. It doesn't really matter what the plan is, Sledge is going to get this gold one way or another.

My fascination with spaghetti westerns is rooted in the fact that more often that not, these Italian westerns are incredibly cynical with no obligation to force a happy ending on the viewer. Good guys are killed all the times, these aren't the invincible gunslingers too often present in American westerns. 'Sledge' is one of the darker, more cynical Italian westerns both in terms of subject matter and the ending. Using the Treasure of the Sierra Madre company line on gold -- Greed is not good, Gordon Gecko -- Sledge's gang is ready to turn on each other at a moment's notice if it helps them get their hands on the other members' gold. This not so subtle message is there from the start when Mallory gets killed for winning too much money and continues right till the end with betrayals and double crosses coming left and right.

This all comes to a head late in a climactic card game -- it's more exciting than it sounds -- as Sledge plays the Old Man for the gold. This sequence done in slow motion and close-ups is aided by a truly awful and even more awesome song called 'Other Men's Gold,' a very 70s jazzy tune. It's as cheesy as possible, and I love it. I defy you to watch this movie and not have it running through your head for at least a couple days. The score in general, composed by Gianni Ferrio, is not the typical western soundtrack, but it completely works in the context of the story.

For many movie fans, the reason to see this flick will be Garner starring as a bad guy. Compared to the rest of his gang, he's not that bad but it's all relative. Garner usually played some version of a charming rogue so it's nice to see him tackle a straight-up villainous part. He's aided by McCloud himself Dennis Weaver and western stalwart Claude Akins as Ward and Hooker, two of Sledge's gang. Marley is probably most well known for this scene, but he's also very good here as basically the devil himself, the gold-hungry Old Man. Antonelli is given little to do as Ria, Sledge's girl, but she looks great doing it. Some recognizable faces, mostly Italian actors, round out the supporting cast.

About as different a spaghetti western as you're going to find, A Man Called Sledge is not a classic or really even that good of a movie. It's very dark in the outlook it takes on men and greed and what they'll do for some easy cash. But from the start, it's entertaining throughout including a real downer of an ending that works for the characters and the story. And come on, it's James Garner as a bad guy, and look at that mustache! He has to be a good bad guy with that epic monstrosity on his lip. An interesting spaghetti western worth checking out if you stumble across it.

A Man Called Sledge <----trailer (1970): ***/****

Friday, December 25, 2009

It's a Wonderful Life

As much as possible here with my reviews, I do my best to avoid huge, sweeping generalities about moviegoers and their likes and dislikes...this is not one of those times. Released in 1946 to mixed reviews and a horrific showing in theaters, It's a Wonderful Life was pretty much left by the wayside for many years only to be given new life as a new generation of moviegoers rediscovered it in the 1970s and 1980s. Let me say this about critics and audiences in 1946 who didn't think too highly of this movie; they are IDIOTS.

If director Frank Capra can be accused of anything for his abilities as a moviemaker, it was that his films tended to be on the sentimental, downright sappy side. The description 'Capra-esque' is used all the time now to describe a movie that doesn't have a mean bone in its body. Is that really a bad thing? Coming from a movie fan who can be pretty cynical, doesn't really enjoy Hollywood happy endings, and is ready to roll his eyes at a moment's notice, that's saying something. 'Wonderful Life' is sappy, sentimental and meant to tug at your heart strings. What's wrong with a movie that is content being wholesome and entertaining?

For those people who haven't seen the movie -- I think they're called Communists -- here's the quick breakdown. George Bailey (James Stewart) is a family man in the town of Bedford Falls with his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and their four kids. George runs the Building and Loan, a small business that is basically all that remains in town not owning to rich old curmudgeon Mr. Potter (played to evil perfection by Lionel Barrymore). After years of struggling to stay above water financially, George has hit his breaking point. His partner and family relative Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) lost $8,000 that the Building and Loan needs to survive. Looking at a lengthy jail sentence, George seeks a way out and comes to the conclusion he's worth more to his family dead than alive.

But standing on a bridge ready to jump into the freezing waters below, George instead has to jump in after another man that fell in. His name is Clarence (Henry Travers), an angel 2nd Class -- he doesn't have his wings yet -- and he's been sent to save George. But to convince him he's real, Clarence gives George a rare see what the world would be like if he was never born. Given this opportunity, George sees what a profound affect he's had on people all his life.

Much of the story is George's life seen in flashback as Clarence learns about the man he's supposed to save. This first 75 minutes is key, absolutely essential to show what George's makeup is. His life didn't turn out anywhere near what he had planned, but even with some detours and changes, he has a happy life through his marriage with Mary and his four children. He has family and friends and almost a whole town that needs him. These parts set the stage perfectly for the last hour of the movie as George is forced to take stock of his life and see what he's really accomplished with a life he thinks has been a waste to a certain point.

But the highlight of the movie is that final hour, one of the best extended sequences in the history of the movies. Watching George realize what's going on as he sees how different the world would be if he'd never been born is a series of perfect little vignettes. This leads him to realize his life was actually pretty great, building up to one of the all time great endings to a movie -- seen HERE if you've never seen it. Now I'm not usually a crier with movies, but I'll admit to crying like a little baby at this ending. It is the perfect ending to this story, well almost, but more on that later.

Jimmy Stewart had a lot of classics in his distinguished career, but this movie easily goes Top 5 with much of the praise coming from his performance. He brings George Bailey to life in creating one of Hollywood's greatest characters. As his wife, Donna Reed is the all-American girl everyone wants to marry, and the two do have great chemistry. On a side note, I find it hard to believe that Reed's Mary could not have found a husband if George wasn't around, but maybe that's just me. The supporting cast is just as good with Barrymore never more evil, Travers very funny as Clarence, the 293-year old angel, and Mitchell as bumbling Uncle Billy. There's also Ward Bond, Frank Faylen, Beulah Bondi, Gloria Grahame, and many more recognizable faces.

As absolutely perfect as the ending is in terms of producing an emotion in the audience, there is a question left unresolved. What about evil Mr. Potter? Saturday Night Live answered that question with one of their most inspired skits ever, check it out HERE at Hulu. The original though is the definition of a Christmas classic that's success just keeps on growing. If you haven't seen this movie yet, first what's wrong with you, and second go find it now.

It's a Wonderful Life <----trailer (1946): ****/****

Thursday, December 24, 2009

White Christmas

Ah, the Christmas movie. Everyone's got a favorite, and if they don't, well they're just lying. It's hard for me to pick just one, It's a Wonderful Life is surely top 2 (review to come in the next day or so), but then there's also A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Jingle All the Way, and even Bad Santa. But right up there with 'Wonderful Life' is Irving Berlin's 1954 musical White Christmas.

This is one of the few musicals I can actually watch, partially because it's a Christmas musical (and what could possibly go wrong with that?) and also because Christmas crooner Bing Crosby is the star. Just like everyone has their favorite Christmas movie, usually anyone you ask can quickly identify their favorite Xmas song too, and for me, it's just about anything Crosby sings. His version of Berlin's White Christmas is the quintessential holiday song and serves as a nice jumping off point for this 50s musical.

Two song and dance men, Bob Wallace (Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), have hit it big since teaming up after WWII (Davis saved Wallace's life and basically guilts Bob into working with him). Their shows tour the country, filling theaters with their unique performances. While touring in Florida, they get a message from an old war buddy asking them to go check out his sisters' show. So Bob and Phil head to a club and see Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera Ellen) Haynes put on their show. Through some shenanigans with a hotel owner, a sheriff and a burnt rug (it's not worth it to explain it all), all four end up on a train bound for Vermont where the Haynes sisters have been hired at the Pine Tree Inn, a ski lodge.

Arriving in Vermont, the quartet find there's no snow for skiing during the holidays and to top it off, their old commanding general, Thomas Waverly (Dean Jagger) owns the struggling inn. Quick thinkers that they are, Bob and Phil decide to bring their hugely popular show up and get some business going for Gen. Waverly. Whatever acts they can't get, they'll have the Haynes sisters fill in. As the plan snowballs though, Bob has one more surprise up his sleeve with noisy housekeeper and all-around busybody Emma (Mary Wickes in a very funny supporting part) always trying to figure out what's going on

At 120 minutes, it might seem somewhat long for a musical but the story never goes more than a few minutes without a musical number of some sort, whether it be Ellen and Kaye dancing, the whole cast doing a minstrel number (my personal favorite), the foursome spontaneously bursting into song about snow (another gem), or Clooney singing a love song. The point is the whole movie is an excuse for a very talented cast to show off their talents. The actual story while highly enjoyable and sometimes heartbreaking -- poor General Waverly -- is completely lost in the ongoing musical numbers. Ellen was a highly respected dancer in Hollywood, Clooney can sing with the best of them, and Crosby and Kaye are equally adept at song, dance or comedy. Composer Irving Berlin pulls out all the stops in delivering a long list of quality musical numbers.

This is a movie that's obvious as you watch it that the cast and crew had fun making it. Fred Astaire was originally supposed to star only to be replaced by Danny Kaye. Sure, it would have been great to see Crosby and Astaire in another holiday classic -- think Holiday Inn 2 -- but Crosby and Kaye are perfect together with on-screen chemistry to spare, including one hilarious bit as they perform as the Haynes sisters. Here's the girls' version, and then here's the gents' spin on it. Of course, it is a musical so there does have to be some romantic fireworks as Crosby ends up with Clooney and Kaye with Ellen. All four actors work together so effortlessly in making this Christmas classic. Clooney didn't act in many movies, but I've always had a crush on her because of this part. She can sing, do comedy and is the definition of a classic beauty.

A fun movie all around, and what would you expect from director Michael Curtiz, who also made a little film called Casablanca, maybe you've heard of it? Filmed in Vistavision with tons of bright colors and great visuals, this isn't just a typical musical but a great movie overall with dead-on casting, plenty of humor to spread around, and of course, some great musical numbers. Remember, that's coming from a musical-phobe who usually avoids them like the plague. A perfect Christmas movie and one I look forward to watching every year. Check it out on Youtube starting here, although I'd highly recommend the DVD.

White Christmas <----trailer (1954): ****/****

Welcome to Collinwood

When it comes to making a heist movie, there's typically two ways to go. One, the serious version with a team of specialists working together to pull off a seemingly impossible job. By the end, there's a good chance they've turned on each other, several are dead, and the heist failed miserably. Two, the not so serious version with a team of misfits working together on some low-level job which probably isn't worth the effort for what they'll get in the end. Both types have produced successes, but I usually prefer the serious version.

Doing a comedic version of a heist story is tricky because it's easy to go overboard trying to be funny, or there's the pulled back, subtle humor as is the case in 2002's Welcome to Collinwood. It's the type of comedy that looked like it had everything going for it with a great cast, interesting premise, and just the right amount of humor to make a comedic heist work. Too bad then that something did not translate in this movie with brother directing combo Joe and Anthony Russo working together on a screenplay they wrote. It's the type of movie that thinks it is much funnier than it is. 'Collinwood' tries to be that quirky, indie low-budget comedy but never delivers.

Sent to prison on a grand theft auto charge, Cosimo (Luis Guzman) finds out about an easy job to pull off from his cellmate, a lifer with no shot of getting out of prison. Cosimo tells his girlfriend Rosalind (Patricia Clarkson) he needs a fall guy to take the rap for him so he can get his release and start working on the job. Instead, the fall guy, a low level boxer named Pero (Sam Rockwell) gets thrown into prison when the judge doesn't believe his confession only to con Cosimo into giving up the plan. Pero gets his release and goes to work planning the job, a robbery of a jewelry store's safe he'll get to by crashing through the apartment next door. But word has already spread and Pero has some 'help' from an odd assortment of some forgotten, low-level thieves who also want a crack at the money in the safe.

The premise itself reminded me of The Ladykillers in many ways, but in the Russo screenplay the two brothers forgot one key thing...make the movie funny. I didn't actually laugh until the actual heist scene which does provide a few chuckles as these inept crooks attempt to break into a safe. I can't decide who's at fault, but I guess it goes back to the screenplay. There's all these great actors working together, but their characters are nothing more than rough sketches that were never fleshed out with the exception of Rockwell's Pero. It feels like the Russos just figured the talent in front of the camera would save the day, but working with the material in front of them the actors aren't able to do much.

Joining Pero's crew is Riley (William H. Macy), a father of an infant looking for some cash because he must care for his son because the wife got sent to prison, Leon (Isaiah Washington), a dandy of a dude trying to protect his sister (Gabrielle Union) and get some money so she can be married, Toto (Michael Jeter), Cosimo's former partner who's a little off, and Basil (Andy Davoli), a bum in need of quick cash. Even George Clooney makes a quick appearance as a wheelchair-bound safecracker (Clooney co-produced the movie with Steven Soderbergh). Jennifer Esposito joins the cast as Carmela, a young maid working in the apartment the fellas will need to work in to get to the safe. The cast is what drew me in to the movie, but as a whole they're just not given enough to do.

Besides the screenplay's weaknesses, 'Collinwood' is flawed because it tries too hard to be quirky, to be different. Successes in indie movies comes when there's a natural feel, a flow to that quirkiness. But here everything screams out 'Look at us, we're different! Laugh at us!' The music by Mark Mothersbaugh is jazzy and overbearing at times, almost pointing out when the viewer should be laughing. Filmed in Cleveland, the story has a cheap look to it as if the characters were trapped in the 1970s judging by their personal styles, but it's hard to get a good read on that.

This is all that much more disappointing because of the talent involved in making the movie. A special feature on the DVD made during the filming shows the actors and crew are enjoying themselves. But something is missing as the behind the scenes fun never translates to in front of the camera. Too many detours and sidetracks here with a movie that never goes anywhere, even with its 86-minute running time. The story just ends too with no real conclusion for everyone except Rockwell's character. A disappointment all around. Available to watch on Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 12.

Welcome to Collinwood <----trailer (2002): **/****

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Birdman of Alcatraz

I wonder sometimes if directors and actors get sick of each other if they work together enough. Sure, there's probably a reason they choose to work together on multiple movies, but making movies is such a tough, difficult process that at some point nerves have to be a little shot. Don't they? Maybe the end result justifies some of the struggles, who knows for sure. Over a three year stretch, director John Frankenheimer and star Burt Lancaster worked together 4 times starting with The Young Savages and continuing into Birdman of Alcatraz, Seven Days in May, and The Train. In this case, the ends definitely justify the means.

Seven Days in May and The Train are classics and now I can add Birdman of Alcatraz to that list as Lancaster again turns in a defining performance from his career. Lancaster was able to balance out his roles, those that required more of an action edge, those that needed him to be at the top of his game acting, and those somewhere in the middle. Think of The Train, which required him to do both. As an actor, there's 2 sides to Lancaster that I've been able to piece together. One, there's Elmer Gantry where the actor is loud, boisterious and over the top from the opening scene. Then, there's 'Birdman' where he's quiet, composed and barely cracks a smile the whole movie...and still brings his character to life.

Based on the real life story of convict Robert Stroud, 'Birdman' starts in 1912 as a young Stroud (Lancaster) is sent to Leavenworth prison for killing a man (the victim was beating a prostitute). He clashes with warden Shoemaker (Karl Malden) right away and ends up killing a guard who is preventing his mother from visiting him. He is sentenced to hang but is saved by his mother (Thelma Ritter) who goes all the way to President Woodrow Wilson to save her son. Stroud is saved, but instead of death he's sent to solitary where he'll only have contact with a few guards while never seeing other prisoners.

Basically challenged to survive by Shoemaker, Stroud vows to win out in the end. One day in the yard, he finds a little sparrow who cannot fly and begins to care for it in his cell. So it starts as Stroud's actions impact other inmates who now want birds as cellmates. What starts as one small sparrow snowballs into many more. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on birds and everything about their makeup, including how to treat bird diseases that previously had no cure. But other things are afoot as Shoemaker is now in charge of the Federal Bureau of Prisons which could impact Stroud and his birds.

What was surprising about the movie is how fascinating these sequences with the birds really are. We're talking whole scenes with little to no dialogue as Lancaster's Stroud first treats just one sparrow (which he names Runty) to then trying to figure out what is happening to all the birds that occupy his cell as an unexplained epidemic races through the cages. These are the high points of the movie -- the first 90 minutes or so -- as Stroud learns much about his avian friends while also interacting with guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand playing against type in a good guy role) and fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas also in an atypical part) who also bonds with birds sent to him by his family.

Really my only issue with the movie is a change that comes about 100 minutes into the story -- and at 149 minutes overall it is a tad long -- when Stroud is transferred to Alcatraz. He is forced to leave all his birds, his studies, his makeshift laboratory behind as he moves to the island prison in San Francisco. So other than the fact that Stroud never had birds at Alcatraz yet he's still dubbed 'the birdman of Alcatraz,' the story gets away from what made the first 90 minutes so strong. Granted, this is a story about a man, not the birds, so the natural progression has to be played out, but the last hour is somewhat dull as this long-time inmate struggles in a new prison. A subplot with a prison riot (with Seinfeld's Uncle Leo leading the riot) seems like it's out of another movie.

What carries the movie through some of it's struggles is the fine cast led by Lancaster and Malden. Malden especially is presented as a good and bad guy, a man trying to do his job who comes down hard sometimes on Stroud, as a viewer it comes across unnecessarily harsh. Brand also delivers one of his best performances in a key supporting role as a guard who unexpected bonds with two-time murderer Stroud, and Savalas gets a chance to play a non-crazy person for a change. Betty Field also makes a strong impression as Robert's wife Stella, and Edmond O'Brien has a bookend cameo as an author who wrote a book about Stroud. Lancaster, Ritter and Savalas were all nominated for their performances. Lancaster deserved to win for this scene with Malden's Shoemaker alone.

Overall though, the strengths of the first half of the movie outweigh the sometimes slow pacing of the second half. Elmer Bernstein's score is a little more understated than his usual booming efforts, and sounds reminiscent of the quieter moments in his Great Escape score. Watch this movie for the performances from Lancaster in the lead to the members of the supporting cast. Maybe Lancaster and Frankenheimer did get on each other's nerves, but if this was the result, it was worth it.

Birdman of Alcatraz <----trailer (1962): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

3 Godfathers

By the time John Ford's 3 Godfathers was released in 1948, the basic premise of the story had been used several times before...five times in movie form actually and one was even directed by Ford. But by 1948, Ford had more technology available to him including the obvious one, sound, and Technicolor formatting that was also used a year later in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. The famous director also played up another aspect of the story, an allegory of Jesus' birth and the three kings who came to see him, but keeping the unique spin of setting the story in the wild west.

After successfully robbing a bank in the town of Welcome, Arizona, three men, Bob Hightower (John Wayne), a Texas outlaw who lives on the wrong side of the law, William Kearney (Harry Carey Jr), a youngster known as the Abilene Kid along for his first robbery, and Pedro Rocafuerte (Pedro Armendariz), a Mexican bandit who's ridden with Bob, hightail it into the desert with a posse close behind. Leading that posse is Sheriff Perley 'Buck' Sweet (Ward Bond), a peace officer who tries to avoid violence as much as he can. Trying to outsmart the other one, Bob and Buck try to get to one of the few water holes in the area.

Reaching one of those holes, Bob and Co. stumble across a wagon with a pregnant mother (Mildred Natwick) inside ready to give birth. Struggling to stay alive, she gives birth to a boy, asking these three men to care for her son as godfathers, dying soon after. So these three outlaws give their word and must figure out how to care for the infant in the desert with little water for them, much less a baby. Knowing the posse will figure out where they are, the trio heads off for New Jerusalem, the closest town around, with no horses, a few canteens of water and no food across the desert to deliver the boy to safety.

Over a career that spanned silent and sound movies, the name John Ford became synonymous with westerns, and while this is not one of his most respected or well known westerns, it's still an above average entry into his filmography. He filmed the movie in the Mojave Desert and Death Valley as opposed to Monument Valley, and the results show. It's a stark landscape the three godfathers must trudge across to get to New Jerusalem. Ford takes advantage of the Technicolor imaging, bringing colors to life where many directors would have filmed the desert in black and white. Certain Ford touches are here, especially in the somewhat sappy ending that differs from the tone of the rest of the movie, but that's a given when watching one of this director's movies.

By 1948, John Wayne had become Ford's go-to guy with a lead role as he was just coming off the success of Fort Apache, the first of Ford's so-called Cavalry trilogy. To be fair, I haven't seen all of Wayne's hour-long serials, but this is one of the few movies where the actor played a bad guy...sort of. Sure, he's an outlaw and a bank robber, but a really nice one at that. The same goes for Armendariz and Carey Jr. The trio has chemistry to spare as they care for Robert William Pedro, the name given the boy in honor of his godfathers. There's obvious humor as three bachelor outlaws who have no idea to care for a baby struggle to adjust. Wayne was a fine comedic actor when given the chance, and he provides several good laughs in this one as do Armendariz and Carey Jr.. As the sheriff chasing them, Bond is his usual self, a loud, boisterious fella who is nonetheless a likable guy.

After rival Howard Hawks gave Carey Jr a supporting role in Red River, a somewhat insulted Ford -- who worked with Carey Sr many times -- took it upon himself to add the young actor in the cast listing as 'And introducing Harry Carey Jr.' It seems Ford didn't want to talk about Red River. But that's how Ford was, and over the years he built the Ford Stock Company, actors and actresses you see in almost all his movies. Armendariz, Carey Jr, Natwick and Bond all qualify, but that list also includes Jane Darwell, Hank Worden, Jack Pennick, Mae Marsh, all of whom have supporting parts in 3 Godfathers. Also look for Ben Johnson in his first credited role as one of Sweet's posse.

So as Christmas draws near, if you're looking for an atypical holiday movie give this one a try. It's not a straight-on Christmas story, but it's close and at the heart of the movie is a sweet story about three tough outlaws putting themselves in harm's way to care for a newborn infant. Good casting as usual with a Ford movie, beautiful on-location filming, and a solid story that's been reused time and again since *cough 3 Men and a Baby cough*. It's available on Youtube, starting here with Part 1 of 11, but this is one I'd recommend watching on TV for the scope of the movie.

3 Godfathers <----trailer (1948): *** 1/2 /****

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Wilby Conspiracy

Certain topics just seem odd when dealt with in movie form regardless of the result; i.e. was the movie good or not? By making a movie about genocide, racism, slavery, the Holocaust, you're fully stepping into the arena to be judged on a different level because people around the world feel so strongly about that topic one way or another. Years ago I saw part of 1975's The Wilby Conspiracy and revisited it this weekend and watched it all the way through. It's definitely a movie that qualifies as dealing with a difficult topic -- South African apartheid -- but it is handled in an incredibly unique way.

Right off the bat, we're talking issues about race that will bring up deep-seeded feelings and emotions in audiences. And while never completely avoiding the topic, director Ralph Nelson puts his own spin in dealing with a story based in South Africa in the 1970s. For those that didn't read the above link, here's the gist, apartheid is segregation on a massive scale and done legally that in South Africa's case existed for almost 50 years between 1948 and 1994. Instead of making a hard-hitting 'topic' movie, Nelson delivers a message rolled together with an action/adventure movie. Really who would have thought of 1970s South Africa as a ripe location for a buddy action movie?

After ten years in jail in Cape Town, Shack Twala (Sidney Poitier) is released when the charges against him are dropped. Going to get his identification papers with his lawyer, Rina (Prunella Gee), and her boyfriend and English engineer Jim Keogh (Michael Caine), Shack is stopped by the police and threatened with imprisonment. Keogh steps in to help and a fight ensues, forcing Shack and Keogh to flee for their safety. From his days in the anti-apartheid movement, Shack knows who can help them out of the country, a man in Johannesburg almost 900 miles away. But as they run, Keogh begins to suspect there's more going on, and he's right. Shack is after a bag of hidden diamonds that can help fund the resistance and the revolution and needs Keogh's help. Chasing after them are two members of the secret police, Major Horn (Nicol Williamson) and Van Heerden (Rijk de Gooyer).

I won't go as far as saying 'Wilby' is a buddy movie, but it's damn close. Saying that almost seems to minimalize the context of the story which does deal with the situation in South Africa where 3 million whites rule over the 18 million or so blacks. Because the apartheid is legal and supported/approved by the government, there's a delicate balance. What helps this is the very different main characters, Poitier's Shack who grew up and lives within this system and Caine's Keogh who is an outsider and goes along with it because he's expected to, not because he believes it.

Surprisingly enough, this dynamic provides some funny moments as Shack and Keogh are forced to pretend Keogh is the master so as not to arouse suspicion. Both men embrace these situations because they have to, but in the moments afterward they have it out, Shack even admitting 'I read Lenin, Marx, and Winnie the Pooh.' These lighter moments help balance out the story, especially the parts with the secret police who in many ways resemble the Gestapo or the KGB for the fear they can instill in the population. Williamson is a very capable villain as he tracks Shack down on this cross country chase.

All the cast handles this odd dynamic well as they balance social issues like apartheid and racism in general with the lighter additions like the humor and action. Caine and Poitier play off each other well as this forced partnership leaves them no other option than to work together. Poitier gets the meatier role as the anti-apartheid activist with vengeance on his mind, but Caine's performance equals it as the English engineer gets more and more involved within the movement. Gee's Rina is both a love interest and the moral compass in a small but effective performance. Saeed Jaffrey and Persis Khambatta have key roles as two Indians living in Johannesburg who worked with Shack in the past, and then Rutger Hauer is nicely evil as Rina's two-timing husband.

Now all social issues and messages aside, The Wilby Conspiracy has some really solid action sequences -- especially the end with what looks to be an incredibly dangerous helicopter stunt -- and has a quick pace throughout. The backstory of apartheid aside, the movie plays like any number of action movies centering on a chase or a fugitive manhunt. But it's handled so well and with such a unique spin on the story, you'll hardly notice. It's entertaining from start to finish with strong performances from Poitier and Caine. Available on DVD but look out for it on TV.

The Wilby Conspiracy <----trailer (1975): ***/****

The Silent Partner

How about this for an odd list of elements in a crime thriller? A possibly bisexual bank robber, an incredibly odd use of a fish tank in a murder, random scenes of nudity, a pre-star John Candy making a cameo, and Elliott Gould as a clever bank teller with an agenda. Combine all that, and what do you get? A crime thriller from Canada that has completely flown under the radar since its release in 1978, The Silent Partner.

This was a Netflix recommendation based off my previous ratings, and with a few exceptions they've been pretty good about movies they'd think I'll like. 'Silent Partner' is set in Toronto and was filmed there too -- making a movie out of the U.S. always seems to be cheaper. Released in the late 70s, it has a low budget look that works well in giving the story a seedy feel to it both in terms of character and background. There are flaws, including one major plothole in the beginning, but Netflix came through with a good pick again.

Working as the head teller at a Toronto bank based in a busy mall, Miles Cullen (Elliott Gould) begins to notice clues that someone is planning a robbery of his bank. It's the holidays and more money than usual is available in the bank so Miles takes his chance. Seeing the robber preparing for his robbery -- he's working as a mall Santa Clause -- Miles pockets almost $50,000 from his drawer. So the armed robber gets away with a few thousand dollars, but thanks to Miles, he gets blamed for taking all of it. Miles thinks he's gotten away with it, but soon after he starts getting mysterious calls from the robber, Harry Reikle (Christopher Plummer), warning him that he wants all his money. So starts a cat-and-mouse game as Miles and Reikle try to outsmart each other.

The high point of the movie by far is the interaction between Gould's Cullen and Plummer's Reikle. From the start, it is very clear that Reikle is more than a little crazy and capable of just about anything if it gets him his money. Two scenes in particular jump out, Reikle cornering Miles in his apartment, and Reikle later using Miles' fish tank for a rather uncomfortable torture scene. If anything, Plummer is underused as his possibly bisexual or just very 70s villain drifts in and out of the story. As the 'good guy,' Gould is the opportunistic criminal who still remains sympathetic mostly because Plummer is so downright scary.

This back and forth retaliation continues to escalate including a friend of Reikle's, Elaine (Celine Lomez), joining the conflict in a plot twist that if you don't see coming, you should be ashamed of yourself. Parts in the middle do drag a bit (usually when Plummer isn't around), and Gould even seems surprised that the bank robber is coming after him for the cash. What did he think would happen? My only other major complaint is how Cullen catches on to the plan by finding a carbon copy of a note Reikle supposedly slipped to another teller. Has he been robbing other tellers, but if not that, did he just happen to lose that note when he was practicing for the real deal? Who knows for sure, but it did bug me.

Some reviews mentioned this 70s thriller as having a Hitchcockian feel, and I wouldn't disagree. The story could be streamlined some more, especially Cullen's on again off again relationship with another bank employee, Julie, played by the very lovely Susannah York. After the initial robbery, it's almost 30 minutes before the conflict arises. Maybe director Daryl Duke was going for a slow burn to try and lull the viewer into a feeling of security only to unleash Plummer's villain, but if you ask me it takes too long. These are just minor complaints because otherwise I really enjoyed this movie.

Slow-paced at times, but this offbeat, little known Canadian crime thriller (how often do you hear that?) has a lot going for it including an ending that confused me at first but worked when I went back and reviewed it. That ending also adds another odd chapter into Plummer's character, but I don't want to spoil it here. It's got a little bit of everything from random, unnecessary 70s nudity (it seems every female member of the cast signed on for a topless scene), and Candy making an appearance as a clueless bank teller, but what makes it worth watching is Elliott Gould and Christopher Plummer as the leads. Definitely worth checking out if you haven't heard of it. Sorry no trailer on this one, there wasn't even one on the DVD.

The Silent Partner (1978): ***/****

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Back to a topic I've written about before for this review...the anti-climactic last stand. Of course, it's only anti-climactic if you know even a little about history. So if you fit in, the endings to movies about the Alamo, the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the Battle of Thermopylae shouldn't come as a surprise to you. But how do you make a movie where at least a good portion of the audience knows how the story is going to end? Getting there can be half the fun, but that doesn't fly with a lot of audiences.

Turning Frank Miller's graphic novel 300, based on the real life battle of Thermopylae, into a big budget action picture, director Zack Snyder stayed true to the story's roots -- in this case the graphic novel. Instead of making a historically accurate, fact-based version of this ancient battle, Snyder goes for the jugular with an over the top, very stylized telling of one of history's famous last stands. And even though the movie was a huge hit -- making over $200 million -- the criticisms rained down, but more on that later. Maybe more so than with so many other movies, it is essential to know the type of movie you will be watching when it comes to 300. If not, there's any number of places where interest may wane.

It is the year 480 BC and the Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler) receives a messenger from Persia. The Persian god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) is sweeping across the world with his massive army, swallowing up countries and armies wherever he goes building his empire. But with the war-heavy culture and upbringing of the Spartans, Leonidas isn't going to just roll over and let Xerxes take Sparta. The council won't allow the army to march out and face the army coming to destroy them so Leonidas finds a loophole of sorts. With his personal bodyguard of 300 men, he marches north to face Xerxes' army.

Leonidas plans for the battle at the pass of Thermopylae where Xerxes' numbers will be negated by the thin entryway. Occupying the pass, Leonidas and the brave 300 can hold back the charges thrown at them over and over again. But as the casualties mount on both sides, can they hold out in time for the council to agree to send the army to help them? Or like true Spartans, will they die in battle as they live up to their belief 'Never give up, never surrender.'? All other things aside, this movie is about the action. It gets to the point it's not just graphic violence anymore. At a certain point, it becomes a ballet, an odd dance of death with blood and guts flying around.

As somehow who doesn't love graphic violence in movies, even I was able to appreciate 300's action. It's heavy on the slow motion which works perfectly because it allows the viewer to see what's going on, how proficient the Spartans were with their weaponry, like this scene. And most of the last 75 minutes of the movie is action, pure and simple, as the Spartans repel charge after charge. You'd think it would get repetitive, but Snyder throws a curveball here and there to keep us interested, including this great fight scene with the Immortals. For one, the script is great, full of one-liners that out of context might sound overdone, but in the context of the movie could not have worked perfectly. Like this now-famous line which has been reused and reused since the movie's release.

Not having read Miller's graphic novel, I can't say how close the movie stays to its source in terms of dialogue. But the dialogue surprisingly enough is what boosts this action movie from average to above average. I for one would not have thought of an ancient massacre being the basis for good one-liners, but what do I know? Credit goes to the cast for committing to these lines, starting with Butler who delivers a movie-stealing performance with his growling voice as he spews out these great lines one after another. The rest of the cast includes Lena Headey as Gorgo, Leonidas' wife and queen of Sparta, Dominic West as the treacherous councilman Theron, and David Wenham, Vincent Regan and Michael Fassbender as three key Spartans.

Done completely in front of a green screen, the movie looks and feels like a graphic novel with its washed out colors (check out the ending for a good representation) which are nonetheless appealing to the eye. The whole movie is a visual treat, not just the expertly-choreographed action sequences. Everything down to the Spartans uniforms all works toward the visual aspect. It also made some people think this was possibly the gayest movie ever with 300 ripped, semi-naked warriors fighting together. Some people have a better imagination than I do I guess. As for the historical naysayers, this movie was never supposed to an accurate depiction of the battle. It's one crazy, over the top look at the battle that never pretends to be anything other than it is, an incredibly entertaining movie.

There are elements of Gladiator and Braveheart visible at times, but it would be hard not to reference those two classics in one way or another. But 300 stands on it's own with a style unto itself. And massacre be damned, Snyder finds a way to make the ending powerful, inspiring and emotional...and that's after the battle. Check it out here as David Wenham's Delios tells the story of the 300 to the Spartan council. A damn good ending to a great movie.

300 <----trailer (2006): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Family Plot

Pick a favorite director and look at his/her last movie. In some cases, they tried to go out with a bang, a big message movie, a huge epic, or sometimes just a middle of the road story that is neither great or awful, just somewhere in between. Making his last movie in an illustrious career, Alfred Hitchcock went down that last road with his 1976 comedy/thriller Family Plot. It is not highly regarded as many of his other movies still has that charm we've come to expect from the director.

It's odd because watching the movie I didn't chuckle once, didn't think I was watching a comedy at all. I'll have to chalk that up to previous Hitchcock movies which never even touched comedy. Sure, there were moments that you chuckled here and there, but that was usually a result of the script providing some odd, funny moment. So I finish Family Plot and read up on it some and the IMDB genre listing has it as 'comedy/crime/thriller.' I was okay on the last two, but comedy? Really? Maybe I missed something.

Working a scam as a spiritualist/psychic, Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) stumbles into a job that will pay her $10,000. One of her customers (Cathleen Nesbitt) wants Blanche to find out the whereabouts of the rightful heir to her family's fortunes. The man -- then a 17-year old kid -- was supposedly killed in a tragic house fire that claimed his mother and father, but his body was never found. Blanche takes the offer and with some help from her cab driver/private detective boyfriend, George Lumley (Bruce Dern) begins to investigate the suspicious circumstances surrounding the boy's death from 25 years earlier.

George quickly figures out the boy didn't die and starts to follow the clues. The boy is now a man, Arthur Adamson (William Devane), who is leading a double life, one as a diamond distributor, and two, as a kidnapper who ransoms people off with his girlfriend, Fran (Karen Black). Blanche and George somewhat innocently pursue him with no idea of what's really going on, thinking they will be helping Adamson out. Arthur on the other hand wants nothing to do with them and must figure out what to do with a rather high-up official locked in his basement as his next kidnapping victim with these junior detectives tailing him.

Looking back on the movie, there were parts that I can see now were going for laughs, but they ended up just pissing me off. At one point, the brakes on Blanche and George's car have been cut (check it out here) as they maneuver down a mountain road. Blanche's hysterics aren't funny, they're just annoying. What to do as the car veers out of control? Grab the driver and the wheel while screaming hysterically! As for other Hitchcock updates, much of the humor (I guess) comes from sex jokes and swearing which comes across as lazy. Dealing with all sorts of Hollywood censorship codes earlier in his career, Hitchcock dealt with sex subtly -- think Notorious or North by Northwest. But here, it's just awkward.

The story itself is a good one although Blanche and George never seem to figure out that if this person disappeared years ago there's a good chance he doesn't want to be found. The coincidence that Arthur and Fran are kidnapping masters is a little much, but because Devane is such a strong, reliable villain with his gigantic smile and shifty eyes, you hardly notice it. Black is given little to do as Fran but make the couple more sympathetic...if that's possible with kidnappers. Dern is at his best and does get a few laughs because his character is so off the wall, but then again, when wasn't a Bruce Dern character a little crazy? Juggling his cab driving duties while helping his girlfriend does provide some lighter moments. Harris gets to overact as she dupes customers, and the twist at the end isn't really a twist at all. Just listen closely in the last scene, and you'll know what I mean.

With all that said, I still enjoyed the movie. An average Alfred Hitchcock movie is still better than many of the movies out there. The comedic elements didn't work for me, but it is not enough to say this isn't a flick worth watching, especially because it was Hitchcock's last in a long, distinguished career. If you'd like to see this movie, it's available on Youtube broken up into parts, starting here with Part 1 of 13. A good but not great Hitchcock movie that tries too hard.

Family Plot <----trailer (1976): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Burn After Reading

Over a career that's spanned 20-plus years and is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down, the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, have given movie fans a long list of often bizarre stories that are successful because of their weirdness. With movies like Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou, The Ladykillers, and Intolerable Cruelty, the brother directing combo has set a tone for their off-the-wall, extremely dark sense of humor. But of all their movies -- funny or serious -- my new favorite is 2008's Burn After Reading.

Imagine 2004's Crash as a model for this Coen brothers comedy where all the characters are somehow linked, although they don't even know about it. Their stories cross repeatedly in a story of extremely low-level political intrigue that ends up in murder and mayhem. Sounds hilarious, doesn't it? Working with such high quality directors like the Coens must appeal to big name actors because the cast assembled here is as pitch perfect as possible with several stars playing completely against type, their image that has helped make them stars.

A long-time analyst for the CIA Balkan desk, Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is being reassigned because of a drinking problem which he may or may not have. Much to his wife's chagrin (Tilda Swinton), Osborne decides to write a memoir about his days in the CIA. After some early struggles, the disk with all of Osborne's files ends up in the very uncapable hands of two gym employees, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman who's decided she's gone as far as she can with this body and needs massive amounts of plastic surgery, and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), Linda's dimwitted friend who goes along with her plan for some reason. Thinking they've stumbled on to a jackpot, Linda and Chad attempt to blackmail Osborne into paying for his CD back. So starts events that snowball and gets much, much worse before they'll get better.

The first 30 minutes or so set the stage and introduce all the characters and because of that is somewhat slow. There's also Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a U.S. marshal and generally pretty clueless guy who's having an affair with Cox's wife, and Ted (Richard Jenkins), the manager of the gym Linda and Chad work at who is also madly in love with Linda. The pace picks up quickly once they do find the CD, and it never really slows down from there. I'm not talking a chuckle here and there, I mean deep, guttural laughs from your stomach where you feel you're going to pee. It is as dark as dark humor can get, completely born out of the situation these idiotic characters have created for themselves.

While the whole cast is phenomenal, the star is Brad Pitt who has a supporting role and limited screentime as dimwitted but lovable Chad. Pitt has done comedy before, but nothing quite like this. He pulls off the physical humor -- Chad is always dancing with his ever-present IPOD never too far away -- and completely commits to looking like a dork. Here's a fan-made best of Chad moments. I hope Pitt continues with these against type comedic roles. That's not to say the rest of the cast isn't good, but Pitt steals the movie. Malkovich gets to play the straight man and is hilarious because he is playing it seriously. His Osborne Cox is just going through a rough patch that gets worse and worse every day. McDormand does not disappoint either as plastic surgery driven Linda.

What makes this all work (besides the absolute idiocy of the characters' reactions) is the commitment to making this a serious movie. There's no pandering to audiences with easy laughs or clues -- LAUGH NOW, THIS IS FUNNY! -- with the Coen brothers script building to these crazy moments, including one of the funniest scenes ever, a meeting between Chad and Osborne. Selling this all is a perfect score from composer Carter Burwell which sounds like something you'd hear in a political thriller and therefore is completely out of place. It works because it points out the ridiculousness of it all.

As for the last 30 minutes or the movie, think of Fargo's finale and you've got an idea of where this story is going. The bodies mount up and the paranoia grows as everyone assumes someone else is trying to turn them in. It builds to a great ending with J.K. Simmons and David Rasche as two CIA officers trying to figure out exactly what's happening (seen HERE, not the greatest quality). If you enjoy extremely dark comedy or are a fan of previous Coen movies, this one should be right up your alley.

Burn After Reading <----trailer (2008): ****/****

Brotherhood of the Wolf

If you read through some of my past reviews from the last year or so, you'll see I like a wide variety of movies with a few obvious favorites. But just because I don't review some movies as much as others (like comedies which I find hard to review) doesn't mean I don't like them. Then of course there's that rare movie that can't be pigeon-holed into one genre. More and more in the last decade or so movies have gone down that road, and God bless them for it.

One movie that absolutely refuses to be identified by just one genre is 2001's Brotherhood of the Wolf. I can say with complete conviction that it is a science fiction, martial arts, action adventure historical period piece with a dose of romance thrown in for good measure. It is all of those things and none of them at the same time, the story bouncing around so much you won't even notice how absolutely crazy the whole thing is. I intentionally didn't review this right after I watched it because I wasn't quite sure what I'd watched. I knew I enjoyed it but didn't want to overdo it. Well, 24 hours later, I think I might like it even more.

Director Christophe Gans uses the true story/legend of the Beast of Gevaudan as the basis for this extravagantly told, beautifully shot genre mixer. The legend tells of a freakishly large wolf that terrorized a region in France for over three years, killing over 100 people and wounding many more. With that as the very basic background, Gans injects gallons of steroids into the story to turn it into what it is now. This is not a movie that is based in reality in the least so know what you're getting yourself into while watching it. I was skeptical going in but found those concerns quickly fading away.

It's 1764 and a mysterious beast is terrorizing the French region of Gevaudan. As the bodies continue to mount, the king sends one of his naturalists to investigate the goings on and see what's happening. That naturalist is Gregorie de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) who travels with a sidekick, Iroquois warrior/mystic Mani (Mark Dacascos). Arriving in the region, Fronsac and Mani find a wide variety of people, some more willing to help than others. Fronsac quickly falls for Marianne de Morangias (Emilie Dequenne), a daughter of a local nobleman. But even as he falls in love with Marianne, more attacks come and the evidence leads Fronsac to believe this wolf is an immense creature the likes of which have never been seen. With the government and church involved, Fronsac goes about capturing and killing the beast.

To say this is a werewolf movie or even a thriller wouldn't do it justice. As much as I enjoyed this movie, I'm finding it difficult as to what I should talk about...mostly because there's TOO MUCH to talk about. The story is jumpy at times but necessarily so because so many characters and situations need to be dealt with. But even with that jumpy story, the movie's 150-minute run time moves along at a lightning pace. Throughout though, there's one constant, the cinematography. This is one of the most drop dead beautiful movies I've ever seen full of colors, light and shadows that make each scene look like a painting. Gans clearly spared nothing in terms of sets and wardrobe to make this movie feel authentic as possible.

If I was going to break down this movie subgenre by subgenre and character by character, I'd need a much bigger, much longer post so I'm going to try and key in on what appealed most to me, starting with the ridiculously cool choreographed action scenes Sam Peckinpah, Bruce Lee and John Woo would be proud of. Check this montage out, just watch it on mute. Fronsac and Mani's introduction is something straight out of a western. Riding into the region in a pouring rain, the duo meet a gang of disguised soldiers. Mani single-handedly takes them out in a slow-motion sequence that brings everything to a halt as the raindrops bounce off him. It's a hauntingly beautiful scene that sets the stage very nicely for what is to come. And while there is elements of horror and romance, the movie is at its best in its action scenes of which there are many.

In a movie as extravagantly over the top as 'Brotherhood' is, it would be easy for the cast to get lost in the shuffle. But here the actors/actresses seem to embrace the movie's oddness and uniqueness. Le Bihan and Dacasco carry the movie as Fronsac and Mani, two of the coolest characters I've ever seen in a movie. Fronsac is a man who loves life but is very capable of defending himself, and Mani is a warrior mystic able to communicate with and through nature with some bad ass martial arts moves to boot. Other strong performances include Vincent Cassel as Jean Francois, Marianne's older brother and a renowned hunter, Monica Bellucci as Sylvia, a prostitute with ties to everyone and anyone including Fronsac, and Jeremie Renier as Thomas, a young marquis along for the hunt.

Without overselling it with this movie -- trust me, I'm trying not to -- I can't recommend this one enough. It is an epic movie that blends a long list of genres together and does it successfully. How often can you say that? There's an interesting love story, great action sequences, very cool characters, a memorable musical score from Joseph LoDuca, elements of science fiction and the supernatural to go along with a historical epic, Brotherhood of the Wolf has it all. It is a French-language movie so beware you'll be reading subtitles, God forbid. Know that you're watching an absolutely crazy movie going in, and hopefully you'll love it too.

Brotherhood of the Wolf <----trailer (2001): ****/****

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Wicker Man (1973)

When a movie has been remade, a question presents itself. Which one do you watch first? Just a few weeks ago, I wrote a review of the remake of Flight of the Phoenix which I very much enjoyed, and then saw the original. I guess I got lucky there. Keeping it simple, think of it this way. In most cases, a movie is remade because the original is VERY GOOD and someone wants to capitalize on it with a new audience. It's the rare remake that tries to put a new spin on an awful movie.

This whole review is basically an exception to the rule. My senior year at IU the campus movie channel aired the 2006 version of The Wicker Man starring Nicolas Cage. Without giving away anything, let me say this. It is an awful, aaaaaaaawful movie...and I love it. It's played seriously but comes across as so unintentionally funny that I recommend it whenever I can. I'm not talking a chuckle here and there, I mean laugh out loud till you cry funny. Of course, the one problem is that the original, 1973's The Wicker Man, is a bit of a cult classic and held in high regard as a good movie.

So there's my problem. As epically bad (and therefore enjoyable) as Cage's remake is, it is almost a scene for scene redo with a few variations on the setting and background. The kicker is the ending which provides a huge twist and could have been a real shocker of a conclusion if it wasn't so damn funny. Well, last week TCM Underground aired the 1973 original and I taped it. It is a much better film and even treating everything deathly seriously, it is not a funny movie thankfully. But knowing the twist and where the story is going, it does lose some of the luster. So what to take away here? Almost always watch the original and then the remake. Anyways, on to the review.

A sergeant on the police force in England, Neil Howie (Edward Woodward), receives a letter from someone on the tiny coastal island of Summerisle. It asks for his help in finding a missing girl, Rowan Morrison, who disappeared completely in the past weeks. So off Howie goes to investigate, but he quickly finds everything is not as it seems (how often can you say that in a horror/thriller movie?). The island is run by Lord Summerisle (master of British horror Christopher Lee), whose family has cultivated a way to grow fruit by praying to all sorts of pagan gods. Howie, a devout Christian, is taken aback, but even more than that, he's confused. He gets the run around from the people of Summerisle, some say Rowan's dead, others have never heard of her. Can Howie figure out what's going on?

It depends on the movie whether I'll reveal the big twist in a review, and this is one I will not be telling. For one, it's a really good twist that comes completely out of left field. I can't think of even one hint or clue that's given like so many movies do nowadays. It's even a little shocking in the revelation as the doomsday scenario washes over the characters. Credit goes to Woodward for his part as Howie, a pompous, devoutly religious man, who scoffs at everything he seens on the island having to do with paganism. He's in just about every scene, and it's a performance that carries the movie.

As Lord Summerisle, Christopher Lee is the perfect choice to play the part. He gets to be eccentric, extravagant and basically everything you'd ever think of in your desire for a cult leader. But because it is Lee, it is never a laughable effort. It's Christopher Lee so he must be on to something. Diane Cilento plays Rose, the schoolteacher who tells the children all they'll need to know about their pagan religion, and Britt Ekland makes a memorable appearance as Willow, the innkeeper's daughter who tries to seduce Howie. In a very 70s scene, Ekland sings a Scottish folk song to Howie from another room while dancing naked. Next door, Howie tries to keep it together.

Director Robin Hardy filmed the movie in Scotland, and the movie benefits greatly from the on-location shooting. The old Scottish streets and houses, the green countryside all help build a sense of doom that something horrible is coming. It all looks too nice, too perfect, but you just know that something is building. The ending is worthwhile and makes the sometime slow pacing even more nervewracking. Check this one out, and then go see the awful remake. If possible, it'll be even funnier. The trailer has some semi-SPOILERS, I'd recommend going into this movie blind though.

The Wicker Man <----trailer (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Uncle Buck

Over a ten year stretch that started in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, director John Hughes made a handful of movies that are as iconic as anything that came out of the 1980s. Over 25 years later, fans still adore these movies like The Breakfast Club, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and Ferris Bueller among many, many others that he either wrote or produced. And even though he hadn't made a movie in over 10 years before his death this past August, Hughes will always be a fan favorite.

His movies tended to be dramedies, stories based in some sort of real life --families, friends, co-workers, high school -- that had lots of humor in them. To call them one or the other, drama or comedy, wouldn't be fair because they were more than that. Sure, they made you laugh, but there was almost always some sort of message to go with. A sappy, corny, grab the Kleenex kind of message, but it still counts. Of all the movies he was involved in, one of the most underrated has to be 1989's Uncle Buck, one of only eight movies Hughes actually directed.

Right up there with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles two years prior as his funniest movie, Hughes delivers a classic with this story. The Russell family has recently moved to north suburban Chicago to make more cash. Late one night, they get a phone call from family that saying the mother's dad has had a heart attack. The parents decide to head off to Indianapolis to be with him, but who can watch the three kids? The only option is Uncle Buck (John Candy), a freewheeling bachelor and basically the black sheep of the family who hasn't seen his nieces and nephews for years.

So while the parents are away, Uncle Buck moves in and has to run the family. Two of the kids, Miles (pre-Home Alone Macaulay Culkin) and Maizy (Gaby Hoffmann), warm up to him right away even though they haven't seen him for years. Not so easy to warm up is 15-year old Tia (Jean Louisa Kelly) who is basically the definition of an angry teenager. She's pissed at her parents for moving them from Indy to Chicago and takes it out by being pissed at the world. Buck does his best to keep the house going while also dealing with his longtime girlfriend Chanise (Amy Madigan) who is trying to get him to marry her.

Right up there with John Belushi and Chris Farley, John Candy was a comedian and movie star that was taken too early as he died in 1994 at the age of 44. From his early days with Second City and SCTV to his movies throughout the 80s, Candy was one of the funniest guys around whether it be in television or movie. Obviously a big man, he was a hilarious physical actor -- check this dance scene out -- who could also deliver a line so deadpan, so perfectly he could have you falling out of your seat. Watch this scene with Culkin that shows off that ability.

It's Candy who carries the movie, nailing all three different relationships the character requires. Culkin and Hoffman are great with Candy, and Louisa Kelly is perfectly evil as the bitchy teenager. Amy Madigan comes in and out of the story in an effort to help Buck grow up (whether he wants to or not), and Laurie Metcalf has a funny part as a recently divorced neighbor who sets her sights on Buck. Her introduction, sneaking up on Buck ''doing the laundry," is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. The supporting cast is great, but it's John Candy's movie and he doesn't disappoint. Ranks with 'P, T and A' as his best part.

Most of the sappy family happy ending is saved for the last 10 minutes or so, but it never feels too forced. Of course it's meant to pull at your heart strings, but 95 minutes in or so we've gotten to know the characters pretty well and root for them to be happy. It's a John Hughes movie after all, there is going to be a happy ending so get used to it. If you've seen other Hughes movies and liked them, this is a sure thing. You won't be disappointed.

Uncle Buck <---trailer (1989): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Devil's Canyon

Sometimes I wonder if older movies even tried to be believable, authentic, or realistic. Granted, much of this can be attributed to budget -- or lack of -- but make an effort at least. It's always been a pet peeve of mine about westerns, especially with pre-1960 genre entries. The west was a dirty, dusty, scorching hot place that didn't exactly have all the facilities to make personal hygiene a priority. That's one reason spaghetti westerns are among my favorites, they made the west look like it actually was, albeit in Spain and Italy.

And yeah, yeah, I know audiences might not go see a glamorous 50s actress looking like a frontier woman who hasn't seen a bathtub in months, but at least try to make it look like that actress is not walking onto the set right from the photo shoot. Not that the guy's appearance isn't an issue, it's just not as noticeable in most cases. So is the case with 1953 B-western Devil's Canyon, an effort from RKO Pictures that had a fair share of potential but never rises to the occasion.

Supposedly based on a true story (names have been changed to protect the individuals involved, no joke, they use that line), Devil's Canyon tells the story of retired marshal Billy Reynolds (Dale Robertson) who no longer even wears a gun. One day in town, Abby Nixon (Virginia Mayo), a female outlaw, rides in and warns Billy that the Gorman brothers are coming to kill him. Billy disregards a local ordinance that has outlawed gunplay, kills the two Gorman brothers in self defense, and is still sent to the Yuma Territorial Prison with a 10-year sentence.

The problems are just starting for Reynolds as Jessie Gorman (Stephen McNally), the oldest of the clan, is a prisoner at Yuma and has every intention of getting his revenge. The prison warden (Robert Keith) wants to reform Reynolds, but there are other things afoot. Abby gets herself thrown into prison as well on a robbery charge and begins to go to work setting up a jail break with dreamy Reynolds and her old flame Jessie.

First off, besides some flaws I'll get into later with the small budget and any sense of realism, I liked this movie. It has a dark edge to it in telling a story almost completely self-contained in the real-life Yuma Prison. The build-up is enjoyable, the supporting cast is noteworthy, and the ending while predictable is particulary vicious. Three key members of the supporting cast include Reynolds' fellow cellmates, Arthur Hunnicutt playing Arthur Hunnicutt as he always did, George Lewis and Whit Bissell as an arsonist who burned down his own warehouse because he "likes to watch fire." Jay C. Flippen is also good as the head guard, and Earl Holliman makes his first credited appearance as one of Gorman's henchmen.

Mayo and Robertson are capable enough as the leads, but their appearances make me smile just thinking of it. Mayo is always perfectly done up with hair, makeup, and apparel, including strategically cut shirts that fall all the way to her chest. Convenient, huh? And in an all-male prison too, that makes sense. She also wears one of those pointy 1950s bras that look like they'd take an eye out if you weren't careful. Robertson is a little wooden as the stalwart hero, but let's face it, his hair is the star here. Robertson's WALL of hair must be five or six inches tall, and it is always nicely coiffed and gelled. McNally's bad guy doesn't let him off so easily, pushing his hair to the limit as well. Is any of this key to the story? Absolutely not, but it's hard to miss.

What works so well is the final jailbreak. The Yuma set is just that, an indoor set, which limits the capabilities of the story. Made years later and with a much bigger budget, There Was a Crooked Man showed what is possible with an outdoor, fully workable prison set. But in the end with plenty of shadows and full night colors, the jailbreak makes for an exciting end if not entirely original. If the showdown itself was in a movie made 10 years later, we're talking Bonnie and Clyde-esque violence. An enjoyable, utterly average B-western that I enjoyed, even if there was no Devil's Canyon ever mentioned in the story. Curious if you ask me although I did read some interpretations that were rather graphic and had to do with Miss Mayo's body. The particularly misleading trailer below seems to play that up.

Devil's Canyon <----TCM trailer (1953): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, December 7, 2009


Even though the 9/11 attacks happened eight years ago, making a movie about any of the following -- Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorists -- is about the equivalent of trying to sneak into the White House to talk to Obama. You won't be successful, and there's no way your plan ends well. Yet, people in Hollywood still continue to try to put their own spin on the conflicts going on around the world. Maybe the wounds are still too fresh, but it's hard to imagine a big box office for any movie dealing with these sticky topics. Even the critically loved 'The Hurt Locker' struggled in theaters, never getting a wide release. By the way, definitely looking forward to seeing that on DVD.

Part of the problem is that these current world issue war on terrorism movies just haven't been that good. Finally saw one this week, 2008's Traitor, that while not great is an interesting look at modern terrorism, government intrigue, and personal beliefs, both morally and religious. But instead of being too preachy, there's some good action, several exciting chase sequences, and a not so surprising performance from star Don Cheadle. Be forewarned, from here on in, I'm going to be throwing SPOILERS left and right because this is one of this flicks that's more than a little hard to review without a few key (read *twists*) plot revelations.

As a young boy in Yemen, Samir Horn sees his father killed in a car bombing. It's an event that changes his life as a grown-up Samir (Cheadle) joins the U.S. Special Forces only to stay in the Middle East following his discharge. There he works with Muslim terrorist cells, using his expertise with explosives and engineering to keep these cells occupied with bombs. It's at a meeting to sell these explosives that Samir is captured and thrown in a Yemenese prison. There he forms a friendship with Omar (Said Taghmaoui), a member of the cell Samir was working with. An FBI agent, Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), visits Samir, offering to help him get out, but he wants none of it.

It is not long before Omar and Samir escape the prison, hooking up with the higher-ups and remaining members of their cell. The group, known as Al Nathir, plans to cause chaos in the U.S., not just with one attack, but with 50 attacks happening simultaneously. Al Nathir has been planting sleeper agents throughout the U.S. for years, and now they will each board a different bus on the same day at a prearranged time. The lynch pin is this, they'll all be carrying bombs Samir builds. Continuing his investigation, Clayton sees all the evidence pointing to Samir, but something seems a little off. Can he stop it before the attack?

SPOILERS If you disregarded my previous warning and kept reading, now would be the appropriate time to stop if you don't want the movie spoiled for you. SPOILER Let's face it, Don Cheadle isn't a terrorist, and that's the only big flaw this movie has. There is no way in hell a movie with a major Hollywood actor starring as a hardcore terrorist would get released in theaters. So to resolve that, Cheadle is an agent deep undercover trying to expose the cell that trusts him so closely. His only link to the government he works for is an intelligence operator, Carter (Jeff Daniels making the most of a small part).

But what does work in this context is that none of the story is whitewashed. To convince the cell and his superiors that he is legit, Samir does actually build bombs for them, including one that goes off in an embassy and kills several people that weren't supposed to be there. Cheadle shows off his acting chops in the aftermath, silently tearing himself apart as he reads the newspaper recounting the attack. He doesn't say a word throughout, and it's a powerful, very moving scene. And even riskier, Taghmaoui's Omar is presented as a sympathetic character. That's a ballsy play showing a terrorist as anything but pure evil, but it works. Their unlikely friendship (man, that sounds like a Disney movie) is a key as the movie develops.

Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff chose to set this story in modern times, but it does have elements of any number of genres; the spy movie, the political thriller, the action epic. On a purely entertainment level, Traitor goes up a notch because of that. The characterization and development sets the groundwork for a good movie, and then all those other things lift it up some. There's a message without being preachy, and at the same time it's entertaining as Samir and Omar seemingly race around the world. Locations include Chicago, France, Canada, Morocco, London and Marseilles. Pretty good for a relatively small budget and a somewhat controversial storyline.

This one slipped through the cracks upon its initial release, but it's one worth catching up with. One of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, Cheadle delivers both an emotionally charged and understated role at the same time. Pearce is the FBI agent trying to do his job as best he can, only to realize he's not so different from the man he's chasing. A nice blend of action, intrigue and a message. Definitely worth a rent.

Traitor <----trailer (2008): ***/****