The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, January 30, 2012


First appearing in the public eye as a mixed martial arts fighter, Gina Carano has made the jump from athlete to actress, and the early return is nothing but positive. For her first movie, she chose a role that's right in her wheelhouse, a fastball down the middle. She made a wise decision, picking an ideal role that gets to show off her immense physical talent and ability, starring in 2012's Haywire.

Working for a private contractor who works for the government, former Marine Mallory Kane (Carano) is as good as it gets when black ops work is needed. She takes jobs on an individual basis from her boss, Kenneth (Ewan McGregor), sometimes working alone, other times working with a team. After a successful job in Barcelona though, everything hits the fan. Suddenly, Mallory has been set up and international law enforcement is after her wherever she goes. Who burned her, and what's their motive? Left on her own and abandoned in Europe, Mallory must now find out who set her up before they complete their mission.

From director Steven Soderbergh, Haywire is just more proof of the director's already visible talent. Dark comedies, crime dramas, heist movies, disaster epics, historical period pieces, Soderbergh can do it all, and he manages to put a unique, personal spin on all of them. I really liked this movie from the talented director. His familiar style is there, but it's a no-frills sort of style. Title cards keep us abreast of where Mallory has traveled to, and what better music than a fast-paced jazzy score to accompany the action? Composer David Holmes does a variation on his Ocean's 11 score, a more subtle, sinister sound. Listen to the main theme HERE. The whole soundtrack/score is surprisingly worthwhile, appropriate in a quirky sort of way. It's a small-scale spy story -- somewhat similar to the Bourne movies -- that feels familiar with a 'been there, done that' quality, but Soderbergh and his cast are so good at what they do, you don't even notice. It's too good of a movie.

Appearing in her first starring role, Carano does not disappoint as the vengeful Mallory. There are too few female action stars out there -- legitimate ones that an audience can buy -- and Carano certainly has that potential to fill the void. Basically, don't expect her to do any romantic comedies anytime soon...although that could be interesting. This isn't a part that requires her to be a big, showy performer. It's a subtle, quiet performance that relies on intensity and few words. Most importantly, Carano is incredibly believable in the part. As an athlete/MMA fighter, she's quite capable, something she gets to show off in her handful of hardcore fight scenes. She does all of her own stunts (that I could see), and also important, more than holds her own in the fight scenes. Fight sequences between a man and a woman can look forced and stagey, but not here. A welcome addition to the action genre, I look forward to seeing where Carano goes from here as an actress. Incredibly talented and one of the sexiest, seductive spies ever.

It is a testament to Soderbergh's talent and reputation that countless actors/actresses want to work with, as is the case here. Haywire features a handful of smaller performances from some not small names and not a one disappoints. McGregor gets the most screentime as Kenneth, Mallory's employer and former boyfriend/lover, and makes the most of his supporting part. Channing Tatum plays Aaron, a fellow agent/operative who's worked with Mallory in the past and is now trying to piece things together. Michael Douglas is nicely cast as Coblenz, a government higher-up who hired Kenneth for some off the books work, and Antonio Banderas is appropriately mysterious as Rodrigo, a key part of the mission and deception. In a brutally efficient part, rising star Michael Fassbender again shows he's capable of bigger and bigger things, playing Paul, an Irish source for Mallory. Bill Paxton plays John Kane, Mallory's father, who knows what his daughter is up to, constantly hoping she leaves the business.

For better or worse, some of those performances are there for Carano's Mallory to beat the crap out of. With her mixed martial arts background, Carano leads the charge in the action department. That no-frills, brutal style is reflected in these fight scenes, one with Tatum and Fassbender each, among some other quality action. These are fights that leave the viewer hurting, and Soderbergh wisely shoots it without the frenetic editing. We see the fights, see the individual moves, all of them done so quickly they're almost a blur. Even better, no music is played over these scenes, all of the focus on the brutal hand-to-hand combat. This is where Carano shines, a physical presence who can stand toe-to-toe with her male counterparts.  The sequences are so well done there's almost a dark beauty to it all, so good it makes you marvel at what's going on.

Above all else, that's what this flick is; an action movie. A chase through Barcelona, and later Mallory fleeing a SWAT team in Dublin are criminally simplistic. It isn't lots of quick cutting and crazy out of this world explosions and pyrotechnics, just one person on the run and/or chasing someone. Holmes's jazzy score plays over this portion that bounces back and forth between color and black and white photography. Stylish without being overdone, just enough to call attention to itself without being overly aggressive. The story itself is half flashback, half current time, and while they're explained, the betrayals and double crosses are almost unnecessary. From Barcelona to Dublin, upstate New York to the New Mexico desert, Haywire starts off at a sprint and never slows down at just 93 minutes. Simply put, a professionally made, beautifully choreographed espionage/spy thriller that is well worth a watch.

Haywire <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Zigzag (1970)

No VHS, no DVD, no Netflix or Amazon Instant. I had never seen a second of 1970s's Zigzag much less heard of it. It has been almost completely forgotten over the last 40 years so when it appeared on TCM's schedule I took my chance. How many chances do you get to see certain movies? Not a ton. Here though it's fairly obvious why this flick has been pushed to the side.

Working for an insurance company, Paul Cameron (George Kennedy) is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, his doctor estimating he has anywhere from a few months to a year to live. Cameron has a wife (Anne Jackson) and young daughter who he does not want to leave with a burden following his death, but what can he do to help them out? He goes through the files of an unsolved kidnapping/murder and knowing many of the facts, frames himself for the murder. Through a series of twists and turns, his wife will receive a reward for "solving" the murder. Somehow and some way, Cameron's plan a point. Doctors discover he isn't going to die. Now Cameron has to prove he made the whole thing up, but can he?

A convoluted murder/thriller starring George Kennedy? My curiosity got the best of me. I had heard or read NOTHING about this flick. Movie nerd that I am, I've read through filmographies of many actors looking for hidden gems among the more well known movies. I didn't understand why Zigzag was a forgotten movie. It does have some positives if not many. The early 1970s style is fun to watch regardless of the tone of the movie, and Roy Orbison singing the theme song (listen HERE) is a guilty pleasure. As for the story, well.....

I'm all for convoluted and twisting stories that basically force you to stay glued to the screen the length of the movie. I enjoy a story that challenges you, defying you to figure out where it's going before the secret is revealed. That said, there is typical convoluted, and then there's Zigzag convoluted. There are plot holes and jumps you could drive a semi-truck through. Kennedy's Cameron implicates himself so perfectly that he's tried and found guilty of a kidnapping and murder? Are the police that fundamentally stupid? And how quick is this trial? I thought he had a few months to live, but the film judicial system is apparently pretty speedy. Some of the efforts are appreciated, especially the non-linear opening sequence and the use of scenes cut into other scenes, some flashbacks.  Overall though, I got the feeling of trying too hard.

What kept me going through the film was the review I read prior to watching that ripped Zigzag and its ending to shreds. I'm a sucker for a stupid ending, mostly to see if I can see it coming. The "twist" is one thing, but director Richard A. Colla handles it in such a heavy-handed manner it loses all effectiveness. His use of slow motion is so ridiculously slowed down that the effort becomes laughable when we're supposed to be blown away by what we're seeing on-screen. A downer ending in the 1960s and 1970s is nothing new, but this one just ends. Game over, no other explanation provided. It is a surprise in a sense, but the techniques used to reveal that surprise ruin any chance it had of working.

Still, still....there were parts of the movie I liked. I've always been a fan of George Kennedy, and seeing him playing a leading role is an obvious bonus. In a ridiculous story, he manages to create an interesting character who even though he's doing something beyond stupid remains remarkably grounded. Eli Wallach plays his lawyer, Mario, with Steve Ihnat playing Gates, the prosecuting district attorney and William Marshall as Morris, an old friend of Cameron's and a bar owner. Mostly worth watching because of its rare availability, it certainly qualifies as a guilty 'so bad its good' pleasure.

Zigzag (1970): **/****

Friday, January 27, 2012


As I mentioned in my review of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, I have a hard time seeing Fred MacMurray as anything but the star of Disney movies like The Absent-Minded Professor and The Shaggy Dog or on the TV show My Three Sons. An all-American Dad if there ever was one so I have trouble going along with his darker roles like in 1954 film noir Pushover

Working a case, middle-aged police officer Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) meets Lona (Kim Novak), the girlfriend of a gangster, Wheeler (Paul Richards) who's recently robbed a bank, escaping with $210,000 but killing a bank guard in the process. Bored with his life, Paul falls for her hard even when she figures out he's a cop. Upset with her situation of an absentee boyfriend, Lona similarly falls for Paul. Paul's precinct is working a stakeout in hopes of catching Lona's boyfriend, putting Paul in an interesting predicament. He comes up with a plan though, leaving his whole life behind him, taking the money if Wheeler shows up, and starting life over with Lona. Nothing comes easy though.

As a film noir, this has all the requisite pieces from the shadowy setting to the femme fatale in Novak to the anti-hero looking out for himself. Making her film debut, Novak is a bright spot as Lona McLane, the gangster's girlfriend frustrated with her situation. The 21-year old beauty was always gorgeous, but director Richard Quine shoots her like an angel....albeit one with a manipulative streak. Drop dead gorgeous came to mind anytime she was on the screen. Also a positive is the opening bank robbery, a silent sequence interrupted by gunfire. The early portions of the movie are especially good, MacMurray and Novak getting away with some risque scenes (for the time at least).

But as things start to develop with the gangster, the girl and the cash, my problems with MacMurray arose once again. I just don't buy him as a bad guy. Check that. He's not a bad guy, just a weak good guy who makes some epically bad, stupid decisions. The reviews pointed out that Novak manipulates MacMurray's Paul into stealing the stolen money, but I didn't see that. He is attracted to a younger, beautiful woman and sees a whole new life through her. The Paul character is still too much of a weakling though, and I had trouble buying him in the lead role. The other police officers include his partner, McAllister (Philip Carey), who's looking for a wife, Lt. Eckstrom (E.G. Marshall), the officer in charge, and Dolan (Allen Nourse), the veteran cop nearing his retirement and pension.

Once MacMurray's plan hits the fan, the story picks up to a pretty breakneck pace. It is 1954, and the Hollywood movie code still dictated that bad guys got their due. So in other words, once Paul starts making bad decisions, there's no end in sight. One mistake rolls onto another one, especially when Lola's neighbor (Dorothy Malone) sees Paul coming out of her apartment. It's only a matter of time before Paul's flimsy house of cards comes tumbling down, and when he does it is epically bad.

I should mention one thing though that ranks up there with MacMurray as some major issues in this 1954 film noir. A stakeout isn't exactly an exciting visual experience. Instead of spicing it up, Pushover actually shows it in all its excruciating detail. In an 88-minute movie, we get uninterrupted shots of policemen looking through binoculars, officers walking to a car and changing positions with other officers, that sort of thing. Pretty exciting, huh? Yeah, you bet. On the whole, the movie is pretty decent, but the negatives are hard to avoid.

Pushover <---TCM trailer/clips (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

With 1964's A Fistful of Dollars, director Sergio Leone put the spaghetti western on an international stage and in the process made star Clint Eastwood a hugely popular actor worldwide. Leone followed it up the next year with For a Few Dollars More, what some (including this guy) consider to be the best spaghetti western ever. It was all practice though for 1966's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, a movie that is bigger than just a spaghetti western or even a western in general. It's one of the best movies ever made.

It's 1863/1864 in the American southwest, and the Civil War is raging as Union forces battle with fleeing Confederate troops. Amidst all the fighting, a Confederate payroll has been stolen and ultimately hidden, buried away in a grave in a cemetery with thousands of near identical graves. The payroll of $200,000 in gold coins seems destined to waste away for all time, but three men know about it and are dead-set on acquiring it. Running a bounty scam, a drifting gunfighter, Blondie (Eastwood) and a Mexican bandit, Tuco (Eli Wallach) stumble across the information, one knowing the cemetery, the other knowing the name on the grave. A third man, a hired killer, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), is also on the prowl and never far behind. Who can get there first? Can they even make it alive?

I try not to throw this term around loosely, but The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is one of those rare perfect movies. Everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle, all the little things working together seamlessly, impressive considering the scale of this movie. With the Civil War as its backdrop, it is a big, big western, the epitome of an epic. The scale Leone shoots his movie would be jaw-dropping in itself, but it's handled well. The Almerian locations in Spain become an additional character, using the land like so many other spaghetti westerns attempted but failed to do. It is an incredible visual experience. If not beautiful, it is powerful in its image. More details on all of this later, but Ennio Morricone's score is among the most instantly recognizable scores ever, the acting is perfect, the set pieces leaving a lasting impression, and a movie overall that won't easily be forgotten.

Like so many of the best directors, Leone had a knack for casting, and with Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef, the Italian director hits three home runs. Eastwood reprises his role from the first two Dollars movies, the man of few words gunslinger, Blondie (instead of Joe and/or Manco), who usually lets his gun do his talking. There's even an introduction of his infamous poncho. He is the prototypical anti-hero, the silent gunfighter looking for treasure. Van Cleef as Angel Eyes (Sentenza -- means Death Sentence -- in the Italian dubbing) is an all-time sinister villain, the hired killer who always seems to show up when least desired. Sinister, brutal, maniacal, all apply to this gunhand. The scene-stealer though is Wallach as Tuco, a well-traveled Mexican bandit. He's going 100 mph at all times, the fast-talking, quick-draw who is always crossing himself over his victims. These are all characters capable of carrying a movie on their own, but instead they work together to form one of the great lead ensembles ever assembled for a movie.

A couple smaller performances also deliver, regardless of how little screentime they have. Aldo Giuffre plays a Union captain who Blondie and Tuco come across in the midst of a battle. An alcoholic, he questions the lunacy of his orders but continues on because an officer must do his duty. Spaghetti regular Luigi Pistilli plays Father Ramirez, Tuco's brother who looks down upon what his brother has become, a lowly bandit. Spaghetti baddie Mario Brega plays Cpl. Wallace, a sadistic Union soldier looking over Tuco. Al Mulock plays a gunfighter gunning for Tuco after a past encounter. Fans of the genre should also look out for Benito Stefanelli, Aldo Sambrell, and Lorenzo Robledo as members of Angel Eyes' gang.

What ends up being another character is Morricone's score, as key an ingredient to the movie's success as any score/movie relationship I can think of. The main theme -- listen HERE -- is instantly recognizable, and basically everyone around the world has heard at it some point whether they knew it or not. The unique sound, the whistling, the tune, it all sets the stage for a score that goes from epic and huge to personal and moving with the snap of a finger. Used several times in the movie, Carriage of the Spirits is an ethereal, other-worldly beautiful sample of music that still sends chills up and down my back upon hearing it. That's what Morricone does, he makes his music effective and powerful no matter what the scene or setting. The best though of all -- even better than the GBU main theme -- is a track entitled Ecstasy of Gold, a hauntingly beautiful piece of music. Why's it so good? More on that later (sorry, I will get to it). All in all, an incredible score that serves an integral role in making this movie a classic. One of the all-time great film scores.

A handful of set pieces dominate the film -- several abandoned western towns, a shootout in a bombed out town, a huge, bloody battle between Union and Confederate forces -- but it all pales to the ending, the film's last 30 minutes or so as Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes all near the gold. The extended sequence starts with Tuco finding the cemetery, racing through rows and rows of graves trying to find the name Blondie has told him. Set to Morricone's Ecstasy of Gold, the sequence defies words. It's dizzying and unsettling, Leone's camera breathlessly following Wallach as he runs, finally finding the wanted grave. Watch it HERE. Then it's the showdown, one of the most respected, iconic (drinking game? How many times have I used that?) gunfights ever. Leone's trick though is the build-up. It's almost 5 minutes of positioning and mind games, the camera bouncing back and forth in close-ups and extreme close-ups, a blur of eyes, hands, and guns, all three men daring the other to draw. Watch it HERE, the single, greatest standoff in the history of movies.

Watching this recently on a big screen -- thank you, Doc Films -- I realized something odd and unique about the movie. It took an Italian director in Leone to make the best Civil War movie around. I think that gets lost sometimes with the scale and epicness of the movie. Wrapped up in it all is an anti-war message, and an effective one. All the soldiers we meet are cripples, drunks, corrupt, and dying. We see bodies littered on trails and in streets like discarded garbage. A thief is callously shot down by a firing squad. A Confederate spy's body is lashed to a cow-catcher on a train as a warning to others. Without beating us over the head with his message, Leone effectively shows the horror of war but also the lunacy and stupidity of it all. As Eastwood's Blondie states while overlooking a battle, "I've never seen so many men wasted so badly."

There it is, an epically long and rambling review for an epically great movie. Dark and cynical, it is oddly funny -- Tuco's 'When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk' and the running 'There are 2 types of people in this world' line providing some good laughs -- and shows off an underrated script with a story that spans months and hundreds of miles. It is that perfect movie. A buddy-journey story set in the American Civil War with perfect performances, an immensely giant scale, a great musical score, and choreographed action which has been attempted over and over ever since. The definition of what a movie should be. It doesn't get better than this.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly <---trailer (1966): ****/****

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

To Please a Lady

When I stumble across auto racing -- Nascar, IRL, you name it -- on TV, I can't change the channel quick enough. The idea of watching other people drive (however skilled, however talented) around tracks doesn't appeal to me in the least. So how does it make sense that I love racing movies like Le Mans, Grand Prix, the Love Bug movies? Go figure, but we can add 1950's To Please a Lady to the list, other than the whole tame 1950s porno name.

Writing a nationwide syndicated column and hosting a radio show, Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck) is one powerful person, able to build someone up as quickly as she can take them down. Her latest target is Mike Brannan (Clark Gable), a midget car racer and former WWII hero in the Marines. Brannan has earned himself villain status on the racing circus, and Regina takes him down when he's involved in an on-course accident that kills a driver. Brannan is blacklisted and not allowed to first. He climbs back up, joining the big racing circuits and hopefully getting back to the top. But if he thought he was rid of Regina and her efforts, he would be wrong. The high-powered writer isn't done with him yet.

The user reviews at the IMDB are decidedly mixed, but I liked this movie nonetheless. Some of that can be chalked up to a nostalgic factor ranging from the footage of late 1940s and early 1950 racing to the portrayal of the newspaper business (think of Stanwyck as a female Burt Lancaster from Sweet Smell of Success). Not surprisingly, a mutual interest arises between Gable and Stanwyck. I know, I didn't see it coming either. The story isn't the deepest of stories, and there are some odd moments (a quasi-phone sex scene between the two stars is kinda weird) but the end result is still entertaining.

Why is it entertaining? I don't care how simplistic the story is, when you put together actors the caliber of Gable and Stanwyck, it's going to be worthwhile to watch. There is chemistry, and then there's the chemistry these two have. It looks to be effortless. They're fighting after first meeting, and you believe it. They have little to nothing in common other than being dominant, Type-A personalities, but they're drawn to each other. Their scenes together are perfect, Gable as cool, smooth and suave as ever, Stanwyck as equally strong-willed and sexy in her confidence. Adolphe Menjou plays Gregg, Stanwyck's partner/adviser/secretary who's always needling her with Will Geer playing Jack Mackay, Brannan's team owner and pit crew leader.

Now chemistry is one thing, but I do have to mention one thing. It's never really in doubt that Stanwyck's Regina and Gable's Mike will end up together. It's just a matter of when more than if. How does it come about though? Regina basically blackballs Mike's career, and then goes and sees him about it as he tries to build his career. In arguing about the situation, Mike slaps Regina pretty forcefully (it looks like a real slap dealt by Gable). Only then does the relationship start to develop, like Regina needed a wake-up call. Call it over-analyzing, maybe I'm reading too much into it, but it didn't sit right with me.

I'm figuring if you've made it this far you're looking for some sort of race analysis. This 1950 movie is a gem for racing fans, motorheads, and anyone who appreciates a good car. The footage here is insanely good, including three sequences that don't montage a race to death but show much of it in its entirety. The finale at the Indianapolis 500 is a great ending too. From midget cars to stunt shows to the stronger, more powerful cars at the Indy 500, racing fans will be more than appeased. It's a time capsule, and a good one in a surprisingly good movie overall.

To Please a Lady <---TCM trailer (1950): ***/****

Monday, January 23, 2012


When I stumble across an actor/actress I really like, I'm a happy camper. It's like finding an author you like to read or a TV series you missed out on. You can catch up, seeing them in all the things you previously missed. Take Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, two actors who've been around for years but really came into their own over the last two or three.  Nowhere are their talents more evident than 2011's Warrior, a movie that quickly climbs into my list of favorite movies.

Thanks to his drinking for years, Paddy Conlon (Nick Nolte) has torn his family apart. Years have gone by since he's even seen his sons until one night his estranged son, Tommy (Hardy), shows up on his doorstep in Pittsburgh. He's popping pills and doesn't say much. He asks Paddy to help him train, start fighting again after years away from it, years away from his high school career as a state champion wrestler. In Philly, Paddy's other son, Brendan (Edgerton), is married with two kids but struggling to make ends meet. He's months away from being foreclosed on his house. Neither brother has seen each for years, and Tommy is even going by his deceased mother's maiden name. Both have fighting experience though and manage to get into Sparta, a 2-day, 16-man tournament of single elimination MMA bouts. The pay-out? $5 million, winner take all.

The best sports stories -- in film or real life -- are those that are personal. We can't always relate as viewers to a multimillionaire pulling down ridiculous amounts of money. This movie is Rocky. It's Rudy. It's Remember the Titans. This is one of the great sports movies of all-time in a quickly developing sport, MMA (mixed martial arts). Director Gavin O'Connor is clearly invested in his story and it shows in the film. Sports in all their emotions can hit you right in the gut, packing quite the emotional wallop. Just like its fights though, 'Warrior' doesn't let up. It whales away at you, emotionally throwing punch after punch. It is an incredible, realistic, humanity at its most base type of story. I love this movie. LOVE it.

Playing brothers who have long since drifted apart, Hardy and Edgerton are revelations as Tommy and Brendan. I've seen and knew they could both act, but their performances are perfect in their familiarity. Hardy is a caged animal and a wounded one at that. Intensity doesn't begin to describe him. He doesn't look like he's acting. He appears ready to literally rip your head off. His Tommy is an Iraq war vet just brimming with hatred, anger and demons that threaten to tear him apart inside. Edgerton is the high school physics teacher and family man, married to Tess (Jennifer Morrison) with two kids. His family has fallen on hard times with some medical issues, and Brendan is out of options. What more can you ask? Tommy is fighting to right a wrong, to save himself in a way. Brendan is fighting for his family and their future. Edgerton's Brendan is the more obviously sympathetic of the two, but you're rooting for both. Great, great performances.

With this script, O'Connor does something impressive. It is familiar. It isn't particularly new. If you've seen a sports movie, you've seen variations on it before. In a lot of ways right down to the music (great score from Mark Isham, soft and subtle but driving emotionally), Warrior reminded me of Friday Night Lights. More or less, you have a good sense of where it's going in terms of story. Getting to that end goal, that final fight though is the fun. O'Connor takes what we know as a viewer and manages to tweak it just enough to not only make it worthwhile and enjoyable, but to make it unique and original. I can't even put my finger on it as to why this works so well. Supporting performances are uniformly good, starting with Morrison as the loving but obviously quite worried wife, Frank Grillo as Frank Campana, Brendan's out-of-the-box thinking trainer, Kevin Dunn as Zito, the principal of the school Brendan works at, and Bryan Callen and Sam Sheridan as themselves, providing ringside commentary for the fights. 

Clocking in at 140 minutes, Warrior has time to breathe. The first 75 minutes set everything up, putting characters where they need to be and hinting at the backstories for all these individuals, hinting but never spelling anything out. A scene between Hardy and Edgerton on the beach in Atlantic City the night before the fights begin is a tour de force scene, intensity exploding off the screen as the two brothers talk for the first time in years. I didn't think you could top the emotion of that scene...for about 5 minutes, and then the fights start. Hardy's Tommy is a brawler, fighting with brute strength and power, Edgerton's Brendan fighting technically, waiting to strike with an array of moves. As a non-fan of MMA, I came away impressed with the brutality of these fights, movie or not. They keep building and building on momentum until you can't take it anymore. The final fight -- no SPOILERS here, but come on, think about it -- is one of the more gut-wrenching, emotionally charged scenes I can even think of. The final shot of the movie is a thing of beauty too, couldn't have asked for a better one.

I'm searching for something, anything to rip about this movie, and I can't. Hardy and Edgerton carry this movie both physically and emotionally with Nolte not far behind as a father who admits he did a hell of a lot of wrong things to his family growing up, driving his wife away and scarring the kids. I hope there's a Best Supporting nod for Nolte. His scene late with Tommy in a hotel room is picture perfect; two individuals who are scarred and beaten down, one holding the other. The scene the night before in an Atlantic City casino is just as heart-breaking, making it all that much more effective. Underdog, fighting against the odds, fighting to save themselves and their loved ones, this has it all. Too many moments like that to even bring up. There aren't any easy answers for this torn-apart family, and the movie doesn't try to fix things thankfully. This is a movie in real life, and that real life thing, it's messy. It ain't easy, and you can't always fix it.

I loved, loved, LOVED this movie. Easily one of the great sports movies of all-time, but more than that, it rises above a genre distinction. It's just a great movie.

Warrior <---trailer (2011): ****/****

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Ocean's Eleven (2001)

My usual stance on remakes is pretty simple; if the original is good, why bother? If the original is awful with some sort of potential, okay, go ahead with it. Of course, there's exceptions to every rule. A minor classic in its own right based solely on entertainment value, 1960's Ocean's Eleven didn't need to be remade. If you're going to remake a quality movie, you better improve on it, and 2001's Ocean's Eleven is the rare remake that's better than the original.

After being released from prison following a four-year sentence, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) has plans...huge plans. A thief and con man, Danny heads to Los Angeles where he signs on friend and fellow thief, Rusty (Brad Pitt), to join him. What's Danny's plan? He's going to do what no one has ever done; rob not one, not two, but three Las Vegas casinos and their impregnable vault on a fight night when over $160 million will be waiting if the job can be pulled off. The owner of the casinos? Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the cutthroat businessman now going out with Danny's ex-wife, Tess (Julia Roberts). To pull the job though, Danny's going to need help so he starts assembling a team of con men, thieves and specialists. Impossible for this group? Nah.

This is a fun movie. There, that's all I really need to say. Everything else is just fluff. This 2001 remake is the definition of what a fun, entertaining, popcorn movie should aspire to. It's smart but not condescendingly smart. It's funny but it doesn't try too hard. It's ridiculously unrealistic, but who cares?!? Look at that cast! Director Steven Soderbergh made one of the most polished, stylish caper movies ever, improving on the groundwork set up by the 1960s Sinatra version. Las Vegas is a crazy, over the top place and that translates well to the movies. A score/soundtrack from David Holmes is a funky, cool retro mix of music, as fun and energetic as the story itself. HERE is the main theme. I defy you to not bob your head, tap your foot as you hear it.

The script is great here, the thing that keeps it all moving. It sounds so simple, a well-written script in a dramatic but not heavy drama film. It is a smart script without being in your face smart. Putting the team together, Danny asks Rusty "You think we need one more?" Rusty's face is buried in his arms, and he says nothing. Danny answers "You think we need one more," a statement now. He finishes "We'll get one more." The script gives a very talented cast a chance to shine and interact, especially Clooney and Pitt, but there's not a single character who isn't given a chance to shine. What came first in a chicken or the egg scenario? Does a good script boost a cast, or does a great cast make a script better? Short answer....who cares? The movie's great either way.

An ensemble-cast worthy of a 1960s epic, I still wonder how a cast this big was assembled. Clooney, Pitt, Roberts and Garcia would be enough for most movies but not here. Danny's crew includes Frank (Bernie Mac), the inside man working in the casino, Reuben (Elliott Gould), the former Vegas casino owner and bankroll, Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan) Malloy, two brothers providing transport, Livingston (Eddie Jemison), the tech specialist, Basher (an uncredited Don Cheadle), the explosives expert, Saul (Carl Reiner), the aging con man, Yen (Shaobo Qin), the acrobat, and Linus (Matt Damon), a young pickpocket and thief on the rise. You couldn't ask for a better cast. The scene post-heist is a gem too, the team standing in front of the Bellagio fountains to Claude Debussy's Clair de Lune. Watch there <---- and listen HERE.

Fun and entertainment value aside, this is a heist film, and the casino vault heist doesn't disappoint. Now anyone who's been to a casino knows how ridiculous security is, but that's the fun of it. Could a job like this ever really work? No, but I'm sure Clooney, Pitt and Co. could pull it off nonetheless. A full 45-minutes, the heist goes down on a fight night, the 11 pulling a long list of cons and tricks to take down the vault. Things have been hinted at but nothing specific so seeing the twists and turns provide a great ride. Even on repeated viewings, the twists still work. How often can you say that? It's a great movie, one you can watch over and over again.

Ocean's Eleven <---trailer (2001): ****/****   

Friday, January 20, 2012

Super 8

With his involvement in one of my all-time favorite TV shows in Lost, director/writer/producer extraordinaire J.J. Abrams cemented himself as a must-watch sort of guy in the movies. That was the case for his most recent movie, 2011's Super 8, when it was released last summer. Even hearing negative reviews, I was definitely intrigued by this sci-fi throwback, a movie that looked like a modern Close Encounters and E.T.

It's the summer of 1979 in Lilian, Ohio, and 14-year old Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is still dealing with the sudden death of his mother several months prior. He lives with his dad, Jackson (Kyle Chandler), a deputy sheriff in town. Mostly though, Joe spends his free time helping his friend Charles (Riley Griffiths) make a zombie movie with his Super 8 camera. One night while filming a scene with Charles and four other friends, they accidentally film a train derailment, and within minutes the Air Force and Army are on the scene. Weird, unexplainable things start to happen all over town. What was on the train? And more importantly can it be caught and stopped?

Like Abrams' 2008 film Cloverfield, I was sucked into Super 8 because of a teaser trailer. Check it out HERE. Mostly it's the 'what if?' factor that works so well. As was the case with some of the best episodes of Lost, Abrams' sci-fi flicks are at their best with that sense of mystery. He keeps you guessing, letting your own imagination fill in all the blanks as needed. Your imagination will almost always be scarier than what you actually ends up seeing. Super 8 isn't nearly as dark as Cloverfield in tone or depiction of an alien visitor, and the comparisons to both Close Encounters and E.T. are very, very fair. Steven Spielberg even worked with Abrams as a producer here so there's clearly a ton of talent working here.

When was the last time a movie with a big twist, a huge surprise lived up to that building anticipation? It doesn't have to be a sci-fi thriller. It can be anything. I'm guessing 9 times out of 10 I end up being disappointed with the reveal. Super 8 is one of the nine unfortunately. The fun of the movie (and the main reason I'll give an above average, positive rating) is because of the build-up, the first 80 minutes of a 110-minute movie. Those last 30 minutes? Like Cloverfield, Abrams hides the creature for the most part, only revealing him in glimpses and shadows. The full reveal just isn't as good. The unknown is always creepier than the known/visible. The whole sugary sweet tone of the last half hour just doesn't work. The creature has been tortured and abused and just wants to go home....oh yeah, he rips people's heads off too. Are we supposed to feel pity or see him get killed? The resolution is disappointing to say the least.

Drawing the comparisons to Close Encounters and E.T. is a huge positive. Setting the story 1979 serves as a great throwback addition to the story. Super 8 is a little slice of Americana in the 1970s. Lilian, Ohio is a close-knit town built around a mill where much of the population lives. It's a little town, but not too little. And in that town are a group of kids making the jump from being kids to teenagers. The performances from the younger actors are great, starting with Courtney as Joe, the quiet but well-meaning kid coping with the death of his mother. He has a crush on the seemingly unattainable Alice (Elle Fanning in an excellent, moving part) Griffiths is especially good as Joe's best friend Charles with Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Zach Mills representing themselves well as the rest of the group of friends. A coming of age story in the midst of a possible alien invasion? Who would have figured that would work?

That's the main reason I can give this movie a positive recommendation in spite of the disappointing ending. It is a personal story, the story of a kid growing up in the most chaotic of situations. So even through all the craziness, there is that personal attachment and involvement with the story. Chandler does a good job as Joe's dad and Noah Emmerich is appropriately mysterious as Nelec, the Air Force commander leading the investigation, but this is a movie about the kids. Does a different ending drastically alter the overall rating? Maybe, but probably not without altering the tone of the entire movie. I'm not a fan, but I can see what Abrams is going for. Still very much worth seeing.

Super 8 <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


In a career that spanned four decades, director Richard Brooks was at the helm of more than a few classics, ranging from Cat on a Hit Tin Roof to The Professionals, Elmer Gantry to In Cold Blood. He started off in the 1940s writing screenplays and in 1950 finally got his first crack at a feature film, the simply titled Crisis

Vacationing in an unnamed South American country with his wife, Helen (Paula Raymond), American doctor Eugene Ferguson (Cary Grant) is planning to head home when he is stopped and taken into custody by police and army officials. He is told nothing and forced to travel by train to the capital city where he meets the country's ruler, a vicious dictator, Raoul Farrago (Jose Ferrer), who desperately needs his help. Farrago has a brain tumor that is quickly crippling him, but he has no surgeons in-country capable of pulling off the extremely difficult surgery. In steps Eugene, a brain surgeon from John Hopkins. Will he be pressured into performing the surgery? Farrago's opponents intend to do their best to convince him otherwise.

Even with his first film, Brooks shows a knack for putting together a quality story. It has the look and feel of a film noir -- albeit set in South America in a revolution-torn country -- while keeping it on a personal level. Bigger things are certainly at stake, but the story comes down to one character deciding if he will help another. Set almost entirely in Farrago's palace, I get the distinct impression this was a stage-based story, but I would be wrong. Yet will all the good things and positives you can take away from 'Crisis,' I came away mildly disappointed with the end result.

Right at the top of his fame, Cary Grant does a good job portraying Eugene as a doctor. You believe him as a highly-respected surgeon. But too often, it looks like Grant is sleepwalking through his part. For someone who was kidnapped and forced against their will to do something, he never seems genuinely angry. Perturbed, maybe a little upset? Yes, but his passive aggressive response doesn't work. Grant was always smooth on-screen, and that's no different here, but there is little to no energy or emotion in the part. Ferrer on the other hand relies almost solely on energy and emotion. He can be a little too much at times, but it works for the portrayal of a dictator who rules with an iron fist and is always concerned about fighting off any uprisings against his government.

The portrayal of a revolution-ravaged South American country is a worthy one, honest without being too theatrical. The only downside is when "big" conversations come up, Ferguson and Farrago talking about free will, individual rights and freedom...check that, Freedom. It gets to be a little pretentious at times, the American arguing with the brutal dictator. Neither man is going to change the other one's mind so the scenes drag. Showing Farrago's country, I wanted to see and hear more. We're dropped into a country under martial law but hear little about how it came to be this way, or even see why he's such an awful, bloody dictator. Yes, I'm not completely slow. I can figure it out, but when we're supposed to root against a character -- even hate him -- it helps to see why we should feel that way.

Heading toward an ending that will inevitably be an unhappy one, the last 30 minutes are much more interesting than the build-up. Grant's Ferguson must decide if he will go through with the surgery having been approached by a revolutionary group (headed by Gilbert Roland) to "accidentally" have the surgery go south. No one would know the difference, but Ferguson's hippocratic oath says otherwise. The ending features a couple good twists, one better than the other. The final shot is a doozy, an ironic ending that surprised me for sure. For a movie released in 1950, it was ahead of its time.

'Crisis' is a decent enough movie and story, but I just struggled to get into it. I was never too interested in Cary Grant's character, and the whole thing went downhill from there. Raymond is very good as his wife Helen with Signe Hasso as Farrago's devoted wife, Ramon Novarro as Colonel Adragon, a loyal officer in Farrago's army, and Leon Ames as an American oil driller rounding out the cast.

Crisis <---trailer (1950): ** 1/2 /**** 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

This Man Can't Die

A B-movie star in the 1950s and most well known for playing Wild Bill Hickok for seven seasons on The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Guy Madison's star had faded some by the 1960s. He went the route so many actors went in that decade, heading to Europe for a variety of westerns, epics and war movies, including a 1968 spaghetti western called This Man Can't Die

Working as an undercover agent for the cavalry, Martin Benson (Madison) has been assigned a mission where he must break up a gang of gunrunners who are selling and trading repeating rifles and whiskey with the Indian tribes. He somewhat unwillingly takes the job, but the gunrunners are on to him. The gang attacks the Benson ranch, killing Martin's parents, but his brother Daniel (Alberto Dell'Acqua), sisters Susan (Lucienne Bridou) and Jenny (Anna Liotti) and youngest brother Arias all survive the attack. Tracking the gang, Martin finds out about the attack. Hoping that with his help the now-hiding family can hold off the gang, Martin races home.

This is pretty typical of many of the spaghetti westerns made in Italy in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It is neither classic nor awful, just entertaining in a mindless sort of way. Because it is in that middle ground, it has little to no following with very little information even available on it wherever you look. The cast listing is especially bad with some main characters/villains not even listed by the names they're addressed as. Dell'Acqua is listed as 'Rooney' but is clearly called Daniel. The person listed as his younger brother -- Steve Merrick -- would have been 46 years old at the time. Now something ain't right there. Those "criticisms" aside, I did enjoy it for all its dumb qualities, some in a 'so bad it's good' fashion.

Looking like he aged quite a bit since his TV days in the 1950s, Madison looks somewhat out of place in this western. If he was getting paid by the line, the studios got off cheap. His Martin has maybe 12 lines of dialogue the whole movie, and on top of that, he's dubbed by someone else. It just sounds a little off. He also looks like he got lifted off the set of an American western and dropped into this Italian western, but I'll give credit when it's due. He handles most of his own stunts -- and there's a lot of them -- and does bring a cool, laid back appeal to the hero part. I wish they could have paired Madison and Dell'Acqua's Daniel earlier because the revenge-seeking gunslinging brothers could have been a cool addition.

Introducing someone to spaghetti westerns, I never claim the acting is anything special. Making it better or worse is that dubbing can ruin an already wooden or over the top performance. The villains here are pretty weak starting with Graham (Rik Battaglia), the leading businessman in town who's secretly running this gang of gunrunners. The gang leader isn't credited by the name I heard so I can't list him, but he's a creepy enough dude. When he rapes Jenny in the attack, you know it won't end well for him. Dell'Acqua is a solid, cool second banana, French beauty Bridou looks pretty, and Rosalba Neri makes the most of a smaller part as Martin's girl, Melina, a saloon girl. 

Like any spaghetti western, there are some odd to really odd moments. For one, the score liberally borrows from Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars. It's weird because the rest of the score is good if not great, and then all the sudden BAM! You're thinking 'I recognize that score," and you should. The violence is ratcheted up with the appearance of blood after some shootings, and 'Can't Die' features more nudity than I've seen in other spaghetti westerns. Those bad guys, they're always trying to rape somebody. It is a fun movie though, especially the last half hour with gunplay around every corner. There's better and there is worse, but not bad as far as spaghettis go. You can watch the full movie HERE at Youtube.

This Man Can't Die (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 16, 2012


With the first two Batman movies and 2010's huge hit Inception, director Christopher Nolan has cemented himself as one of Hollywood's go-to directors. Anyone who makes such high quality finished products -- a true movie experience -- is okay in my book. Just his second movie directing, 2000's Memento is similarly one held in high regard by fans and critics alike.

Staying at a cheap motel, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is looking for the man who raped and murdered his wife. The clues have built up as he tracked him down, and now he seemingly is closer than ever to finding him. Leonard has a problem though, he sustained a head injury by his wife's killer and because of the incident has short term memory loss. He can remember everything that happened before the murder, but everything since? He can't create new memories. How then can he manage to track down the killer? Everything is difficult for him from finding his car to remembering which hotel room he's staying in.

Crazy ridiculous innovative and unique storytelling technique. Like nothing I've seen before. Nolan tells this story backwards, showing the ending at the beginning. Trippy, huh? As one reviewer pointed out, it takes a premise from a classic Seinfeld episode, but that's another story. Leonard's short-term memory loss allows for this technique to work. He remembers only what is in front of his face, constantly writing down notes and even tattooing his body to remind himself of major clues about the killer. So what we remember is obviously more detailed than Leonard, especially as more people get involved with the murder we see in the opening five minutes. One scene following another explains what we've just seen while adding another layer. It's something else to behold in one of the more original premises I've ever seen for telling a story.

Nolan helps pull this off through two techniques, albeit not simple ones. Starters, a flashback of sorts, Leonard sitting in his motel room on the phone, explaining his routine to help him "remember." He's also on the phone with someone -- who? We don't know -- telling about his pre-accident life as a husband and insurance investigator. He worked a case with a husband and wife (a great Stephen Tobolowsky and Harriet Sansom Harris) who went through something similar to Leonard's current situation. Then there's the present-time story (relatively present time) as we move backwards through the investigation. Each little flashback breaks up Leonard's actions, serving as almost a default start over button. He starts over each flashback, clean slate for the memory.

With this sort of storytelling technique or anything so unique in movies, the acting can get lost in the shuffle. Important but far from essential, a performance has to be more workmanlike. Pearce does more than that though playing the memory-challenged Leonard. It's something else how he brings this character to life, both equal parts confidence with a complete helplessness to the world around him. Think how easy it would be to mess with someone with no short term memory, and that person would have no idea in about 2 minutes. Pearce keeps the story grounded as we root for him to find his wife's killer. Without revealing any of the twists, I can't say much about the cast, but both Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano are equally as good in key supporting parts.

Innovative storytelling technique. Check. Interesting characters with solid performances. Check. Even throw in an eerie, moving score from composer David Julyan, which you can listen to HERE. All those positives were there, but I just didn't love the movie. Going ending to beginning was something I've never seen before in a movie, but the gimmick -- for lack of a better word -- didn't sustain the whole movie for me. Finding out more isn't necessarily as interesting as I thought it would be. It even gets tedious at times. The end of the movie (actually the beginning of the story) does deliver a punch, but even that feels like it's missing something. The movie is still something any movie buff should see, and I'm recommending it, but not as much as I would have liked.

Memento <---trailer (2000): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I love reading, always have and hope I always will. So when I saw a trailer this past summer for a spy movie based off a book from English novelist John Le Carre, I wanted to check out the book before seeing the movie. I can't tell you how much I struggled through the book, forcing myself to finish it because if a movie was made, the source novel has to be good, right? Thankfully, 2011's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was infinitely more enjoyable than its source novel.

When a mission is badly botched in Budapest, Control (John Hurt) and his right hand man, George Smiley (Gary Oldman), are forcefully pushed out the door at MI6. A new power system rises to the top, and most of a year later with Control dead, Smiley is approached with an important mission. More and more intelligence points to a high-up official in British intelligence being a mole working deep, deep undercover for Russia. The suspects have been narrowed down to four key individuals, but none of them seem any more likely to be the mole than the others. With the help of a younger but very capable agent, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley is tasked with exposing the mole. Can they do it in time?

Le Carre's book is something else. Countless characters, seemingly endless passages of dialogue on top of dialogue, and a non-linear story that I for one had trouble keeping up with. I hate calling a book dull or boring because it sounds very high school, but I struggled to maintain an interest in the very slowly developing story. Even when things were revealed, I had to re-read and double check just to make sure I'd read right. It defines a low-key, subtle spy story with little sense of urgency. Thankfully the movie streamlines the characters, the dialogue and the story, all the while remaining true to Le Carre's novel. It certainly isn't a movie for everyone, and it has its flaws, but 'Tinker' is quite the thinking man's spy movie.

Let's start with the tone and look of the movie. Like the novel, it is incredibly low-key, almost comatose in its development. For a story revolving around a high-level mole, no one seems particularly worried. The story utilizes flashbacks and bounces around constantly, throwing new characters in and out of scenes as needed. You know, just know, they're somehow related, and for the most part they do fit together in the end. It is a self-assured movie, and will probably lose some viewers with its leisurely pacing. The look of the movie is incredible from the sets and costumes to the camera work. The spies all wear suits and ties, constantly smoke cigarettes, and always have some liquor close by. This was the Cold War fought by gentlemen, not the gung-ho, shoot 'em up James Bond and Jason Bournes. These spies did their best when not seen by their opposition, slinking in and out as quickly as they arrived.

My biggest motivation for finishing the book was the cast assembled in director Tomas Alfredson's spy drama. I'll begin with Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a part that has already started to earn the actor some Oscar buzz for Best Actor. Like its story, Oldman is understated beyond belief as Smiley, a veteran agent with years of experience under his belt. He's experienced more than most can dream of, and the wear and tear shows. Pushed out of a job he was damn good at, his Smiley holds some earned resentment at the government and superiors that turned their back on him. Above all else, he is a professional though. He's a dogged investigator, able to piece together clues and information as needed, always thinking how the pieces fit together. I love Oldman as an actor -- playing good or bad guy -- but it's great seeing him truly acting, not just hamming it up. Great lead performance.

That's saying something considering the rest of the cast. The treacherous suspects include Alleline (Toby Jones), Haydon (Colin Firth), Esterhase (David Dencik), and Bland (Ciaran Hinds), both Jones and Firth making the best impressions. Cumberbath too holds his own at Oldman's side, an agent with a possible secret of his own, and Hurt is Hurt, legitimizing his small part because he's John Hurt. One of my new favorite actors, Mark Strong, has a solid supporting part as Prideaux, an agent who's stumbled into a botched mission and must pay the consequences. Another favorite of mine, Tom Hardy plays Ricki, a "scalphunter," an agent usually relegated to the more sinister missions, this time trying to move up a level with some info he stumbled into. Kathy Burke and Stephen Graham have key parts as former Intelligence members Smiley investigates. Not a false performance in the bunch, an ensemble working perfectly together. Not showy at all, just professionals doing what they do, seemingly effortlessly.

The movie isn't perfect though, but I did enjoy it considerably more than Le Carre's novel. Problems persist though. We learn little to nothing about the suspects so even when the mole is revealed, it makes little impact. A throwaway line explains the reasoning in a weak wrap-up. I would have liked some reasoning, some background on these men, allowing us to connect emotionally in some way whether it be hatred, respect, whatever. The story drifts at time -- like the novel -- in an 127-minute movie. Still, it's almost a must-see movie because it is so rare to see a movie of this quality, especially among the spy genre. The ending especially is a winner, a montage set to French song La Mer, later Americanized by Bobby Darin's Beyond the Sea. Style and acting to spare, just know what you're about to watch.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

It seems not a few days or weeks go by before another political corruption story hits the news circuits. Idealized maybe, but we vote elected officials into office to represent then us, and inevitably we find out that so much more was going on behind the scenes -- cough Blago cough -- that we never find out about. One of the best looks into political corruption, 1939's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, is a true classic.

When a U.S. senator dies in an unnamed western state, naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is named to the vacant seat. The young Smith has no idea that he's been chosen to keep the seat warm for two months before reelection, an unknowing yes man to the more experienced senator from his state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Jefferson is a newspaper publisher who helps run a camp for boys and has no experience in politics. He quickly finds out that he's been chosen only to serve as a dupe but decides to make the best of it, working with his assistant, Saunders (Jean Arthur), to put a bill through the Senate. He's unknowingly stepped into a high-level bill that will force him to deal with all sorts of political corruption, but can he maintain his idealist views?

As far as successful years go in Hollywood history, 1939 is basically 1, 1A and 1B. Any other years pales in comparison, and 'Mr. Smith' more than deserves it standing as one of the year's best. Teaming with Stewart (later reuniting for It's a Wonderful Life), director Frank Capra is at the helms of one of the all-time greats. It avoids some of the sappiness so prevalent in his other films and still manages to get its message across. To a 1930s audience still suffering through the Great Depression, it's message of the underdog sticking to his beliefs and cause must have hit home more. A political machine and system (Edward Arnold as the business kingpin in a frightening, real role) looking out for itself and willing to pressure and intimidate its way to riches? All too realistic. Not a heavy-handed attempt at delivering the message either, an obvious positive.

Okay, casting an idealistic, naive, well-meaning and intelligent young man stepping into a powerful government position, who better to choose than Mr. All American himself, Jimmy Stewart. I can't think of a better actor -- living or dead -- to play Jefferson Smith. His 'aw shucks' demeanor was made for this part. If this movie is going to work, you need to buy Stewart as Jefferson and everything about him. Mission accomplished then. Nominated but ultimately not winning for Best Actor, Stewart was a rising star here. You believe him and genuinely like him through all his innocence and naivete. His Jefferson Smith has become one of the more iconic movie characters ever, and it's easy to see why.

His most memorable scene is a whopper, and an entire 40-minute sequence carries this movie into another higher level. Made to look like he is one of the corrupt politicians and trying to save his good name -- among other things -- Jefferson is forced to filibuster, a political procedure that basically stalls for time. Talking and talking, the hours roll by as he tries to prove his point. This is where Capra's message comes across best, an effort by thousands of Americans -- on both sides, for good and bad -- work to help their side win. A remarkable sequence, and one that's remembered for a reason. Stewart earned his nomination with this scene alone. 

The rest of the characters are painted with some broad strokes -- good or bad -- but the performances are almost uniformly strong. Jean Arthur actually received top billing (odd in a movie called Mr. Smith), playing well with Stewart as they show off an easy-going natural chemistry. Claude Rains as Paine, the veteran senator, is the darkest part, a man who wants more politically but knows it will come at a cost; his integrity. Thomas Mitchell plays Diz Moore, Saunders' friend and a political correspondent and reporter. Guy Kibbee, Eugene Pallette and Arnold play Jefferson's main opposition with Harry Carey stealing his scenes as the President of the Senate. 

It's nice to go into a classic film and get just that...a classic. So often they're disappointing but not here. Filming on location in Washington D.C. gives a sense of realism and authenticity, and it's a beautiful city to begin with. The sets, especially the Senate chambers, become a character all to themselves. Mostly though, this is a classic about people and their beliefs, how far they're willing to take it when fighting for what they believe is right. A must-see film for movie fans.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington <---TCM trailer/clips (1939): ****/****

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blade Runner

For years, I wanted to see Ridley Scott's 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Can you be intimidated by a movie though? I never sought it out because there always seemed to be a new version being released. Where was I supposed to start? Which one was the best one? Without reading up on it -- for fear of stumbling across some spoilers -- I dove in, renting the Director's Cut version. It was worth the wait.

It's 2019 in Los Angeles, a city vastly changed from the one we know. The Tyrell Corporation has created an incredibly human-like robot, called a replicant, that can almost pass as completely human. These replicants have caused problems though and are now outlawed on Earth, shipped to other planets where they work as slaves to create new colonies for mankind. Back on Earth, policemen called 'Blade Runners' work to make sure there are no replicants remaining, ready to execute anyone found. Among them is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a burned out Blade Runner brought back to the job to find four replicants (led by Rutger Hauer) running free after murdering their human holders. Can Deckard bring them in?

Reading up on Blade Runner, I found there are a handful of different versions out there, changes made to each of them, some big, some small.  I'm not judging the others or the movie on a bigger level, just this version. I really liked it, but I didn't love it. Science fiction stories are great because they open up whole new avenues of unexplored worlds that can ask 'What if?' 'Blade' is a step above the rest because it is a great, unique visual and creative story, but there's also a message, a deeper meaning. That comes across best in Hauer's Roy Batty, leader of the replicants. What separates humans from these replicants? Are they really so different, or are we just trained to believe that?

What is remembered so fondly about Blade Runner is the world Ridley Scott creates. It was nominated for two Oscars for its visual look, somehow losing to Gandhi and ET. The visual appeal of the movie is hard to describe. This futuristic version of Los Angeles has that crowded claustrophobic feel of modern Tokyo, the shadowy and smoky feel of a 1940s film noir, and the people and crowds out of the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars. It is a gorgeous film to look at, utilizing special effects that don't look dated now in 2011. You feel like you're part of this futuristic city as Deckard investigates the whereabouts of these four replicants. How often can you see such a well-made science fiction film noir? My list stops at 1.

Two stars jump out from Blade Runner as the most impressive, but really all the acting is spot on from small performances to the starring roles. Harrison Ford is the tortured cop -- a staple in film noir -- doing a job that he has begun to question. His stylish look; the long, knee-length jacket with collar turned up, the gunbelt at his waist, the close and cropped hair, just adds to the appeal of the character, almost a modern day gunslinger. Hauer too delivers an amazingly layered performance as Roy, the replicant who has begun to question his existence and his being. He goes from straight and easily read villain to a much deeper look into a character that hopefully will have you question your judgment of him.

Most of the rest of the performances are smaller, revolving around either Deckard or Roy. Sean Young plays Rachael, a high-end replicant who Deckard meets in his investigation. Like Roy, she begins to question everything she thought she knew. Edward James Olmos and M. Emmet Walsh play Gaff and Bryant, two other Blade Runners Deckard must work with in his case, Olmos especially making a sinister impression. The other fugitive replicants include Daryl Hannah in a nice supporting part with Brion James and Joanna Cassidy. William Sanderson, James Hong and Joe Turkel are some of the engineers/creators involved with the Tyrell Corporation. 

What I enjoyed most in Blade Runner was the last 25 minutes, bordering on the surreal at times but managing to ground itself in the end. A scene between Deckard and Roy is one of the more moving scenes I've ever come across, science fiction or not. Hauer is phenomenal in the scene, Ford doing a lot without saying a word. The ending too leaves it up to your own interpretation, not quite ambiguous but a bit of a cliffhanger. A good one though, not a 'You're kidding me! That's the end?!?' type endings. An all-around solid science fiction story, hopefully regardless of the version you see.

Blade Runner <---trailer (1982): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, January 9, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

What truly defines a movie? Is it a highly stylized story heavy on visuals and twists and turns with an in your face camera technique? Or is the opposite, a minimalist style focusing on a more realistic visual, a slice of life storytelling? The answer of course is both and neither, falling somewhere in between. It comes down to personal taste what an individual viewer likes or dislikes. Falling in the minimalist style is an indie film from 2010, Meek's Cutoff.

It's 1845 and Americans are starting to drift west, some looking for new lives and others for riches. Among those travelers is a three-wagon train headed by trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Traveling with her older husband, Solomon (Will Patton), young Emily (Michelle Williams) is part of the little train heading for Oregon. Meek has decided to leave the main trail, heading west separate from the known route. The settlers go along with the plan, assuming the guide knows what he's doing. Does he though? The water supply starts to get dangerously low. Meek and Solomon manage to capture an Indian that's been tailing the group, leaving them with a decision. Do they entrust the Indian to guide them to water or continue blindly, hoping to find some? It's a decision that doesn't come easy.

Let's get this out of the way early. I hated this movie. We're not talking an indifference like I was disappointed or a mild dislike. Hated this movie. Seeing reviews and all the awards it won at film festivals all over the world, I was curious. Something has to be positive here that so many critics and moviegoers saw an appeal in it. Right? You would think so. And now reading the generally positive reviews, I don't feel like I missed a thing. If anything, I feel like so many others got duped. But that's for you to decide, not me yelling at you.

Minimalist, existential, lyrical, all these thoughts went through my head as I watched this movie. With a 104-minute movie, basically nothing happens at all. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Director Kelly Reichart makes a conscious effort to make this a real story. The camera is placed in front of the actors, and that's it. No close-ups, no movement, just the action (using that word loosely) unfolding in front of us. Whole scenes of wagons moving across the horizon drift on and on. Minutes go by with not a word spoken. When the dialogue does come along, it's mind-numbingly repetitive and pointless. I applaud Reichart for the approach she took. It's different, I'll give her that much. But a 104-minute movie that feels like it took days to watch?  An epic failure.

The approach Reichart takes is that small window into the lives of these settlers. We know little to nothing about any of their past lives and learn little else by the end of the movie. Existential picture of the individuals in a survival, life or death scenario? Possibly. As a result though, I had no personal investment with any of these people. I was rooting for Michelle Williams and Will Patton, not Emily and Solomon Tetherow. They're representative of people, not actual flesh and blood people. The other settlers include Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan as one couple and Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson as another with son Tommy Nelson. Greenwood gets the most showy of all the parts, but that's not saying much. Stuntman Rod Rondeaux plays the Indian.

Then there's the ending, the definition of ambiguity. Open-ended doesn't begin to describe how 'Meek' ends. Add another check in the 'Surprise Column' that viewers thought it was a potentially happy ending. For me, it is an epic downer ending. The whole tone and style of the movie points to a downer, more realistic ending, but I could be off-base. Moral of the story? It's a judgment call that each viewer will have to make for themselves.

I just don't know what to make of this movie at all. Is it supposed to be of that existential variety, making a bigger, broader statement about survival, about living and dying? Or is it just the story of a small group of settlers moving westward desperately fighting for survival? On either level, 'Meek' didn't work for me. I hate judging a movie as 'boring' because it sounds too easy on my part. That's the problem though. No energy, no interest, no positive impression at all. Give this one a wide berth and steer clear.

Meek's Cutoff <---trailer (2010): */****

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Escape from L.A.

If you're going to do a sequel, you might as well commit and do it right, right? You'd think so, or at least that's usually my hope when I stumble across a sequel -- especially an unnecessary one. That is partially why I avoided John Carpenter's 1996 sequel Escape from L.A.. The 1981 original doesn't need a sequel so somewhat skeptical, I dove in.

It's 2013 and the United States is very much a dystopian country still, even 16 years since Special Forces soldier turned criminal Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) rescued the President in New York. Now though, an immensely powerful earthquake has ripped Los Angeles apart, the city now an island destination for any "undesirables." Now a new religious fanatic (Cliff Robertson) has become the President, and his extremist daughter (A.J. Langer) has hijacked an item that could destroy the world, retreating to L.A. to work with fellow extremist Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface). Snake's services are called on once more. Blackmailed and working against a deadline of death, Snake must sneak into L.A., retrieve the item, kill the daughter, and only then will he be safe. Can he pull off the impossible again?

I didn't love the original Escape from New York, but I certainly liked it. Made on a small budget, there was a certain B-movie charm to Carpenter's film. It was cheesy and ridiculous and over the top and most importantly of all, fun to watch. The dystopian setting of an America that is nothing like the country we know now is ideal, opening the door for all kinds of outlets to take a story. Carpenter and Russell worked together a handful of times over their careers, clearly enjoying making movies together. Russell liked it so much -- and playing Snake too -- that he worked with Carpenter on writing a sequel. It was held up for years, finally coming to fruition in the mid 1990s. With that long of a wait and this much talent involved, why then is the sequel so bad?

The obvious answer is that it is basically the same movie. Sequels are fine when they add another step, a new layer to a pre-existing world and characters. But making the same movie -- quite literally -- with all the same features, characters and settings? Replacing New York with Los Angeles isn't unique or new. It's a road trip. I guess I just expected more. If you've got 15-plus years to write a sequel, couldn't you manage something better than this?  It bombed in theaters, not making a profit, so I'm not the only one with complaints. The repeat of New York's success is one thing, but this 'Escape' has too much really awful CGI, too many similar characters, and did I mention the almost identical story?

What carries both movies on different levels is Kurt Russell. 'New York' is just a genuinely good B-movie that's aided and boosted by Russell. 'L.A.' is basically watchable only because of Russell. Snake Plissken is Russell's most iconic character from a successful career, and there's nothing about him that isn't cool. Okay, check that, the odd, fetishisized leather outfit is a little much. But other than that, Snake is the perfect anti-hero. A high profile crook with a reputation, he has no regard for any authority and only goes along with the plan because his life depends on it. Yes, he growls everything he says. Yes, he makes some awfully stupid decisions. But is he cool doing it? Yes, Kurt Russell is awesome, and he's cooler than you.

While the rest of the cast and characters are pretty ridiculous, Carpenter nonetheless assembles quite a cast. Start with Robertson, having some fun taking some jabs at the religious nuts. His U.S. President is one big stereotype, hamming it up like nobody's business. Stacy Keach plays Malloy, Snake's "handler" of sorts, with Michelle Forbes as his assistant. Steve Buscemi, Bruce Campbell, Valeria Golino and Peter Fonda play just some of the eccentric nuts trying to survive in Los Angeles who Snake runs across, Buscemi and Fonda making the best impressions. Look also for Pam Grier as Hershe Las Palmas, a drag queen who Snake used to work with on other jobs. I've gotta admit though, it's a little unsettling hearing a man's voice coming from Grier's mouth.

So watching a rehash of the more enjoyable Escape from New York, there are some saving graces in this most unnecessary of sequels. The ending features a couple very cool twists, some you can see coming if you're paying attention, but enjoyable nonetheless. Was there ever any doubt Snake was going to get duped repeatedly by these morons? I think not. Cool character, cool ending, but that doesn't save the movie.

Escape from L.A. <---trailer (1996): * 1/2 /****

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Deserter

When a poster at a message board brought the movie up, I didn't believe him, thinking the movie he talked about was made up. As a western fan, how had this one slipped past me? Somehow it did, probably thanks to no U.S. DVD release and an old VHS (thank you Amazon vendors). The movie? A spaghetti western of sorts, think The Dirty Dozen in the West. It's 1970's The Deserter.

Returning from a patrol, Captain Viktor Caleb (Bekim Fehmiu) finds his wife on the brink of death, raped and tortured by an Apache war party. He mercifully ends her suffering, shooting her, and abandons his post but not before shooting the commander, Maj. Brown (Richard Crenna), who he blames. Two years pass and the cavalry Border Command has a new commander, General Miles (John Huston). Caleb has spent two years waging his own war on the Apaches, but Miles needs his help. An Apache chief, Mangus Durango, is organizing a huge war party that threatens to wipe out everyone in the territory. Their only hope? Caleb selects a small group of men and train them to fight like Apaches, striking the Apache camp in Mexico before the slaughter begins.

From American director Burt Kennedy, 'Deserter' isn't your prototypical spaghetti western. It was filmed in Almeria, Spain -- with some familiar locations for spaghetti fans -- and features a quirky but memorable score from Piero Piccioni. Listen to the main theme HERE. As opposed to bandits and gunslingers, the story obviously focuses on the cavalry and the Apaches so it's a cool change of pace. Mostly though, it is an above average men on a mission story, one of my favorite sub-genres in movies. A small group of men, all experts and specialists in their own way assigned an almost impossible, nearly suicidal mission. The movie follows the cookie-cutter formula, but in a good way. First, lay things out and assemble the team. Second, train them. And third, unleash them for their mission.

My rating far down below may be high in the eyes of some readers, but there's a reason. This isn't a great, classic movie that will live on in movie history. On the other hand, it is a great, fun and entertaining movie that quickly climbed into my list of favorites upon first viewing. Kennedy was a workmanlike director more than an auteur, but he knows how to manage this movie. The screenplay by western regular Clair Huffaker is a gem, nothing original but full of great one-liners, the perfect dialogue for a team of tough as nails "volunteers." This always sounds like a cop-out to me, but it's just a fun movie. Sit back and enjoy 100 minutes of running and gunning action in the desert.

Read some reviews about this generally forgotten western, and you'll find plenty of criticism of the casting of star Fehmiu in the lead. A Yugoslavian actor, this is one of his few English-speaking roles. I had absolutely no problem with him as Caleb and even think his steely-eyed, ice water running through his veins acting style is a high point of the film. Caleb doesn't care about living or dying, just avenging his wife's brutal death. That can be an appealing trait in a lead character. While I came to like Fehmiu as Caleb, what drew me into this movie was the supporting cast.

Big names? No, not especially, but reading the cast listing should put a smile on any western fan's face. Crenna is solid as needed as Caleb's opposition, and Huston is a scene-stealer as General Miles, chewing the scenery like only he can. Then there's Caleb's squad, a who's who of western characters. Start with Slim Pickens and Ricardo Montalban as Tattinger, a crotchety veteran scout, and Natchai, an Apache scout, both of them Caleb's closest friends. Not enough? There's also Chuck Connors as Reynolds, a dynamite-wielding chaplain, Ian Bannen as Crawford, an English soldier touring the Southwest, Brandon De Wilde as Ferguson, the young, unproven officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the strong man and troublemaker, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the soldier with a grudge against Caleb, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling gun operator with his brother, Doc Greaves as Scott, the doctor, and recognizable spaghetti face Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter.

Good cast much?  If you can't go along with that group, westerns probably aren't your thing. It is a men on a mission movie, and that means....wait for it...action! Most of it is saved for the last 40 minutes, but the training sequences leading up to it are equally as fun, a quick montage highlighting all the mayhem. The mission is the high point though, and even though some night scenes are limited by obviously indoor sets, it isn't a deal breaker. Men on a mission movie means casualties though, and the results here were surprising as to who makes it and who doesn't. Violent, bloody and chaotic, a worthwhile end to an underrated western.

Now this link won't be to a pristine, widescreen print, but it you're curious about seeing the movie you can see it at Youtube HERE. It's a Public Domain print and looks to be missing about 6 minutes from the VHS I have, but when a movie is as hard to find as this one, take what you can. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

The Deserter <---trailer (1971): ****/****