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, February 29, 2012


The military has been portrayed in a wide variety of ways over the relatively short history of Hollywood and films. For years, soldiers were typically portrayed as angelic heroes or your average man just trying to make it back home safely. As the years went on though and America became more cynical, so did the film portrayals of the military. Thanks to Korea and Vietnam, it became easy to jab at and criticize our military. In one of the best portrayals I've seen in awhile, 1981's Taps, the military is fairly shown, warts and all with the positives.

As commander of the Bunker Hill Military Academy, General Harlan Bache (George C. Scott) does his best to instill a feeling of pride, honor and duty among his cadets. One of the cadets, Brian Moreland (Timothy Hutton), has just been promoted to Major -- the highest ranking cadet -- for his senior year only to have some shocking news revealed. The Academy will be shut down in exactly one year, the grounds cleared for high-rise condos. An incident between some cadets and boys from the local town prompts an outcry though, and the date is moved up so the Academy will close immediately. Seeing his world and second home torn away from him, Moreland concocts a plan. With all the remaining cadets, Major Moreland takes over the Academy with armed force, but even he couldn't have predicted what his actions will produce.

From director Harold Becker, Taps has a feel of authenticity. Hutton and the rest of the young actors lined up with actual members of the Academy, doing the drills and living the life with them. The most important thing to come from this is that they're believable. To a man, they look comfortable in the part. The portrayal of the military is fair; an honor-bound society that lives by a specific code of morals and principles. You do what's right because it is right, not for any other reason. Filmed at Valley Forge Military Academy in Pennsylvania, Taps shows the life of the cadets from the various uniforms to the drilling to the dorms. An impressive scene has Hutton's Brian leading the commencement ceremony, the entire Academy parading around a field, and you believe it. All these little things, all these details add up because you see the life of these cadets -- good or bad on a personal level -- and what pushes them to do what they do.

Uniformly (pun intended) solid, three performances from the cadets stand out. This was Hutton's second feature film (he'd won an Oscar for his 1st part in Ordinary People) with co-stars Sean Penn making his screen debut and Tom Cruise making his first appearance in a non-background role. The talent on the screen even at a young age for all three is unquestioned. Hutton is the born leader, but he's quite sane and very intelligent. He loves the military life and resents the change. Him more than anyone else has fallen hook, line and sinker for General Bache's teachings about honor. Penn plays his best friend, Alex, a somewhat unwilling member of the revolt who sticks with it because he's going to stick it out next to his friend, not because he truly believes. On the other hand, there's Cruise's Shawn, a capable leader but a hot-head and possible fanatic. It's almost like good and evil, Alex on one shoulder as Brian's conscience, Shawn on the other as the Devil. Other keys part for the cadets include Giancarlo Esposito and Evan Handler as the two other cadet officers, Pierce and West, with Brendan Ward and John P. Navin Jr. as Charlie and Derek, two of the youngest cadets involved in the takeover.

In telling the story, Becker makes a wise choice. We see the story only from the cadets' perspectives and other than one quick detour, the whole story takes place within the walls of the Academy. We really only get to know two adult characters, Scott's General Bache and Ronny Cox as Colonel Kerby, commander of the National Guard called in to handle the situation which goes on for days. In a more subtle, understated part, Scott's performance is reminiscent of his most iconic role, George S. Patton, making it clear why these boys and young men believe so strongly in him. It's not a huge role, but it's a memorable one. Cox too brings humanity to a part that needs it. He wants to get the situation resolved as quickly as possible with as little bloodshed as possible. His one-on-one with Hutton's Moreland late at the Academy fence is an especially memorable confrontation. But other than these two parts, this movie belongs to the cadets. We see the quickly-escalating situation through their eyes and through what they see.

Making that choice works because we feel like we're right there with them. From the start, you know there will be no Hollywood happy ending. You can start to question their real motives, and that's where this movie rises above. Hutton and Cruise are the clear believers, truly believing in what they're doing. What about everyone else? Do they go along with it because the majority does or because they believe too? As the days wear on and an armed response from the National Guard looms, the courage begins to wither away for many. It's only late that Hutton's motives can be questioned. Has he been brainwashed? Has he gone too far because of a personal problem? Providing all the answers, the ending is especially emotional. Several scenes will no doubt leave a lasting impression, one in the predawn hours before the attack, the other coming in the movie's final minutes. It is an incredible ending, an appropriate, moving one if not a happy conclusion.

An underrated movie, I really enjoyed it. The message board at IMDB makes claims of dull, unrealistic, stupid, but I think they miss the point. The armed takeover and the ensuing situation isn't supposed to be an incredibly realistic development. It is a means to an end. It is intended to show these young men in a situation that becomes bigger than them and their intentions or beliefs. Their code of honor and pride is put to the test. Could something like this happen? Sure, of course it could, but it's the message that is important more than the situation.

Taps <---trailer (1981): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Liquidator

The 1960s was a decade overwhelmed in movie theaters with spy and espionage movies. Everything from the James Bond series to spoofs like the Derek Flint and Matt Helm movies to those in between like the Harry Palmer flicks gave audiences their fair share of spy thrills. But defying being bunched in with any of those above listed is 1965's The Liquidator.

In the closing days of WWII in Paris, American(?) tanker Boysie Oaks (Rod Taylor) stumbles into a possible murder, saving a man (Trevor Howard) from his two would-be murderers. Years pass, and the man, Mostyn, is a higher-up in British intelligence given an unenviable mission. He needs to find an agent who can do one thing and one thing only; kill and kill effectively and discreetly. He tracks down Oaks and offers him the position...with some training. Oaks jumps at the chance to step into a "glamorous" lifestyle only to make a surprising discovery when finally tasked with a mission. He can't do it, just can't kill a man. It might be too late though because enemy agents are very aware of who he is.

This spy flick from director Jack Cardiff is an oddity among the genre that was so popular in the 1960s. It isn't as over the top as the Bond movies. The villains are just enemy agents, not masterminds bent on taking over the world. It isn't a spoof either, even though it does provide some laughs. It's funny, but it isn't trying too hard to be funny. Now there are some odd moments. Shirley Bassey sings the theme song -- The Liquidator <---listen there -- and it does seem like an easy knock-off of her Goldfinger theme, the credits even looking like a quasi-bond movie. Lalo Schifrin's score is appropriately jazzy and 60s. In the blind leap department looking to make a connection, Taylor's co-star Jill St. John would later star in Diamonds Are Forever too. Now whether the comparisons are fair or not is up to you, but however you feel about it, the movie is entertaining, providing a good mix of serious spy drama with just enough dark humor.

Many reviews have pointed to Rod Taylor being miscast in the role of Boysie Oaks. First, I'm a big Taylor fan, and I thought he did a good job with the character. Oaks is based off a character created by author John Gardner, one a whole series would develop around. I will say that Taylor is a different choice, but he makes it work. Regardless the movie, Taylor could manage brawling tough guy and smooth ladies man depending on the scene. He does that pretty effortlessly here, bouncing back and forth. As his stiff upper lip superior, Howard is a scene-stealer as Mostyn (think Bond's M), the veteran spy/agent who's seen and done it all. Their scenes together are highlights, two actors clearly having fun with their characters and the at-times off the wall story.

There are the typical spy features here most fans have come to expect. We get a scenic trip to beautiful Nice in France along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea thrown in with all sorts of hijinks and what not. It's different though. When Oaks realizes he can't kill, he hires an actual killer, Griffen (Eric Sykes), to do his dirty work for him, all expertly handled in a very dark, very funny montage. What kind of super-spy can't kill? Well, Oaks likes the lifestyle he's been introduced to, the cars, the clothes, the women. He definitely hits it off with St. John's Iris, Mostyn's secretary, which of course is frowned upon by company policy. The last hour is the more familiar territory as an enemy plan unfolds, Taylor's Oaks becomes the unknowing dupe to a conspiracy involving an assassination and theft of a new model aircraft. The surprising thing? It's funnier than you'd think.

Along with Taylor, Howard and St. John, the cast isn't full of huge stars, but you will see some recognizable faces. Wilfrid Hyde-White is Chief, the MI6 head who knows what's going on but typically turns a blind eye to his agents. Regular baddie Akim Tamiroff is hilarious as Shereik, the leader of a team of enemy agents who accidentally pick Oaks up. Beautiful Gabriella Licudi plays Corale, the bait in Shereik's plan who plans on seducing Taylor. Also look for David Tomlinson in a great little part as Quadrant, a fellow agent who is only telling Oaks part of what he needs to know. Several great supporting parts to round out the cast behind the bigger names.

A generally forgotten spy thriller with that rare right mix of action and humor. Well worth seeking this one out.

The Liquidator <---TCM trailer/clips (1965): ***/****

Monday, February 27, 2012

Arrow in the Dust

When I recorded four westerns off of Turner Classic Movies in January, I figured I'd lucked into something. I'd seen none of them, much less heard much about any of them, so I went in with measured expectations, hoping for at least one or two winners among the bunch. I was surprised as any when I really liked the first three (Gold of the Seven Saints, Fort Dobbs, Drum Beat), and then there was the fourth, 1954's Arrow in the Dust. No perfect 4-for-4 day at the plate this time.

Having deserted his post, U.S. cavalry trooper Bart Laish (Sterling Hayden) is on the run with a patrol not far behind. As he runs, he comes across the wreckage of an ambushed wagon train, his dying friend, Major Andy Pepperes (Carleton Young), among the bodies. Andy implores his friend to complete the mission he couldn't, take command of a wagon train that must get through to Fort Laramie. The Pawnee tribe is on the warpath, and the wagon train is guarded by a small, undermanned company waiting for a commander. Knowing that taking the job could be certain death, Bart poses as the Major and joins up with the train, hoping to bring it in safely while possibly also clearing his name.

 As a fan of the western genre, I can give a movie a pass if it still manages to entertain me in all its badness. This 1954 oater is testing even my limits. It is bad, truly bad. A B-movie that runs just 79 minutes but feels like an eternity has little to nothing going for it. From Allied Artists Pictures, 'Arrow' is one of the weakest westerns I've ever come across.  At least 30 minutes of the already glacial-like story is long shots of the train and the cavalry troop riding around to a generic western score. The script is predictable (if there was a script), the characters taken from the Western Stock Characters 101 list, the action laughable, and in general, a feeling of laziness. Bad, just bad.

I go back and forth with Sterling Hayden as an actor. In movies like The Asphalt Jungle, he's very good, but I think it's because he's working with an ensemble and not asked to carry the picture. In Dr. Strangelove, his wooden delivery works through the ridiculous nature of the story. In a bad B-movie like 'Arrow,' he stands out like a sore thumb. He looks physically uncomfortable in the part, and his stilted, awkward deliveries are as monotone as ever. His "command" comes to respect him, and I'm thinking "What did I miss?" When a movie depends on Hayden to carry an already sub-par story, you're in for a long movies. He also could be the most unrealistic cowboy/trooper I've ever seen. Watch him riding his horse. He always pulls back on the reins, his horse rearing its head with every stride like it's in pain.

Playing the deserter-turned-savoir with no real explanation provided for his desertion, Hayden's Bart makes decision after decision that gets stupider with each one. More and more of his men are killed, but because the story requires it, they love him and respect him. The "action" has a shot of cavalry firing at charging Indians, said Indians falling from their horses, cavalry shooting again. Any hand-to-hand combat is ridiculous, some of the worst choreographed fights ever, including one clumsy fight toward the end with two past their prime old men duking it out. The Pawnees also team up with the Apaches to become the dumbest tribe of warriors ever, charging into a wall of gunfire rather than shooting back. In the end, the cavalry makes it, apparently because the Indians got bored and went home. Who knows for sure.

While Hayden's bad performance is the most prominent, it is just one of many in this flick. Coleen Gray plays Christella (cool name), a single woman driving her own wagon as part of the train. She just hates Bart for how hard he drives the men, but gosh darnit! Wouldn't you know she kinda falls for him too? Hayden certainly gives her a lot to fall in love with. Keith Larsen is Lt. King, Bart's second-in-command, with Tom Tully playing the chubby scout, Crowshaw, who quickly finds out Bart's secret but doesn't say anything. The only other name even worth mentioning is Lee Van Cleef in a supporting role as a trouble-making gunslinger. Watch quick though before he makes a gruesome exit.

If you've made it this far, I appreciate it. I can't recommend this even to western fans, but if you can come up with a good drinking game to go with it, lots of alcohol/booze could make it more enjoyable.  Well, maybe, it's a shot in the dark. Feeling like torturing yourself? Watch the entire movie below.

Arrow in the Dust <---entire movie (1954): */****

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Swiss Family Robinson

Certain movies stick with you for years. It doesn't matter how old you are, what mood you're in, or how many times you see it. You can revisit that movie, and pick it up like you never missed a beat. A childhood favorite of mine and still one of my favorite's, 1960's Disney's Swiss Family Robinson is a classic in every sense of the word.

Traveling to the colony of New Guinea, the Robinson family is aboard a ship caught up in a storm that wrecks the ship on a reef, the crew abandoning the ship and leaving the family to fend for themselves. Thankfully, an island is within sight, and the Robinsons -- including Father (John Mills), Mother (Dorothy McGuire), and their three sons, Fritz (James MacArthur), Ernst (Tommy Kirk) and Francis (Kevin Corcoran) -- are able to make it their with all the supplies, food and animals left onboard. Not knowing if rescue is coming, they make the most of their island paradise, embracing their new lives. But on this Pacific island full of animals and adventures, trouble awaits too including a pirate band (led by Sessue Hayakawa) who are after something the Robinsons possess.

In the current state and age of Disney with seemingly countless animated movies and generic shows on TV, it's hard to imagine Walt Disney movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, it was a completely different time from now, a more innocent time, and because of that, movies like Swiss Family Robinson have an endearing charm that is hard to explain. It is an adventure, a trip to the exotic and is the definition of good, old-fashioned storytelling that is best accompanied by a big tub of popcorn. Everything from the musical score in all its epic, sweeping qualities (listen HERE, just scroll down) to the casting to the look of the movie adds up. They don't make them like this anymore, simple as that. It's a window to a Disney of the past when high-quality, professionally made and still entertaining feature films were released to adoring audiences.

One of the obvious appeals of 'Swiss' is that any kid who has ever read Robinson Crusoe or has the slightest bit of imagination has at some point wondered how cool it would be to live on a deserted island. Albeit this "deserted" island has plenty of food, water and supplies with lots of animals (elephants, tigers, zebras, ostriches) and adventure waiting around every tree. The coolest thing EVER though is the treehouse the Robinsons build and live in, an idyllic house in the branches that all viewers should want to live in. If you don't, you're lying. Get over it. HERE is the Disney's Magic Kingdom version. Director Ken Annakin shot this movie on the island of Tobago, and it is a stunning visual film. It is the island paradise we all dream of one day living on at some point. The screen is always full of incredible colors -- even the pirates seem fashion conscious -- and is a treat just to look at. To a point, everything else is just gravy.

An underrated facet of this movie's long-term popularity and success is the casting of the Robinson family using some Disney regulars and a few newbies. For starters, I believed this tiny, close-knit group as a family. They look out for each other, they fight, they celebrate holidays, and when needed band together to preserve their island paradise. John Mills and Dorothy McGuire are the quintessential parents, Father and Mother, no first names provided or needed. They just go together, an easy-going, believable chemistry between them. The boys include MacArthur as the athletic but smart Fritz, the intelligent and always trying to prove himself Ernst played by Kirk, and the curious, sometimes annoying Francis played by Corcoran, all three regulars in Disney movies. All five work together seamlessly, and then add in the adorable Janet Munro as Roberta, a teenage girl Fritz and Ernst rescue from pirates while exploring the island.

Growing up watching this movie on a regular basis, a long list of scenes were memorable to me, but none more than the finale when the Robinson family defends their island against a raiding party of pirates. It's the type of adventure where you never really believe they're in danger (would a Disney movie kill this family? I think not), but it doesn't take away from the excitement. Coconut bombs, pirate alarms, a pit filled with a tiger, a collapsing bridge, avalanches of logs and boulders, and booby traps left and right. All pretty ridiculous, and that's the fun. Reality got left behind a long time ago here. It is a great ending, the movie ending on a very positive note.

I could go on for paragraph after paragraph with this movie. Yes, Corcoran's Francis is annoying, but even that can't stop me from loving this movie. It is a gem, a classic, a keeper, whatever you want to call it. Great cast, great story, and one of the most fun, entertaining movies ever. Adventures with that Disney touch at its finest. You can watch it HERE at Youtube, starting with Part 1 of 10.

Swiss Family Robinson <---trailer (1960): ****/****

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Drum Beat

History provides all sorts of little tidbits, small, little-known stories that are often enough lost in the history books. The development of the American west had countless examples of this in the 19th Century, small-scale incidents that were major at the time, but were generally forgotten. Made in 1954, Drum Beat is a solid and generally forgotten western telling the story of the Modoc War in 1872 and 1873.

A well-known and respected Indian fighter, Johnny MacKay (Alan Ladd) has been tasked with a mission from President Grant (Hayden Rorke). In the Oregon territory, the Modoc tribe has left the reservation and causing problems for the white settlers. Johnny is hired as a peace commissioner with the hopes of both the white settlers and and Modoc Indians signing a treaty that will bring a halt to all the violence. He is skeptical of the two sides working together, but Johnny travels back west hoping to meet with Captain Jack (Charles Bronson), the chief of this group of Modocs. The Indians are less than cooperative though, and peace won't come easily.

From director Delmer Daves, this is a BIG western. It isn't an epic that runs 3-hours with intermission and a cast of thousands, but it is nonetheless big. It was filmed in Cinerama and takes full advantage of the on-location shooting in Sonora. You can see and feel the immensity of the frontier as the settlers tangle with the warring Indians. The developing story is somewhat familiar in that sense, but it never feels dull. Yes, there are scenes that rely solely on the natural background, long, uninterrupted scenes of riders moving across a horizon. At 111 minutes, it is a tad long in the tooth, but it's not a deal breaker. Victor Young's score is appropriately sweeping without overpowering anything on-screen, and thankfully the Ballad of Drum Beat is only played over the opening credits.

With Daves at the helm, the story is just solid. He's an underrated, underappreciated director who was consistent throughout his career, directing one excellent movie after another. The story is familiar here -- settlers/whites vs. Indians -- but it doesn't feel familiar. Credit to Ladd and Bronson there. I really liked Ladd's performance as Johnny MacKay, an Indian fighter who's good at what he does but doesn't necessarily enjoy it. Bronson as an Indian seems like a bad choice, but that too works. It borders on a caricature but never goes too far. He looks out for the best interest of his first...only to get swept up in the glory of fighting. Their scenes together are surprisingly good, especially their final scene in the closing minutes. The fight leading up to that scene ain't too shabby either.

An ensemble cast of familiar faces backs up Ladd and Bronson, Audrey Dalton leading the way as Nancy, an Easterner who's moved west to help the cause and surprise, surprise...falls for Ladd's Johnny! Who saw that coming?!? Oh, everybody? My bad. Marisa Pavan and Anthony Caruso rise above stereotypes as Toby and Mannock, two peaceful Modocs working with Johnny and not against him. Robert Keith plays Bill, an older frontiersman with a grudge while Rodolfo Acosta and Perry Lopez play two of Bronson's warriors. Look for recognizable character actors Willis Bouchey, Elisha Cook Jr., Strother Martin and Denver Pyle in small parts.

As a quasi-western buff, I do have to poke some holes in this story. A title card starts with 'This is true except for the fictional characters and storylines needed to dramatize the truth.' So basically a cop-out. A true story until the truth isn't entertaining enough. Sonora, Arizona does not look like Oregon in the least, and the Modocs look and are portrayed more like Apaches than any other tribe. Just weird observations that ran through my head. Still a good movie, especially a large-scale battle on a Modoc fortress on an impenetrable rock formation, with an interesting cast.

Drum Beat <---credits/opening (1954): ***/****

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Left Handed Gun

One of the most well known names to come out of the old west, William Bonney was better known as Billy the Kid, a gunslinger who reportedly killed 21 people in his short 21-year life. This controversial figure has become a favorite in the western genre, his quick, violent life being translated to the screen countless times. The problem? None of them are very good, all of them extremely flawed, especially 1958's The Left Handed Gun.

A drifter and gunslinger without much to his name, William Bonney (Paul Newman) is hired by rancher John Tunstall (Colin Keith-Johnston) to work as a cowhand. In the midst of a cattle range war, Tunstall is killed soon after by rival factions, leaving Bonney looking for vengeance. The four men responsible for the murder are basically let off without a slap on the wrist with young Billy deciding it's up to him to administer justice. With two other cowhands, he sets out to kill the men, one by one, gaining quite a reputation in the process. His name might be too big though with a new governor moving into the territory. Billy's friend, Pat Garrett (John Dehner), has been hired as a marshal to bring him in, and a tortured Billy seems to be running out of time.

The history here is one of the most well-known and still disputed stories involving the wild west. The general facts are known, the names, places and times, but it seems everyone has an opinion about Billy the Kid, especially his death in 1881. There is a comfort level then with a movie like this with anyone even remotely familiar with the Lincoln County War. Anyone not familiar? Oh, boy, this could be interesting. Director Arthur Penn takes a revisionist look at the story. That isn't automatically a bad thing. Many revisionist westerns try to paint the west as it really was, not as it is remembered. Mostly because of Newman's performance the movie is at least watching, but at other times it is surreal in its execution...and not in a good way.

Depending on the account you read, Billy the Kid was an amiable young man who was personable, intelligent and that his outlaw exploits were greatly exaggerated. How then does 'Left Handed' portray him? An uncaged animal who has the maturity of a 13-year old boy, the emotions of a schizophrenic, and personal demons that threaten to cripple his every move. Newman does what he can with the part, making it interesting if not very good, overacting like a crazy man. But no matter what he does, the portrayal of Billy is just plain weird. With his friends Tom Folliard (James Best) and Charlie Boudre (James Congdon), Billy is a cackling, giggling pre-teen who can snap into psycho with the snap of a finger, ready to gun down anyone. His struggles with women leads to the possible rape of Lita Milan's Celsa, a pretty Mexican girl. His vengeance comes after knowing Tunstall for a day (as the movie says, not real life), Billy clearly looking for some sort of father figure. He wastes away as the bodies mount, an anti-hero to conquer all anti-heroes. Worst though, I'm not sure what Penn is going for or what he's trying to say.

The part of Billy was originally given to James Dean, but the young actor was killed before production started and in stepped Paul Newman. The original casting is perfect because Billy here is basically Rebel Without a Cause with a six-shooter. I give Newman credit for committing to this part. He is eternally watchable no matter the part, and that is on display here. In the hands of a lesser actor, this part would have been a trainwreck, the overemotional, high strung gunslinger basically being asked to be gunned down. To a point, Newman keeps it grounded as much as he can, but the movie on the whole does nothing to help him. In its attempts to make the events "real," the story ends up being so theatrically ridiculous, so BIG emotionally, that it all falls apart.

There just isn't much going for this movie. The score from Alexander Courage basically blares in your ear the whole time, telling you what to feel emotionally. Dehner as Pat Garrett has potential, including several good scenes with Billy, but his reason for hunting down the Kid is laughable, and the theatrics of his explosion are equally laughable. Yes, big, angry eyes and screaming. The black and white shooting offers a stark look at the story, a washed out feel to this dark story, but it seems just one town set was used repeatedly. Oh, and for trivia buffs out there, Billy the Kid wasn't a left handed gun. He was a righty. Read about it HERE. It might be more interesting than the overdone movie.

The Left Handed Gun <---trailer (1958): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Fort Dobbs

Starring in TV's Cheyenne for seven seasons, Clint Walker shot to stardom as the burly hero of the long-running western. He never transitioned into a huge star in movies, but with a few exceptions (his supporting part in The Dirty Dozen among others) he was always quite at home in the western. Natural jump, right, TV to film? An underrated, exciting, well-made western, 1958's Fort Dobbs, was one he made during his Cheyenne run.

Having killed a man in the small town of Largo, Gar Davis (Walker) heads off into the desert ahead of a posse. Comanches are on the warpath and killing anyone in their path though, Gar stumbling across a dead man with an arrow in his back. He switches jackets with the corpse and manages to trick the posse into thinking the Comanches killed him. Gar is still on his own though amidst raiding Comanches until he walks onto a small ranch run by a wife, Celia Gray (Virginia Mayo), and her son, Chad (Richard Eyer), who are waiting for her husband to return. He agrees to help the Grays get to the relative safety of nearby Fort Dobbs, but Mrs. Gray begins to think that Gar has a secret, maybe even about her possibly missing husband.

This is an example of what a western can and should be. The story doesn't have to be on the level of The Searchers, Shane or High Noon where it delivers a message. It doesn't have to be mindlessly stupid either full of action and gunplay. From director Gordon Douglas, 'Dobbs' isn't a great, classic western. It is just a really good western, and that's fine with me. It is shot on a relatively small budget with Max Steiner's score sampling his score from They Died With Their Boots On and even borrows some action footage from 1953's The Charge at Feather River. But even on a small scale, it knows what it wants to do and how to get there. Unspectacular, solid entertainment that any western fan should be able to appreciate.

In the vein of the traditional, white-hat wearing hero from the 1940s westerns, Clint Walker is a great lead as Gar Davis. For starters, he looks like a western hero. Walker stood an imposing 6-foot-6 and weighed 235 pounds so he towers over basically everyone around him. When he starts talking, that deep, baritone voice sounds like it's going to bounce off of people and echo back. His backstory is explained late in the movie, giving Gar a slightly darker side albeit a righteous darker side. Don't go in thinking he's the flawless hero, but he is a good hero who will ultimately make the right choice. It's too bad Walker didn't become more of a star in films because as is the case here and yesterday's Gold of the Seven Saints, he's perfect for the western genre.

He is capably helped in three main supporting parts, all three of which could have gone obviously very wrong. We've got the damsel in distress, her possibly shrill, annoying son, and a smooth, conniving gunrunner. Credit to Mayo, Eyer and Brian Keith for making the most out of their parts. I've long been a fan of Virginia Mayo, an actress who was always able to hold her own against some of Hollywood's best tough guys. She's tough, smart and gorgeous, able to stand toe to toe with Walker. Eyer as her son, Chad, is also very good. So often in the 1950s (maybe more than any other decade), child actors could single-handedly ruin the movies they're in. In other films like Friendly Persuasion, The Desperate Hours, and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Eyer shows he can act, genuinely act. He has a great scene with Walker too late in the movie, a natural, emotional scene for a 13-year old actor.

As for Mr. Keith, he's a scene stealer as Clett, a gunrunner who keeps crossing paths with Gar and Celia as they make a run for Fort Dobbs. He obviously has had some past run-ins with Gar, and that tension comes out in these scenes, especially when Keith's Clett goes after Mayo's Mrs. Gray. I'm used to seeing him as more of a straight-laced good guy (like in Nevada Smith) so it's great seeing him as a bad guy. It's more of a smooth, quick-talking bad guy, but you get the idea. The final confrontation between Gar and Clett is appropriately epic featuring some great dialogue that feels right at home in the western. It's not a huge part, but one that Keith knocks out of the park nonetheless.

The fairly straightforward story does just enough to keep you interested and/or guessing until the end. The Utah locations serve as a gorgeous backdrop to the trip to Fort Dobbs which upon arrival delivers quite a twist. The last 25-30 minutes are the more traditional cowboys and settlers vs. Indians story, but it's handled perfectly. The action is exciting, even surprisingly graphic, and in the end everything wraps up nicely. Russ Conway has a good part as the Largo Sheriff in this final portion. Good, underrated western. Definitely worth checking out.

Fort Dobbs <---Youtube montage (1958): ***/****

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Gold of the Seven Saints

For better or worse, when I hear the name Roger Moore, I think of James Bond. To be fair, I do that with all the actors to play 007. Unfortunately typecast -- like Connery, Dalton and possibly Craig -- for one part, it's easy to forget that Moore was a solid actor before and after his Bond days. As a fan of Moore no matter the part, I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across a western he starred in, 1961's Gold of the Seven Saints.

Partners in trapping furs for three-plus years, Jim Rainbolt (Clint Walker) and Shawn Garrett (Moore) have hit it big, finding a gold vein in a creek that produced over 250 pounds of gold dust and nuggets. Trying to get the gold to a town, the partners are in trouble. Shawn gets caught stealing a horse to help carry the gold and is forced to buy that horse...with a gold nugget. Now people in this little western town know gold is in the area. Racing across the desert, Jim and Shawn must keep ahead of a murdering gang led by McCracken (Gene Evans). They pick up a third partner along the way, a drunken doctor, Gates (Chill Wills), and find themselves with little water and supplies, the gang drawing ever closer.

Thanks to Turner Classic Movies I found this western by accident recently, and am I glad I did. From underrated director Gordon Douglas, 'Gold' is a hidden gem lost in a sea of bad westerns from the 1950s and 1960s. It is shot on location in Dead Horse Point State Park (along the Colorado River), Arches National Park, and Red Rock Canyon State Park and offers some of the most stunning views I've ever seen in a western. Filmed in black and white, it looks amazing, but I can't help but wonder what it would have looked like in color. The story though is what sets it apart, and not for the reasons you'd think. For all the twisting and turning so many movies offer, 'Gold' is on the straight and narrow, good vs. bad to a point but more so survival and greed.

Throw large amounts of gold into any equation, and you can sit back and watch the fireworks go off. Treasure of the Sierra Madre showed that the best, greed can make men do a lot of bad things. 'Gold' early on though is as simplistic as they come (and for the better), an extended chase as Jim and Shawn desperately try to make a getaway with their hard-earned treasure. Evans' McCracken is a particularly nasty opponent, willing to dispatch anyone in his way, and even Jim's old friend, Gondora (Robert Middleton), a bandit turned "respectable" rancher, has his eyes set on the gold. There isn't anything flashy about the story and how it develops, we know eventually Jim and Shawn will have to defend their gold, but getting there can be a lot of fun. It isn't just good and bad as I mentioned before. 'Gold' has just enough of a darker, more cynical side to help it rise above the rest.

One of the key character elements to come out of the western maybe more than any other genre is the two partners, the sidekicks, the friends who back each other through thick and thin. Nearing the end of his run on TV's Cheyenne, Walker paired with a very young-looking Moore (he was 34 at the time) is a great pair in the vein of any number of western buddies. Yes, it's the buddy western relationship. At first glance, the pairing of Walker -- built like an NFL linebacker -- and the very-British Moore wouldn't seem to work, but it does. They're partners and friends first and foremost, arguing and talking like two people who have worked together for several years. They bitch and moan at each other, poking fun, but mostly they look out and back each other when the chips are down. And there's just a bit...a bit...of tension to keep things interesting, especially when a woman (curvy Leticia Roman) is involved.

I was a little worried when Middleton's Gondora arrived in the story, but it adds another dimension in the second half of this 88-minute flick. The last half hour is the darker part of the story, all the different individuals coming together to fight it out for many lifetime's worth of gold. The ending has a surprising twist of fate, but not a cruel one, the movie ending on a still positive note. The supporting performances are good, Wills hamming it up as the drunken doctor (he did this part a lot and excelled at it), Middleton the larger than life bandit who loves money, killing and women, and Evans is the sneering, murdering gunslinger. I really liked this movie and came away impressed. It deserves more recognition. Not a classic, but an above average, highly entertaining western.

Gold of the Seven Saints <---Youtube clips (1961): ***/****

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Rogue's March

Like The Beatles or any other popular group, everyone has their favorite Rat Pack member. Okay, maybe not everyone, but I needed something to write about so back off. Dean Martin is mine, followed closely by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and bringing up the rear, Peter Lawford. I've never thought of him as a great actor -- typically excelling at playing the condescending ass -- but with 1953's Rogue's March I might be coming around a bit.

A clerk who's never seen a second of actual combat, Capt. Dion Lenbridge (Lawford) gets by because his father, Colonel Lenbridge (Leo G. Carroll), is the commander of his regiment around the turn of the 19th Century. As the battalion is preparing to ship out to India, Dion is set up to look like a traitor for having sold secrets documents to Russian agents. The charge is false, but he has no way of reputing it. Before his long sentence begins, Dion escapes and fakes his own death to get the heat off his back. He has a plan though so he joins up with a different British unit under a false name as a private. Somehow and some way, he's going to redeem his honor and clear his name for the treacherous acts he's been accused of.

To be fair to Lawford as an actor, I'm more familiar with the movies he did later in his career near and around his Rat Pack days. He didn't have to act in those movies. He had to be cool more than anything else, but his cool always came across as smarmy and arrogant (to me at least). Lawford though had been working regularly in films since the early 1940s and has quite a few solid roles to his name, this one included. It's not a great role, and he doesn't really call all that much attention to himself. Like the movie on the whole, things pick up in the second half when he has nothing to lose. He's gotten his comeuppance and now has to fight to prove his innocence no matter how difficult or dangerous. Good, solid part, and a believable heroic lead.

As for the movie itself, it reflects Lawford in the lead role. It is a good, entertaining movie that never amounts to anything greater. The early goings as Lawford's Dion (what the hell kind of name is that even? I want to punch him for the name alone) is set up to take a fall are a little slow-going, but once he fakes his death the story picks up momentum. Director Allan Davis is balancing a lot of characters and relationships in a relatively short movie at 84 minutes so naturally some are not dealt with as much as we might like. 'March' has the distinct feel of the classic Gunga Din from the British army in India to the battle scenes to the hidden, menacing enemy. There's a reason it's been forgotten over the years, but you can certainly do worse.

With a fair share of British character actors (and Americans playing Brits), Lawford doesn't have to carry the movie on his own. Richard Greene plays Capt. Thomas Garron, Dion's old friend who knows the charges cannot be true and a soldier as brave as his friend. Janice Rule is Jane, Dion's fiance who doesn't seem too surprised when said dead fiance comes back from beyond the grave. Carroll is the prim and proper veteran British officer with a stiff upper lip, weighing his sentiment for his son with what he owes to the men of his command. Buried away down in the cast listing are Sean McClory, Michael Pate, and Skelton Knaggs as McGinty, Crane and Fish as three of Dion's friends in the regiments when he re-enlists. Also look for John Lupton as Lt. Jersey, an inexperienced officer who looks to Dion in the heat of battle.

Where 'March' most resembles the classic Gunga Din is in the finale, a British regiment trying to hold off an attack by Indian riflemen. The battle sequences are greatly enhanced by some on-location shooting, 'March' actually being filmed in the spot where the story takes place, the Khyber Pass, a mountain pass linking Pakistan and Afghanistan. The American Southwest wouldn't have held a candle to this spot. The black and white photography aids the location shooting, giving that desert an even more desolate and isolated feel, and the scale of the final battle is pretty impressive for such a small movie. It definitely helps make up for the lack of action in the build-up.

Rogue's March (1953): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 20, 2012

Knight and Day

Team one of the biggest name actors around and one of the most popular actresses around and let the fireworks fly, right? That's basically the thought behind 2010's Knight and Day starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. On-screen chemistry can only carry a movie so far though as seen in this predictable but still entertaining tongue in cheek (kinda) spy thriller.

Boarding a flight to get back to Boston in time for her sister's wedding, June Havens (Diaz) bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise) several times and starts up a casual conversation with this mysterious man. She goes to the washroom only to step back into a bizarre situation. The pilots are dead, and Roy's taking credit. He lands the plane in a cornfield and begs June to believe him. He's a secret agent, and some very bad guys, including Agent Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard), are coming after him. Roy seems very capable of handling himself, but now June is an unwilling passenger on the ride, globe-trotting with possibly corrupt agents, killers and arms dealers in pursuit. Could Roy be telling the truth, and what's he holding out?

Part spy thriller, part romantic comedy, this James Mangold-directed movie is an odd one. It's harmless enough, not trying to be anything other than a twisting, turning, action-packed popcorn movie. It starts off at a breakneck speed and doesn't show signs of slowing down...and then it does. 'Knight' lands with a wallop, not able to keep up that early momentum. The early portions are both truly funny and smartly written, keeping you guessing as to what's happening. Cruise's Roy is clearly up to something, but what? He dispatches about 100 henchmen in the first 30 minutes, including one nicely handled sequence on an airplane at 30,000 where he's 1-against-6. You think you're in a for a real winner when the rug gets pulled out from under you.

It's not that the next 80 minutes are necessarily bad. You just feel like you've seen them before. Diaz' June is a regular woman (albeit a ridiculously gorgeous regular woman) who in the matter of days basically learns how to be a spy just by being around Roy. Diaz does a fine job as the audience's window into the story, showing her extreme confusion and anger -- but mostly confusion -- at being dropped into this hellish secret agent war. It's never long between action scenes (Austria, France, Spain, all over really) that end up being repetitious by the end. The finale -- a car/motorcycle chase coinciding with the Running of the Bulls -- is solid, but it relies too heavily on CGI. The twists and turns are foreshadowed miles in advance, and there's just something missing. Fun most of the time, but lacking that special something to take it to another level.

Still in a Tom Cruise frame of mind after watching 'Ghost Protocol,' I thought he was the best thing about 'Knight.' He plays the straight man to Diaz, giving these perfect one-liners as he calmly navigates their "situation." His Roy is getting shot at, attacked, stabbed, blown up, and he manages to compliment June's dress. Cruise is a great action actor, and he gets his chances to show it, but he's so believable in buying into and committing to his part that you just go along with it. A fair share of reviewers didn't care for the chemistry between Cruise and Diaz, but I thought they were a great pair. It's the action scenes late and those where the two are separated where the movie struggles. Put them together, and it is a much better movie. Snappy, quick dialogue keeps things going. I only wish there was more of that and less of the pyrotechnics.

Other parts worth mentioning are Sarsgaard as Agent Fitzgerald, a bad guy from the start because he's played by Peter Sarsgaard. Come on, were we supposed to be surprised by that? Jordi Molla is good in a small part as Quintana, a European arms dealer after something valuable in Roy's possession and willing to do whatever it takes to get it (big ole' MacGuffin subplot there). Paul Dano plays Simon, a brilliant high school student involved in the chase while Marc Blucas makes the most of a quick appearance as June's ex-fiance.

I didn't love this movie, and I didn't hate it. Instead, it falls somewhere in between in that dreaded middle ground. I probably won't be revisiting it anytime soon because one viewing is enough. Tom Cruise is one of the few remaining movie stars, and it's always good to see him in a fun, action-packed story. He makes the most of a movie that doesn't bring anything new to the table, relying on its stars in Cruise and Diaz to do the heavy lifting.

Knight and Day <---trailer (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Montana Belle

Operating for over a decade in the last half of the 19th Century, the Dalton gang specialized in bank and train robberies before ultimately meeting their maker in a bloody shootout. Belle Starr was a female outlaw in the old west who rose to notoriety late in life. By all accounts, the two never crossed paths, but what's the fun in that? In a Abbot and Costello-like pairing, they do team up in 1952's Montana Belle.

Rescued from a lynch mob by Bob Dalton (Scott Brady), infamous outlaw Belle Starr (Jane Russell) joins up with the Dalton gang at their hideout in the hills. Bob quickly sets his sights on Belle, but it will have to wait. His brothers, especially Emmett (Ray Teal), want nothing to do with her, especially as they're planning their next robbery. Belle is left behind with two other members of the gang and when a posse shows up soon after, they draw their own conclusions. The Daltons set them up to take a fall, but Belle and Co. escape, vowing to start their own gang and go up against the brothers. The two are on a collision course, and with the law after them, nothing will come easily.

A no frills western from RKO studios, this is one of many B-movies that the studio became famous for. It lacks the scale of much bigger, more epic movies of the time, and in general has that quasi-cheap feel to it. The outdoor scenes are clearly filmed inside on sound stages, and the indoor sets are stylish and clean within an inch of their lives. In other words, like no wild west that ever existed. Now whether it's because it is 59 years later or just the look of the film, even the colors are washed out where everything looks faded now.  A big budget isn't a must for a successful movie though, and 'Montana' has enough going for it to recommend.

For starters, the stable of RKO character actors is turned out here. Russell rose to fame with the then-scandalous The Outlaw in 1943, but never became a huge star in the late 1940s or 1950s. She was relegated to quick, entertaining movies like this. Without the greatest range as an actress, Russell holds her own though as a tough female character until the story requires her not to be. More on that later. Brady and Teal are the more visible of the Daltons, including background parts for Rory Mallinson (Grat) and Holly Bane (Ben). Forrest Tucker and Jack Lambert are bright spots as Mac and Ringo, Belle's partners in crime. Even look for Andy Devine in a supporting part that doesn't have him as shrill as he usually was.  I guess that's a positive.

The story for this 82-minute western is more than a little schizophrenic with far too much going on in such a short movie. At different points, Russell is in love with or at least being pursued by Brady's Bob, Tucker's Mac, and George Brent as Tom Bradfield, the owner of a gambling house Belle intends to knock over. The story takes quick and surprising detours, bouncing back and forth between a more typical western story with its shootouts and betrayals with a less successful love story(ies). The pacing isn't a huge problem, but basically any scene with Russell's Belle and Brent's Tom lag a bit. Quite a singer when she wasn't acting, Russell also gets to sing two songs, including the Gilded Lily and The Man in the Moon. She's a good singer and seeing her dressed up as a saloon girl is never a bad thing, but both numbers bring the already drifting story to a screeching halt.

But just when it looks like things are going nowhere fast, 'Montana' redeems itself in the end. Belle's gang and the Daltons end up putting their differences aside and work together to rob a bank holding $1 million bucks waiting to be issued to cattle sellers. As harmless and even generic as the story has been up to this point, things change in a big way. Somewhat similar to the Dalton's Coffeyville raid, the robbery doesn't go off anywhere near as planned. There is a realism and darkness to this ending that the rest of the movie was lacking. A more pointed story in this vein certainly would have boosted the rating a bit. It also has one of the all-time great western lines ever, Bob Dalton telling Mac, "Let's walk out of this town." I don't want to give it away so see it in context!

Not a particularly memorable western, but fans of the genre should find enough to enjoy it. Make sure to stay through the end too, or at least the shootout in town. A last scene between Belle and Tom is sappy beyond belief, but the failed robbery makes some of the slower moments throughout worth the wait.

Montana Belle <---TCM trailer (1952): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The formula for disaster movies is pretty simple. Put together an all-star list of celebrities and movie stars and basically start throwing all sorts of apocalyptic measures of death at them. Sounds fun, doesn't it? That formula is improved when these casts are in a place they can't escape; a building in The Towering Inferno, a plane in Airport (and its sequels and knock-offs), or a boat like The Poseidon Adventure or 1974's Juggernaut.

On board the ocean liner Brittanica, Captain Alex Brunel (Omar Sharif) is in charge of 1,200 passengers traveling from England to New York City. The ship is only a day or so removed from port when a message comes in. A terrorist identified only as Juggernaut has placed seven bombs on-board the ship. He's demanding a ransom of half a million pounds to be delivered by dawn the next morning. If he doesn't receive the money, the bombs will explode. Working against a clock, a bomb disposal team led by Lt. Commander Anthony Fallon (Richard Harris) and right hand man, Charlie Braddock (David Hemmings), are flown in to defuse the bombs. Can they disarm them in time?

My usual picture of disaster movies is chaotic throngs of nameless individuals running around like their hair is on fire, old people and children trampled underfoot. Then Gene Hackman or Paul Newman steps to the forefront and saves the day, calming the masses with one soothing speech. In a lot of ways then, director Richard Lester has created the anti-disaster movie. A somber falls over the ship when the news of the bomb is released, the passengers realizing they can do nothing but sit back and wait, and hope. There is an almost documentary-like feel to Juggernaut, and a general low-key feeling of high-tension situation. It isn't the chaos or violence that erupts, but that sense of doom and dread knowing death waits with the sunrise. A disaster movie doesn't have to be aggressive and in your face to be effective. It just has to hit you emotionally in some way, and it does here. How would you respond in this dire situation?

Maybe Juggernaut doesn't have the huge names other disaster movies do, but it's still a memorable cast listing. More on Harris and Hemmings later, but let's start with Mr. Sharif, calmly cool as the Britannic's captain. He's given little to do other than try and stay calm, but because it is Omar Sharif it is at least watchable in its ho-hum ways. Anthony Hopkins plays Superintendent McCleod, a police officer leading the investigation to find the bomber back in England, also working with some extra motivation, his wife (Caroline Mortimer) and kids are on board. Ian Holm is Porter, the Britannic's company owner trying to fix the situation as best as possible. Shirley Knight plays a single woman who hooks up with Sharif's captain, trying to figure the man out. Roy Kinnear and Jack Watson play two members of the crew while Clifton James has a good part as an American politician with a unique outlook on the situation.

With a story that focuses on the horrific situation more than the personal aspect of the characters, something has got to keep you interested at that individual, person-to-person level. For me, that part came through with Harris and Hemmings as the leaders of the bomb squad. An early introduction shows them disarming a bomb in a London museum only to be called away to another rescue mission. We learn little about them other than Harris' Fallon has yet to meet a bomb he can't defuse, but because of the horrifying aspects of their job, it becomes personal. They live on a day-to-day basis, surviving one day at a time because honestly, they have no idea when their end will come. Harris is a scene stealer and the best thing going for Juggernaut, confident, cocky and ready with a joke because that's the only way he knows how to cope. His brotherly relationship with Hemmings is spot-on, a friendship that could only be a product of years of working together in this death-defying situation.

As mentioned before, what sets Juggernaut apart from so many other still entertaining movies is the bomb aspect. Much of the second half of the movie is spent with Harris, Hemmings and their team sitting in front of these seven bombs placed in oil drums that will explode if moved even a little. Harris' Fallon goes first, experimenting to see what will work, his team following suit. If something goes wrong (i.e. the bomb explodes), the team picks up where he left off. Tension doesn't begin to describe these scenes. The camera is right there on the ground with them in the dark passageways of this immense ocean liner. That documentary feel gives you the sensation of being there with them. The clock keeps ticking down, and what do you think happens? It's a cliche, but a good one. A blue wire and a red wire. Which one do you cut?

Is it possible for a disaster movie to be low-key and still be effective? Juggernaut proves that it can. Not remembered with some of the classic disaster flicks, but it is a good one nonetheless. Good cast, unique twist on a familiar formula, and tension and adrenaline to spare. Well worth checking out.

Juggernaut <---trailer (1974): ***/****

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Three Musketeers (1948)

First appearing as a serial in 1844 from French author Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers have become some of literature's most popular, most famous and most well-liked characters in the history of the written word. That popularity has transitioned to film in countless efforts (ok, you can count them, but there's a lot, HERE), including 1948's The Three Musketeers.

Leaving his home and family behind, a young Frenchman named D'Artagnan (Gene Kelly) heads for Paris with hopes and dreams of joining the Musketeers of the Guard, the men who protect the King. He almost immediately meets three musketeers, Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young), and Aramis (Robert Coote), getting on their bad side and agreeing to duel to the death with each. Their problems are thrown by the wayside though as they see they must work together to save France from the treacherous prime minister, Richelieu (Vincent Price), who wants to start a war with rival England. With spies and traitors all around, the Musketeers -- plus D'Artagnan -- must fight for each other, for France, and for love.

Above all else, the cast here is truly impressive, a long list of recognizable names. That doesn't mean they're necessarily great performances, but well, the names are there! Not a great start, but Kelly is miscast as young D'Artagnan. He's just not believable other than his physical ability. Heflin is the only one of the three Musketeers to make any lasting impression, Young and Coote wasting away in the background. Price sneers and connives as Richelieu as only he can, but the best villain is the stunningly beautiful Lana Turner as Lady de Winter, Richelieu's most trusted agent. There's also parts for Angela Lansbury as the French queen, Anne, June Allyson as Constance, the Queen's maid and D'Artagnan's true love, Keenan Wynn as Planchet, D'Artagnan's servant, John Sutton as the Duke of Buckingham and Frank Morgan as King Louis.

What plagues this movie is something that affected so many movies in the 1940s and 1950s. It is interested in the spectacle of what's going on on the screen, and the truly impressive scale. It is intended to 'WOW!' the audience, and it does. The Technicolor technique has the action jumping off the screen, and visually it is an amazing movie to watch. The sets, the costumes, the detail. It's all there, but it's a shallow movie. Even knowing who the Musketeers were and the outline of the story, I was bored to tears. It took multiple viewings and a week-long break to even finish this one. There's no heart, no real interest in the characters. Rather than developing those bonds and the characters, we get countless fight scenes, lots of Musketeer carousing that goes nowhere.

Like anything, something good is best in small doses. The fight scenes here are a prime example. An early introduction has D'Artagnan fighting at first against and then with his new Musketeer buddies. The sword-fighting is a sight to behold, and then it keeps going....and going....and going. Kelly was a dancer first and foremost, and a talent with an incredible physical ability, but enough is enough. He jumps, he twirls, he flips, oh, and then he kills some guys. We get it, Mr. Kelly, you're extremely talented. Almost to a fault, the action -- whether it be hand-to-hand or with swords and pistols -- starts off well but doesn't know when to stop. It gets tedious, and with impressive sequences like this, that's never a good thing. Director George Sidney had to know when to pull the plug. Instead, he tries to wow the audience and ends up overdoing it. 

Now even with the thinly drawn characters and tedious action, this movie certainly has its pluses. When the story does get serious toward the end, dropping all the comedic carousing and shenanigans, wouldn't you know? The story significantly improves. As Lady de Winter, Turner especially shines, a snake waiting in the shadows to strike. There is a darkness to it as characters are killed, betrayals are unleashed, and allegiances tested. With a movie that runs at over two hours at 125 minutes, it just takes too long to get there. A darker, more straightforward Musketeers movie with this cast could have been a classic, but this 1948 version struggles to find a consistent tone. The last half hour is that good, but the build-up unfortunately is not. Still, there is too much positive going on here to not give it an at least partially positive review. Just know it's a mixed bag.

The Three Musketeers <---TCM trailer/clips (1948): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Apocalypse Now

As a fan of movies, there are just certain films you have to see. When you haven't seen those movies, you typically get a reaction something like 'HOW HAVE YOU NOT SEEN THAT? IT'S A CLASSIC!' The reaction can be angrier or happier depending on the individual. I've gotten that reaction concerning 1979's Apocalypse Now. Well, check that one off the list.

Having already served at least one tour in Vietnam, special forces Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen) is wasting away in Saigon as he battles through some personal demons. He waits and waits for a mission, and finally gets one, but it's nothing like he expected. Across the Cambodian border, an American officer and Special Forces vet, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), has gone rogue, and Intelligence things he's gone insane with his adoring command still intact. Willard's mission sounds simple but is anything but. Boarding a small patrol boat with its close-knit crew, Willard travels all the way up a river into Cambodia with one objective; terminate Kurtz with extreme discretion.

While director Francis Ford Coppola's highly controversial and much debated movie is typically grouped as a war movie, it is really anything but. It is based off Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, albeit based in a Vietnam setting. Not to sound pretentious -- the movie does enough of that -- but this movie isn't about war. It's more about the affects of war, how it hits people, how it impacts them. I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, the longer version Coppola released in 2001, and I feel safe saying it is unlike any movie I've ever seen before. Emotional, moving, existential, other-worldly, upsetting. It defies descriptions in so many ways.

The best I can do though is surreal. The Vietnam setting is a jumping off point for the weirdness. At 202 minutes (the Redux), it is a leisurely, slow moving story. It is one of the most incredibly visual movies I've ever seen, haunting in its beauty at times and upsetting at others. Working with his father, a composer himself, Coppola creates a musical score that is both classical and innovative. It uses an electronic synthesizer and lots of percussion, setting an eerie, unsettling mood to this trippy, even psychedelic trip up the river to Kurtz's compound. The feeling and aura of the movie is unreal and hard to put into words. Coppola creates a vision of a war -- Vietnam -- that I can only imagine was more terrifying than the actual war itself.

This is a movie about a journey though, both physically moving up the river and in one's mind, specifically Sheen's Capt. Willard. In a movie that runs three-plus hours, we get to see a lot of these bizarre, surreal moments in the journey. It starts with an opening set to The Doors' The End, and then we're off to the Intelligence community where the mission is explained, and then Willard is to to the Air Cav, a helicopter unit commanded by Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), more interested in surf conditions than objectives. That's just the start though. We see a disintegrating force of soldiers the further north the boat travels, officers in "command" long since gone. The patrol boat also runs into a USO show with Playboy playmates, the crew later running into them at an isolated Medevac station, and is also captured of sorts by French plantation owners (including Christian Marquand) still in Vietnam from the French occupation years before. The longer the journey, the stranger things get.

Through the good and the bad -- and there's a fair share of both -- are some moments of perfection. Kilgore's Air Cav command assaulting a Viet Cong coastline post is a brilliant sequence, one of the most realistic, intense, adrenaline-pumping action scenes ever. It's set to Wagner's Flight of the Valkyries, the music the attacking helicopters listen to as they fly into battle. Has to be seen to be believed and appreciated. Watch part of it HERE. Another highpoint is the patrol boat reaching the last American post on the river, a bridge under constant construction and under constant attack. Arriving in the dead of night during an attack with lights strung across the river, Willard and the crew find the semblance of what used to be a command in a dream-like, eerily beautiful sequence.

Onto the cast, and there's plenty to talk about there. Sheen nails his part as the tortured Capt. Willard. His narration fills in much of the movie's quieter gaps, treading the line between obnoxious and pretentious with genuinely heartfelt messages. His own descent into madness, his obsession to finish the mission is startling in its own right. Brando doesn't even appear until 150 minutes in, and his performance is almost a caricature of himself. It's all right, but a little much (more on that later). Duvall very much earns his Best Supporting Nod (but didn't win) as Col. Kilgore, infamously stating "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. The patrol boat's crew include Chief (Albert Hall), the no-nonsense commander, Clean (very young Laurence Fishburne), Chef (Frederic Forrest) and zen-like surfer Lance (Sam Bottoms). G.D. Spradlin and Harrison Ford have small parts as Intelligence officers giving Willard his mission. 

As good as parts of the movie can be, it also struggles to hold its momentum until the end. The story drifts along far too much, and by the time Brando's Kurtz actually reveals himself it's almost a disappointment. There is little energy in the build-up to the finale, an incredible ending that has stirred up controversy over the years in all its different variations. Dennis Hopper as a stoned-out photojournalist (Scott Glenn has a small part here as one of Willard's predecessors) and Brando spout off with lots of philosophical musings that mean nothing but sound good. Kurtz delivers one moving monologue about the horrors of war, but it's lost in a sea of drifting, pointless "messages." That's the problem with much of the movie. It wants to say something about war and man, but what exactly? 

Through everything though, this is an incredible movie. Even if you hate it, Apocalypse Now will almost certainly make an impact on you either negative or positive. I watched it two days ago and am still wrapping my head around it. It is unlike any other movie I can think of, and truly needs to be experienced.

Apocalypse Now <---trailer (1979): ***/****

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Larry Crowne

It's pretty easy to see why 2011's Larry Crowne was a disappointment in theaters and reviewed less than favorably by many critics. It doesn't deliver a huge, high-arcing message, doesn't tell us anything about the human race or society. The performances aren't groundbreaking, and the story doesn't explore any new territory. What is it then? Just a good, old-fashioned (if sometimes sappy and/or sentimental) story with likable characters. Every so often, that's not a bad thing to stumble across.

A 20-year veteran of the Navy and a divorcee, 40-something Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks) is fired from his blue collar job because he doesn't have a college degree. He's completely taken back by the news, never realizing it was an issue. Struggling to find a job, Larry really only has one alternative left open to him. He enrolls in the local community college, taking several classes, including a speech class taught by Mercy Tainot (Julia Roberts), a professor burned out by the profession, and an econ class taught by Dr. Matsutani (George Takei). Surrounded by a much younger student body, Larry is most definitely out of his comfort zone. But as he adjusts, he begins to find that it's never too late to change in life.

Yes, that could be sappiest, most sugary thing I've ever written in 800-plus reviews. But you know what? That's the whole movie wrapped up in one quick sentence. 'Crowne' is about the people. It is a personal story based in the little people on their day-to-day lives. We see the good and bad, and more often than not, the individual rising out of the bad situation and moving toward the good. It's refreshing to see movies like this. There's no violence or sex or twists or turns or betrayals. Director/producer/writer/star Hanks does a great job putting it all together. Sure, there are bigger things at work -- Larry's struggles at the job search are certainly very timely with current economic struggles -- but when it comes down to it, this is a story about people looking for happiness. 

Now that said, I do see the objections some viewers and critics had with this movie. It is so ridiculously sugary sweet and sappy that any diabetics watching should be careful. Larry attends a community college that only exists in the movies with administration leading tai chi classes in the quad, stoner kids who hang with the jocks, that sort of thing. He meets one student, Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the free spirit and insanely adorable college girl who won't be tied down by society's conventions. Talia invites Larry to ride with her "scooter gang," where he also meets Dell (Wilmer Valderrama), her possibly jealous but just downright nice boyfriend. There's also Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as his intensely stereotypical neighbors, identified in one review as the "magical Negro" characters. In any other movie, I might have called Hanks out, but nope, not this one. This movie doesn't have a mean bone in its body.

Two stars who worked together previously in 2007's Charlie Wilson's War, Hanks and Roberts team up again here in a much lighter story.  Neither star has quite the star power they did in the 1990s or even early in the 2000s, but it's still Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts for goodness sake! Hanks brings his usual easygoing tone and manner to his part as Larry. Partially because it's Hanks and partially because the character is so sympathetic and a genuinely nice, good guy, you can't help but root for him. Roberts is given the darker of the two parts, a jaded, more than a little cynical professor who questions what she's doing as a teacher. Their scenes together have an easy flow that only two pros like this could show. And I add this as the shallow guy, if any of my professors ever looked like Julia Roberts, I'd have gotten an A+....just saying.

Behind the camera for just the second time with a feature film, Hanks fills out his cast with some solid names including those already mentioned earlier, Takei especially having some fun as the econ professor with a devilish laugh. Bryan Cranston does what he does best playing a sketchy, cocky son of a you know what, Roberts' husband who's fallen on some self-imposed hard times. Pam Grier has a small part as Frances, a fellow member of the faculty and friend of Mercy's. I feel safe saying this isn't a great movie, and who knows? Maybe it isn't even a good movie. I can say there's a comfort with this movie. Just enjoy this one and don't overthink it.

Larry Crowne <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Debt

In the closing days and months of WWII, Nazi officials saw the end in sight and started to plan their escapes, retreating into new lives, knowing that their actions would eventually catch up with them. Intelligence agencies from countries around the world did their best to bring these men to justice as seen in movies like Marathon Man or The Boys from Brazil, and most recently 2010's The Debt.

It's 1997 and Rachel Singer (Helen Mirren), Stephan Gold (Tom Wilkinson) and David Peretz (Ciaran Hinds) have been holding onto a secret for 30 years. Now that secret might be coming out. Rachel's daughter has a written a book about her mother's exploits as Mossad agent in 1965, working with Stephan and David as part of a three-man team to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice. What they told though happened isn't the truth, and now after 30 years of inner turmoil, it may finally be time for that hidden truth to reveal itself. What will be the price? At what cost can their struggles be revealed?

A smart, well-written thriller. They seem few and far between actually arriving in theaters, don't they? Director John Madden has done it though with this thriller, crafting a story that weaves in between 1965/66 and 1997 fairly effortlessly. Early in the story, we're thrown for a loop as an audience, seeing what we believed happened only to find out later that it wasn't based in the truth. The East Berlin setting of 1965 is dark and gloomy (appropriate) with the flashback occupying much of the movie's middle portions only to bounce back to 1997. The look of the movie is great, and as a whole, it's more content in telling a human, interesting and still entertaining story than getting wrapped up in gunplay and explosions thankfully.

A surprising problem though is the division of the story between the two separate years. In the 1965 portion, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas play Rachel, David and Stephan. All three do a fine job with their characters, Mossad agents on a nearly suicidal mission deep in Communist-run East Berlin. Worthington especially makes a positive impression, showing he's more than only an action star, and Chastain too carries herself very well. Even with the mystery though of what happened on the mission, these 1965 Berlin scenes lack a certain energy. We know some sort of twist is coming yet somehow it isn't all that interesting. There's also the always reliable, always cliched love triangle thrown into the mix, one of my all-time least favorite plot devices.

So with a story that has three main characters, we're really seeing six characters, not to mention Jesper Christensen as Dieter Vogel, the Surgeon of Birkenau, a Nazi war criminal who played a major role in the Holocaust (and loosely based on Josef Mengele). Of the two storylines, I was more interested in the 1997 plot. Mirren is one of the best actresses working in movies today, and Wilkinson is no slouch either. Hinds has the least screentime but does not disappoint either. I can't explain the differences because all the acting is above average and pretty top-notch. The more current story just came across better to me while the rest back in Berlin drags at times.

What divided many reviewers/critics was the ending after the twist and an additional surprise are thrown into the story. I for one, liked it a lot, thinking it was a very emotional fitting end for the character. There is a certain amount of viewer interpretation allowed in the ending, but this is where the debt in the title comes into play. These characters have suffered with a decision they made some 30 years back and are now forced to deal with it. The solution is no easier than the original problem, and the final scene is incredibly moving. Credit goes to composer Thomas Newman and his score, balancing the tense scenes (kidnapping Vogel in Berlin) to the quiet moments. A flawed movie in terms of story, but the acting is worth mentioning on its own.

The Debt <---trailer (2010): ***/****

Monday, February 13, 2012

Safe House

Denzel Washington is one of a rare breed in Hollywood. He's an Academy Award-winning actor who has shown that regardless of the role he's in, he is truly an actor. On the other side, he's also a movie star, a true movie star. There aren't many actors/actresses around who have the cache that Washington does. Oh, he's in a new movie? Sign me up. It doesn't hurt that with 2012's Safe House, it's also a good movie.

Having been stationed in Cape Town, South Africa for 12 months, CIA agent Matthew Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is at the end of his rope. His lone task is to care for and watch over a CIA safe house, one that in his year on duty has seen absolutely zero visitors. That is, until now. One day, a CIA extract team (led by Robert Patrick) arrives at the safe house with a prisoner, Tobin Frost (Washington), a rogue agent suspected of selling intelligence secrets to the highest bidder. Before the interrogation can begin though, the safe house is attacked with Tobin as the target. Weston takes him out and finds himself on the run, needing to hide long enough until help can arrive. What isn't Tobin telling him though? And how did the attackers know the time and place to attack? Someone most definitely wants Tobin dead, and Weston may be the collateral damage.

An espionage thriller set in South Africa with Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, and a crew of more than reliable actors in supporting roles? Oh, count me in. From director Daniel Espinosa, Safe House doesn't break new ground in the genre. There is a familiarity with the story and characters, but not that overdone feel of having seen everything done before and done to death. With its washed out colors and quick editing, it has the look and feel of a Tony Scott flick crossed with a Jason Bourne movie. It isn't like those movies, just similar. Espinosa handles the twisting, fast-moving story very professionally. As a viewer, you're always aware the revelations are coming (somewhat predictably), but the enjoyment comes from the ride along the way. The action is impressive, but there's not too much. The twists make sense and fit logically into the story. And the characters? Stock characters from the spy/espionage genre, but good ones at that.

Much of the appeal from Safe House will no doubt come from Denzel Washington as spy come in from the cold Tobin Frost. Washington isn't the type of actor who's in 9 or 10 movies a year, picking and choosing his roles more carefully. When they come along, you've got to enjoy and appreciate them. When he's on-screen, Washington is effortlessly cool, making him an ideal choice to play a possibly rogue agent looking to come in. Tobin is a master manipulator, highly intelligent, very capable of handling himself, and ready and willing to use a wide network of associates and contacts to help his cause. His motivations are kept in the dark to a point -- left in the dark -- but it's clear he's fed up with living a hidden life. He's the one who sets the action in motion, and when it starts, it never slows down. There are very few must-see actors, but Washington is one of them. The actor and character leave you wanting more.

As his counter, Ryan Reynolds shows again why he's one of the rising stars in Hollywood. We meet him in the beginning; an inexperienced agent looking for actual field work, wasting away in a pointless job. He keeps secrets about his job from his girlfriend (Nora Arnezeder), hoping to get reassignment somewhere. As he's thrust into the world he's only dreamed of up to this point, we see a transformation, a young agent learning in a do-or-die situation. His comedic abilities as an actor have never been in question, but with parts like this and 2006's Smokin' Aces, Reynolds shows he is very capable of being an action star. Let's not talk about Green Lantern which looked like all sorts of awful. Most importantly though, Reynolds isn't overshadowed by Washington. Their scenes together keep things flowing when the bullets aren't flying. Tobin is playing Weston to a point so can the inexperienced agent figure it out and fight back?

Who else to look for? Washington is the drawing card, but there's no drop-off between him and the rest of the cast. Back in Langley at CIA headquarters, Sam Shepard, Brendan Gleeson and Vera Farmiga play CIA supervisors trying to piece everything together. What exactly is going on in South Africa, and who's on who's side? Ruben Blades makes a quick appearance as Carlos, an old associate of Tobin's who helps him out as he tries to get out of South Africa. Patrick helps legitimize the small part as Keifer, the leader of the CIA extract team, with Liam Cunningham briefly appearing as an MI6 link to Tobin. Two other worthwhile parts include Vargas (Fares Fares), the killer tasked with killing Frost and Weston, and Keller (Joel Kinnaman), another safe house operative looking for any sort of excitement.

With a 115-minute long movie, director Espinosa keeps things flowing and never really lets up in the action department. Expansive, loud shootouts, harrowing car chases through Cape Town's crowded streets, and knock down, brutal hand-to-hand fights pepper the story throughout. The editing is lightning-paced, but you're always able to keep up and see what's going on. Thankfully, the brakes were tapped before 'Safe' reached Bourne-editing territory. The shaky camera never goes too far, but you do feel like you're there with the action. South Africa is an exotic, different location for the thriller as well, not the typical backdrop for an espionage story. A classic? No, but it's an above average flick with its fair share of unique qualities.

Safe House <---trailer (2012): ***/****