The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thieves' Highway

I hate it when that happens. You know what I mean. A movie comes highly recommended in one way or another -- a friend, a movie review, an IMDB rating, a Netflix recommendation -- and you assume you're really going to enjoy it a lot...only to, well, come away somewhat empty. That was my biggest reaction from 1949's Thieves' Highway, a highly recommended if not hugely well-known film noir.

A war veteran returning home to his family and girlfriend, Polly (Barbara Lawrence) in Fresno, Nico Garcos (Richard Conte) is stunned by what he finds. His father has been crippled in a driving accident, but it's more than that. The circumstances were shady at best as conniving businessman Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) also robbed him of $1,900 that he owed him in the process. Nico is enraged, wanting to exact revenge, and he concocts a plan with a down-on-his-luck truck driver, Kinney (Millard Mitchell), to buy and ship a truck-full of apples that Figlia would be interested in purchasing. Nico has his plan, but even he can't be too sure of what is in store for all involved.

From director Jules Dassin, 'Thieves' has a lot going for it. As a film noir, it is highly effective in its amoral portrayal of that seedy underbelly of the criminal black market. Conte is the anti-hero, revenge on his mind and little else. Cobb is the conniving, slimy Figlia, a villain without anything even remotely close to being a redeeming quality. The look of the movie -- much of it shot on location in Fresno and its markets -- is perfect; that blend of shadowy, smoky doom that film noirs specialized in. You just know nothing good is going to come out of that shadowy alleyway, don't you? It is a particularly nasty world, one of manipulation, greed, bribery, and a me-first and screw the rest sort of attitude.

So as a fan of incredibly dark stories, why then didn't I like this one? I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe I've seen the darkness of such stories and it doesn't hit me as much as it might have audiences in 1949. Mostly though, I never felt a connection to any of the proceedings, whether it be the characters or the developing story. There was a little part of me that was incredibly amused by the portrayal of the seedy underworld of.....produce???? Yeah, I suppose the apple business is pretty cutthroat. I don't mean to minimize the movie like that, but it never felt quite as sinister as it could have. Yes, everyone is in it for themselves, and Conte's Nico wants to right a wrong and exact revenge on the man who crippled his father, but it's never truly an interesting story, for me at least.

The reviews I've read are almost uniformly positive about the casting, and I agree to a point. Many though tout Conte as delivering a career-best performance. I'm not seeing it. I'm a fan -- if not a huge one -- but I always think of Conte at his best in a key supporting role. When he has to carry a movie on his own, I've never thought too highly of those movies. Mostly, he doesn't look too interested in the revenge angle. His easy-going delivery is broken up by these quick outbursts of rage/anger, but they never felt even close to being realistic. On the other hand, Lee J. Cobb is at his best, a villain you love to hate. He has eyes for making as much of a profit as he can with no regard for anything else. If lives are destroyed in the process, so be it. He doesn't care as long as he's making some money.

The rest of the cast are familiar members from the Film Noir Stock Characters list. Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the subtly played hooker with a heart of gold. She takes some money from Cobb's Figlia to keep Nico busy, but quickly realizes the error of her ways (good timing, huh?). I didn't really see much in the way of chemistry between Cobb and Cortese either. Mitchell is solid if unspectacular as the equally ambitious truck driver, Kinney, while Joseph Pevney and Jack Oakie are underused as Pete and Slob, two rival truck drivers trying to move in on Nico's plan. Their bumbling partner act is played for laughs early, but thankfully, the duo takes a turn for the serious as things escalate.

Who knows? Maybe I'm missing something here. I've been guilty of that before. As a fan of dark, realistic stories, I thought this one sounded like a sure thing. The dog eat dog world portrayed in 'Thieves' is interesting on a small level, but it never amounted to much for me. Making it worse, the happy ending comes completely out of left field. At least stick to your guns. If you're going for dark, stay dark.

Thieves' Highway <---trailer (1949): **/****

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Violent Road

Released five years after the 1953 French classic The Wages of Fear (<---Just Hit Play review), 1958's Violent Road is an interesting, mostly entertaining and tense story. There's a slight problem though. If you've seen the French version, this is almost a cookie-cutter remake albeit for American audiences. That's not necessarily a deal breaker, but it sure hamstrings the movie from the start.

Just days removed from getting fired as a truck driver, Mitch Barton (Brian Keith) stumbles into a dying western town and quickly finds a job. After a launch went severely wrong, the Cyclone Rocket Company is relocating, but there's an issue. To get started at their new location, three truckloads of explosive, corrosive and sensitive chemicals must be transported across bumpy, dangerous desert roads, and there's a short window to do it. Never one to shirk a dangerous job, Mitch takes the job offer and recruits five other men -- two more drivers, three back-up driver/mechanics -- to help him pull it off. Working against the clock and the elements, it looks like a suicide mission with little chance at succeeding.

The threat with any remake is that it won't be nearly as good as the original. My question though with this 1958 flick is simple. Were they counting on a majority of American audiences not having seen 'Wages,' if they'd even heard of it? I'm not sure how much of a release the original French classic received in the U.S. Regardless, director Howard W. Koch transports the story from South America and moves it to the American southwest. It borrows liberally from Wages, tweaking a few things here and there (three trucks instead of two, six men on the mission and not just four) while also not going to quite the dark depths of the original. Not a bad thing, it just finds a different way to be dark.

Not as good as the original, 'Violent' is still a very watchable if derivative movie. It's worth a watch for sure. The black and white shooting looks great, giving that big open expansive desert a larger than life feel. Koch filmed his story in the Alabama Hills in California so we get some great footage of a time long since past, and as well, a pretty cool amount of footage of these three trucks gunning it across the desert. The story -- regardless of if you've seen the original -- is one you watch anxiously waiting something to go wrong. What is it? You're never sure. You watch from the edge of your seat waiting for anything; a wrong bump in the road, an explosion that will kill all involved. Not particularly original, you bet, but entertaining just the same.

Similar to why 'Wages' was successful, 'Violent' works because of the dynamic that grows among Mitch's crew. They're all chosen for this desperate, possibly suicidal job, and they all have their personal reasons for doing so. Yes, you guessed it. This is a men-on-a-mission movie in disguise. Keith gives a fine performance as Mitch, the no-nonsense leader of the desperate mission. It becomes almost an obsession to get the job done and get his men the money they're owed. His destined for hell group includes Sarge (Dick Foran), an ex-Marine who missed his glory days, Lawrence (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), the company rep dealing wit the death of his family in the previous rocket accident, Ken (Sean Garrison), the fearless kid trying to earn the money to help care for his drunken brother, Manuelo (Perry Lopez), the mechanic who wants to go to school to become an engineer, and Ben (Arthur Batanides), the gambler always ready and willing to let his fate be decided on a roll of the dice. Nothing flashy, but all six are solid in bringing their characters to life, avoiding become just cardboard cutouts of real people.

Not a ton else to add to this review so I'll keep it a little shorter than usual. If you enjoyed 'Wages,' you'll no doubt get some enjoyment from this movie. If you haven't, it's a clean slate and a win-win. Nothing flashy at 86 minutes long, but a well-told story and an interesting bunch of characters. Worth a watch.

Violent Road (1958): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, August 27, 2012

Chicago Confidential

Part Law and Order, part Dragnet, 1957's Chicago Confidential is an odd duck in movie terms. It's not a bad movie, but it's not good either. You can easily see it playing in some dumpy drive-in or cheap second-run theater. The oddest thing? I can't help but wonder if district attorneys across the country paid to have it made. It's almost a recruiting video for the profession, wrapped up nicely in a quick 75 minutes.

The district attorney in Chicago, Jim Fremont (Brian Keith) seems destined for bigger and better things, maybe even in the governor's office. For now though, he has one huge case in front of him that could make or break his career aspirations. The head of a union, Artie Blaine (Dick Foran), has been accused of murder, killing one of his staff who was supposed to have confidential papers that could possibly cripple the union. It seems like an open and shut case with evidence mounting up against Blaine, but Fremont begins to smell a rat, and he's right. With help from Blaine's girlfriend, Laura (Beverly Garland), Fremont tries to prove the murder was a frame set up by the mob interested in infiltrating the up to now clean union.

Aired recently on TCM in a Dick Foran tribute day, 'Confidential' is a weird one. At just 75 minutes, it plays like an extended TV episode, maybe a two-part episode if anything. With such a short run time, it is too short to make much of an impression and not long enough to be truly bad. As it is, this Sidney Salkow-directed film just sort of is. Not bad, not good, just sort of there. The narration spells every little thing out for us as a moronic audience, and the sets look like they were pilfered from a police procedural TV show.

So why watch this one? It's unabashed desire to show how cool district attorneys is certainly unique if not interesting. You can see Sam Waterston's Jack McCoy of Law and Order taking that leading part that Keith plays. Strong, resolute, and undeterred by the threats of organized crime, Keith's D.A. Fremont is going to accomplish his objectives no matter the detours thrown at him. But it goes beyond that. When he starts to think Foran's Blaine is innocent, he goes on an investigation of his own. In the final scene when everything has been righted, the narrator says proudly "Nothing can stop a district attorney" or something of that ilk. Subtle it is not. Stupidly entertaining? A little.

In a part that doesn't give him much room to flex and show off his acting ability, Keith is serviceable as D.A. Fremont. He's doing the best he can with a poorly written, sometimes dull character. Foran similarly isn't given much to do other than looked worried and/or angry. Garland as the crusading girlfriend ends up being more shrill than anything else, grating with every passing scene. The bright spots? The bad guys, evil in everything they do and reveling in their despicable actions. Douglas Kennedy plays Harrison, the mobster using Blaine's union as a means of moving organized crime into the city. His two brutal thugs are played by John Indrisano and Jack Lambert, both uncredited parts that deserved some more screentime. Elisha Cook Jr. is good in a small part as Candymouth Dixon, a lush who accidentally witnesses the dumping of the body early on. Later the host of the 1960s classic Home Run Derby, Mark Scott plays a cop working with Fremont.

Through all of its faults, 'Confidential' is certainly trying to be something different. In terms of police procedurals, we see the wide variety of techniques used by law enforcement in the 1950s, especially an interesting bit about voice analysis as a key piece of evidence surfaces. But in the end, it never amounts to a whole lot. It's a generally dull story made tolerable by Keith and Foran in the leads.

Chicago Confidential <---trailer (1957): **/****

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Green Hornet (2011)

A serial radio star to a TV series to comic book hero to feature film vigilante, the character of the Green Hornet has certainly made the rounds since his introduction back in the 1930s. For the most part though, he's always been a serious vigilante, an anti-hero not to be trifled with. So what about 2011's The Green Hornet? It's not a bad film by any means, but it ain't that good either. Moral of the story; a comedic story about a masked vigilante might not have been the best choice.

When his father, a well-respected newspaper publisher, dies, 20-something Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) is left to take stock of what he should do with his life. He's left in charge of the newspaper, but he has no idea where to even start. Britt meets Kato (Jay Chou), his dead father's mechanic and designated coffee maker (surprisingly funny background there), and finds a kindred spirit of sorts. Intelligent and talented, Kato is similarly drifting along and similarly didn't like Britt's father. One night vandalizing a statue of Britt's dad, the duo beats up a bunch of thugs robbing a young couple and an idea is born. Teaming up, could they be a crime-fighting duo that cleans up Los Angeles' mean streets? Enter the Green Hornet and his masked sidekick, Kato.

This is a difficult movie to review for a couple reasons. While I'm not a diehard Green Hornet fan, I do consider myself a fan. The reviews were decidedly negative for this 2011 venture, and the box office (about $98 million) was less than impressive. It's difficult though because somewhere in this mess of a movie is a good movie. Somewhere. I'm not sure where. The parts that work are very funny, and the instances where it's a little (not a lot) spoofy are very entertaining. The parts that don't work? Well, they really don't work, grating on all that positive karma built up. In the end, it's a mixed bag. I'll slightly recommend it -- with some measured things to remember -- but know going in that this is far from a great or even very good movie.

What does work? That's tricky because Rogen playing the Green Hornet is both good and bad. He wrote the script with longtime friend Evan Goldberg and like their previous positive ventures -- Pineapple Express, Superbad -- there is an easy-going comfort level. The best thing going for 'Hornet' is the hero-sidekick-partner relationship between Britt and Kato, but only at its best in the quiet moments. When they discover they both hated Britt's father, when they develop the secret but ultra-cool persona of the Green Hornet, when they become friends, that is when the movie is clicking on all cylinders. Like Michael Cera and Jonah Hill in Superbad, Rogen and James Franco in Pineapple Express, Rogen and Goldberg know how to write scenes of dialogue between two guys and make it seem natural. It's just too bad there couldn't have been more of that here in 'Hornet.' The cool factor with the pimped-out Black Beauty, their ridiculous but stylish "disguises," all those little things had potential.

Instead, we get lots of overly goofy, even downright dumb spoof-like scenes mixed in with an abundance of overdone, exaggerated action scenes. Rogen is guilty here of resorting to annoying Rogen. He's a legitimately good comedic actor when he underplays his scenes. That's not the case here. He's yelling and screaming and waving his arms, hamming it up like his life depended on it. Thankfully, Chou at his side as Kato is an underplayed gem, the best part in the movie. As for the action, director Michel Gondry puts the gas pedal to the floor. Big, slo-mo explosions, lots of excessive, quick-cut hand-to-hand combat, and a surprisingly brutal streak when it comes to on-screen violence. 'Hornet' isn't guilty of a spoof. It's too dark at times for that. In terms of humor and pushing the limits, it goes far beyond spoof into some sort of odd purgatory beyond. What is it exactly? Hell if I know.

In some odd, what the hell is she doing here casting, Cameron Diaz plays Lenore Chase, Britt's babely, eye-candy secretary, an aspiring investigative reporter. I question what drew Diaz to the part because she's a better actress than this part requires. Similarly in an odd part, Tom Wilkinson seems to have been blackmailed into taking this small part as Britt's bastard of a father, but he's gone by the 10-minute mark or so. Looking like he's genuinely having some fun, Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds) plays Chudnofsky, the king of L.A. crime always trying to figure out how to be more intimidating, more scary to his victims/clients. David Harbour is the possibly shady district attorney, James Edward Olmos looks bored as a veteran journalist, and Edward Furlong (he's alive!!!) makes a stretch of an appearance as a meth dealer. Franco too delivers an uncredited funny cameo as Danny Crystal Cleer, a club owner who incurs Chudnofsky's wrath.

I don't know. I went in with measured -- even lowish -- expectations, and I came away disappointed because at times I really liked this movie. The pacing at 119 minutes becomes an issue, and the lack of focus doesn't help too. Spoof superhero movie? Kind of. Hardcore drama? A little. Funny? You bet when the comedy is done right. A mixed bag in the end. Still, you do get to hear the Green Hornet theme -- listen HERE -- and that's never a bad thing.

The Green Hornet <---trailer (2011): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Bamboo Prison

Here we are again, the propaganda movie. I feel bad. I do, but I've got little else to go on here. Subtle, underplayed propaganda = anywhere from good to tolerable. Heavy-handed, aggressively in your face propaganda = not good to not tolerable. Unfortunately, 1954's The Bamboo Prison goes down the heavy-handed route.

Having marched for over 40 days, Corporal Brady (Brian Keith) and the remnants of a column of prisoners of war finally reach their destination; a brutal, under-supplied camp run by the North Korean army and several Russian/Communist advisers. Getting the scoop from his fellow prisoners, Brady discovers that one American P.O.W., Sgt. John Rand (Robert Francis), is a collaborator working with their captors for better treatment and billeting. Brady quickly finds out there's more than meets the eye when it comes to this believed collaborator. Rand is really an intelligence officer planted in the camp hoping to find proof/documentation of Communist atrocities committed against the POW's. Can he get the proof before a Russian counterpart figures him out?

Released just a year after the conclusion of the Korean War, 'Prison' was no doubt an incredibly timely story for audiences. Beyond it's issues with the propaganda angle -- more to come in that department -- the movie is undone by a general stupidity I had trouble getting past. At just 79 minutes, it doesn't really know where it wants to get other than delivering the "Communists are epically bad" message. Director Lewis Seiler was a talented director, even handling other propaganda-ish movies like Guadalcanal Diary, but the story here is too convoluted for its own good. Rambling, oddly and aggressively trying to be funny, it's a mess.

Propaganda in film can be good. I've said that before, and I'll most likely say it again. The story in 'Prison' has Francis' Rand searching for proof of Communist atrocities, anything from brainwashing to brutal physical beatings to lack of supplies and clothing. Brief sidenote; can't he just see these atrocities? What exactly is he looking for? Does pretending to be a collaborator actually help that much? Here's the thing. All those things were done by Communist/North Korean forces. There's evidence of it, but that doesn't make it any more pleasant to watch. We are subjected to long monologues about the Communist ideal, and then shown how evil it is. Movies like The Manchurian Candidate showed that this subject could be handled in a subtle but still scary and effective fashion. That isn't the case here.

Star of just four movies before his death at age 25 in 1955 in an airplane crash, Francis isn't the best choice to play this character. As was the case with his other roles, he just is not a very expressive actor. His line deliveries come across as beyond static. Monotone, wooden, one-note, all adjectives would apply here. His Rand is also given a love interest, Tanya (Dianne Foster), a Russian ballerina married to a Communist adviser/brainwasher. Those scenes -- lacking any real chemistry -- can be painful to watch. In the sidekick role, Keith is wasted as the tough, no-nonsense Cpl. Brady. He's introduced, and you think he's going to be a main character but unfortunately not. His character disappears for long stretches, only to pop up when Rand needs some help.

Then there's the portrayal of the American and international prisoners of war. For a camp that's supposed to be one step above Hell, the prisoners don't seem to mind too much. They're always laughing it up, hamming it up, and all at their Communist captors' expense. Haha communism! You're so stupid! The prisoners include Jerome Courtland as Arkansas, a shrill Southerner with that stereotypical drawl, E.G. Marshall as Father Dolan, Earle Hyman as Doc, the black medic (another redeeming part), Jack Kelly as Slade, the fast-talking car salesman, King Donovan as Pop, the family man trying to get home (bet that ends well for you, buddy), Pepe Hern as Ramirez, the Mexican soldier, Leo Gordon as Pike, the hot-headed prisoner, and Dickie Jones as Jackie, the youngster. At different points, they sing together, do impressions of Bogie, and all sorts of prisoner of war hijinks. Yeah for being a prisoner of war!

There just isn't much going on here in that whole positive vein. The ending is ridiculously stupid, making us question what the hell Sgt. Rand was even thinking all along. Has he started to believe all the things he was pretending to believe? Eh, not worth analyzing. Just not a good movie.

The Bamboo Prison <--- TCM trailer/clips (1954): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Sundowners

Teaming up for John Huston's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in 1957, stars Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum made up a perfect pair in an underrated movie. Don't fix what isn't broken, right? Just three years later, the duo teamed up again with equally positive results, this time in 1960's The Sundowners.

Working and living in the Australian Outback, Irish-Australian Paddy Carmody (Mitchum) is constantly on the go, taking odd jobs wherever he can to support his family. Along for the ride with him is his wife, Ida (Kerr), and his teenage son, Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.). While Paddy loves the roving, even nomadic lifestyle, Ida and Sean want to settle down somewhere, especially one farm along a river they find in Bulinga. Paddy can't quite bring himself to do it, refusing to be tied down anywhere, but for the sake of his family, he takes a job shearing sheep at a ranch with hopes of saving enough money to purchase the farm. Paddy's old ways may prove to be harder to fix than anything as Ida and Sean dream of their farm.

Thanks to my own forgetfulness and stubbornness, this 1960 movie from director Fred Zinnemann has long avoided me. I was finally able to catch up with it, and it was well worth the wait. This is a big movie, clocking in at 133 minutes, with a scale that's meant to impress you. According to the always-reliable Wikipedia page, Zinnemann spent 12 weeks in Australia shooting everything from the land itself to shots of sheep herding. The actual movie -- filmed on location with the cast in Australia -- looks great, from the vast horizons in the Outback to the towns that pop up along the way. Some money was clearly spent on establishing that sense of reality, and it pays dividends immediately.

For all its impressive scale though, 'Sundowners' is most successful because it works in terms of story on a personal level. It is a big, expansive story, but the focus is on the Carmody family and their journey (through good and bad) as they search for some sort of normal. Paddy? He loves his roving life. Ida and Sean? They want a home to call their own. In terms of its portrayal of a family, the story reminded me at times of a John Ford story where family (immediate and extended) is the most important thing in life. Thankfully, it avoids all the schmaltzy, sugary sweet portrayals of family that Ford often fell back on. No slapstick humor here, just the authentic feel of a family striving to be together and to be something together.

Some actors and actresses just have chemistry, and that's certainly the case with Kerr and Mitchum working together. Showing off that same chemistry they had in 'Mr. Allison,' the duo gets the ball rolling immediately. Some on-screen couples just had that back and forth that doesn't feel like acting. Like here, it has the very real feel of a couple that has spent years and years married through the trials and tribulations, the good and the bad. Who better to play an amiable but sometimes hard-drinking middle-aged man who refuses to be tied down to one single place? I can't come up with anyone better than Mitchum for that part. As for Kerr, she is quickly climbing my list of favorite actresses. She has this easy-going charm that is hard not to fall for. Her Ida obviously loves Paddy, but she admits he also can drive her batty at times too. Their relationship doesn't feel forced. It feels genuine.

What will set this apart from a lot of aspiring epics is the cast. We're not talking Ben-Hur or Lawrence of Arabia here. Instead, it's an epic-looking movie that focuses on a handful of key characters on a smaller scale so in other words? Not a big cast. Peter Ustinov is a scene-stealer as Rupe Venneker, a former ship's captain (possibly) who headed back to land and in general loves everything about life. He signs on with the Carmodys as they undertake driving a sheep herd to market, working as a drover alongside Paddy, and becomes almost an adopted member of the family. In just his second credited role, Anderson Jr. holds his own on-screen with Kerr, Mitchum and Ustinov. His wide-eyed innocence at the world is a good fit alongside his roving Dad, weary Mom, and always mischievous (in a good way) Rupe. In an Oscar nominated part for Best Supporting Actress, Glynnis Johns plays Mrs. Firth, a hotel/saloon owner who takes a shine to Ustinov's Rupe. Also, look for John Meillon, Ronald Fraser and Chips Rafferty as some of Paddy's fellow sheep-shearers.

Struggling in theaters in 1960, 'Sundowners' apparently didn't catch on with audiences. Zinnemann thought it was because it was advertised as a From Here to Eternity knock-off of sorts. Again, Wikipedia is never wrong, right? Whatever the reason for its struggles, I liked it. It's nothing profound or different, but just a good story about family. The road-weary Kerr looking at a done-up woman on a train and wanting to be her, even just for a second. The roving Mitchum, genuinely distraught after a mistake he made cost the family dearly. It's the little things in this quasi-epic that never aspires to EPIC status, but it just don't need to. Enjoy.

The Sundowners <---TCM trailer/clips (1960): ***/****

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


Let's face it. Who among us actually wanted to grow up? It's just more fun being a kid. Less responsibilities, no obligations, and basically? Do what you want. That's part of the long-lasting charm of the Peter Pan character, a mischievous boy who never grows up, causing mischief and enjoying himself wherever he goes. What if Peter did grow up though, forgetting about what he used to be? So goes 1991's Hook.

A ruthless businessman who can scoop up struggling businesses effortlessly, Peter Banning (Robin Williams) takes his wife and kids, Jack (Charlie Korsmo) and Maggie (Amber Scott), to visit his grandmother, Wendy (Maggie Smith), in London. Obsessed with a merger, Peter has lost touch with his family, and one night, they're mysteriously taken from Wendy's home, an ominous note from a JAS Hook left on their bedroom door. It defies a 'Peter Pan' to come back to Neverland and rescue his children. Peter has no idea what to make of it until Maggie reveals a secret; Peter is in fact Peter Pan all grown up, his "childhood" lost since forgotten when he chose to grow up. How can he get his kids back? By embracing who he used to be, visiting Neverland and tangling with the nasty Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman). 

As a literary character, Peter Pan first appeared in author J.M. Barrie's 1902 book The Little White Bird. Peter would appear in several other Barrie books and since then has become an instantly recognizable literary character from books and plays to stage plays and feature films, even the iconic Disney classic from 1953. It is a character most kids are aware of at least a little, and there is a charm to the boy who refuses to grow up. A story delving into a 'what if?' about said character is an interesting, unique idea. Peter decided to grow up when he fell in love with his future wife, Moira (Caroline Goodall).  And what if a full-grown Peter doesn't remember his past life as the infamous Peter Pan? Well, away we go.

I watched the movie and enjoyed it only to get a rather large surprise as the credits rolled. Directed by.....Steven Spielberg?!? I couldn't and didn't believe it. Not one of Spielberg's best films, Hook is nonetheless a good film. What struck me most was the distinct look of the film, giving an appearance of almost being based on a stage. The sets are all clearly indoors -- especially the outdoor ones on Neverland and on Hook's ship -- but they're busy, cluttered and claustrophobic. There's always lots of action and movement around, filling the screen to the point it looks like it may burst. John Williams' score is okay if not particularly memorable, never rising above the action on-screen.

What I liked most though was the casting, almost from top to bottom. Who better than to play wild man-child Peter Pan than ultra-goofy Robin Williams? He brings the character to life; a business suit executive who can't be bothered with anything fun. Then, he starts to remember what he used to be and watch out! Let the fireworks ensue. Hoffman is a scene-stealer as Capt. Hook, the infamous pirate leader with a hook for a hand after a crocodile bit his hand off. Julia Roberts plays Tinkerbell, the tiniest of fairies who guides Peter on his rediscovery of who he is. Bob Hoskins too is very good as Smee, Hook's right hand man. Of Peter's Lost Boys, the ones that stand out the most are Dante Brasco as Rufio, the new leader of the Boys, and Raushan Hammond as Thud Butt, the rather....round, jovial Lost Boy. Even look for singer Phil Collins in a small part and Gwyneth Paltrow as a young Wendy in a flashback.  

Far from perfect, the movie does have its flaws. At 144 minutes, it's far too long. Here's my issue. The movie never really slows down from its London intro to the majority of the time being spent on Neverland. It isn't really the pacing's fault, but the movie feels incredibly long at times. Some scenes go on for too long without knowing where to cut it off. As well, the use of some computer generated images looks dated now some 20-plus years later. Hard to criticize it too much, but it's certainly noticeable. Still, it's an entertaining story with an iconic character, an interesting visual look, and a deep cast.

Hook <---trailer (1991): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, August 19, 2012


The system at its purest should always work. Yes, a pretentious "message" lede that I apologize for, but I've got nothing else. Government, politics and and the right to a fair trial are all ideal in their execution. It's when the human element is added that things get tricky, like 1955's Trial, a solid if somewhat meandering look at not only a courtroom case, but the sinister, sniveling grab for power in the background far from the court.

A law professor at a California university, David Blake (Glenn Ford) is in a jam. He's never actually had a court case so his superiors demand that if he wants to keep his job he must get some actual courtroom experience. Every lawyer and firm in town slams a door in his face except one, that of Barney Castle (Arthur Kennedy) who takes him on for an upcoming controversial murder case. A Mexican teenager, Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), has been accused of murdering a white teenage girl, and things don't look good. Looking for experience and genuinely believing in the boy's innocence, David takes the case only to discover there's much more to the judicial system than knowing a law book.

What impressed me most about this Mark Robson-directed courtroom drama is that for much of its 105-minute running time, 'Trial' is less than interested in whether or not Angel actually committed the crime. His guilt or innocence is almost secondary. This is a story about the inner-workings of the system, how things get done not by what's right, but by who is able to tweak the system to their advantage. While obviously dealing with different subjects, 'Trial' reminds me in tone of Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Not quite as dark -- especially in the ending here -- it still has a cynical, dark and jaded look at the people involved, at the individual and how simple and easy it is to manipulate the system.

Maybe in 2012, none of this should come as a surprise, but Robson's film is at its most effective in those very moments. When we meet Kennedy's Barney, he seems like a genuinely good guy willing to fight for the underdog and give this inexperienced lawyer a shot. Yeah, not even close. Everything in this world is a selfish, me-first type attitude. Robert Middleton's A.A. 'Fat Stamps, the county sheriff, will say and do anything that helps him get re-elected. Supremacist groups make the possible murder into a race riot, not a simple encounter gone wrong. Barney stirs up the masses wherever he goes, almost making Angel into a martyr before his guilt is decided. He manipulates Angel's mother (Katy Jurado) to embrace her Mexican culture for a sympathetic plea. The actual guilt or innocence steps to the forefront late, but the movie is at its best leading up to that.

Unfortunately a little more than halfway through 'Trial,' a big old curveball is thrown at us as an audience. It's timely for 1955, but overbearing and heavy-handed now. Yes, you guessed it. COMMUNISM!!!!! I won't go into specifics here as to how communism is involved, but there are ulterior motives working all over the place, all of them hamstringing an otherwise very solid courtroom drama. The last 45 minutes are slowed down significantly as communism rears its ugly head. We get it, Red Scare, Stalin, evil Russkies, but it feels overly forced here. On top of that, the ending forces a nice, happy conclusion on us, one that seems far-fetched for the story and out of left field.

Thankfully through all that craziness, the cast is uniformly above average. Chalk up another positive part for Glenn Ford, his David Blake an idealist who believes and has faith in the judicial system. When he sees it for what it really is? He's not naive anymore, just pissed. Like most of his roles, it comes across naturally, a tortured individual weighing all his options. His relationship with Barney's assistant, Abbe (Dorothy McGuire), is a bright spot too. Kennedy does what he does best, sneers and snivels and is generally as slimy as humanly possible. John Hodiak is Armstrong, the district attorney primed for bigger and better things down the road, making the most of a smaller, one-note performance. Along with Jurado and Middleton in supporting parts, Juano Hernandez is a scene-stealer as Judge Motley, an African American judge presiding over the case who must deal with prejudices and assumptions of everyone around him, especially on a racially charged case like this.

I've got mixed emotions about this movie. The parts I did like, I really liked. Ford and a deep cast are very watchable are solid throughout, even the portions of the movie that are too timely for their own good. In the end, the negatives prevent it from reaching its potential. Still a very worthwhile movie to seek out, but it never quite reaches the heights it could and should have.

Trial <---TCM clips (1955): ** 1/2 /****

Saturday, August 18, 2012

This Means War

Just try. Do something a little different. If it fails, at least you made an attempt and didn't go for the same old, same old formula. Here we are again at the romantic comedy where humor and schmaltzy love stories go to die in mediocrity. If you try, and it's a little goofy, even dumb at times, at least the effort was made. Take 2012's This Means War. Goofy? Yes. Dumb? At times. But it's fun, and it's different. I'm a cheap date. That's all I'm looking for.

Working on a case in Hong Kong, C.I.A. field agents F.D.R. (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are best friends and have been for years to the point where they're like family. FDR is a bit of a ladies man while Tuck is divorced/separated from his wife and their 7-year old son. Tuck though decides he wants more, a meaningful relationship and hits it off immediately with product tester Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) on a date set up by an online dating site. Saying goodbye to Tuck, Lauren meets FDR down the street coincidentally at a video store, and they too hit it off. It isn't long before the two CIA agents figure out they're dating the same girl. Who will get Lauren? It's spy vs. spy.

Because a last name is unnecessary, director McG (of Charlie's Angels, Terminator Salvation fame) certainly has some fun with this one. As I mentioned earlier, 'War' is goofy, dumb and even a little stupid at times, but it commits to being all those things. This is no hardcore story of CIA agents looking for love, the opening over-the-top action scene on a Hong Kong skyscraper's roof points to that. This is a world where well-trained, world class secret agents use all sorts of government software to track each other down, track a pretty girl down, monitor each others' dates. It is goofy, dumb and a little stupid at times, and that's not a bad thing. It owns up to that. No message here, no bigger picture about secret agents in love. Just two old friends going toe to toe for a girl....oh, and they're epically talented government killing machines. How can that not be enjoyable?

So as a romantic comedy on steroids, 'War' works in a lot of ways. Two of the bright young stars in Hollywood, Pine and Hardy are perfectly cast alongside each other. Their friendship of many years -- not to mention working as partners in the field -- seems genuine. They jab and mock and ridicule each other like only close friends can. They compete at everything so when they meet a girl like Witherspoon's Lauren, it's game on. The biggest laughs come from this competition, each agent trying to sabotage the other. FDR sets the sprinklers off in Tuck's loft at a romantic dinner. Tuck drills FDR with a knock-out dart from across a street as he makes a move on Lauren. Pine and Hardy are perfect together, and Witherspoon is about as adorably cute as you'd expect. She has some funny scenes with Chelsea Handler as Trish, Lauren's sister(?)/friend, confidant and adviser in love.

As for the CIA agent storyline, we get a pretty straightforward, nuts and bolts type story. FDR and Tuck are after one bad German dude, Heinrich (Til Schweiger), who is up to no good. What exactly? It's enough to know that's he up to no good, and now he's looking for revenge against these two CIA agents. Any more information would just be wasted. The action sequences are ridiculously over the top and ultra-choreographed, slow motion galore. They're the type of scenes where a car explodes when it flips because....well, cars look cool when they explode on impact. The scenes are action-packed but funny too, Tuck always needing to use FDR's pistol clips in the midst of a chaotic gun battle. The focus is obviously on the love triangle, but that whole secret agent thing is pretty cool too.

Through all the goofiness that ensues, I found myself really liking this movie. It sounds simple, but I liked the characters, and too often in rom-coms, that's left by the wayside. Characters become cliches, stereotypes or something nasty in between. I liked all the characters here. FDR realizes he genuinely likes Lauren and doesn't intend to play her. Lauren is the same, looking for a good normal guy, and Tuck's looking for love. I'm a huge Tom Hardy fan, and he was my favorite here, especially his background with his ex-wife (Abigail Spencer) and son, Joe (John Paul Ruttan). Nothing groundbreaking, but it is different from the usual romantic comedy. It is a good, old-fashioned popcorn movie. Easily digestible and fun from start to finish.

This Means War <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Viking Queen

In the 1960s, the unofficial age of the epics, not all studios were able to produce immensely scaled historical dramas with A-list stars and a cast of thousands. Some, like Hammer Films, did their best to counter on significantly smaller budgets. More violence, more nudity, less message and spectacle, like 1967's oddly named The Viking Queen.

With her father the Briton king on his deathbed, young Briton woman Salina (Finnish actress/model Carita) is given power of the empire and is told to rule with a fair and just hand. Her selection divides the people, but she does her best to make a decision that is best for her people. Part of her father's deal was a controversial deal of co-rule with the Roman rulers, led by governor general Justinian (Don Murray). Very few among the Britons, Druids and Romans seem willing to go along with the plan, but when they fall deeply in love, both Salina and Justinian do everything they can to make the new system of rule work. With so much power at stake, all sides begin to conspire.

From Hammer Film Productions, this is a somewhat interesting if not necessarily good movie. Obviously made on a significantly smaller budget than the Hollywood epics of the time, 'Queen' has a certain low-budget charm. Much of the budget seems to have been spent on costuming and set design, leaving all those other things left by the wayside. So instead of a big sweeping story, we get lots of curvy, scantily clad women and....yeah, that's about it. Basically every scene a woman is on-screen, she's topless but strategically covered by hair, wearing a low-cut top that reveals -- as Peter Griffin would say -- 'side boob,' or just forced to wear a top and push-up bra that looks like she's being choked. Who needs spectacle when you've got that?

The Romeo and Juliet angle is played out about as you would expect it. Definitely the feeling of been there and seen and done that. It certainly doesn't help that Murray is rather wooden as Roman general Justinian although he does sport a Roman-looking haircut that's pretty ridiculous. Finnish model Carita (in one of 2 career film roles) just isn't an actress although her performance is far from the worst thing here. She's acceptable if somewhat stiff. Mostly her part is what I mentioned earlier; eye candy and lots of it. In that department, she's perfect casting, like THIS scene where's she "topless" and whipped. But putting the two actors together, Murray and Carita just don't have much in the way of chemistry. With a story that focuses on that Romeo and Juliet angle, even a little chemistry would have gone a long way.

Thankfully the rest of the cast with lots of familiar faces is having some fun with the cliched story. Donald Houston hams it up like nobody's business as Maelgan, a Druid high priest who rants and raves at anyone who will listen about the coming war that will have the land running with blood. Andrew Keir is a bright spot as Octavian, Justinian's second in command who resents the fact that he's been passed over for promotion, Percy Herbert playing his also treacherous Roman right hand man. Patrick Troughton too is a positive as Tristram, Salina's trusted adviser, who must also look out for his wavering son, Fergus (Sean Caffrey). Adrienne Corri and Nicola Pagett round out the eye candy contingent as Salina's sisters.

Now if you're in the Ass-Kicking Female Characters Dept., stick around for the end, a battle royale between Salina's Britons and Justinian's Roman legion. Salina and her two sisters -- going for the sexy look rather than battle appropriate -- ride their chariots into the Roman ranks. Like I've mentioned, no huge scale, but a solid, well put together battle sequence. A quick downer ending too which came as a bit of a surprise. And also, what the hell is with the title? Salina isn't a Viking, and there's no freaking Vikings anywhere in the story! Pretty mindless "historical epic" mostly worthwhile for the babe quotient. That's all I got. Eye candy here.

The Viking Queen <---Youtube clip (1967): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Trooper Hook

As settlers moved west in the United States in the 1800s, there were just some things that a husband/grandfather/brother would not allow happen to a woman traveling with the group. At the top of that list? Don't allow a woman to become a captive of any number of Indian tribes. These were were abused, tortured and beaten down if they were even allowed to live. Obviously a darker topic, westerns nonetheless explored the unpleasant topic, most notably The Searchers, but with other movies as well, like 1957's Trooper Hook.

Having led a successful attack on a warring Apache village, Sgt. Clovis Hook (Joel McCrea) is left in an interesting predicament. Among the prisoners is the leader of the rampaging Apaches, a chief called Nanchez (Rodolfo Acosta). That's just one problem though because a white woman, Cora Sutliff (Barbara Stanwyck), is among the prisoners, and she has a son with her. The father? Nanchez himself. Cora has been a prisoner of the Apaches for nine-plus years and has long since been feared dead. What can she do now? She can't return to the Apaches, but the white people in the fort and the surrounding towns are less than welcoming, questioning how a white woman could become an Apache warrior's squaw. Hook steps in, taking orders to take Cora to her husband, but nothing will come easy on this trip for either of them. 

From director Charles Marquis Warren, 'Hook' is a no-frills, low-budget western from the 1950s. It was filmed on a small scale -- with ample use of poorly built "outdoor" sets standing in for nature's majesty -- and it shows. But because of its dark, adult subject matter, it rises above its smaller, modest background. Besides McCrea's Sgt. Hook, basically everyone forms an opinion (and quickly) about Stanwyck's Cora. They look at her with disdain, like she's less of a human because she tried to survive rather than kill herself and take the easy way out. This is a story about the people though, not interested in any bigger picture of how the west was conquered and the Indians were defeated.

An actor who made a career out of playing staunch, resolute heroes in B-movies and westerns, McCrea never rose to the heights of a John Wayne or even a Randolph Scott. He was excellent at playing a niche, a part in his comfort zone, and this movie is right in his wheelhouse. His Sgt. Hook (not Trooper as the title suggests) is a veteran horse soldier, experienced and trustworthy in every way, brutally effective in his soldiering. As for Stanwyck, she wasn't the in-demand starlet anymore, but she still delivers the movie's best performance. She doesn't say a word for some 30 minutes, but when she does speak (with a swinging shovel as accompaniment), you'd better watch out! The relationship that develops between Hook and Cora ends up being the key and the most important thing going for the movie. In his only career performance, Terry Lawrence plays Quito, Cora's half-breed six-year old son. 

In a movie that's more interested in the people than the action, violence or gunplay, a handful of other supporting parts are worth mentioning. The best one going is Earl Holliman as Jeff Bennett, a down-on-his-luck cowboy who ends up traveling with Hook, Cora and the boy. A little inexperienced in the ways of the world, Holliman's Bennett is one of those archetypal western characters, a scene-stealing part for sure. John Dehner similarly has an interesting part not because it's a likable character but because of a question hanging over his head. He plays Cora's husband, a man who thought his wife was long since dead and now has to decide if he wants to care for someone else's son, much less an Apache chief's son. Edward Andrews, Celia Lovsky and Susan Kohner play other  people the group meets on the stagecoach; Kohner a possible love interest for Holliman's Bennett. Royal Dano also has some fun as Mr. Trude, the fast-talking ex-Confederate soldier and current stagecoach driver. 

While the story is anything but light and fluffy, I liked the low-key nature of 'Hook.' The action is kept to a minimum for the most part, and even when there is some gunfights, they're over almost as quick as they start. This is more a story about the people and how they choose to deal with a not so easy topic. How does a woman reintroduce herself to a life she knew so many years earlier? Will that life and society let her back? The story does a good job showing all the different possible answers here. That said, the ending loses some momentum once Dehner shows up. It's never in doubt where the story's going, but it takes awhile to get there. Still a worthwhile western, especially for parts from McCrea, Stanwyck and Holliman.

Trooper Hook <---fan-made video (1957): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Man on a Ledge

Released in 1951, Fourteen Hours is a tense, straightforward story of a man standing on a ledge high above the streets of New York City and the consequences as crowds watch below and the police try to save the man. Fast forward some 60 years, and we've got 2012's Man on a Ledge, a movie that uses the same premise, adds a whole lot of unbelievable background before degenerating into a stupid action movie. Yeah for ridiculous!

Just days since escaping from prison and a 25-year sentence, ex-cop Nick Cassidy (Sam Worthington) rents a room in the Roosevelt Hotel and promptly steps out onto the window ledge some 20 stories up. He's almost immediately spotted by someone on the streets below and within minutes there are police and fire department on-site to talk him down. Cassidy requests a specific negotiator, Lydia Mercer (Elizabeth Banks), and the stand-off begins. Questions immediately arise though. What are Cassidy's intentions? What exactly is his end-game? Across the street, Nick's brother, Joey (Jamie Bell), and his girlfriend, Angie (Genesis Rodriguez), are using the distraction to break into a heavily guarded vault owned by real estate mogul, David Englander (Ed Harris). How does it all tie together though?

What's good about this movie? For starters, the premise alone for its originality. It has tones of the original Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and that's never a bad thing. A media circus and how people respond? It's hard to mess that up. From high up in the Roosevelt Hotel, Worthington's Cassidy looks down on somewhat organized chaos. Crowds gather, on-lookers taking pictures and filming video, some willing him to jump, others hoping he steps back into the hotel room. From director Asger Leth, those are the parts that work. A guy pushed to his limits deciding to jump or not to jump? The most basic of premises that does add a layer of tension, questioning and worry.

What's bad about this movie? Basically everything added on top of that story. There's just too much going on that tries to top off the premise of a man standing on a ledge about to jump. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Cassidy was set-up as a dupe in a "robbery" gone wrong, his goal a multi-million dollar diamond belonging to who? Harris' Englander of course. Cassidy obviously claims his innocence and is trying to do so in the most ridiculous, convoluted way possible. His brother and his girlfriend -- amateur thieves apparently? -- break into Harris' building and manage to break into his supposedly impregnable vault. END OF SPOILERS It's just all too much, ruining an at least somewhat interesting premise. Unfortunately, it gets dumber as the story goes along.

I like Sam Worthington. I do, but his selection in movies could use with some brushing up. He just isn't given much to do -- literally standing on a ledge much of the movie -- and leaves little impression. As the negotiator coming off a negotiation gone horrifically wrong, Banks is fairly solid as Lydia Mercer. Bell and Rodriguez are painful to watch, a young couple fighting like a bunch of teenagers. Oh, and they're robbing an impregnable vault with heavy security at the same time. Rodriguez is not a strong actress, and seems to be there to wear a low-cut shirt that shows off her cleavage in a red push-up bra. Not a complaint, just an observation. Harris is wasted as he sneers through his part with Anthony Mackie playing Cassidy's former partner, Edward Burns as Mercer's fellow negotiator, Titus Welliver as the on-site police commander, and Kyra Sedgwick as a story-seeking field reporter.

Even through all the holes in the storyline, I still had hope for this story as it developed. But by the end of the story -- and pardon the pun -- but this one falls off the cliff. What was mildly believable becomes ridiculous quickly. People start jumping from building to building and ledge to ledge, chasing from kitchen to stairwells and hotel rooms, and then BAM! Twists galore! None of it really comes together though, leaving the premise a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately disappointing end result. Too bad.

Man on a Ledge <---trailer (2012): **/****

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

With three movies over a five year span, the Bourne trilogy starring Matt Damon was a spy series with its own personal style, a James Bond for a new, younger movie-going audience. There was an odd perfection in those movies and all their frenetic, generally crazy pacing. But following the last movie in the trilogy, 2007's The Bourne Ultimatum, Damon said he wanted out. Never one to give up on a successful series, Hollywood basically remade The Bourne Identity. Anyways, here's 2012's The Bourne Legacy.

Working with a top secret program funded out of the C.I.A. called 'Outcome,' secret agent and killer Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) tests off the charts compared to the agency's other agents. A product of some medical advancements, Aaron is smarter, quicker and stronger. His superiors (Stacy Keach and Edward Norton among others) though are in some serious trouble, their operations possibly coming into the limelight because of Jason Bourne's "treacherous" actions. Rather than face serious legal repercussions if their own actions are revealed, they torch Outcome, killing everyone involved. Aaron is among the targets but escapes. Now he's looking for some answers, starting with another survivor of the burn, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz).

I'm not sure where to start with this quasi-Bourne movie. I went in with some expectations if not especially high ones. The Damon trilogy is the rare trilogy that I thought improved with each passing movie. 'Identity' is pretty damn good on its own so that's saying something. Once Damon wanted out though, the series/franchise has to take a twist. I can't help but wonder how director Tony Gilroy's film would have done without the 'Bourne' moniker floating over its head. Knowledge of the first three movies will certainly help, but it's not essential going into this 2012 sequel. Sorry to say though I came away highly disappointed with this newest venture. Building off the Bourne name and success, sure, there's potential, but it ends up being one big, boring, repetitive mess.

Clocking in at a very long 135 minutes, 'Legacy' is 16 minutes longer than any of the previous three movies.....and that IS NOT a good thing. This is a story that needed tightening up. The first hour is sluggish even as we bounce all over the world in a convoluted circle of information, worried looks, and menacing stares. I suppose somewhere in there was an explanation for the story, but I missed it. Long story short? Treadstone, Blackbriar and now Outcome all top each other, one agency becoming more efficient and effective than its predecessor. On the whole, the issue is simple. This is a movie that drifts far too much. The three Damon ventures are frenetically paced to the point where you feel like running home after seeing them. Not here. I was bored, legitimately bored, and counting down the minutes until it was over.

So there's the issue. It seems that Gilroy (who also co-wrote the script) wanted to use the Bourne moniker to get people in the door but from there on in was going to distance itself from those previous films. Unfortunately, the story is basically a rehash of The Bourne Identity. Everything...everything feels like we've seen this before right down to the government war rooms, action scenes, and never-ending chases. In the process somewhere, there must have been an ending too, but it didn't make the final cut. Impressive action scene ends, Cross is semi-happy and cue Moby's Extreme Ways. Oh, oops, my bad. I guess the movie is over. There is no resolution, and not even a huge jumping off point for a sequel. The movie just ends. That's all.

Continuing to springboard off his success from The Hurt Locker, Renner is a very solid lead as Aaron Cross. First off and most important, he doesn't try to be Jason Bourne. He's his own man/character. Aaron's background seems wasted though. There's a layer in there about how he came to be an agent and why he's so driven now that is highly interesting, but nothing much comes of it. Either way, Renner is the best thing going for her. Weisz is a fine actress, but she's nearly unbearable here; shrill, loud and in full-on damsel in distress mode. Norton is the biggest waste here, given NOTHING to do, as Outcome's director while Keach has to look mean and growl. Previous Bourne actors Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, Albert Finney and David Straithairn are around for brief, blink and you'll miss parts. Louis Ozawa Changchien is very cool as Larx 3, an assassin without the glitches of previous agents while Oscar Isaac is memorable as paranoid Outcome Agent No. 3 who a curious Aaron meets early on.

The action for the most part is disappointingly and surprisingly kept in the background, much of it saved for the finale, a foot-turned-motorcycle chase in the crowded streets of Manila. While the stunts are impressive, they still have that rehashed feel to them. That's the movie. There are some very cool moments -- Aaron manipulating a tracker in a unique way via an animal, Aaron's explanation of his past -- but they never amount to anything. Very sorry to give this a low rating if for nothing else than the original three movies set the bar so high. Renner is a good choice to take the reins, but that's about it here.

The Bourne Legacy <---trailer (2012): **/****

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Young Guns (1956)

Oh, teenage delinquency, a problem that according to parents and sticks in the mud has plagued America....well, forever. Those crafty teenagers, always up to something, and it's never good. The whole delinquency issue seemed to come up a lot in the 1950s as teenagers rebelled some, not settling for being good kids anymore (aren't generalities fun?). How about some wild west teenage delinquents? Then 1956's The Young Guns is for you.

The son of an infamous outlaw who's been through his fair share of trouble, young Tully Rice (Russ Tamblyn) is trying to straighten himself out but with little luck. He's taken a job in the small town of Chalmers, but some townspeople, especially the deputy, won't let him be. Tully is pushed so far that he leaves it all behind, riding up to the Black Crater, the hideout of a gang dubbed the Wild Bunch. The gang's gone though, leaving less than a dozen kids, teenagers and 20-somethings to "uphold" the reputation of the bunch. The sheriff in Chalmers (Walter Coy) wants to help Tully who sees little reward in being a two-bit outlaw, but could his father's name plague him no matter what decision he makes?

From director Albert Band, 'Young' is a not so subtle dig/message to teenage kids trying to decide what route to take. Be a good kid that goes to school or be a punk who smokes, drinks and wreaks havoc? A prologue even links the problems Tully has in 1897 within the story to the problems and issues that teenagers would have been having in 1956. Heavy handed much? It gets to be a little much, a blending of the familiar western genre with other movies of the time, most noticeably Rebel Without a Cause (released a year earlier in 1955). The teenagers are all depressed, sullen and don't know what to do with themselves. The adults either want to work with the kids, fix the problems, or the complete opposite, just wipe them off the face of the Earth.

Just 22 years old at the time but with a long list of movies already to his name, Tamblyn is a good but not great lead. Most people probably know him from his ventures into musicals later in his career (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, West Side Story), but in the 1950s, he was right at home in the western. He's not a showy actor, and at times here he comes across a tad on the wooden side, but I've always liked him, and that's certainly the case here. He tones down the tortured teenager with a checkered past angle -- thankfully -- and avoids getting into James Dean territory (You're tttttttearing me apart!). Mostly, Tully just wants a clean slate, especially when he meets Nora Bowdre (Gloria Talbott), the daughter of a similarly infamous outlaw who now cares for her three little brothers. Uh-oh, do I smell a match made in heaven?

Unfortunately the rest of the cast leaves little impression. Coy as Sheriff Jim Peyton is an exception, an experienced lawman who thinks everyone deserves a second chance. In Tully, he sees a kid who was dealt a bad hand but is trying to make things better. Talbott is tolerable as Nora, not as shrill as so many damsel in distress female characters prevalent in the 1950s. As for the Wild Bunch: Teenage Version, it's one ultra-sullen performance after another including Perry Lopez, Scott Marlowe, Wright King and James Goodwin. Western character actor Chubby Jones is his typical solid self as Grandpa, the old man among the Bunch, Myron Healey sneers and is angry as the pissed off deputy, and Rayford Barnes makes the most of a too-short performance as Kid Cutler, a legitimate member of the Bunch who returns to find what's left of the group.

Beyond the teenage delinquency angle, 'Young' has little to nothing to say. At just 83 minutes, it doesn't know what to do with itself. Much of the movie has Tully and the gang lounging around the Black Crater pouting. Exciting to watch, huh? A few fistfights break up the monotony -- particularly brutal for 1956 -- but even those resort to too much obvious uses of stunt doubles. The ending picks up a little momentum, but for me it was a case of too little and too late. Slow-moving and far too obvious in its message, an average western at best.

The Young Guns (1956): **/****

Thursday, August 9, 2012

First to Fight

An interesting mess of a movie, 1967's First to Fight at first gave me the impression of being a recruitment film made by the United States Marines. Little research proved nothing of the sort, but go figure. I maintain my stance. Moral of the story? The movie's all over the place; B-movie with a very low budget, soap opera quality love scenes, vicious if somewhat overdone battles, and at times it actually utilizes a pretty solid cast. Unfortunately in the end, it never amounts to much as a finished product.

The lone survivor from his unit after a horrifically costly firefight with the Japanese on Guadalcanal in 1942, Sgt. Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and shipped back home to help the war effort by encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. He can't help but think of the friends he left behind though and starts to question if he is more valuable in the Pacific fighting. Connell meets Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin), his "guide" on the war bond tour, and quickly hits it off, the couple marrying. Connell gets orders to report to Camp Pendleton as a drill instructor, but the thought still lingers. Should he volunteer for combat or keep his promise to Peggy to avoid the war?

Where to start here? I can't completely rip this movie from director Christian Nyby because at different points there are positives to take away from it. The problem with that is simple; the positives get buried under mountains of the negative. A B-movie does not necessarily mean a movie is bad, not by a long shot. That rogue, renegade, cheap shooting from the hip style can be an attribute to a lot of movies. 'Fight' doesn't qualify there. That cheap quality actually hamstrings the story. Any indoor sets look like retread sets from 1960s TV shows, and the musical score -- battle scenes an exception, those work -- is that aggressive, blaring type that DEFIES you not to be emotionally moved. Here's some advice. If you're a B-movie (yes, I'm talking to an abstract idea), just embrace it. Don't convince and beg us to like you.

Those are the little things that bother you (okay, just me) as you're watching a movie. Not enough to ruin a movie, but it certainly can bring a movie down a notch or two. The bigger issue here is the story, one straight from the War Cliches Department. The opening intro -- the bloody firefight on Guadalcanal -- opens things with a punch to the jaw in a highly effective action sequence. Most of the next hour though is spent on Jack and Peggy's oh-so-lovely relationship. It is Dullsville for sure. Everett quotes Bogie in two different scenes after the couple goes and watches Casablanca, then using 'As Times Goes By' as "their song." Oh, free advertising for Warner Bros. in an odd, extended clip from the movie. One montage actually has Jack and Peggy walking in place pointing at things as super-imposed images show all the fun stuff they're doing. Thankfully you can fast forward through these parts, but that's never a good sign when you're hoping to enjoy a movie.

Playing the lead character, Everett is an okay if not particularly flashy actor. Mostly known for his parts on TV shows and TV movies, he does the best he can with a character that for all his interesting background just isn't that interesting. The lovey-dovey relationship with Devin's Peggy of course doesn't help either. The last 30 minutes let Everett do some heavy lifting, and to be fair, he's very good as his now-Lieutenant returns to combat. What caught my eye when this movie appeared on TCM was the rest of the cast, some used better than others. A pre-stardom Gene Hackman is the best thing going here as Sgt. Tweed, the tough as nails Marine sergeant, a familiar/cliched part, but a scene-stealing one just the same. Dean Jagger is also solid as Colonel Baseman, Connell's commanding officer. Unfortunately Claude Akins is wasted in his two-scene appearance (maybe 3 combined minutes on-screen), and James Best is underused as Sgt. Ed Carnavan, Connell's best friend, a key part that's not given it's due. Also look for Norm Alden as one of Jack's Marines.   

What will no doubt bring some viewers in is the WWII setting, and for the most part, that's why I can somewhat give this a recommendation. For all the unnecessary and repetitive Wilhelm screams (listen HERE) and "exploding" soldiers jumping and twirling off of trampolines, there is a bloody, chaotic realism to some of these scenes. The opening attack along a stream on Guadalcanal is a gem for all the right reasons. The same goes for Connell's return to combat on Saipan as his rifle platoon moves toward dug-in Japanese forces. Unfortunately there just isn't enough of that in a 92-minute movie. Too much time is spent on the generally unbelievable love story. When will movie studios learn? Make a love story or a war story. It's the rare combination that works.

First to Fight (1967): **/****

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rocky Mountain

As far as the American Civil War, there just haven't been much in the way of movies about the topic. Sure, there's been epics -- Gettysburg, Glory, Cold Mountain -- but overall as a sub-genre, there's been less compared to almost any other war America was involved in. I don't know that for sure, I'm just assuming. Westerns set during the time though have their own little niche, especially when Union and Confederate forces must band together and fight, like 1950's Rocky Mountain.

Leading a small seven-man squad west for a secret mission that could save the Confederacy, Capt. Lafe Barstow (Errol Flynn) has his mind set on the mission and that alone. Their plan? Start an uprising in California, hoping to take attention -- and troops -- away from fighting in the east. His plan takes a hit though when Barstow's squad fights off a Shoshone attack and rescues a beautiful young woman, Johanna (Patrice Wymore) from a wrecked stagecoach. On their way to meet the hopeful leader of the uprising, Cole Smith (Howard Petrie), Barstow must not make a decision. Johanna's fiance is a Union officer and will no doubt come looking for her. His squad is stuck in the middle, forced to continue the mission or save Johanna, worrying about Shoshone war parties and Union patrols all around them.

Forgetting to record this when it recently aired on TCM, I was pleasantly surprised to find it available for viewing at Netflix. I was even more pleasantly surprised after watching it. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an important transition for westerns. It wasn't so much the white-hatted good guys vs. the black-hatted bad guys. Most characters had flaws, even inner demons they had to deal with. From director William Keighley, 'Rocky' isn't quite there....but it's getting there. The Union and Confederacy teaming up was used several times after (Escape from Fort Bravo, Major Dundee), but this is one of the first I can come up with. It's the little things here. The men have beards, stubble, and look like they've been sweating in the desert heat. At least some effort was made to make it seem authentic. I give points just for the attempt. When that attempt works? Win-win for the viewer.

A couple more 'little things' here that help make 'Rocky' a little more memorable. Keighley filmed his western in black and white, pretty typical for the time in a western. Would it have been an interesting movie to watch in color? Yeah, you bet, 1948's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon coming to mind. But the rocky, barren desert is aided by the black and white filming, giving a starkness to the setting that color might have canceled out. He films on location in New Mexico, using some familiar locations including some that fans of John Ford's Fort Apache will notice (more on that later). Also, 'Rocky' borrows an instantly recognizable musical score from composer Max Steiner, using his They Died With Their Boots On theme. Give it a listen HERE starting at a :49.

His star fading a bit by 1950, Errol Flynn nonetheless makes the most of his last western. He just looks comfortable in the part. His Capt. Barstow is a strong leader, liked and respected by his men, but he also has a moral compass that won't let him turn his back on what's right and wrong. The only slow moments here are his not-so-surprising romance with Wymore's Johanna. She's engaged to Union cavalry officer, Lt. Rickey (Scott Forbes), but can't help be drawn to the very attractive Capt. Barstow. Playing the sneaky, sniveling Cole Smith, Petrie is a background player, but his character plays a key role late. Also look for western vet and character actor Chubby Johnson as Craigie, the stagecoach driver with no allegiances to North or South, just himself, bringing some homespun charm to this small but funny part.

What drew me to the movie -- right up there with Errol Flynn -- was the story that sounded like such an obvious forerunner to movies like Escape from Fort Bravo and Major Dundee. Nowhere was that more evident than Flynn's small squad of Confederate misfits. Not any huge names here, but western fans will no doubt get a kick out of watching the group. It includes Guinn Williams as Pap, the old man of the group, Dickie Jones as Jimmy, the soft-spoken youngster who fights like mad while also looking out for his mutt of a dog, Slim Pickens (in his first credited role) as Plank, a plainsman who served time in prison, Robert Henry as Kip, a young man and heir to a plantation back home, Sheb Wooley as Rawlins, the steamboat man with a mean streak, Peter Coe as Pierre, the Frenchman from Louisiana, and Rush Williams as Jonas, the plainsman and dead shot with a rifle. Not a weak link in the bunch, but Jones especially stands out, including one scene he has with Wymore discussing his brief encounter with Robert E. Lee before Gettysburg. Just seven solid supporting parts for Flynn.

It's the rare western I can't find something positive to talk about. And about an hour into 'Rocky' I was liking it a lot if not loving it. And then there's the last 25 minutes. I have this picture of 1940s and 1950s movies typically ending rather happily; guy gets the girl, everyone makes it. That certainly ain't the case here. Somewhat short on action to this point -- not an issue in the least -- the finale has Flynn's Barstow and his squad making a dangerous decision separate from the mission. I won't give spoilers away, but I was shocked by this ending in its brutal honesty. It was also filmed in the same canyon as the massacre in Fort Apache. Flynn addressing his men says after a chase "They've seen our backs....let's show them our fronts." It's a line that could sound cheesy, but in a western in this situation with Flynn delivering it, it works in a big way. I loved the honesty of the ending. LOVED it. It takes a pretty good western and makes it a near classic instead.

Rocky Mountain <---trailer (1950): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Safari (1956)

If only the characters the movies we're watching were aware of the genre they were in. Out of the box, existential intro, huh? That way, these characters would realize they're making the exact same mistake that countless other characters have done. Take 1956's Safari, or any movie with an African safari to be fair. If you're an old, rich hunter, just don't bring your babely girlfriend/fiance along for the fun. She will be scooped up by the younger, more athletic and dreamier big game hunter and/or safari guide. I'm just saying...

While out leading a safari in Kenya, big game hunter and guide Ken Duffield (Victor Mature) is alerted that his family and home have been attacked. He returns to the scorched remains to find his son's dead body amongst the wreckage and swears revenge when he finds out one of his house workers, Jeroge (Earl Cameron), is among the Mau Mau rebels who led the attack. Fearing he will take vengeance, the government takes back Duffield's license and ships him out, but he finds a way back in-country. He signs on with Sir Vincent Brampton (Roland Culver) who wants to undertake a safari, bringing his fiance, Linda (Janet Leigh), along. Duffield intends to lead the safari, but he's got his sites set on revenge too.

From director Terence Young, this 1956 African safari epic is a doozy of a movie, but an entertaining if somewhat oddly-tuned final product. It's not that it's bad -- far from it, I enjoyed it a lot -- but if a movie was schizophrenic, it would be 'Safari.' One minute it's interested in dazzling the eye with its African locations. The next minute its an intensely dark and cynical look at the real-life Mau Mau Uprising. Last, it's a fun, somewhat dumb story meant to spotlight Orlando Martins (playing camp boy Jerusalem) and his goofy, light-hearted theme song, 'We're on a Safari.' I don't exactly know how, but it manages to work in the end through all its schizo tendencies. Go figure, all that stuff packed into a 91-minute movie, and it ends up being an entertaining final package.

Filming on location in Kenya, 'Safari' is obviously aided by the gorgeous, expansive Kenyan savannahs. We see shots of herds of animals running across the savannah, crocodiles diving into rivers, elephants, rhinos and lions charging at the camera. For lack of a better description, it's cool to see, and that's just one reason 'Safari' succeeds. Like the recently reviewed 'Rampage,' or any number of other safari movies from the 1950s and 1960s (Hatari, Killers of Kiliminjaro, King Solomon's Mines, The Naked Prey), this one follows a familiar formula. If you're even remotely paying attention, you know where it will end up before the movie itself might even know. Hopefully, if you're like me, you enjoy going along for the ride even if you know where you'll end up.

Right in the midst of his heyday in terms of popularity, Mature is a solid choice to play the lead role, the safari guide who's pissed at the world and looking to exact some revenge. Oh, and he might be looking for love too. Watch out Janet, he's got his eye on you! I don't think anyone will ever claim Mature was a great actor, but he's a good meat and potatoes kind of star. Nothing flashy, just gets the job done as he does here. Leigh is the eye candy as the somewhat innocent/naive Linda (or just plain stupid), given a variety of gowns, dresses and revealing outfits to wear in the African wilderness. She also bathes a lot, the water always cutting off at a strategic place. Coincidence? Yeah, "probably." Culver is the doomed older man, not aware of how stupid he is or what he's stumbled into. John Justin plays Brian, Sir Vincent's much-maligned assistant who can't do anything right.

The other parts range from odd to mildly offensive to stock characters. Martins treads that fine line between offensive minority character and goofy, hammy character. The same for Tanzinian actor Juma who plays cackling camp boy Odongo in an incredibly stereotypical part. His laugh is bizarre, making me question if we're supposed to question the boy's sanity. As the intensely evil Jeroge, Cameron is pretty one-note, saying maybe five words while sneering and enjoying his kills far too much. Lionel Ngakane leaves a positive impression as Kakora, Duffield's assistant and leader of the camp boys.

Through it all, I was entertained at basically all times, at least partially due to its schizophrenic nature. By the end once that whole safari business is resolved, the story degenerates into one big running shootout at Jeroge leads some 200 Mau Mau rebels on a bloody rampage. Mature's Ken calmly stands in front of the charging rebels, blazing away with a Sten gun, smiling all the way. Even Leigh's Linda gets in on the action, picking off bad guys left and right with her rifle. Mindlessly entertaining and a fun movie to watch if nothing particularly new, it's worth a watch as a good popcorn movie, a solid rainy day effort.

Safari (1956): ***/****