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, November 30, 2012

Meet John Doe

Released in the U.S. in spring of 1941, Meet John Doe is a successful movie that can chalk up at least part of its success to its release timing. At the tail end of the Great Depression and watching the world fall into WWII, the U.S. was at one of its historical low points. So how about a movie with a positive message that encourages the individual to work with others? Sounds simple, right?

Squeezed out of a job when a new owner takes over at her newspaper, columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) goes out guns blazing. She writes a column from "John Doe," a reader who's become disillusioned and frustrated with humanity and civilization, vowing to kill himself by jumping off City Hall on Christmas Eve. Uh-oh, we've got a problem. Readers are curious, wanting to save John Doe. Where to find a reader who never existed? Ann and the paper hire John Willoughby (Gary Cooper), an ex-baseball player turned drifter, to pose as John Doe. The response is tremendous though across America, but even Ann could not have planned what John Doe becomes as certain parties become involved with the grassroots movement.

In his last film before making almost a dozen WWII documentaries, director Frank Capra does not disappoint here. His films have a certain style to them, and not just in the visual sense. Maybe not in a visual sense at all. At their base, these are good-hearted stories that want to believe there's genuine good in people. There are those that are inherently good and those that are inherently bad with little to no middle ground. You're either one or the other. Watch enough of his movies, and you see those traits pop up in countless stories and characters.

As a story, this 1941 Capra film is a forerunner of later classics A Face in the Crowd and Network. It shows the rise -- and the inevitable and eventual fall -- of an individual, a person who inspires charity, faith and belief in the masses. Here, Cooper's John Doe is just looking for a meal, a place to sleep at night with a roof over his head. He has no ulterior motives. It's Ann who sees the potential for good, and there's a plenty. The John Doe movement -- help thy neighbor, be friendly, be helpful to all -- takes the country by storm. The ulterior motive comes from Ann's boss, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, doing what he does best, being BAD), who sees the power that can be manipulated with the John Doe movement. For a country struggling to get back on the right track, the message was simple (and appealing); work together, work to help and good things will happen.

Capra's films in general had a great sense of the Everyman, the normal guy. Obviously here, the focus is entirely on that individual in all his different forms. Who better to play the face of the Everyman than all-American actor Gary Cooper? In a career of iconic roles, this is certainly up there as one of his best.He does a fine job representing the average American. The shady nature of his business deal with Ann quickly hits hard, but he sees there's certainly potential for good too on an immense scale. He has a great believable chemistry with Stanwyck, the brow-beaten journalist who similarly sees the chance to do something in the country if people would just try. In addition to Arnold's snaky D.B. Norton, the cast includes Walter Brennan as the Colonel, John's questioning drifting partner who hates the system, and for the most part, people, and James Gleason as Connell, Ann's boss who sees what Norton is up to.

A sucker for anything in the dark, realist mode in films, I didn't always love 'Doe.' The sugary sweet outlook on life gets to be a little much at times, and the pacing can be a tad slow. One scene introducing the John Doe clubs goes on forever, Regis Toomey's Bert character explaining in expansive detail how the club came to be in his little town. The story is at its strongest at its darkest points. Norton's plan is hinted at -- uh-oh, sense of doom! -- and when it's revealed, the rug is pulled out from under John, Ann, and millions of Americans. As sweet as Capra's outlook can be at times, it's equally dark in these instances and equally effective. There are scenes where the symbolism is far too heavy-handed (portraying John as a martyr...a la Jesus), but what makes it bearable is the message of goodness. Well worth checking out. You can watch the movie in its public domain format HERE at Youtube.

Meet John Doe <---trailer (1941): ***/****

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

He Got Game

As a director, producer, New York Knicks fan, and writer, Spike Lee is one of the most dividing names currently working in films. Just about everyone has an opinion on Lee -- for good or bad -- but somewhere in there around the strong opinions and controversial comments is a very talented director. One of his best was obviously an important film for the diehard basketball fan, 1998's He Got Game.

A high school senior living in Brooklyn and caring for his sister (Zelda Harris), Jesus Shuttlesworth (NBA star Ray Allen) is a basketball star and the No. 1 recruit in the country. The world is smothering Jesus as he makes his future plans. Does he forgo his college eligibility and declare for the NBA Draft or does he decide on a university to attend? It's a decision that could cost or produce millions depending on how it works out. It's a decision that the Governor -- an alum of Big State University -- is interested in. He cuts a deal with Jesus' father, Jake (Denzel Washington), currently wasting away in Attica. Jake will be "released" for a week with one goal; get Jesus to commit to Big State, and his sentence will be severely shortened. 

I'm a fan of Spike Lee, not a diehard fan, but his films are always interesting. Now whether you take them as good or bad interesting, that's a different story, but I typically enjoy his films. However you feel about Lee, I think this is a film where you have to give him credit. 'Game' tries to accomplish a lot in its storytelling, and for the most part, it accomplishes that. It's frightening in Lee's ability to make a film that so accurately predicts the future, in this case the business of sports. Jesus' decision in theory just effects him, but that's a naive way to look at it. Everyone in the world and business of sports will be dramatically affected by his plans. Look at 'Game' in 2012, and the things we see are familiar, normal, everyday things we'd see on ESPN. Not so much in 1998. Think LeBron James, and you've got this movie.

One of Lee's trademarks as a director is his style, and that's evident here. The opening montage shows basketball (and sports on a bigger level) at its purest, kids and teenagers playing from a wide variety of backgrounds and locations. They play out of love because they want to. Watch it HERE starting at :30.  A monologue later from one shady guy (Roger Guenveur Smith) who claims to have Jesus' best intentions at heart is frightening in its accuracy. Everyone Jesus has ever met is about to become his best friend. What should be a pure, innocent and personal decision -- a 17, 18 year old kid picking his college choice -- becomes something dirty. Everyone involved starts to see the $ all over Jesus. It's sad that this is where sports has gone, but it's the truth of the business.

When this movie is clicking on all cylinders, it's that cynical nature that works. The most effective dramatic, emotional moments come from the interaction and completely shattered relationship between Jake and Jesus. We learn why Jake is in Attica, and more importantly why Jesus despises him. The performances from Washington and Allen are the best things going for 'Game.' When has Washington ever not delivered a worthy performance? None I can think of. His Jake is not an easy character to like, but that's the beauty of it. He knows he made mistakes, but he also did certain things the right way. The best thing going is we're not sure of his intentions. Does he want Jesus to go to Big State because it's what is best for him or because it will get him a reduced sentence? Playing Jesus, Allen (a Milwaukee Bucks star at the time) delivers a natural, heartfelt performance, better than just about 99% of all athletes' performances in a movie. Oh, and his jump shot is disgustingly beautiful to watch.

There are moments of perfection in this father-son relationship. The movie is at its strongest when focusing on this reconnecting, but certain scenes ring truer than others. The best scenes are those of Jake and Jesus on a basketball court. In quick, little snippets, we see Jake pushing Jesus as a little boy to get better. Later, we see an encounter where maybe Jake pushes too far, and a 12-year old Jesus responding with frustration like a 12-year old should. The best scene -- and one of my all-time favorites -- is a one-on-one game between Jake and Jesus as time runs out on Jake's "mission." Jesus is a significantly more skilled player now, but it's still a battle, Jake giving him nothing. Watch it in its entirety HERE. Stylized, message, story, I think it's one of those rare perfect scenes.

Before I forget, there are some other halfway decent actors/actresses around. Milla Jovovich plays Dakota, a prostitute Jake meets, while Rosario Dawson is particularly memorable as LaLa, Jesus' girlfriend who is up to something. 32-year old Hill Harper is effective playing Booger, Jesus' cousin and teammate. Jim Brown and Joseph Lyle Taylor have some fun as Jake's ever-present parole officers with Ned Beatty playing the warden at Attica cutting a deal with Jake. Bill Nunn is a slimy scene-stealer as Jesus' money-grubbing uncle with Michelle Shay as his more thoughtful aunt. Also look for Lee favorite John Turturro as a coach pulling out all the stops to recruit Jesus. Sports fans should also look for countless cameos from Michael Jordan to Shaq to Reggie Miller with countless coaches and TV personalities making an appearance.

Say what you want about Spike Lee, but he's a talented director, and this is one of his best. Give it a shot. I don't know how long this link will stay up there, but check out the full movie HERE at Youtube.

He Got Game <---trailer (1998): *** 1/2 /****  

Monday, November 26, 2012

Thin Ice

If movies have taught me anything (look at me, rationalizing watching movies), I'd say it is this. Amateur crooks? Leave it to the professionals. If you think you've got an infallible plan, you probably don't. Something will go wrong. It always does. End of moral, on with the review, 2011's Thin Ice.

A mildly successful insurance salesman, Mickey Prohaska (Greg Kinnear) is in some serious trouble, both career-wise, financially and personally. His wife has kicked him out of the house, and his business is less than thriving until one day he meets a potential customer, Gorvy Hauer (Alan Arkin), a forgetful, possibly senile old man living alone in an isolated farmhouse. Gorvy has a violin that is worth some serious money, and Mickey sees the chance to "fix" so many of his problems....if he can con the old man. As he tries to switch out the valuable violin for a dupe though, Mickey is spotted by Randy (Billy Crudup), the security system installer, and now his simple dupe of a plan has become so much more, especially when Randy, an ex-con, takes action.

I liked this movie. I didn't love it, but I liked it. There are issues, especially late, but more on that later. Setting the story in Wisconsin, with its frigid winters, is a great start. Watching the movie, you feel legitimately cold. It's a sterile, white country where the trouble goes down (Minnesota filming locations), even resembling a similar quirky, unsettling story, Fargo. Also aiding the cause is composer Jeff Danna's score, always present but never overbearing. It hangs in the air around the characters, and that's partially what I liked best. Even though Mickey is a despicable individual, it's incredibly tense watching things develop. We're waiting for his perfect plan to fall apart so the atmosphere and sense of impending doom is palpable. So what happens?

For me, it was the last 30 minutes. No spoilers here, no massive revelations, but I came away disappointed with the twist that is thrown our way as viewers. Take this for what it's worth, but I didn't see the twist coming....AT ALL. I just wasn't looking for it so maybe that's my disappointment. Maybe 'Ice' didn't need this particular twist? Well, that's my first thought. Anyhoo, the twist is there. I can't change that. Thinking back on the movie, it works in terms of storytelling. Sure, there are certain parts that hinge on a little too much coincidence for my liking. A few too many perfect little things happen that no real-life individual could have planned on. Embarrassed viewer who didn't pick up on the coming twist? No, I don't think so. It just was an unnecessary departure in the story, for me at least.

Reading up on 'Ice' before I dove into the review (Yes, I try to do some research), some of my issues made a lot more sense when I read about this film's troubled past. Filmed in 2010, 'Ice' was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and purchased by a studio, and then that studio promptly demanded that huge changes be made. Director Jill Sprecher refused, wanting nothing to do with the flick, and then the changes in the name of pacing were made. A 114-minute long movie was cut to 93 minutes. I don't care what movie it is. If you cut 21 minutes from a running time, you're going to have issues. So again, take this for what it's worth. I liked this movie for what it was, not knowing it had been so severely cut. I'd love to see the 114-minute version and find out what it has to offer.

Enough with that background and back to the movie! The dark story and an impressive cast drew me in here -- negative reviews aside. Kinnear is one of my favorite actors around, able to be a true a-hole on screen while still rooting for him in a weird way. Go figure. Very good lead performance. Arkin is a scene-stealer as Gordy, the senile old man living with his dog on a far-off Wisconsin farm. Crudup hams it up a little much to my liking as the possibly unhinged Randy, but he certainly brings that unpredictable element into the story. Also look for David Harbour as Bob, one of Mickey's "understudies," Lea Thompson in a small part as Mickey's wife, and Bob Balaban as a violin expert interested in Gorvy's violin.

Thin Ice <---trailer (2011): ***/****

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Odd Couple

If something isn't broken, why fix it? And if something works, keep on using it, right? Starting with 1966's The Fortune Cookie, stars Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau would work together 10 times over their storied careers, but maybe their most popular film is 1968's The Odd Couple.

Felix Ungar (Lemmon) and Oscar Madison (Matthau) are best friends, both men middle-aged and living in New York City. Felix is a compulsive -- possibly OCD -- neurotic cooking and cleaning machine, apparently unable to sit still for even a minute. Oscar is his polar opposite; sloppy, unreliable and more free-wheeling. But when Felix is kicked out of the family house and his wife wants a divorce, Oscar (a divorcee of 6 months) takes his best friend in. The friends could not be anymore different, and what starts off amiably enough quickly deteriorates. Who's going to budge first? Maybe the one who keeps his sanity the longest.

When I write multiple reviews of films featuring the same acting pairs, I feel like I'm on a broken record at times. Here goes anyways. This is the second pairing of Lemmon and Matthau following 1966's Fortune Cookie, and they pick up right where they left off. Just looking at the two men, from their acting styles to their general appearance, they were born to play the Odd Couple. They look and act like polar opposites, and that's what so perfect about this movie. It's a comedy, but you believe the two actors are really Felix and Oscar. Their back and forth appears effortless. Their dialogue and interactions are basically perfect. Don't try to fix what isn't broken.

From a Broadway play and screenplay by the almost always reliable Neil Simon and directed by Gene Saks, 'Odd' is what smart comedies should aspire to be. Is it the perfect comedy? I can't go that far, but it sure is close. The screenplay from Simon is a gem. The humor and laughs are never obvious either. They are so subtly underplayed to perfection that you just sit back and enjoy it. The focus is more on the verbal, not physical humor, but there of course is both. Matthau's Oscar's march around the apartment to upset Lemmon's Felix was hilarious; Matthau walking on furniture, throwing and dropping trash, wiping his shoe high up on a curtain. There are comedies that just get it. They know how to get a laugh and waste little time getting those laughs.

Setting almost the entire story in Oscar's expansive eight-room apartment (wonder what the rent was?), it's easy to see Simon's Broadway play having an impact on the filmmaking here. The style from Simon's screenplay and Sak's direction is an easy-going one. A 105-minute movie covers three weeks, but you never feel rushed. Several fairly long scenes get all the message and story across that's needed. The intro has the weekly poker game at Oscar's apartment with Murray (Herb Edelman), Roy (David Sheiner), Speed (Larry Haines) and Vinnie (John Fielder) is an ideal scene-setter. A quasi-double date with Felix, Oscar and two British sisters, Cecily (Monica Evans) and Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley), is perfect in its forced nature and awkward moments. These extended scenes -- easily seen in a play setting -- do a great job of showing a quick snippet of the time passed, but telling us everything we need to know.

I liked this movie a lot. The more I think about it -- and review it -- the more I like it. I love the style of these 1960s comedies. I loved the performances, and the laughs are there from beginning to end. From the instantly recognizable theme (listen HERE, I defy you not whistle along) to the effortless pairing of Lemmon and Matthau, this film is a winner. It would inspire a TV show of the same name as well, The Odd Couple, running for five years and starring Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. I feel dumb for having missed this flick all these years, but I'm glad I caught up with it.

The Odd Couple <---trailer (1968): *** 1/2 /**** 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Rio Conchos

No matter what movies will tell you, there was nothing particularly pleasant about the wild, wild west. Let’s even limit that from the years immediately following the Civil War right up into the 1890s. Depending on the western, you’re going to get a different picture of that brutal, plain nasty survival based time. One of the deepest and darkest? That’s 1964’s RioConchos, an ahead of its time western that still resonates today.

It’s 1867 along the Texas/Mexico border, and a shipment of 2,000 new repeating rifles meant for the undermanned U.S. cavalry has been stolen without a trace. Jim Lassiter (RichardBoone), a former Confederate officer, is arrested with one of those rifles soon after brutally shooting down a handful of Apache warriors. Lassiter is approached to undertake a dangerous mission; find the rifles before they fall into the wrong hands. He doesn’t want to but agrees to it, an incident from his past haunting him. Under the command of Capt. Haven (Stuart Whitman) and a cavalry sergeant, Franklin (Jim Brown), and with a shifty bandit, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), along to “even things out,” Lassiter heads into Mexico. What awaits? A Confederate officer, Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), trying to start a second war with an army of Apache warriors.

From the first time I saw this Gordon Douglas-western on a beat-up old VHS, I loved this western. It’s harder to find although it has received a DVD release the last few years. It has all the little things going for it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a gem (listen HERE), setting the stage for a similar score four years later with Bandolero! There’s also the location shooting in Arches National Park and Dead Horse State Park in Utah and  that adds that sense of realism that the best desert westerns have. Those little things, they can make a bad movie mildly acceptable and a decent movie into a good to great final product. The story as well doesn’t spell everything out for you. It’s not always clear what some characters’ intentions are, adding a sense of mystery to the mission.

What appealed to me most about ‘Conchos’ though was the casting. It’s a men on a mission movie, and a goodie. These aren’t four specially trained commandos working together. This is a group of four very different men at that. With his gravelly voice, heavily lined face and generally nasty demeanor, Boone looks extremely comfortable in the western setting. Lassister’s background adds some much-needed sympathy to the Lassiter character. Franciosa especially is a scene-stealer as the shiftless Rodriguez, always ready with a smile but mostly waiting for a chance to double-cross you. Whitman delivers a workmanlike performance, lost in the shuffle against Boone and Franciosa. In his first movie, Brown is a nearly-silent presence, but an imposing one at that.

The focus is on the back-stabbing quartet, but the supporting cast also features Wende Wagner as an Apache woman the group picks up along the way on the trail, Warner Anderson as Colonel Wagner, the Union commander setting up the mission, Rodolfo Acosta as Bloodshirt, a warring Apache chief, Vito Scotti as a Mexican bandit, and an uncredited Timothy Carey as a suspicious bartender with few answers. O’Brien as Pardee is nothing more than a cameo. The character is more important as a name and idea, Pardee finally showing up in the last 30 minutes. Hearing Boone say ‘Parrrrrr-deeeeeee’ is worth the price of admission alone.   

As for the whole nastiness factor, ‘Conchos’ has plenty of it and more to spare. We’re introduced to Lassiter callously gunning down five Apache warriors burying one of their own. Lassiter and Haven hate each other almost as much as the Apaches. The former Confederate wants revenge for the death of his wife and daughter at the hands of Apaches, and he sees Indians as one being; man, woman, child. It doesn’t matter. In a rage, he tries to bash Wagner’s Sally’s head in. The border setting helps too. It’s a country with little law or rule. Whoever is fastest with a gun rules.

Now up to this point, you wouldn’t be wrong to think this is an action-packed western. Ready to be surprised? It isn’t. The action is kept to quick-hitting scenes that don’t linger. That ends up being a good thing. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. An encounter with bandits is chaotic and bloody as is a showdown later with an Apache war party. The nastiness in the action department comes late when Lassiter and Co. encounter Pardee’s army of ex-Confederate soldiers, Mexican bandits, and Apaches, enduring some brutal torture at their hands. The ending still surprises me in its darkness, but it’s an ending that won’t be easily forgotten. An underrated western, one definitely worth catching up with.

Rio Conchos <---trailer (1964): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Night of the Living Dead

The name George Romero is synonymous with one thing and one thing only in films; zombies. He basically created a whole new horror genre, using the undead as a menace unlike anything audiences had seen. Romero has directed 16 films, many of them about a zombie apocalypse, but the whole thing started with 1968's Night of the Living Dead.

Visiting their father's grave, brother and sister, Johnny (Russell Streiner) and Barbra (Judith O'Dea), are attacked by a lone man who doesn't as much as utter a word to them. Johnny is knocked out, leaving Barbra to run for safety, the sluggish man pursuing her. She makes her way to an isolated house in the country and seeks protection. Inside, she meets Ben (Duane Jones), a young man similarly running for his life. They find others hiding in the house's cellar, but what's going on outside? Soon more people show up, and the radio reports countless attacks all over the country. The recently dead have come back to life, and they're feasting on anything alive.

Dubbed 'the Godfather of zombies,' Romero has made a career with his zombie-themed horror movies, from this original through the 1970s, 1980s and on right up through 2009's Survival of the Dead. That's his reputation, and it's a good one. He basically created the concept of zombies from the ground up. In a movie age where nothing is original, how cool is that? A whole genre?!? One guy? Awesome with a capital A. So where to start? Some rules. Originally, zombies can't run. They walk slowly, almost dragging their feet. No talking, only groaning/moaning. And most importantly? They exist for one thing; to feast on the living.

Made for just $130,000, 'Living' is a low-budget gem. Filmed in eerie, foreboding black and white (even washed out), the movie certainly looks cheap, even amateurish at times. The cast features no stars, much less recognizable faces. The story is almost exclusively limited to this one isolated house in the country, a small group of survivors banding together as a small army of the undead descend on the house. The camera is right there with the survivors, Romero using weird, odd and off-center angles to shoot the action. Extreme close-ups -- whether of the survivors or the ever-increasing zombies -- give the whole proceedings an uneasy, unsettling feeling. There are very few GOTCHA moments. Instead, that sense of doom builds as the survivors learn more about what's going on all over the country.

The acting ranges from tolerable to really bad to surprisingly good. All the performances are somewhat wooden, even stilted, but let's start with the positive. Jones as Ben is a bright spot. The fact that the movie has an African American main character (with an otherwise entirely white cast) is worth noting too. In a hectic situation, Ben thinks things through when most people's first impulse would be to panic. O'Dea as Barbra does a hell of a shell shock. Other survivors include a married couple, Harry (Karl Hardman) and Helen (Marilyn Eastman), caring for their sick daughter (Kyra Schon), and a young teenage couple, Tom (Keith Wayne) and Judy (Judith Ridley). Also look for Romero making a cameo as a reporter asking questions about the undead.

My first encounter with a Romero film was the 2004 film Dawn of the Dead, a tweaked update of the zombie movie. Blood-splattered throughout, it's a gem. This is the polar opposite. It's about the fear. Much of the movie unfortunately is spent among the dynamic of the group. There's far too much talking for my taste. 'Living' is at its best when the survivors are directly dealing with the zombies. The attacks are truly scary, individuals battling an enemy that won't stop attacking. The finale is a gem, the zombies finally organizing (do zombies organize? Eh) an attack on the house. The final scene provides quite a shocker, even though it's telegraphed some in the scenes leading up to it. A mixed bag, but certainly an influential film. Watch the entire film HERE at Youtube.

Night of the Living Dead <---trailer (1968): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Earlier this year, I saw and liked 2012's Prometheus a lot....if I was a little confused. From director Ridley Scott, it was a quasi-prequel to his 1979 sci-fi classic Alien. I'd never seen Alien in its entirety in one sitting, having seen pieces here and there. Well, apparently I wasn't the only one trying to catch up with the 1979 film. Netflix had it on 'Long Wait' for the last four months. I waited it out, finally catching up with it this weekend.

In the near future, the Nostromo, a deep space towing vessel, and its crew is returning to Earth with an immense shipment of ore mined on a far-off planet. The crew, including Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt), Kane (John Hurt), the executive officer, and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the warrant officer, are awakened from a deep slumber. The Nostromo's computer has sensed a message -- possibly an S.O.S., possibly a warning -- from a nearby planet. Following orders, the ship sets down on an Earth-like planetoid, but one of the search party brings something back aboard the ship. The crew debates what to do, but it's too late. The creature is free and loose. With improvised weaponry, the Nostromo's crew now finds itself fighting for survival.

This is a movie that is hard to review. Why's that? Well, for one, that's a compliment. Released in 1979, Alien has basically influenced every horror-science-fiction-thriller made in the 30-plus years since its release. Having seen Prometheus just a few months ago, it's obvious how similar the "new" movie was to the original. We're talking spot-on. So through no fault of its own, this 1979 original does feel -- for lack of a better word -- familiar. It doesn't take away from the quality, but some of the scares and twists are somewhat predictable. Still, it's a gem. Anything that influenced so many movies since is worth a recommendation.

Directing just his second feature film (and three years prior to another classic, Blade Runner), Scott does an admirable job here. There's nothing quite as scary as deep space for me. Who knows what kind of horrors are out there? Oh, and there's nowhere to run...not quickly at least. Scott's vision of the future is just that, very visual. The Nostromo is both well-lit and furnished, but in its depths is claustrophobic, dank, damp and hiding all sorts of fear. In other words, plenty of space for our Alien to hide in. The scares are slow-burns, long scenes with little movement or sound suddenly broken up by quick GOTCHA! bursts that will have you jumping (okay, I did). While it is scary, it's more importantly smart scary. Most of the scares from the unsettling mood; the quiet and foreboding. At its best, this is an underplayed scare fest.

The focus is on the scares and the Alien that starts to dispatch members of the crew. 'Alien' doesn't have time or room for anything else. We're introduced to the characters, but know nothing about them more than what their duties on-board are. It strips away everything superfluous and maintains that focus on the survival aspect. The crew -- fodder for the Alien -- include the always cool Tom Skerritt, the similarly cool John Hurt and Weaver. Also included are Yaphet Kotto as Parker, the engineer, Harry Dean Stanton as Brett, the assistant engineer, Ian Holm as Ash, the medical officer, and Veronica Cartwright as Lambert. There really isn't a weak performance in the bunch, Skerritt, Kotto and Holm especially standing out. The real standout though is a young Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley, the intelligent, reasonable-thinking heroine, a part that would help make her a star. A female star in an sci-fi movie was something new, and Weaver is a great lead.

Did I love this movie? No, but I liked it a lot. Seeing it in 1979, Alien would have no doubt had a different impact on me than it does now. It did influence countless movies since -- a credit to its power -- but viewing it now, it does affect the viewing. The surprises are solid, but they're not completely out of left field. If you're paying attention, you'll see them coming. On the other hand, it's still a gem 33 years later. A very pointed story with no dead weight anywhere in sight. Still well worth a watch.

Alien <---trailer (1979): ***/****

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The beauty and downfall of a successful film series is a razor-thin difference. How do you keep fans interested without showing the same movie over and over again? Now 50 years since the James Bond franchise started with 1962’s Dr. No, 007 himself has gone through funks of sorts. The producers and writers always seem to have a knack for bringing him back in high gear. So after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, Bond comes back with a vengeance in 2012’s Skyfall.

Working a mission in Turkey, MI6 agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) is in pursuit of a man who holds a stolen hard drive with the identities of every MI6 currently working deep within terrorist organizations. In pursuit with the threat the man could get away, Bond is accidentally shot by a fellow agent when M (Judi Dench) fears the hard drive will get out in the open. Feared dead, Bond disappears, only reappearing months later when MI6 Headquarters is attacked in a terrorist bombing. The culprit? A former MI6 agent and brilliant mind with technology and computers, Silva (Javier Bardem). The former agent is looking for revenge, and his sights are set on M herself. Severely wounded in Turkey and wasting away via pills and booze, Bond has his work cut out for him if he hopes to stop Silva from releasing the list of MI6 agents on an international level.

Like any Bond movie, that plot synopsis is about as concise as I think I’m going to get it. Moral of the story? It’s a gem. After the average but mostly disappointing Quantum of Solace, the Bond franchise gets back to basics for its 50th anniversary and 23rd film overall. For starters, they found the right man for the job directing, Sam Mendes of American Beauty, Revolutionary Road, Jarhead, Road to Perdition and many other non-Bond like movies. He brings a different eye to the franchise. The script from a trio of writers as well is about as good as it gets, but more on that later. As a visual medium, ‘Skyfall’ is a stunner, not just a great-looking Bond movie, but a great-looking movie in general. Credit there goes to Roger Deakins, director of photography. Also worth mentioning, composer Thomas Newman’s score, nothing flashy, but it’s different enough to be interesting. Of course, having the James Bond theme from Monty Norman never hurt any score….EVER. So again, it’s the little things that we might not always think of, but the behind-the-camera angle works perfectly.

I have long said Sean Connery is the best James Bond of the six actors who have portrayed him with Craig (his legacy still to be decided) in close second. After Skyfall, that opinion has changed. I think it’s a push. As I mentioned in the Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace reviews, Craig is able to make James Bond, 007 himself, a real-life, 3-D human being. He’s not some indestructible hired killer without emotion or feeling. Following the thrilling pre-credit sequence where Bond is shot, we see James at his lowest. When he comes back to MI6, we see an agent who has lost some of his edge, his hard-earned ability gone. Now, he must fight his way back to some sort of 007 normalcy. The story develops, and we see more of his character as Bond gets some development, including the first-ever (that I can think) revelation about his childhood. No real spoilers here, but the final 30-45 minutes delves into the myth of the Bond character like no others have even tried. I can’t wait to see where the character goes next.

This next statement is nothing new. Countless other reviews have made the point, but it’s key. It’s 2012. There is no Cold War, no enemy Russians hell-bent on destroying the free world. Worldwide, international villains are harder to identify. So what is MI6 supposed to do? It’s not Russkies vs. Brits anymore. These villains are different. M, her actions, and MI6 come under fire in ‘Skyfall.’ What’s the point of them even being around? Does a modern world need individual agents patrolling the world in the shadows (as M so simply and eloquently puts it)? Bond fans can now answer in unison…YES. So in that sense, Mendes, Craig and Co. get back to basics. In a world unlike anything we’ve seen before, maybe we need agents like Bond more than ever. That’s where I think Skyfall is special. Much of that extraneous “stuff” (for lack of a better word) is stripped away. This is Bond at his simplest. A highly-trained agent with a gun and a radio transmitter, nothing else. No gadgets, no gimmicks. The best part? Nothing else is needed.

So let’s dive in. Mendes assembled one impressive cast to work with here. Craig as mentioned is basically perfect as the very-human Bond. Judi Dench is given her most fleshed-out part as M, MI6 head of agents who must now defend every single one of her actions. Not surprisingly, Dench does not disappoint with more screentime. Already previously identified as one of the great villains of all-time from No Country for Old Men, Bardem is a breath of fresh air in the Bond villain department. His Silva quickly moves into the top 3 or 4 Bond villains. It’s not a stereotypical bad guy part though. We learn more about his back story, more about who he is and what drives him. Also making Bond aficionados happy, Ben Whishaw is cast as Q, Bond’s quartermaster, supplying him with everything he needs. Ralph Fiennes plays Gareth Mallory, a government higher-up associated with MI6 and working to help M. Naomie Harris plays Eve, another agent working with Bond while Berenice Marlohe is memorable in an underused part as Severigne, a link to Silva. Rory Kinnear is solid too as Tanner, M's assistant who works with Bond to get back his edge.

With a story focused on character development and a great visual appeal, fans need not worry. The action is incredible. The pre-credit sequence chase via foot-motorcycle-train gets things going at a lightning pace. Adele’s theme song – Skyfall, listen HERE – is a winner too. What works about the action is that it flows so well and effortlessly with the story. Bond fights a rival assassin in Shanghai in a back-lit skyscraper in a sequence that seems almost art-house in style. I don’t want to give too much away in terms of the action, but I’ll leave it at this. It works. It just does. It is stylish without being flashy, and thankfully leaves that hyper-active editing behind with Quantum. We can see the action, and that makes all the difference. The best is the end, a showdown with Bond, M, and Kincaid (Albert Finney, a scene-stealer as a man from Bond’s past) shooting it out western-style at an isolated Scottish manor house with Silva’s small army of machine gun-wielding henchmen.

In making Skyfall, I think the producers/creators made a wise decision. They didn’t try and change a successful franchise. They take what works and build off it. In that way, it comes across as a quasi-homage to the best Bond movies while still carving out its own identity. We see Bond’s original Aston Martin (ejector seat included), we learn more about Bond, and in the end, we have a final scene with two key points and sort-of twists. Again, no real details here. Enjoy and discover the movie for yourself. The point though is simple. While advancing the series, franchise and character, they’re sticking to what works. There is a simple perfection when these movies work well (Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, Casino Royale, Goldeneye, The Spy Who Loved Me), and Skyfall gets it done on a huge scale. A great movie, and another great Bond story. I can’t wait to see where 007 heads next. Check out the trailer below.

Skyfall (2012): ****/****

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fortune Cookie

Ever been sued? No? Let me tell you. It ain't fun, mostly because you'll no doubt have trouble shaking the suspicion that the sue-es (Not you) are trying to stick it to you. Okay, that was my issue. So how about a 1960s comedy about such a suing scam? Well, if you're going to do it right, then let's do it. Enter 1966's The Fortune Cookie.

Working as an on-field camera man for CBS Sports, Harry Hinkle (Jack Lemmon) is knocked out on the sidelines when Cleveland Browns star Luther 'Boom Boom' Jackson (Ron Rich) crashes into him. Harry is diagnosed with a concussion, but nothing too serious.....until his shyster lawyer of a brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Walter Matthau) steps in. Nicknamed Whiplash Willie, he finds out Harry had a childhood injury that resulted in a compressed vertebrae in his back. Who or what's to say the injury wasn't sustained during the on-field accident? Convincing Harry to go along with the scheme (pretending to be paralyzed in one leg, partially in his hands), Willie puts it into action. They're going to sue the Browns, their stadium, and CBS for $1 million bucks. Can they keep up the act?

If that's not a spot-on, ideal description of a really funny movie, I don't know what is. I'm joking of course. Nothing about that even remotely screams 'THIS IS FUNNY! COME WATCH!' So how does it become funny? A director by the name of Billy Wilder, who had a few successful movies during his career.  Teaming with I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder's script is pretty perfect, taking an extremely dark situation and breathing some comedic life into it. This isn't obvious physical humor. It's much more subtle although come to think of it, Lemmon does have a great scene late with some physical comedy. It's about the style, the dialogue, the story that knows where it's going and isn't in a huge rush to get there.

Like so many other genres of the 1960s, there is a certain charm to this movie. Wilder's confident style comes through in one criminally simplistic but incredibly unique storytelling device. Scenes are introduced via on-screen title cards/written words like 'Chapter 1: The Accident' and 'Chapter 4: The Legal Eagles.' There are 16 in all, wrapping up with 'Chapter 16: The Final Score.' Scenes fade to black and then fade back, the chapter titles introducing what's next. It's an effective technique for sure. Wilder also shoots in black and white and in Panavision, giving the film more depth with each passing scene. Some Cleveland locations include Municipal Stadium and St. Vincent Hospital, little touches that go a long way.

In the first of 10 pairings between the duo, Lemmon and Matthau show off an easy-going, effortless chemistry that carries the movie. Is it always laugh out loud hilarious? No, but when it's funny, it's because of these two. Lemmon is one of the all-time comedic greats, but this was one of Matthau's first comedies after years of drama and heavies. His line deliveries are hard to describe in their perfection, that deep voice going high-pitched and happy to the point it's even sing-songy. I loved their scenes together, both Lemmon and Matthau (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) arguing like an old married couple. In one of his three career movies, Rich is a bright spot too as Boom Boom, the star NFL player who feels the guilt for "hurting" Harry. Also look for Judi West as Harry's gold-digging ex-wife, Cliff Osmond as Purkey, a private investigator (working with whiny Noam Pitlik), and Harry Holcombe, Les Tremayne, and Lauren Gilbert as O'Brien, Thompson and Kincaid, the powerful lawyers working against Whiplash Willie.

What I like most about so many Wilder films from the 1950s and 1960s is that while they are funny, they don't try to be too funny. It's human drama with touches of humor -- typically smart and/or underplayed -- that brighten up some pretty dark stories. Amidst all the scheming and insurance fraud, a surprising relationship develops between Harry and Luther. The football star feels extreme guilt for what he thinks he did, not realizing it's all a fake on Harry's part. Similarly, the scam starts to weigh on Harry's mind, leading to a satisfying ending for all involved. Yet another solid effort from Billy Wilder, and a good sign of things to come for the partnership of Lemmon and Mattau. Also worth mentioning? This is the earliest movie I can remember that has a woman character called 'a bitch.' So it's got that going for it.

The Fortune Cookie <---trailer (1966): ***/****

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Use the term 'exploitation film' and it's about as vague as you can get in describing a genre as a whole. So how to describe them? Basically any movie made on the cheap -- to a point at least -- that appeals to a mass audience. This is not The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia. These films through the 1960s and 1970s can be amazingly bad to watch (in a good way), and influenced directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both modern day directors who have done their own exploitation films, including Rodriguez's 2010's Machete.

It's been three years since ex-Federale, Machete (Danny Trejo), was betrayed by his boss, saw his wife and daughter killed and was left for dead. Now working as a day laborer in Texas, Machete is approached by the mysterious Booth (Jeff Fahey) who offers him $150,000 to assassinate Senator John McLaughlin (Robert De Niro), currently running for re-election. Machete agrees and takes the money, but he is double-crossed during the attempt. It was all a set-up, and McLaughlin was in on it to boost his re-election effort. Severely wounded and on the run, Machete is on his own, but he's looking for answers. You can follow his trail by the mangled bodies he's going to leave behind.

As a director, Rodriguez shot to fame with his ultra-low budget El Mariachi and kept climbing with Desperado, From Dusk Til Dawn and the Spy Kids series (I suppose on that last one). He already did a tribute to exploitation with Sin City and Grindhouse, but thanks to the fictional trailers from Grindhouse, he had the potential for this film. I understand the appeal of the genre; no pretensions about sex, violence, sex, drugs, sex, whatever. I love low-budget schlock, and all those touches are there. The grainy film, that distinct low-budget look, the ridiculous story, all there for us to enjoy. But the problem for me was obvious. You make an exploitation film and do it. Made for a little over $10 million, something just ain't right here.

The only thing I can figure? Instead of just being an exploitation flick, it comes across as a spoof. It has its moments, especially Trejo's stone-faced one-liners and reactions, including my favorite, "Machete don't text." Rodriguez just tries too hard to make those films he grew up on and loved. How many different ways can you see a machete decapitate, cripple, mangle and generally destroy a human being? I lost count, but the effort was surely made here. It's supposed to be cartoonish violence, but it ends up looking laughable. I don't know if it was just poorly done CGI or what, but the final product is bad. Low brow is one thing (and can certainly be a positive), but when Machete jumps out a window and uses a man's intestines as a bungee cord, I knew I was in trouble.

A veteran of 150-plus flicks, Danny Trejo doesn't disappoint as the titular character. He basically expresses no emotion, doesn't crack a smile and is required to look tough and be a badass who dispatches nameless henchmen in creative ways with a machete....oh, and usually saying a cheesy one-liner while doing it. That's all. Trejo nails the part. Give Rodriguez credit. The man can put a cast together. De Niro hams it up as McLaughlin with Fahey being a gravelly-voiced scene stealer as Booth, the senator's aide. In the eye candy department, we've got Jessica Alba (can't act, semi-nude scene), Michelle Rodriguez (can act, no nude scene), and Lindsay Lohan (can't act, topless). In the flashback department, we've got an enormous-looking Steven Seagal as a Mexican drug lord and Don Johnson as a vigilante "protecting" the U.S./Mexico border. Rodriguez favorite Cheech Marin is another scene-stealer as Padre, Machete's shotgun-toting brother who happens to be a priest. Also look for Shea Whigham as Booth's inept henchman.

The story that revolves around Machete's revenge efforts include De Niro's Senator, Seagal's drug lord, Johnson's border vigilante, and an evil conspiracy to control the border to curtail illegal immigrants coming into America. I'm all sorts of democratic, but I don't want any message shoved in my face in a movie named 'Machete.' The whole angle, the angelic underground network helping people across and the dastardly evil big business, gets to be too much in a movie that had a whole lot of too much for me.

Look, I get it. This isn't a movie meant to be over-analyzed and critiqued within an inch of its life. It's about seeing Machete bed down every woman he meets (almost), about twin nurses in short skirts firing machine guns, about a tricked-out, machine gun packed motorcycle, countless decapitations, perfectly slimy bad guys, topless Lindsay Lohan, and all that beautiful low-brow humor and violence that most films just can't get away with. I just didn't like it. Exploitation is one thing, but I can't get over the fact that it plays far too much like a spoof. I of course might be alone in this sentiment. The sequel, Machete Kills, is due in theaters next summer.

Machete <---trailer (2010): * 1/2 /****

Monday, November 12, 2012

Project X

With 1999's dividing The Blair Witch Project, audiences were introduced to the "real" story in movies; stories that we see from the view of someone actually filming what we're watching. A movie within a movie, get it?!? That indie film's popularity has produced countless knockoffs and quasi-rip-offs, but one of the better ones is 2012's Project X.

Like a lot of high schoolers, Thomas Kub (Thomas Mann) is pretty normal. He's not a nerd, but he's far from one of the cool kids either. It's his 17th birthday, and what are the chances? His parents are going away for the weekend, leaving Thomas in charge. In step his friends, boisterous motor mouth Costa (Oliver Cooper), and nerdy J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown). Costa is pulling out all the stops in throwing a massive b-day party for Thomas who wants no more than 50 people to show up (mostly out of fear of his parents' reaction). Word spreads like wildfire of the party, and what starts off as a bust turns into a party that cannot and will not be stopped, and no one knows what to expect.

Let's get this out of the way because I feel slightly embarrassed to even admit it. I liked this movie. I liked it a lot. It is ridiculous and stupid, and it cracked me up. I laughed out loud at more scenes than I can remember. Go figure. Is it a classic? No way. Not even close. On the other hand, it's not the typical schlock coming out in theaters. It borrows from all sorts of previous teenage sex romps, most noticeably 2007's Superbad (a classic in its own right) but also tipping its cap to the John Hughes movies, Old School, the American Pie series and many more that I'm forgetting. More on the differences -- sometimes extreme differences -- but it's a movie that's significantly better than what I expected.

So the whole movie from the perspective of a moving, interacting camera lens? That storytelling device alone will no doubt turn many viewers away. If you get queasy easy, this ain't your movie. The AV club rep, Dax (Dax Flame), films the entire build-up, execution and fall-out from the party with Costa hoping to give him a movie of his b-day for a present. The camera never stops moving, floating through the party and seeing all the debauchery develop. So in a weird way, it's a kind-of documentary about a high school boozing party gone horrifically too far. Shaky cam isn't the most innovative thing around, but it works here. We see the best and worst of the party through Dax's eyes. The best moments are the simplest ones, Thomas talking with his longtime friend and crush, Kirby (Kirby Bliss Blanton), overhearing Costa begging J.B. for help "getting a midget out of the oven." Oh, by the way, there is a midget (Martin Klebba) in the oven. Don't worry. It's turned off.

Like any successful teenage sex romp, at least some enjoyment will come from whether you like the characters. Newcomers without a lot of experience, our intrepid trio at the top is perfect. It's easy to buy them as best friends from the drunken, stoned bonding on a curb to the shenanigans at the drugstore pre-party. Thomas is the pretty normal kid, Costa the freakishly confident (for some reason) friend who is unlikable and likable at the same time, and J.B. the goofball who's got a weird streak but is at heart a good guy. Also look for high school regulars, the jock (Miles Teller), the designated hottest girl in school (Alexis Knapp), the freshmen "security" (Brady Hender and Nick Nervies), and the stuffy Dad (Peter Mackenzie). The key part is the three friends, the young actors showing off an easy, believable charm that makes their friendhsip believable. 

Now what starts off as an epically successful party of course turns into something much more, something much more difficult to manage. The party and story take a turn for the surreal in the last 30 minutes, but in all the craziness and general bizarre nature of the story, it works. Kudos to you, director Nima Nourizadeh. Is the message ridiculous in the end? Yes, of course. The party gets so epically out of hand that it becomes legendary. But in the finale, it works. It just does. There's also some fun with the wrap-up title cards explaining what happened to everyone. Don't expect anything groundbreaking. Just enjoy a fun movie with a techno/house-heavy soundtrack that embraces the surreal instead of turning away. It's the high school party we all wanted to be a part of so sit back and revel.

Project X <---trailer (2012): ***/****

Sunday, November 11, 2012


Having made a name for himself as an actor, Ben Affleck has turned to the director's chair over the last six years. His first two movies were crime thrillers, 2007's Gone Baby Gone and 2010's The Town, and both showed a knack for really solid filmmaking, both of which I liked a lot. For Affleck's third film though, he had a little change of pace with 2012's Argo.

In November 1979, the U.S. Embassy in Tehran is stormed by angry Iranians upset that a deposed Shah is being sheltered by the U.S. In the chaos of the embassy takeover, six Americans escape and manage to make it to the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) undetected. Some 70 hostages have been taken though, and a long waiting game follows. Over 70 days later, the U.S. government and the C.I.A. are still trying to figure out what to do when C.I.A. agent Tony Mendez (Affleck) comes up with a plan. Posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a sci-fi film (a Star Wars rip-off), Mendez intends to get into Iran and get the six out safely. The plan is ridiculously dangerous, and the potential for failure is high. Time is running out though, and it's the best plan available.

I've always been a fan of Affleck as an actor going back to his first few roles in movies like Good Will Hunting and Armageddon. As much as I like him as an actor, I'm starting to think I like him more from behind the camera. Maybe it's being around the movie business as much as he has, but he seems to have a knack for this camera. The reviews were uniformly positive here, and the IMDB rating is at a very high 8.4 as I write this review. Is it an all-time classic that the rating suggests? No, but it's very well done and well-executed. It's refreshing to see a story that focuses on just that; the story. While it's rated 'R,' it can mostly be attributed to the language. Little in the way of violence, sex and explosions, everything is streamlined for the story. Nothing wasted here.

This is based on the real life events that took place between 1979 and 1981 with some 80 hostages under Iranian control. Affleck has said in interviews that some liberties were taken with the story, but that's the point. It is based on a true story. He never said it is a true story. What appeals to me about Affleck's work is why I like his acting. It's understated when it is at its best. Argo feels like a throwback to the great crime/political thrillers of the 1970s (interesting because it takes place after those movies were made, but you get the idea). It is not flashy or anything freakishly new. What is it? Lots of good actors, a dramatic, incredibly intense story, and tension that is so well-handled it gets to the point it was uncomfortable by the end. Groundbreaking? Nope, but there's something to be said for a no-frills thriller that knows what it is trying to accomplish.

Like in The Town, Affleck stars in his own flick, but like his story, it isn't a flashy part. His Tony Mendez is an exfiltration specialist, an expert in getting people out of places, who concocts a hair-brained scheme to get these 6 Americans out of harm's way. Tony is quiet and a thinker, but he's always working on something. Give him a mission, and he's not going to stop to accomplish his objectives. A solid leading part for Mr. Affleck. Joining him in two scene-stealing parts are John Goodman and Alan Arkin. Goodman plays a respected Hollywood makeup man while Arkin is a director a little past his prime, both men signing on to help Affleck's Tony create a fake film that will convince Iranian officials and armed forces his backstory is legit. Both parts fade into the background once Tony heads out on his mission, but the scenes among Affleck, Goodman and Arkin are gems. I loved all three performances. Also look for always reliable Bryan Cranston as Tony's CIA supervisor, Kyle Chandler as the White House Chief of Staff, Titus Welliver as a State Department official and plenty of familiar faces popping up in quick one and two scene appearances.

I liked the movie throughout as the story develops. We're given background, see the fake movie -- dubbed 'Argo' -- come together, and then Tony's mission. The actual mission getting the six Americans out of a bloody, chaotic and paranoid Tehran is by far the best thing going for Affleck's movie. Tension doesn't begin to describe these scenes as Tony's "film crew" tries to get through airport security. The six Americans include Tate Donovan, Rory Cochrane, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Scoot McNairy and Kerry Bishe. Farshad Farahat does an incredible job with as a checkpoint guard investigating the backstory. The ending is Affleck showing his ability. He doesn't blare music at you or demand you feel a certain way as a viewer. He presents the action, lets it develop and allows the actors to do their thing. Another winner. Looking forward to see what's next for Affleck, as an actor or director.    

Argo (2012): ***/****

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Men in War

The Korean War was unlike any war Americans had ever been involved in. The movies made about it certainly reflected that. There was nothing simple about it, no easy answer, but I suppose that applies to all wars. One of the best movies about Korea is also one that has gone criminally unrecognized over the years, 1957's Men in War

Following a horrifically costly engagement late in 1950 in Korea, Lt. Benson (Robert Ryan) finds himself in command of the ragged remains of his rifle platoon. With just 17 men and no idea where the rest of the battalion is, Benson leads his men to a prearranged objective that he's not even sure still exists. Along the way, they run into Sgt. Montana (Aldo Ray), a stubborn and very capable soldier who's transporting by jeep his shell-shocked commanding officer, the Colonel (Robert Keith). When Benson commandeers the jeep, Montana goes along more than a little unwillingly. Together, the motley group continues to their objective, an otherwise ordinary location, simply titled Hill 465. What awaits there? None of them know.

Never even mentioned among the best war movies around, this Korean War has been criminally neglected since its 1957. From director Anthony Mann, it is a cynical, extremely dark, very realistic, and even a tad existential at times. While it is based in Korea, it really could be any war. The infantry soldiers trudge on, fighting a mostly unseen enemy, just trying to survive. We learn nothing about anyone, and there's no bigger picture of the war. These men are separated from their possibly annihilated unit and walking in heavily occupied enemy territory. The North Koreans appear as needed; in the aftermath of a firefight, two survivors talk quietly -- not really hiding either -- where seconds before bullets and grenades were raining down on them. This is war and the effect it has on the individual.

Beyond that simple story is a realistic story. I try not to use this description too much, but it was truly ahead of its time. We're introduced to Benson's platoon in the aftermath of the attack that separated his platoon from the battalion. The men look exhausted to the point of fainting. One man has been killed -- stabbed in the back with a bayonet -- by a North Korean scout, and so it starts. The cynicism is palpable. Benson mumbles 'Son of a...' before veering off. Ray's Montana shoots a surrendering North Korean, albeit one reaching for a hidden pistol. Later, a second prisoner is used for bait to see if the platoon has been spotted. Filmed in a close-up black and white, I felt like a fly on the wall as a viewer. We feel like we're right there with the foot soldiers. By no means a flashy filming style, but the story doesn't call for it. Also worth mentioning is Elmer Bernstein's eerie but spot-on musical score.

Playing on the basic notion of the unit picture, 'War' has an impressive tough guy cast. It's great to see Ryan get a good guy role. Very capable of playing a hellishly bad villain, Ryan is a perfect choice to play the beaten down officer who must buck up to get his men to safety. Ray as his counter is just as spot-on, a similarly experienced soldier but one with a simpler mission. That angle (protecting your commanding officer) would be used 20 years later in A Bridge Too Far. Benson's platoon includes Riordan (Phillip Pine), the radioman, Lewis (Nehemiah Persoff), the unhinged sergeant, Zwickley (Vic Morrow), the scared to death private, Killian (James Edwards), the mechanic, and Davis (L.Q. Jones), the medic and BAR man. Seven other soldiers are listed in the cast but under the dirt, grime and three-day stubble, it's hard to distinguish them.

For the most part here, the story is fairly familiar. Nothing crazy or out of the blue. The platoon deals with North Korean scouts trying to pick them off, bickering amongst the men, even stumbling into a minefield. Where it distinguishes itself is in the finale as Benson's men reach Hill 465. There is nothing special about the hill, just a big chunk of jagged rock....that's occupied by North Koreans. The small-scale battle has elements of the surreal. The enemy fires only occasionally, only appearing for brief close-ups. In its small scale, it is a very personal, aggressive, and uncomfortable depiction of battle. Soldiers are killed, but we barely see their faces to know who it is. The film ends on a dour note, but an effective one just the same.

A war film that deserves better. Effective message that is never overbearing, great casting, almost documentary-like feel from Mann, all amount to a film well worth watching.

Men in War <---Youtube clip (1957): *** 1/2 /****