The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

One of the more iconic movies to come out of the 1980s, 1987's Wall Street is memorable because of star Michael Douglas and his infamous line, "Greed is good." The movie itself is pretty good, and 23 years after its release, director Oliver Stone decided to return to his iconic character and continue the story with 2010's Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

After spending 13 years in jail for insider training and securities fraud, Gordon Gekko (Douglas) is finally given his parole. Some seven years pass, and now he's promoting his new book 'Is Greed Good?' when he meets a young stock broker, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to Gordon's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Gordon wants to form a relationship with a daughter who might as well consider him dead. At the same time, Gordon begins to help Jake, a talented, intelligent broker in his own right, as he starts a new job with a high-level firm broker, Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who has rubbed plenty of people the wrong way in his rise to power. With millions and billions of dollars on the line and the massive egos to boot, an epic confrontation looms, but the struggling economy may have the last laugh over everyone involved.

For starters, let's get this somewhat obvious statement out of the way. Like just about any sequel ever, this is basically the definition of unnecessary. Why go back to a movie from 23 years ago and revisit a character -- however iconic -- and story that didn't need revisiting? Oh...the sequel made $130 million in theaters? I suppose that's as good a reason as any. Well, in business at least. Other than the epic economic issues of the last 10 years, there's no real reason to make this sequel. That said, it's not bad. The biggest thing working in positive fashion is the acting. The story lacks a bit of punch -- it's missing something in the energy department -- but I liked it just the same. Unnecessary? Oh, you betcha, but you could do worse.

I like movies, sports, reading. I can B.S. my way through a fair share of conversations. The financial crisis of 2008 is most definitely not one of those things. I have a very basic knowledge of the economic collapse that this sequel goes into in depth, but I'm far from an expert. In other words, some background and/or understanding in big money, Wall Street, stocks, and everything financial will no doubt help your enjoyment of this flick. Because my knowledge of the subject material is limited, I wasn't always crystal clear on what was going on. I still liked it, but it's an issue just the same. End of sidenote.

Without question, the best thing going for Stone's sequel is the return of Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. His introduction is perfect, Gekko getting his parole and being released from prison after serving 13 total years in jail. We see him get his possessions back from a suit to a watch to a rather massive cell phone. The message is clear; times have changed, and Gordon is a dinosaur who has to adjust with the times. I think Stone makes an incredibly wise choice. For much of the movie, Gekko is a secondary -- if incredibly important secondary -- character that fleets in and out of the story as needed. Any scene with Douglas in it is worth watching, his appearances bringing the entire movie up a notch just by being there. He makes the others around him better. The new movie itself is unnecessary, but Douglas's appearance makes it worthwhile.

The rest of the cast is solid if unspectacular. It seems no matter the movie, LaBeouf takes grief for any number of things -- wooden acting, bad acting, off-screen antics -- but as long as he's not in loud, obnoxious, and obvious Transformers mode, I like him. It isn't a flashy part (that is left to Douglas, nailing it in subtle fashion), but LaBeouf's Jake is the main character, and for me, an interesting one. Mulligan too is pretty good as Winnie, Gordon's estranged daughter who wants nothing to do with her father. Behind Douglas, I thought the best part was from Brolin as the Wall Street rival with some ulterior motives. Frank Langella is a scene-stealer as well as Louis Zabel, Jake's aging mentor who hates what Wall Street is becoming, Susan Sarandon plays Jake's mom who's heavily invested in real estate, Eli Wallach as a Wall Street dinosaur, and Jason Clarke as the NYC Fed chief. Not necessarily great performances, but it's fun to see all those names assembled.

This 2010 sequel is missing that special something from making it an above-average, truly enjoyable flick. It's good enough, but it's never more than that. Clocking in at 138 minutes, it feels incredibly long in certain stretches. Lots of dialogue isn't a bad thing, but at times, it gets a little tedious, a little slow. Douglas certainly helps the momentum pick up a bit, especially late when we see the Gekko we all love to hate. Charlie Sheen even makes a cameo as Bud Fox, the protagonist in the original Wall Street. I liked this one, didn't love it. Not bad stuff.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Premium Rush

Having worked in TV and film since the early 1990s, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has hit his stride in recent years. With very solid acting parts in The Lookout, 50/50, Inception, The Dark Knight Rises and several other major films, Gordon-Levitt seems destined for bigger and better things with each passing role. They're not all winners though, and case in point, 2012's Premium Rush.

A former law student who didn't want to be tied down, 20-something Wilee (Gordon-Levitt) has created a daredevil reputation for himself as a bike messenger in New York City. There isn't a job that this possibly suicidal rider won't take, but he's in a bit of a spot. As he deals with his girlfriend, Vanessa (Dania Ramirez), breaking up with him, Wilee is given a delivery job with an extremely strict deadline, delivering a small envelope from Manhattan to Chinatown. Before he can on his bike though, Wilee is confronted by a mysterious, possibly unhinged man (Michael Shannon) who demands the bike messenger give him what the envelope contains. Wilee manages to escape, but now the man is trailing him. What has he gotten himself into?

I remember seeing the trailer for this last summer and thinking two things. One, it looked different and at least a little interesting in a unique kind of way. Two, it looked different....and stupid, really stupid. Let's review. It is different, and the premise is also interesting. Unfortunately, it is stupid. We're talking truly stupid to the point I was laughing out loud at the developing story. An action-packed, adrenaline pumping story about bike messengers sounded promising. The window into that world certainly had some potential, but it completely falls apart basically the second Michael Shannon arrives on the scene. I don't get it at all. I was stunned by how bad this movie was from the acting to the....yeah, just the acting. It's truly bad.

Michael Shannon is a very talented actor with the ability to play a laundry list of different roles. This is not one of those roles. It is an amazingly bad acting job, and it comes completely out of left field. I read some reviews, some message boards and couldn't believe that a surprising amount of people not only liked his performance, they loved it. I couldn't believe what I was watching. Shannon has a....unique?....face to begin with, but with his big old bug eyes and bizarre line deliveries that unique face is taken to a whole new level. There is a difference between hamming it up and/or chewing the scenery, and whatever the hell Shannon is doing here. It is so amazingly bad watching his shenanigans -- SPOILER He's an unhinged NYC detective with a gambling problem END OF SPOILER -- that it had me wondering if I was watching a spoof. Unfortunately, it is dead serious, and it single-handedly ruins the movie.

Director David Koepp (working with John Kamps on the screenplay) tries to do some different techniques to keep things interesting, but for the most part, it feels familiar and forced. Gordon-Levitt's Wilee rides a bike with no brakes and no gears, riding for the ultimate thrill of the job. He's good at what he does, analyzing in an instant which route to take in NYC rush hour. Picture the technique Robert Downey Jr. uses as Sherlock Holmes to analyze and defeat an opponent in a fight and transplant it to the chaotic, dangerous world of a NYC bike messenger. Cool to a point, but by the second or third time we see Wilee analyze an intersection in slow motion, it's beyond repetitive. We also get some "tech angles," seeing the messengers' routes through NYC and Manhattan from above like a Google Map, a colored line outlining the upcoming route.

Doing the best he can with a lousy script, Gordon-Levitt is okay as Wilee. His narration at the beginning and end of the film comes off as cliched and far too familiar, limiting the character to little more than a stereotype. Some of that is the script which is a recurring cycle of people shouting 1. Look out! 2. Move! and 3. Dammit! If nothing else (and I'm truly searching for something here), he looks the part of a bike messenger who gets off on the thrill of the job. Because a bike messenger being pursued by a hellbent individual wasn't enough though, we meet Vanessa, his fiery and recently broken up girlfriend. There's also Manny (Wole Parks), a rival messenger who doesn't like Wilee but likes Vanessa, Aasif Mandvi as Raj, the messenger dispatcher, and Jamie Chung as the young woman who sends Wilee on his hellish messenger job. 

Because I feel like I'm devoting far too much time to a movie I truly disliked, let's wrap things up. Clocking in at just 91 minutes, this movie is far too long. We get several odd, disjointed flashbacks that show how everyone ended up in the story, but they take too long getting there. The actual objective of the messenger job is beyond stupid, force-feeding a ridiculous, sappy and out of place message into the story. I didn't have high expectations for this one, but I wanted to at least like it a little bit. It didn't happen. I hated the movie. I can recommend it more as a comedy, one you can watch while doing shots and drinking games. Steer clear otherwise.

Premium Rush (2012): */****

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Left Hand of God

The lives, missions, and beliefs of priests lends well to film adaptations. Think of movies like Keys of the Kingdom, I Confess, The Mission, The Scarlet and the Black, Going My Way, Boys Town and many others. How about a priest sub-genre? Priests who aren't what they seem, films like 1972's The Wrath of God and 1955's The Left Hand of God.

It's 1947 in a remote province of China, and Father O'Shea (Humphrey Bogart) is on his way to an isolated Catholic miss deep in the hills. His predecessor was killed, and the mission is has been missing a priest for months. Three other Americans await, Dr. David Sigman (E.G. Marshall), his wife, Beryl (Agnes Moorehead), and Anne (Gene Tierney), a widow working at the mission. O'Shea's work is cut out for him, the local villagers happy he's there but also worrisome about his arrival. The biggest problem though isn't from the villagers though, but instead the new priest. O'Shea has a secret that threatens to tear the village apart. One of the few men who knows the secret? A warlord, Mieh Yang (Lee J. Cobb), who with his small army of killers poses a huge threat to the poor farming villages.

Based on a novel by William Barrett, this priestly-based story went through its fair share of incarnations and stars before it finally ended up in the hands of director Edward Dmytryk who eventually decided Bogart would be an ideal choice for the part (Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck were attached to star in earlier incarnations). The film itself is nothing classic, nothing particularly different or unique, but it is nonetheless an enjoyable, well done movie that I was interested in from beginning to end. I'll say it again, familiarity can be a good thing when handled right (read: not boring). Substituting Malibu Canyon, California for China doesn't seem like an obvious choice, but it works in the same way MASH did replacing California for Korea. Composer Victor Young's score is a step above the rest, not your standard epic score.

After reviewing We're No Angels in late 2012, here's another Bogart film from late in the Hollywood icon's career. With Angels, The Harder They Fall, The Desperate Hours and this film (his last four films before his death in 1957), Bogie takes somewhat atypical roles. They're different, not just typical tough guy parts. Semi-spoiler alert......Bogie isn't a priest, taking the disguise and cover story to escape a troublesome situation. I won't spoil the details here, but an effective flashback lays it all out. It's not a showy or scene-stealing part by any means, but there's something charming about it. Bogie's Jim Carmody -- formerly Father O'Shea -- is quite capable of handling himself but there's a certain element of his lifestyle and past that makes him vulnerable.

Without ever becoming sappy, 'Hand' does a fine job of developing the character. We see his interactions with the cynical Dr. Sigman, a physician trying to consider the bottom line and frustrated with Chinese ways, with the widowed Scotty who sees him for the good he does, and most importantly, the Chinese villagers. Converts to Catholicism, they're seeking answers while also looking for a priest to lead the community. Several scenes show Bogie's Father O'Shea interacting with the village children, a good running bit that could have been pushed too far but knows when to tap the brakes. Bogie does a great job with these scenes, especially with his village assistant/quasi-altar boy, John (Victor Sen Yung), and also talking things out with a father (Benson Fong) who loses his wife and newborn baby minutes apart.

Clocking in at just 87 minutes, 'Hand' lacks the epic scale that the story could have required. It's pretty straightforward and to the point but never in a bad way. Marshall, Moorehead, and Tierney all provide solid support for Bogart, three differing performances that show a variety of responses to his arrival and impact. Cobb as the Chinese warlord is an odd choice to play....well, a Chinese warlord, but he avoids being stereotypical or cliched. Bad eye makeup? Yes. Bad performance? No, it could have been awful. Also look for Philip Ahn in a small part as Yang's assistant. Nothing flashy, but I liked this one a lot, especially for a late role for Bogie, and a goodie at that.

The Left Hand of God (1955): ***/****

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Moonrise Kingdom

One thing comes to mind when I hear director Wes Anderson's name. He is one quirky dude. With movies like Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic, he's created a niche for himself in the smart (usually), quirky comedy department. That generally off-the-wall, unique humor can be dividing among viewers so head into 2012's Moonrise Kingdom knowing what you're getting into.

It's 1965 on a small New England island called New Penzance and a major storm is rolling in, and in more ways than one. A Khaki scout camping with his troop, 12-year old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is a bit of an odd duck, and now he's up to something. One night, he escapes from the troop at Camp Ivanhoe, forcing Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), to start searching for him. Sam isn't alone though. He's running away with 12-year old Suzy (Kara Hayward), the oldest daughter in a family with three younger brothers and two lawyer parents. The whole island scrambles to find them, but what are the two pre-teens up to, and where do they hope to get?

Watching an Anderson film, you really, really need to know what you're watching. The comedy is so ridiculously underplayed and understated that you've really got to pay attention to every line, every delivery and facial reaction or you're going to miss something. It's quirky humor with style though. Anderson's camera is pretty stationary, rarely moving into the action, shooting the film almost like a stage play, occasionally moving in for a close-up. Setting the story here in 1965 adds to a quirky, retro style from the throwback clothes and cars to the general awesomeness of the 1960s (a documented scientific fact). It's a beautiful movie, full of colors that could make up paintings if need be. Get in rhythm with the style and generally kooky humor early, and things should fall into place for you.

Actors and actresses certainly like working with Anderson as a director because he continues to attract big names to his films. Along with Norton as Scout Master Randy, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel (buried far down in the credits) and Anderson regulars Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman round out the cast. There isn't a bad performance in the bunch. Willis especially stands out as Captain Sharp, Penzance's police officer, Schwartzman is a crazy scream as Cousin Ben, an older scout, and McDormand and Murray as Suzy's parents working through some personal things. I won't list all the names, but Scout Master Randy's troop features some solid performances from some young actors while Suzy's brothers also have some funny moments.

The most quirky part of the story is definitely the teenage crush turned love that develops between Sam and Suzy, two pre-teens that find a common bond that brings them together. They're both loners, what most would consider weird to other kids their age (probably because they're wise beyond their ages), and they don't like what their lives are. Solution-oriented? Run away with plenty of supplies...on an island. While the duo is both obsessively quirky and appropriately odd, there's also a real charm to their relationship. Because neither is the accepted 'norm,' they must automatically be vastly different. Their runaway has some really funny moments, some truly odd and even unsettling moments, but it ends up being a good mix. Sam wears a coonskin cap, smokes a pipe, and is quite the Khaki scout in terms of skills. Suzy loves a French record given to her by her godmother, loves fantasy books, and always wears binoculars. How is that not a match made in heaven?

I think Anderson is a talented director who treads that fine line. He's really close to being too quirky, too cute, too disgustingly quirky even. There are times it tries too hard to be different in its humor. To his credit, Anderson seems to know when to tap the brakes as he approaches that fine line. There are moments he seems like he's losing it, but he regains control quickly. I don't mean it as a huge criticism -- he's very talented and a very good director -- but each of his movies have those moments that are just too odd for their own sake.

It's still a funny movie, worthwhile to check out for sure. When it works, it is clicking on all cylinders. Phone calls with a split screen are simple but effective. Norton's Scout Master exploring the camp with all its eccentricities is pretty perfect, as is the surreal scenes when Schwartzman arrives to help Sam and Suzy. Weird? Yes. Enjoyable? Oh, yes, that too.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012): ***/****

Friday, February 22, 2013

Coffin Full of Dollars

A spaghetti western is like a pizza....for me at least. And yes, I realized I'm comparing Italian movies to Italian food. I'm clever like that. Even the lousy ones, they're still halfway decent. There are some truly bad spaghetti westerns out there, but they're almost always entertaining (sometimes because they're so bad). So with 1971's Coffin Full of Dollars -- how could you not appreciate the awesomeness of these names?!? -- there's nothing hugely memorable, but I liked it just the same.

Returning home from the Civil War, George Hamilton (Jeff Cameron) discovers that the family home has been burned down, and everyone inside was killed. The only clue to the perpetrator is a gold watch he finds in the wreckage. It belongs to a bandit leader, Hagen (Klaus Kinski), seeking revenge for the deaths of his brothers at the hands of the Hamiltons (Confused yet?). Going by the alias the Nevada Kid, Hamilton hits the trail to find Hagen and his small army of gunmen. He teams up with an amiable enough bounty hunter, John (Gordon Mitchell), who would like nothing more than to get a crack at the lucrative bounties hanging over the heads of Hagen and his gunmen. As the duo gets closer, they find out they've stumbled into a plan where Hagen stands to "earn" $10,000. Who gets out alive?

I stumbled across this one via On Demand and jumped at the chance. With some 600 spaghetti westerns made in the late 1960s and 1970s, you've got to take advantage when you find one like this you've never even heard of. A quick search over at Amazon shows that this 1971 spaghetti is only available in a difficult to find Region-2 DVD so not exactly readily available. It's pretty standard stuff, but that's not a bad thing. The version I saw clocked in at 82 minutes, but some versions are reported to be just over 90 minutes. A whole lot of stuff is going on, a whole lot of bullets fly through the air, and in the end, a whole lot of people get shot down in some pretty impressive shootouts. What more could you ask for?

From director Demofilo Fidani (who also wrote the script), the budget clearly isn't large in any sense of the word. We see some familiar spaghetti western locations and even some non-desert locales, but the story and scale (or lack of) is always on a smaller, more personal level. We don't get saloons packed to the gills with extras. There's some awkward cuts and editing, shots going on for too long rather than just transitioning to new scenes. The music from Coriolano Gori is pretty normal spaghetti music, good in the moment if not memorable.

Through all the general craziness and off the wall story, the characters/actors do have a lot of fun. An Italian actor who specialized in spaghetti westerns, gladiator epics and Italian war movies, Cameron does a solid job as George Hamilton (that name couldn't have been an accident), a polished gunslinger seeking revenge. Spaghetti regular Kinski's appearance amounts to little more than a cameo, disappearing for long stretches of the film, but whenever he is actually on-screen, it's good stuff. The same for Mitchell who isn't given much to do, but he commits as his muzzle-loading, rifle-toting bounty hunter pairs with the Nevada Kid and hams it up as presented. Jack Betts has some fun as Tamayo, Hagen's second-hand man who keeps messing up, Simonetta Vitelli is Monica, a young woman ransomed off by Hagen and rescued by the Nevada Kid, and Ray Saunders is Sam, a freed slave who ends up helping the Kid's efforts.

Blah blah blah. Shootouts! Gunfights! Action, action, action! In an otherwise standard western, the action here is exciting and dare I say....above average. Yes, it tends to be a little goofy with highly exaggerated deaths and tumbles, some generally very stunt-conscious nameless henchmen, and guns that never need to be reloaded. There's a handful of quick shootouts that are worthwhile, but two major set pieces set the bar. One has the Kid and John navigating a ghost town full of Hagen's gun men in hopes of rescuing Monica while the finale has the duo fighting their way through Hagen's isolated town similarly full of rival gunfighters. I liked this movie. I didn't love it, but I enjoyed it just the same. An enjoyable enough way to spend 90 minutes. Watch the full movie HERE.

Coffin Full of Dollars (1971): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, February 21, 2013


It can be weird seeing a star you know in a film you're just not expecting. I grew up watching Dick Van Dyke in his classic 1960s sitcom The Dick Van Dyke Show so while I know he's done plenty of movies, I picture him in the sitcom, not the movies. Well, that don't mean I won't give it a shot, and in the case of 1967's Fitzwilly, I'm certainly glad I did.

As long as he can remember, Claude Fitzwilliam (Van Dyke) has been the head butler for a rich, old widow, Miss Victoria Woodworth (Edith Evans). The problem though is simple; Miss Woodworth -- ever the lady -- isn't rich, but she doesn't know it. How does she maintain her lifestyle then? Well, she lives a somewhat luxurious lifestyle, but she's also generous, very generous, with her donations to charity. In steps Fitzwilly, a highly intelligent, very clever man who has organized Miss Woodworth's staff into quite the crew of con artists and thieves. Their goal is far from selfish though. They steal, bamboozle and con their way into all sorts of money, but always from insurance companies. There's a problem though. Miss Woodworth has hired a new secretary, Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon), who seems nosy and might just stumble into Fitzwilly and crew's operation.What to do, what to do?

One word came to mind while watching this comedy from director Delbert Mann, and that is simply...charming. It isn't anything dirty (in the least), obvious, stupid or even physical. The laughs are almost all under-played, focusing more on a line delivery or a reaction from a very talented and deep cast at said line. I've written this before about 1960s comedies, and I'd like to think it certainly applies here. It's almost a last age of innocence when it comes to big screen comedies. They don't try too hard, are content to be entertaining without being offensive, and offer plenty of good, old-fashioned laughs. Just sit back and enjoy it. You shan't be disappointed.

Much of that charm comes from star Dick Van Dyke, and it's fun to see him out of a role I so closely associate him with, his classic sitcom. Sidenote: Yes, I've seen Mary Poppins so I have in fact seen him in other parts, but you know what I mean. It's far from a typical part for Van Dyke. He's a great comedic actor, but more than anything else, he's a great physical comedian, moving around effortlessly. Playing gentlemanly Claude, he doesn't get a chance to be a physical presence. Instead, it allows him to breathe in a quieter, more subtle part that still allows for plenty of laughs. He also has a great chemistry with co-star Barbara Feldon (also a TV star on Get Smart) who arrives on scene to cause some trouble, not knowing what's she gotten herself into. They start off as rivals -- both suspicious of the other -- and not surprisingly end up dealing with a mutual attraction. Obvious? Yes, but it's enjoyable throughout.

What I loved as much as Van Dyke and Feldon though was the supporting cast. A huge name on the stage in England, Evans is a scene-stealer as a not-so-rich old widow who nonetheless thinks she's rich and keeps donating money to charity after charity. Her scenes with Van Dyke and Feldon are perfection in their subtlety. And then there's Fitzwilly's crew of amateur crooks turned highly successful crooks with intricate plans and know-how. There are double-digit members of the crew, but some stand out more than others, none more than John McGiver as Albert, a longtime pickpocket struggling with the morality of what he's done. Also look for Noam Pitlik, a very young Sam Waterston, Anne Seymour, Nelson Olmsted, and Paul Reed. Also worth mentioning are John Fielder and Norman Fell as a dupes of separate Fitzwilly cons, and Harry Townes as Mr. Nowell, Juliet's father.

The script gives the deep cast a chance to show off, much of that coming in a series of reveals of how Fitzwilly and Co. pull their cons off in a variety of different and unique ways. The highlight though is the finale, the crew robbing a Gimbels Department store on Christmas Eve as hundreds of shoppers do their last-minute shopping. Fitzwilly has countless little touches to cause mass chaos, giving him a chance to convince Fell's security official to simply give him the money. One of many highlights? Albert Carrier's Pierre walking around pinching countless women's butts, setting off a domino effect of slaps to innocent men. It's a gem of an ending, the final scene providing some good, funny and story-appropriate twists.

I liked this one a lot. It benefits from some 1967 on-location shooting in New York City and a solid score from a young composer, John Williams, who would go on to be a halfway decent composer for some other movies.  It's funny from the start with Van Dyke, Feldon and Evans leading the way. Well worth tracking down a copy. I had good luck with the TCM print so keep an eye out for the monthly schedule.

Fitzwilly (1967): ***/**** 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

With the fear of an atomic apocalypse in the air in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood took the message to heart, making several movies about the topic, some obviously better than others. As I think of them though, the stories follow the lead-up to that apocalypse. It's only until recently we get more stories about the follow-up to that apocalypse. Well, that's not completely fair, like 1959's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Inspecting a coal mine in Pennsylvania, Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte) is trapped far underground with seemingly no help coming. He hears diggers working toward him, but several days pass, and the digging stops. Ralph decides to dig himself out, but he's stunned by what he finds. There is no one....anywhere. The world is seemingly empty. Ralph finds newspapers that say atomic weapons were exploded all around the world, and that the entire population of Earth was wiped out in the process. Ralph could be the last human being on the planet and heads for New York City to set up a sort of base to operate out of. He creates a life for himself, gathering supplies, working a radio transmitter, and trying to stay sane. But as the days turn into weeks and then into months, Ralph begins to wonder if he's really on his own.

Days after reviewing The Last Man on Earth, here comes this similar drama from director Ranald MacDougall. If you've seen any of the movies based off Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, this 1959 doomsday science fiction flick will no doubt seem a little familiar. Thankfully though, it is its own movie despite the familiarities among the novel and future films. Not surprising though, 'World' works best on a personal level. If you found yourself completely on your own, how would you react? Would you freak out? At what point would you start to lose your mind? The early portions of the film especially reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode, Where Is Everybody?, where a man finds himself in an empty world. That's the movie at its best and strongest.

That's where part of the familiarity will no doubt come into play. When Ralph finally does emerge from the coal mine, it's a frightening reveal. The movie never once shows a corpse following the apocalypse which may sound like an odd choice, but call it a nice use of artistic license. If we see bodies, it's a different response. Don't see bodies? Ralph truly is alone. The first half hour is an incredible look at an isolated, alone world. During filming, the crew had to start shooting in the early, pre-dusk hours before anyone actually woke up in NYC. We get some truly unique -- even unsettling -- shots of Manhattan and NYC as Ralph makes his way and explores the city. Watch some of the scenes HERE. His exploration of the city is accompanied by composer Miklos Rozsa's memorable score (somewhat reminiscent of his King of Kings score), working together with the visual to create the film's best and most memorable scenes.

It seems though as things go with these post-apocalyptic movies, you can't just leave well enough alone. Semi-SPOILER As Ralph explores NYC, he meets Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens), a fellow survivor who managed to get into a chamber that protected her from the atomic blasts. Possibly the last two surviving people on the planet, they form a quick friendship, and eventually more, maybe even love. Now, yes, I get it, this movie was released in 1959 in the midst of the civil rights movement, and a relationship between a black man and a white woman would have been rather scandalous (totally wouldn't be now though, right?). The story takes this down a weird road though. There's no one else around. No One. End of the world and all, right? Ralph is so ingrained with how things are in the world that even with absolutely no one around to judge him, still doesn't pursue a relationship with Sarah because he's been taught it's wrong.

Apparently according to Belafonte's biography, the studio/writers/actors had to deal with some interference from above because a black-white relationship in a movie would have been just too much for audiences to handle. I suppose that's fair, but the movie struggles in the second half because of this alteration. The acting becomes odd, wooden, forced and unintentionally uncomfortable. That uncomfortable quality is amped up when a third survivor, Benson Thacker (the very white Mel Ferrer), arrives on the scene. Wouldn't you believe it? Benson falls for Sarah too, and the single Sarah is torn on what to do. You've got to be kidding me. A post-apocalyptic story about the last three people on Earth turns into a love triangle?!? The ending certainly gives some hope for the three -- and with a bigger message; mankind itself in the 1950s/1960s -- but getting there can be a trial.

Loved the first half, got through the second half in this 95-minute sci-fi flick. The performances are solid across the board, and the setting and on-location shooting bring it up a notch. Just know that this movie could have been so much more.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Watch

2012's The Watch sucked. That's all I've got. It sucked. By all means, keep reading though. I enjoy writing reviews for movies that were God awful as much as the ones I loved, maybe more so. Go figure.

Having lived his whole life in Glenview, Ohio, Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller) does his best to give back to the community, starting clubs and events to bring people together. His polite, little world is thrown for a loop though when a night security guard at the Costco he manages is found brutally murdered. He decides to do something about it though, starting a Community Watch with three other Glenview residents, Bob (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). No one in town thinks much of this group -- what can they actually accomplish the cops can't? -- and when they can't manage to find do anything right, that thought seems pretty fair. Then one night doing a patrol around town, the Watch finds something none of them alien! Oh no! What to do?!?

Thanks to marketing, some horrifically bad timing, and in general, a pretty checkered production, this is a flick that could have been doomed from the start. Countless directors, writers and stars were at one point on-board with this flick before Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg were brought on board to write a harsher, R-rated comedy. Then in May 2012, a Neighborhood Watch member shot a teenage boy, setting off a torrent of reactions on both sides, and eventually changing the original title, Neighborhood Watch, to The Watch. Then, in Colorado in the weeks before its release, a mass shooting at a movie theater clearly had an impact on audiences going out to see any films. Whatever led up to the film's release though, it's hard to look past the fact that this is one stupid movie that just isn't very good.

So before I continue, I'll say that for the first 15-20 minutes of this flick, I was enjoying it. It had that right mix of humor (both smart and stupid) and was at least laying the groundwork for a funny movie. Then, everything hits the fan in a big old way, and I'm struggling to come up with one specific reason why. One, it simply tries too hard. The cast assembled has a ton of talent. The laughs and humor don't have to be aggressively thrown in our face. Instead of just being funny though, the laughs are loud, overdone and in most cases, settling for the lowest common denominator. "Oh, Jonah Hill is crazy and swears a lot!" Two, it doesn't know what it is by any means. As Evan and the Watch investigate a freaking alien appearing, the story veers off into the personal. We learn that Evan is sterile, but hasn't told his wife (Rosemarie Dewitt). Bob's daughter (Erin Moriarty) intends to hook up with an all-around a-hole, and Bob intends to stop her. Who cares? It's an R-rated comedy, let's not get all after school special on the viewer.

Not so surprising, the script relies heavily on the four stars to lead the way with mixed results. With the right role, Ben Stiller can be a pretty good actor, usually playing the straight man to the hijinks all around him. This is almost that part, but not, as he's the straight man who....has to act crazy too? Vaughn gets most of the big laughs, but he resorts too much to LOUD Vince Vaughn, talking so ridiculously fast and ranting that it feels like we've seen it before in countless other movies. Hill is just bad as Franklin, the unhinged nut who is willing to do anything and everything to help the cause, but mostly he just wants to have some messed-up fun. The bright spot is Ayoade as Jamarcus, the quiet, nerdy guy who seems like the odd duck in the group. It works though because his laughs are usually underplayed and/or understated.

Also look for Billy Crudup in an uncredited part as Evan's suspicious neighbor across the street, Will Forte and Mel Rodriguez as two local cops having fun messing with the Watch, R. Lee Ermey as a pissed off neighbor, and the Lonely Island crew, Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Watch director Akiva Schaffer making a cameo at a party Evan and Jamarcus stumble into.

Through all the stupidity and mindless humor, there were bits that worked here. Unfortunately, most of those bits were shown in the trailer so they don't come as a surprise. The Watch taking some pictures and having some generally chaotic fun with a supposedly dead alien is hilarious and Evan and Bob endlessly shooting another dead alien later is funny in an odd, subtle but not subtle fashion. In the end though, things fall apart as several twists are thrown our way that don't add up. The humor gets even more juvenile -- if that was possible -- and just ends up trying far too hard to impress us as viewers and get a laugh.

The Watch (2012): */****     

Saturday, February 16, 2013

District 9

This may sound obvious when describing a genre of films, but there's something special about science fiction films. What is it? Anything and everything is possible in a sci-fi film. Anything. It's fantasy, make-believe, so use your imagination and have some fun with it. One of the most original sci-fi flicks in recent memory, 2009's District 9 certainly plays up that anything can go angle.

In the early 1980s, an alien spaceship descends on Earth, ultimately hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. An investigation of the dormant ship finds thousands of sick, malnourished alien beings inside. The government -- not having any other promising answers -- sets up a small city within the city for these aliens, dubbed District 9, and life goes on....but not always for the better. Years pass, and the alien problem is serious. It's now 2010, and it's been decided by the government and the Multinational United (MNU) corporation that the aliens -- now well over a million of them -- will be relocated outside the city. The son-in-law of the CEO, Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley), has been placed in charge of the relocation, but nothing about the immense project will come easy, especially for the well-meaning Wikus as he gets caught up on both sides.

When 'District' was released in 2009, reviews were almost uniformly positive for director Neill Blomkamp's film. Watching it for the first time a few years later, it's easy to see why. If aliens are visiting Earth in a movie, it's the rare occasion where it's not an attack/invasion hell bent on taking over the world. Here, we don't know why these aliens are here, they just show up and are trapped without a way to get back to their home. The set-up -- putting them in a shanty-like town -- is a not so thinly veiled dig at apartheid and South Africa's troubled history between blacks and whites. But it has aliens! Moral of the story is simple. It's not the most subtle story, but it is original in execution. It takes something we know -- apartheid -- and tweaks it with an interesting twist. Go figure that an alien story in South Africa with apartheid undertones and some heavy duty action would be as interesting and entertaining as this flick. It certainly is worthwhile though.

As if some atypical aliens weren't enough, Blomkamp's story is far from typical. It's a smart movie for one, not just a random shoot 'em up. It's the storytelling technique that sets it apart. The opening 15 minutes play out like a documentary featuring interviews that would look right at home on a History Channel show. We see countless interviews explaining the history of the alien arrival, their treatment in District 9, and the lead-up to Wikus' mission to move the aliens out of Johannesburg. The actual story seems to have taken place a few weeks -- maybe months -- after the mission, some questions left still unanswered as to what actually happened during the alien eviction and subsequent fall-out. Jason Cope plays Grey Badnam, a journalist and correspondent who has vast knowledge of everything that went on but is similarly still looking for more specific answers. Through a series of interviews, we get a good glimpse at his background. The technique of a documentary-like story is a big boost to the story, not just original but entertaining in its originality.

There is no star power or even name recognition -- at the time at least -- among the cast, and that ends up being a huge boost. The unquestioned star is Copley as Wikus van de Merwe, an Afrikaner bureaucrat assigned to lead the alien eviction. Through the intro documentary interviews, we learn that Wikus isn't exactly a screw-up, but he is a little goofy, a little different. He also happens to be the son-in-law of powerful MNU executive (Louis Minnaar) so go figure. Copley makes his feature film debut and leaves quite an impression, going through quite a transition as a character and literally as a person. The twist? SPOILERS While leading the eviction, he accidentally ingests an alien fluid and immediately shows signs of being physically transformed into an alien prawn, starting with his arm. END OF SPOILERS He goes from driven company man to defender of the alien prawns when he sees what's actually going on behind closed doors. It's an impressive performance though, one that keeps the story based on a personal level as all sorts of chaos ensues in District 9.

Now this comes as a nice capper, but 'District' is smart, well-written and......a highly entertaining action blockbuster. In Wikus' "condition," he's been given an odd talent. He now has the ability to fire alien weaponry and technology, something humans have been able to do since the prawns' arrival. MNU, the government and a small army of mercenaries (led by the evil Koobus, played by David James) want to get their hands on Wikus, but by now he's sided with the prawns. The follow-up is a running shootout over the final hour or so through Johannesburg and and District 9. The ending especially has some surprises in store.

I thought the best part though was the surprising relationship that develops between Wikus and a highly intelligent prawn dubbed Christopher Johnson (also played by Cope). Chris and his son, a smallish prawn, have been working for years to reactive the alien ship hovering over Johannesburg, but Wikus accidentally unleashes the necessary fuel when he investigates their shack. They form an unlikely partnership -- Wikus leading Chris into the facility where the fuel is, Chris promising to cure Wikus of his growing prawn-dom -- that is never completely trustworthy, and therefore that much more interesting. I really liked this movie and am really glad I finally caught up with it. The ending certainly leaves the door open for a sequel, but I wouldn't touch it. As is, it's pretty perfect.

District 9 (2009): ***/****

Friday, February 15, 2013

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Everyone has seen Armageddon, right? No? Shame on you. Everyone should see it, but here's the gist. What if Bruce Willis and his motley crew didn't destroy a world-ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth? Those left behind would be limited to a few days of survival before the asteroid ultimately struck the planet. An interesting premise for sure brought to life in 2012's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

A 70-mile wide asteroid named Matilda is hurtling toward Earth, and now that a NASA mission (think the one in Armageddon I'd assume) has failed, it is only a matter of time before the asteroid impacts and destroys the planet. Matilda is still several weeks away from impact, leaving the population of Earth a limited time to come to terms with their coming doom. Dodge (Steve Carell) is one of those people, struggling to cope with what's coming, more so when his wife jumps out of their car and runs away. People are looking for answers, for happiness, but Dodge doesn't know what he wants.....and then it clicks. He wants to go find his long lost teenage love and see her once more. Along for the ride is his neighbor, Penny (Kiera Knightley), fresh off a breakup. They hit the road as the asteroid plummets closer and closer.

More than anything else, it was the premise/story that caught my attention here. This isn't one person who knows they're going to die in a set amount of time. This is the entire planet. Everyone. No one is going to survive this world-ending asteroid. How then do you think you would react in that situation? If you knew you only had a few weeks to live -- as does everyone else -- what would you do? Director Lorene Scafaria's film delves into that topic with varying degrees of success. It is neither a comedy or a drama, but instead, it's somewhere in that messy ground in between. My biggest issue is that the tone changes with the wind. One scene, it's trying to be a comedy, but the next scene, here comes the gloom and doom from the drama department.

When it does work, the movie is excellent. There are little snippets in the episodic story that are near perfection. Carell's Dodge goes to a dinner party (seems reasonable, doesn't it?) at the home of his long-time friend (Rob Corddry) and his wife (Connie Britton). Corddry's Warren has adapted a 'Screw 'em all!' mentality, intending to live up his last few weeks. He passes vodka to his kids, encouraging them to chug martinis, jokes that firecrackers are dynamite, but they can't hurt you unless you stand this close. Varieties of hardcore drugs pop up, Patton Oswalt's Roache trying some to check off his bucket list while also trying to get Dodge to get involved in a threesome (or maybe only a two-some...wink). It's these moments that work to perfection. No one is going to react to the end of the world in exactly the same way, and we see a lot of those tendencies. Dodge for one, continues to go to work.

I'll get into the cast more later, but the spotlight is on Carell as Dodge and Knightley as Penny. They're opposites in a lot of ways, but they find a common bond, a link, as the end of the world nears. The story is a quasi-buddy story with a road trip along for the ride so we the coming doom from their eyes. Dodge doesn't see the point in really getting to know someone new because let's face it, they'll all be dead in a few weeks. Penny -- fresh off a breakup with stoner mess-up Adam Brody -- wants to see her family one last time. I like both actors, but I didn't especially care for either character here. Carell seems pegged into this part as a quiet, worrisome guy. It's supposed to be understated, but I wasn't interested. Knightley as the quirky Penny is okay, but she seems to be trying too hard to be quirky, and that's never a good thing. The story starts off at a lightning-pace, funny, smart and dark, but as it progresses (and it's only about 94 minutes without the credits) it loses all the dark humor and is just.....dark.

The episodic story allows for some interesting characters and appearances, none of them around for more than a scene. Corddry especially is a scene-stealer, as is Oswalt in his awkwardness. Along with Britton and Brody, also look for Rob Huebel as Dodge's suicidal co-worker, Tonita Castro as his persistent cleaning lady in a great running bit, Melanie Lynskey as a woman with a crush on Dodge, William Petersen as a helpful truck driver, and Derek Luke as Speck, Penny's ex preparing for the end of the world in military fashion. The best part though goes to Martin Sheen in a quick appearance late as Frank, Dodge's father who he hasn't seen in years. The parts work because they're quick and effective without brow-beating you with a message.

I really liked parts of 'World' and struggled to keep up with the sometimes severely slow pacing in other parts. I loved Mark Moses as a national news broadcaster, providing a face of calm and serenity for viewers as the world is torn apart. We see some react with riots, others in peaceful fashion, embracing what little time they have left. There's no twist or huge surprise in the finale, an ending that works exceptionally well. I just wish more of the movie could have been like that. Still worth a watch, and maybe I'd like it more on a second viewing, but for now it gets a slightly above average review.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012): ** 1/2 /****   

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Fantastic Voyage

Groundbreaking doesn't mean groundbreaking for all-time. It qualifies only in the moment, maybe a few months, or even a year in the luckiest of situations. If a movie is considered groundbreaking, it kicks the door open and hundreds of rip-offs and wanna be follow-ups storm through the opening. That kept cycling through my head as I watched 1966's Fantastic Voyage.

A scientist (Jean Del Val) working for the Soviets has defected with American intelligence agencies desperate to help him and bring him to the United States. In the transport though, enemy agents attack, severely wounding him. He's in a coma with an unreachable blood clot on his brain, but he has info that the American government desperately wants. To relieve the pressure of the clot, a new technology will be utilized. A team of surgeons (including Arthur Kennedy and Donald Pleasence), a security officer (Stephen Boyd), and two others will travel via a submarine, be shrunk down to a microscopic size and injected into the scientist's body, traveling through his body and ultimately break up the clot and save his life. There's problems though. The body will most likely do everything it can to slow down the intruders, and they only have 60 minutes to get the job done before they begin to grow back to their normal size, whether they're in the body or not.

From director Richard Fleischer, this science fiction story won two Oscars, one for Best Art Direction and one for Best Special Effects. So while I didn't really care for the movie, I can appreciate the crazy visual on display. A tiny submarine the size of a period with five people inside traveling through a human body? How couldn't that be a great visual experience as a movie? Much of it comes from a green screen visual -- sets of the human body would be rather immense I'm supposing -- and just in terms of color alone, it's a beautiful movie. The little prototype submarine travels through the veins, arteries, lungs, heart, ears and ultimately, the brain.

So what do you think? A trip through the body and all its inner workings is unique, no doubt about that. Why then is this story so dull? I was bored to tears almost the second the submarine went to work. There's plenty of detours that provide some excitement. A miscalculation forces the crew to travel through the heart, but the problem is that the heart beating should tear the submarine apart. The medical staff monitoring the body basically shuts down the heart, giving the crew 60 seconds to travel through it. The premise presents all kinds of impressive, should-be cool situations like that. The crew is told that the body is going to do its best to protect itself, assuming that the submarine is a disease or virus of sorts. Those provide some cool visuals as well, antibodies swarming to the sub and the crew, but it's the weirdest thing. If that wasn't enough, someone involved with the mission is an enemy agent, but even that reveal is disappointing. It's a dull story of a very cool idea.

In a variation on one of my favorite sub-genres, 'Voyage' is a men-on-a-mission movie. Check that; a men-on-a-mission movie with Raquel Welch in a tight white bodysuit. So there it is, a group of specialists working to accomplish a mission. Along with Boyd's security and government agent, Kennedy's extremely talented lead surgeon, and Pleasence's reliable medical officer, there is Welch as Cora, Kennedy's assistant, and William Redfield as Capt. Owens, the Navy officer piloting the prototype submarine. Back at normal size, Edmond O'Brien and Arthur O'Connell play the bickering officers forced to make the difficult command decisions.  Also look for a young James Brolin as one of the technicians working in the lab. None are given much in the way of background so instead of characters working to accomplish a dangerous mission, we're watching Stephen Boyd, Arthur Kennedy and Raquel Welch accomplish the mission. In other words, there's little personal investment in accomplishing the mission.

I thought I would enjoy this movie a lot in the early goings. The virtually silent, unexplained opening is a great scene-setter, eerie and unsettling because we don't know what's going on. It reminded me a lot of 1965's The Satan Bug in its simple style. I can't explain it though, but the second the miniaturized mission was presented I lost almost all interest in the story. There are some cool moments, but they didn't add up to a finished product that I enjoyed that much. Sorry to say it because I've long wanted to see it, but I came away disappointed with this 1960s sci-fi classic.

Fantastic Voyage (1966): **/****

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Last Man on Earth

One of my all-time favorite books, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, has been a frequent source of material for film adaptations. The book -- truly scary and unsettling -- has transitioned well to the screen, including Charlton Heston in 1971's The Omega Man and Will Smith in 2007's I Am Legend. As good as those two films are, the first film version may be the best, 1964's The Last Man on Earth.

It is 1968, and it has been three years since an unknown plague-like disease turned seemingly everyone on Earth into a variation of zombie and vampire. Among the wreckage, one man, Robert Morgan (Vincent Price), somehow survived the pandemic and has lived completely on his own for three straight years. He has created a routine, finding supplies, roaming the city and most importantly, protecting himself. Every single night, the zombie vampires descend on his house and is led by his best friend and co-worker, Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart). Feeling a variation of survivor guilt while missing his wife and daughter, Robert edges ever closer to insanity. Can he find some way to keep on surviving before the armies of mutants finally get to him?

While I liked both 'Omega' and 'Legend,' neither film really stuck close to the source material Matheson presented in his 1954 novel. Wouldn't you know it? It sticks pretty close to the novel, and it is significantly better for it. Sure, certain things have been tweaked and changed. Matheson's undead were highly intelligent, fast-moving vampires who played mind games with the last man on Earth, trying to drive him mad each night to the point he hands himself over to them. In 'Man,' they are much more zombie-like, slow-moving and not intelligent at all. Morgan hangs garlic and mirrors and lightly bars his windows and doors so not exactly a fortified house. Famous zombie director George Romero even admitted that Matheson's novel and this film were a major inspiration for his classic Night of the Living Dead. So yes, there were changes made, but they allow the true nature of the story and movie to work so well.

Without the huge star power of Heston and Smith, Vincent Price is nonetheless a great choice to play Morgan, the last surviving human being on Earth. An actor predominantly known for his niche in horror and sci-fi films (typically playing some variation of bad guy), Price rises to the occasion, doing a great job portraying Morgan. As was the case with the later movies, it is a part that most actors would dream of. The spotlight is on you and you alone. The nature of the part is perfect because it allows for some interpretation. Price tries to keep his routine and stay calm about it, but it's easy to see he's quickly losing his grip on his isolated reality. In an extended flashback, we see why he's been drive to this point, meeting his wife (Emma Danieli) and young daughter (Christi Courtland) while also seeing a pre-vampire Ben in some eerie, unsettling scenes.

Beyond the acting of the isolated man, these movies transition well because of the premise, one man exploring an empty world. Yep, don't forget, the vampires can't go out in the day, allowing Morgan a chance to drive around safely. We see his routine in a great extended sequence over the first 20 minutes. He visits a grocery store for fresh garlic, investigates buildings for the vampires sleeping/hiding away the day, burns their bodies in an ever-growing fire with a billowing smoke cloud, and occasionally visits his daughter's "grave." This is a film made mostly with Italian backing and was filmed on-location in Rome, giving these scenes a different but oddly appropriate Euro-look to the story. This isn't NYC, Chicago, or L.A., it's an isolated, unnamed metropolitan city that serves as the backdrop for Morgan's life. Nicely done to directors Sidney Salkow and Ubaldo Ragona (the Italian part of the equation).

Like 'Omega' and 'Legend,' this 1964 version suffers some in the third act when we find out that maybe Morgan isn't alone. He meets Ruth (Franca Bettoia), a young woman who managed to survive the spreading disease but is now showing the early signs of the zombie-like transition. It's not that these segments are bad or uninteresting. They're just not as interesting as the build-up. Thankfully, the twist in the final scenes sticks closely to Matheson's novel ending, righting the ship with the best ending possible. Happy ending? Oh, no, not at all, but this isn't a story that calls for a happy ending. Yes, there are issues here. The Italian-to-English dubbing leaves something to be desired, the budget places certain limitations on the scale, but for me those were minor issues. I rank it with I Am Legend as the best version, and I feel safe recommending it to Matheson fans, or just someone looking for a smart, well-written sci-fi/horror classic. I included a trailer link below, but if you want to watch the full version, check it out HERE at Youtube. Fair warning; it's far from a good print.

The Last Man on Earth (1964): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 11, 2013

21 and Over

In 2009, writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore teamed up to write one of the more original comedic scripts in recent memory, The Hangover. It's a truly original comedy, even if the sequel was repetitive if entertaining and funny. But now four years later, the writing duo has set up shop in a director's chair, and it's more than a worthy debut. This is an early review, but 2012's 21 and Over will hit theaters March 1, 2013.

In hopes of surprising their best friend from high school, Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), on his 21st birthday, Miller (Miles Keller) and Casey (Skylar Astin) arrive on campus with some big plans for the evening. The surprise may be for nothing though because Jeff has a huge interview the next morning bright and early about getting into medial school. Feeling some intense pressure from his Dad (Francois Chau), Jeff tries to convince his friends that he just can't go out and first. After some convincing from Miller, the trio heads out with the plan to drink and party for a little bit before coming back home. Well, that plan lasts about 10 minutes before Jeff decides his birthday deserves an all-out blowout. It isn't long before Jeff is blitzed-annihilated-smashed and passed out drunk, and now Miller and Casey have to navigate a college campus with all sorts of shenanigans, hijinks, partying and drinking with a fast-approaching deadline.

It seems a long way off from the teen comedies of the 1980s courtesy of John Hughes. Since then, we've seen the American Pie series, Road Trip and Euro Trip, the awful Scary Movie series, Not Another Teen Movie, Can't Hardly Wait, and more recently, Superbad. What is the common link among those movies? One after another things get ratcheted up. It's not just about getting the girl/guy you like to like you back, it's about doing that while navigating through a bizarre series of episodes that get crazier by the minute. So in the vein of 2012's Project X and from the writers of The Hangover, we get The Hangover: College Edition. Thankfully, it's not told via flashback. Instead, we're there with the trio as they try to get out of one sticky situation after another. A younger version of The Hangover might be a bad thing, but it's not the same movie, and it's far the better for it.

So where these teen sex comedies have gone in the 2010s is further than ever. The shenanigans and hijinks have been cranked up. At different points in their nighttime misadventures, Miller, Casey and Jeff Chang run into Chief (Russell Hodgkinson), a strung-out dancing druggie, Nicole (Sarah Wright), a sorority girl Casey wants to hook up with, a revenge-seeking Latina sorority, Randy (Jonathan Keltz), a go-get 'em cheerleader/yell-leader with his two not so tough sidekicks, campus cops, Jeff Chang's highly intimidating Dad, Dr. Chang, a rampaging buffalo mascot, countless drinking games and plenty of other craziness. The different characters end up crossing paths here and there, one crazy situation piling up on top of each other as Jeff Chang gets drunker and drunker while Miller and Casey get more and more lost, the apartment getting further and further away apparently. The nighttime travels were filmed on the campus of University of Washington, a great backdrop to the story. Odd to commend filming location on a movie about drunken debauchery? Eh, maybe, but it works. It's a gorgeous campus.What a college campus should look like.

Throw away all the sexy-drinking-puking-running from cops-and-angry parents shenanigans (in any teen comedy), and there's got to be something more going on. Okay, for me at least. So in the same way The Hangover and Project X worked because there was something oddly charming about the characters, '21' works because through all the craziness, I liked the three main characters. Miller is the motormouth troublemaker, a really smart guy who lacks the motivation to get good grades at the community college, Casey the preppy Stanford student ready to jump into a career at a law firm, and Jeff Chang (not Jeff, not Jeffrey, not Chang...just Jeff Chang), ready to jump into medical school if he can get through his upcoming interview.

Directing their first film, Lucas and Moore show off a talent behind the camera, but the key with the characters is the writing, the duo combining to write the script too. Getting the message across that these three college students have been friends forever is a slippery slope. The story is focused on a span of about 18 hours so it's not like we get a whole lot of background. The pressure falls on the script and the cast to bring it to life. I loved the dynamic among the three. They're close friends who've drifted apart some over the years, and they're starting to realize it. While the drunken craziness provides the bigger laughs, I thought the best laughs came from the dialogue, the bitching back and forth that can only come from being friends for years. There is a somewhat surprising dark plot twist about one of the three that is a tad unnecessary, but it's not overdone.

Go figure. I liked another pretty random, pretty raunchy and pretty goofy teen comedy. It's a relatively unknown cast, but it's well-written and funny from the start. It consistently provides laughs, saving one of the biggest for the final scene. Is there a sequel in the future? The ending certainly leaves that possibility open. '21' gets it major release in a few weeks on March 1, 2013. I highly recommend it. I imagine it won't get a whole lot of positive reviews, but it never tries to be a classic movie, just one that entertains and makes audiences laugh.

21 and Over (2013): ***/****

Sunday, February 10, 2013


It is a character that has spawned countless movies, sequels, prequels, spoofs. The character? Oh, yes, the Japanese monster himself, Godzilla, an immense dinosaur-like creature who wreaks havoc on the Pacific. The Godzilla franchise has become a beast unto itself (Pun! Words are fun!) with its cult following, and another reboot is due in 2014, but the creature had to start somewhere, and that's the 1954 original, Gojira.

A Japanese fishing boat goes missing in the ocean, and in the aftermath, several rescue ships are lost as well. What exactly is going on? Some cite an ancient legend of a creature, Godzilla, who terrorized coastal fishing villages with the villagers sacrificing young women to appease him. Following the disappearances, a village on an isolated village reports sightings and weird occurrences, prompting archaeologist Yamane (Takashi Shimura) and a team to investigate. They find odd clues that speak to an immense creature's background, everything from radioactivity to evidence of a creature from millions of years ago. It's on the island the creature is first sighted, a reptilian creature several hundred feet tall with seemingly no weakness. What can Japan and the government do? Can anything at all be done to stop this creature?

My first exposure to the Godzilla character was this pretty bad but highly entertaining Roland Emmerich-directed 1998 blockbuster. That's not to say I was unaware of the Japanese monster's other....endeavors, but I finally decided to check the original out. The Godzilla character itself is a gem, a radioactive beast wreaking havoc wherever it goes. It's the distinct look of the creature -- dinosaur-like -- and that very unique roar (listen HERE) that is forever linked to him and the franchise/series. He is like King Kong on steroids, transplanting New York City for Tokyo, and his attacks provide some of the movie's coolest moments.

The problem I had is that there isn't enough of the Godzilla monster in this already pretty short movie at 95 minutes. From director Ishiro Honda, the story focuses far more on the human aspect of the story. We see the efforts of the doctors and scientists (like Shimura's archaeologist) who want to study and examine the monster while others in the government and military want to destroy it as quickly as possible. That's fine because a solid story on top of some epic monster attacks is gravy. Instead, this almost documentary-like style shooting is dull, stilted and preachy. Cheesy though they may be, Godzilla's attacks are the high points of the story. They're limited by 1950s special effects and a smallish budget, but there is a certain retro (read: cheap) charm to the scenes. Far more attention should have been paid to the creature, not the dull individuals hunting him.

I debated how much to criticize this next issue I had with the 1954 original. The script is less than subtle in its condemnation of the United States for nuclear testing in the Pacific in the 1940s/1950s. How was Godzilla created exactly? He was some sort of prehistoric creature unearthed by the nuclear testing who grew to immense proportions because of the radioactivity. I don't want to sound insensitive when I write this, and that's why I struggled with how to even put it. The conclusion of WWII, and more importantly the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, was just nine years removed when this movie was made. The condemnation of the U.S. (and nuclear testing on an international scale) is fair, but it's so beyond obvious the message that it becomes painful to watch. Historical rant and side note; the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, started the conflict with WWII, and committed countless horrific war crimes. An invasion of Japan would have cost millions of lives. I in no way intend this to sound as insensitive as it does in my head, but a not thinly veiled dig at the U.S. use of atomic bombs sounds like sour grapes and gives an almost amateur feel to the script.

Enough ranting, let's get back to the movie. The acting ranges from impressive (Shimura) to acceptable to wooden and even amateurish at times. A story about a creature terrorizing Tokyo and Japan is stripped down to story?!? You've got to be kidding me. Yamane's daughter, Emiko (Momoko Kochi), is in love with Ogata (Akira Takarada), a salvage ship captain. Oh, no! She's already engaged to a brilliant scientist, Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who may hold the key to defeating Godzilla! That's the best they could come up with? A love triangle? Distractions from Godzilla attacks are one thing, but using maybe the laziest storytelling technique ever as a distraction? Yeah, I'm not going to be on board with that.

Sorry to say I was hugely disappointed with this original film. I'll stick with it to a point because Godzilla is a great creature character, but the series is walking on thin ice.

Gojira (1954): **/****

Friday, February 8, 2013

Some Like It Hot

Some movies are just perfect. That's it. They just are. Ridiculously spot-on casting, great direction and writing, and a story and style that have more than withstood the test of time. In 2000, it was even voted the greatest American comedy of all-time. I'm not alone in this stance, but it's one of my favorites, 1959's Some Like It Hot.

Working in 1929 Chicago, down on their luck musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon) are looking for any kind of work.....any. Picking up a car to drive to Champaign, they accidentally witness a gangland massacre, gangster Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his crew knocking off seven rival gangsters. The only problem? They were spotted, and now they're desperately on the run. With no money, they resort to the only option available.....posing as female musicians leaving Chicago for Miami with an all-female band. There's no way the ridiculous plan could work, could it? Joe/Geraldine and Jerry/Daphne pass their first test and blend in with the band. Both fall right away for Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), a ukelele-playing singer in the group. Uh-oh, let the hijinks begin, and Spats and his mobsters are still looking for them.

There is chemistry among actors, and then there's chemistry: Some Like It Hot style. I feel comfortable comparing Curtis and Lemmon to Paul Newman in Robert Redford in Butch and Sundance, my high point for on-screen chemistry in a buddy relationship. Other cast pairings were mentioned as director Billy Wilder put his movie together (Curtis and Frank Sinatra as one), but it's hard to imagine any other duo working quite this well. Obviously, you can attribute some to a lot of that success to the script written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, but the actors have to turn that great script into great performances at some point. What I love about their parts is that both men are given their chance to play straight man and comedian in interchangeable parts. That's the beauty of the.....oh, yes.....cross-dressing.

From other films like Tootsie (very good) to White Chicks (end of the world bad) to TV shows like Bosom Buddies, cross-dressing is nothing new in a film/TV medium. What is it that's so funny about men dressing up as women? That's a question left best unanswered. The moral of the story is simple; it is funny, very funny when handled correctly. According to Curtis interviews, both he and Lemmon went through extensive "lady training" to be believable women because to a point, if we don't believe the duo as women, the movie is going to struggle. Yes, they look ridiculous in their wigs, dresses, heels and stockings, but somehow and some way, they make it work. Curtis as saxophone-playing Josephine plays it straight, quite and demure, always pursing "her" lips while Lemmon as lively bull fiddle-wielding Daphne (instead of Geraldine) gets to live it up in a showier, more physical part. It's a match made in heaven, and one that makes the movie the fondly remembered classic it is.

More than just the chemistry between Curtis and Lemmon is the chemistry consistently on display across the entire cast. Monroe could do drama and comedy, but I don't know if she was ever better than she was here as Sugar Kane, the goofy, somewhat ditzy blonde who just wants to find her true love. Shallow side note; she looks stunningly beautiful here, Wilder dressing her up in as risque fashion as possible (her intro especially has become an iconic scene). Her comedic timing is pretty perfect whether it be with Curtis or Lemmon. Both "female musicians" fall for Sugar immediately. Curtis' Joe poses as a young bajillionaire -- coke bottle glasses and all, ridiculous and spot-on Cary Grant voice impression along for the ride -- in hopes of wooing her while Lemmon's Jerry works from the inside of sorts, unfortunately becoming Sugar's fast friend and confidant. The triangle-like relationship (square-like I suppose even) is a gem to watch, just three actors having fun on-screen, and it shows from the start. 

In terms of screen-time, those three dominate the movie, but in smaller parts the supporting cast help brings the movie up another notch. Building off his reputation as a long-time tough guy, Raft plays it straight throughout as the tough as nails Spats Colombo -- always up to something -- with Mike Mazurki and Harry Wilson playing his dim-witted, machine-gun wielding associates. Pat O'Brien makes a quick but memorable appearance as Detective Mulligan, the cop tailing Spats. Nehemiah Persoff makes a cameo as Little Bonapart, a mafioso trying to clear up the problem Spats created. Joan Shawlee plays Sweet Sue, the conductor of her all-female band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, with Dave Barry as Beinstock, the maligned band manager. The best part goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, a horndog of a millionaire who's got the hots for Daphne, including one of the most famous closing lines to a movie ever.

As a director, Billy Wilder had his fair share of gems, but this has always been my personal favorite. Whether it be his script with Diamond or his directing, it's a flawless film. It runs 122 minutes, but it never drags, and I can't come up with a wasted or unnecessary scene. Curtis said he and Lemmon had to do little to no improvising because the script didn't need it. The lines are perfect as is. He made a wise choice filming in black and white too, giving it that authentic, throwback feel that gives a sense of 1920s Chicago and Miami. 'Hot' filmed in California (standing in for Miami) at the beautiful Hotel del Coronado, an unreal looking building that feels like it would be on scenic Miami Beach. And last, the score from composer Adolph Deutsch, a jazzy score that will put a smile on your face at its first note. The scenes of Joe and Jerry running from mobsters is given that comedic touch courtesy of Deutsch's score, which you can sample HERE.

The defining factor in a comedy being truly classic is the quotability, that memorable scene or line that lingers long after the movie is over. It's Curtis' running bit doing his Cary Grant impression, "piloting" a motorboat backwards because he can't put it in drive. It's Lemmon -- as Daphne -- trying to move in on Sugar only to have his train car berth taken over by the female band for a drinking and tickling party, doing a tango (with a straight face) with Brown's Osgood and later celebrating their engagement with a maraca dance. That's just a sampling, 'Hot' never goes long without a laugh. It's beyond a classic, and not just one of the best comedies around, but one of Hollywood's all-time great movies.

Some Like It Hot (1959): ****/****

Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Deadly Companions

By 1961, Sam Peckinpah had made a name for himself on the TV screen, writing, creating and even directing two different series, the classic The Rifleman and the lesser known The Westerner. The man that would go on to direct classics like The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, and Ride the High Country had to start somewhere though in films, and that's 1961's The Deadly Companions.

Drifting along from town to town, a man named Yellowleg (Brian Keith) teams up with two fellow drifters, Turk (Chill Wills) and Billy (Steve Cochran), agreeing to knock off a bank in a tiny, isolated desert town. As they ready to pull the job, the trio instead gets caught up in someone else's robbery, and a young boy is actually killed by Yellowleg in the process. The boy's mother, Kit (Maureen O'Hara), insists the boy be buried with her deceased husband, buried in the far-off and possibly abandoned town of Siringo. Feeling the extreme guilt over the accidental shooting, Yellowleg insists on guiding Kit through Apache territory to Siringo, but the dangerous journey holds secrets and trials that none of them were expecting. 

Everyone has to start somewhere, and for Peckinpah in films, this was it. It is an interesting debut -- both good and bad -- that certainly is a forerunner of his later movies. While limited by a smallish budget, Peckinpah shows a knack that viewers would come to expect with movies like The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country. According to O'Hara's biography, the filming was a less than pleasant process as first-time feature film director Peckinpah adjusted to shooting on a bigger scale than TV allowed. It's interesting though because with the exception of maybe Junior Bonner or Ballad of Cable Hogue, this is probably his least violent film. There are flaws, but I also think there's a hidden gem among all those flaws.

Let's start with Brian Keith as Yellowleg, a former Union officer traveling the west looking for vengeance on the man who tried to scalp him during the Civil War. That man? Chill Wills' Turk, a former Confederate soldier on the brink of lunacy trying to revive the Confederacy. Keith's Yellowleg (we never learn his real name) wears his hat low on his hat, never taking it off, because of the scar across his forehead from the failed scalping. He's also carrying a bullet in his shoulder and struggles to fire his gun accurately because of the wound. Peckinpah favored wounded, scarred anti-heroes dealing with extreme internal demons struggling to come to terms with those demons. I like Keith more and more with each passing part, and this is a very good one, if not one that's easily remembered as one of his best.

That's what I like about this first Peckinpah feature film. It isn't a classic by any means. But considering it was released in 1961, it's hard not to be impressed. This is far from a typical western released in that year, starting to reflecting the changing times, and that's what surprised me (although I guess it shouldn't have. Peckinpah wasn't exactly a touchy-feely kind of guy). This is one epically dark western. Each and every character is a tortured individual, all struggling to cope with something. Even the bad guys -- perfectly cast Cochran and Wills -- are trying to rape O'Hara's Kit, rob banks, shoot Yellowleg in the back and so on. Not nice guys. The background gives it all more depth; a former Union soldier obsessed with revenge on the Confederate who tried to scalp him? Oh, and a little boy gets gunned down in the first 20 minutes? It's hard to imagine a 1961 getting any more dark. 

As I mentioned, this is far from an action-packed western. At the same time, it isn't exactly story-heavy either. It leans more toward episodic as Yellowleg, Kit, the two gunslingers and the dead boy make their way to Siringo. The focus is on Yellowleg's demons, Kit's mistrust and hatred of the man who killed her boy, and a vengeful Apache trying to kill them. I liked the dynamic between Keith and O'Hara especially. An IMDB reviewer compares it to an artsy Euro-western, and I'm hard pressed to disagree. The music from Marlin Skiles -- heavy on Spanish guitar, accordion and harmonica -- is oddly effective and appropriate. The look (including on-location shooting in Arizona, especially Old Tucson) is dreary and washed-out, reflecting the generally dark demeanor and tone of the story. Oh, and it is a Peckinpah film, watch for Strother Martin as a fire-breathing parson.

Things aren't perfect of course. At 93 minutes, 'Companions' can be a tad disjointed. Scenes transition from one to another without any real transition, scenes ending on odd notes as the screen fades to black. The ending especially is a little crazy as the studio took the finished film away from Peckinpah (a recurring trend later in his career) and reedited it into an indecipherable, completely out of place happy ending. It's still a good movie that doesn't deserve all the flak it takes, and one Peckinpah fans should definitely see. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but it is a public domain print and therefore, not a good one. Hold out for another airing on TCM.

The Deadly Companions (1961): ***/****