The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)

This past fall and winter, I read author Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, or as I've come to know and identify them 'The Girl.....' series. I enjoyed all three books to varying degrees, but my favorite of the trilogy was the first, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I made the jump then -- naturally enough -- to the film adaptations, starting with the American version -- read HERE -- and after a brief break, here comes the original Swedish version, 2009's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

A highly respected journalist who's come under extreme fire in a libel case, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) has been sentenced to serve six months in prison. His actual sentence is down the road though, and in the meantime, he's hired for a seemingly impossible job by Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), an aging but highly respected businessman. For 40-plus years, Henrik has wondered about the disappearance and possible of his niece, Harriet, who vanished without a trace. The evidence and clues point to a very small group of unique suspects, but Henrik has made little progress in the years since. Can experienced investigative journalist Mikael discover a new vein in the case? With some helped from an eccentric but very capable private investigator with a penchant for computer hacking, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), Mikael delves into 40 years of evidence and clues, not knowing how deep a hole he's gotten himself into.

Let's get this out of the way. While I enjoyed all three of Larsson's novels, this series opening novel was by far my favorite of the trio. It introduces characters that are in all three novels while adding an expertly well-written murder mystery. Because Daniel Craig is cool, I watched the American version first and similarly liked it if I didn't love it. American, Swedish, anything and everything in between, adapting Larsson's novel to a film version is a daunting task. These are books full of twisting and turning plots, countless characters flitting in and out, countless more stops and locations along the way, flashbacks to the 1960s and beyond, and so much more. The books are so massively packed together I could easily see each of the books getting its own two or three part miniseries. But as you've no doubt noticed -- hopefully -- these are feature films, not miniseries. Characters and subplots are completely excised in some cases, condensed in others. It's the only way to make an even somewhat manageable film.

Having watched both movies, it's hard to write one review without referring to the other one. To be fair, they're completely different films. The American version (from director David Fincher and starring Craig and Rooney Mara) is highly stylized, almost always in a good way. A washed out visual look, an eerie synthesized soundtrack, it all works. From director Niels Arden Oplev, the original Swedish version is a far more traditional crime thriller with the journalistic investigation thrown in. He filmed all over Sweden, and the look of the movie is a plus. Sweden is a beautiful, cold and very white/snowy country, something that translates well to the feature film. The score from Jacob Groth is okay, but not very memorable. More traditional overall in terms of dealing with the story and/or characters, but in a good way.

Something didn't click along the way for me, and I can't quite put my finger on it. Is it because I've now read the book, seen one version and now seen another? I know where it's going and how it's going to get there. More than that, I think it was the casting, maybe even the script hamstringing the casting. I was never impressed with Nyqvist as Mikael, the crusading journalist. He's okay in the part, but there just isn't a ton of energy. He never seems too impressed with the case or interested in where it goes.

The most important part though is the titular character, Lisbeth Salander, the quiet, loner, antisocial, brilliant computer hacker. Mara made different choices with the part, and they worked. Rapace -- the original Lisbeth -- does it similarly, and it works for different ways. Physically, she's slight in stature but she's far from weak. Rapace's Lisbeth is small but epically intimidating with her close-cut aggressive-looking hair, countless piercings and tattoos and biker chick clothes. Rapace does a solid job with the part, but thanks to the script -- which has to accomplish a whole lot in a 152-minute movie -- we learn little about her until the last half hour. Yes, that's partially how the plot develops in the books, but for most of two-plus hours, we just don't know anything about her other than that she is violently raped, seeking revenge and brilliant and intelligent.

As for the rest of the cast, Taube makes a positive, lasting impression as Henrik, the Vanger family patriarch who's been tortured with guilt and questions as to what happened to his niece 40 years later with Ingvar Hirdwall playing Dirch, Henrik's long-time assistant. Peter Andersson does a fine, disturbing job as Bjurman, Lisbeth's legal guardian. Bjorn Granath plays Morell, the police investigator who originally headed the case and has been similarly stumped with each passing year. Peter Haber plays Martin, Harriet's brother.  

What I loved most about the book was the developing mystery. Even knowing where it's going, it's cool to see things develop. In both the novel and the two film versions, I loved seeing the case come together as Mikael and Lisbeth unearth clues that have been hidden away by passing decades. Taking the film as a whole though, I was never impressed. It's okay, but not much else. I did like the ending and how true it stuck to Larsson's novel -- with one tweak in the final scene -- but the movie left me feeling pretty cool. Worthwhile for fans of the books, but I definitely recommend reading Larsson's novels first.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, March 29, 2013


From director John Huston, 1950's The Asphalt Jungle is one of the all-time great film noirs, a heist flick with a great cast and story. It was inevitable, wasn't it? Yes......a remake, even if it is a little known remake. Some 13 years later with the location transplanted to Egypt, we get 1963's Cairo.

Released from a German prison after a long sentence, a man known only as the Major (George Sanders) arrives in Cairo with a new plan. He's been working on all the intricate details to pull off a dangerous if very lucrative job at the Cairo Museum, stealing the King Tut diamonds. The Major needs some help though and has to get some funding and backing from a respected if somewhat shady businessman/lawyer, Kuchuk (Walter Rilla), who has plans of his own with the diamonds. Putting his plan into action, the Major assembles a small team of specialists and crooks, including enforcer Ali (Richard Johnson). Everything is seemingly worked out to the last second, but no matter how much planning has been done, there's always something surprising waiting.

I'm going to sound like quite the movie hypocrite here because usually I'm completely against remakes. Did Huston's Asphalt Jungle really need to be remade? Nope, not in the least. It's basically perfect as is. Just the same, 13 years later here comes this almost scene-for-scene remake based off of W.R. Burnett's source novel. It simply isn't necessary so if you've seen Huston's version, you've seen this movie. Director Wolf Rilla (son of star Walter Rilla) does a solid if unspectacular job with his version, and it's entertaining throughout. It's a tad shorter than 'Asphalt,' clocking in at 91 minutes as opposed to 112 minutes, and it does feel a little rushed at times. Kenneth Jones' score is good without being intrusive. And maybe it was just the aged quality of a 1963 movie, but the shadowy, dark look of the movie is a nice touch.

The only difference between the two movies is the setting, and that's probably the biggest selling point for Cairo. Credit to director Rilla for shooting on-location in Cairo rather than a Hollywood-like Cairo set. The story moves along and develops on the Egyptian streets, Sanders, Johnson and the cast walking around with the population and not in front of a green screen. It's a simple thing, but it goes a long way toward giving a familiar story something memorable when you've seen everything else. The location include the more obvious ones like the Cairo Museum and the Pyramids, but it's cool just to see these places, even if it is in the background. Then there's the less familiar locations, the back alleys and streets, not to mention the desert roads and oasis' in the Egyptian countryside.

Beyond the first two or three stars listed in the cast, 'Cairo' features a predominantly Egyptian cast so for the most part, there is far less star power here than in 'Asphalt.' I liked Sanders a lot as the Major, a mysterious thief with no real explained background. He's an English gentleman, prim, proper and mannered who has a knack for pulling off difficult jobs. His character is more prominent than his 'Asphalt' counterpart. Besides the odd choice of casting the very English Johnson as a very Egyptian character, Johnson does a fine job as Ali, the enforcer who wants nothing more than return to his childhood farm but gambling problems have derailed those plans. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with Amina (Faten Hamama), a singer/dancer working in cheap clubs, helping humanize the tough character. As the biggest name stars, Sanders and Johnson get the majority of development and screentime, and they don't disappoint. It's a solid, natural chemistry among two very different men drawn together for a job.

The rest of the Major's crew includes Willy (John Meillon), a WWII vet who specializes in explosives and safecracking, Kerim (Ahmed Mazhar), the coffee house owner doubling as the getaway driver, and Nicodemos (Eric Pohlmann), the Major's link to everything in the criminal underworld and black market. Rilla too is solid as Kuchuk, the shady financier of the Major's plan with his own intentions. Salah Nazmi plays the police commandant hunting the thieves.

Here we are again, the actual heist. Pulling off the job is a good extended sequence, if not quite as complicated as it would seem according to the plan. Like so many heist films, the best is saved for last; the fall-out following the heist. As is so often the case, it's not the job that's the most difficult part. It is getting away with it and dealing with the inevitable double-crosses and betrayals. The post-heist fallout sticks close to 'Asphalt,' but it is full of tension and develops nicely. This 1963 remake is unnecessary, not adding anything new to the formula other than the Cairo setting, but it is entertaining throughout. Sometimes that's all that counts. Watch a slightly edited, shorter version HERE at Youtube.

Cairo (1963): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gangster Story

By 1959, Walter Matthau wasn't exactly a hugely established film star. That would come more in the early 1960s with films like Fail Safe, Charade and Lonely Are the Brave, not to mention his pairings with director Billy Wilder. Just the same, he had starred in more than a few feature films and guest starred on several more TV shows. So why then would he not only star, but direct, 1959's Gangster Story? It's an uuuuuultra-low budget flick that is just bad, if entertainingly bad.

Being transported to the Los Angelese airport, bank robber, thief and cop killer Jack Martin (Matthau) pulls off a dangerous escape, but he kills two police officers in the process. Now trying to escape for good, Martin needs some funding to help him hide. He pulls off a daring bank robbery, netting quite the payday in the process. His job has unfortunately caught the attention of the local mob boss, Dawson (Bruce MacFarlane), who rules any criminal undertakings with an iron fist. Martin does manage to hide out, meeting Carol (Carol Grace, the future Mrs. Matthau), a librarian who unknowingly gives him a job at her mismanaged orange/citrus grove. All the while though, Martin worries what Dawson is pursuing him for, and then he finds out. The mobster wants to hire the infamous killer/robber to work with him.

My first thought was that Walter Matthau had been blackmailed into directing and starring in this movie. Low-budget is not necessarily a bad thing when handled right, but this one is awful. It reeks of an almost amateur quality, like a student filmmaker exploring the ins and outs of camerawork, storytelling and soundtrack. The bad, wooden acting is lousy, but when you've got non-actors acting, that's expected. The camera is never centered, shooting off-center so full faces are rarely in frame. Scene-to-scene transitions are jarring and jumpy. The soundtrack -- no composer listed -- is on par with music you'd hear in an elevator. Sad scene? Slow, sad music. Action scene? L-O-U-D blaring music. Boring scene? Music you'd expect out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Oh, the theme song, 'The Itch to Scratch,' is pretty awful too. Sorry, no iTunes purchase available I can find.

I can embrace a good low-budget film that embraces that cheap quality, giving it an odd, cheap-looking charm. 'Gangster' on the other hand is just bad. It took three different writers to come up with this script? I think my favorite was Martin's "daring" bank robbery. He calls the police department posing as a movie studio "filming a bank robbery," and they need help with a rehearsal. He then calls the bank manager (David Leonard) and tells him his bank is being robbed. The cops -- thinking it's a rehearsal -- tell him upon arrival to go inside. It seems the cops know how stupid it is as they smirk the entire time. The capper? Martin tells them he's locked the manager in the vault because the script called for it. Oh, he's carrying a bag of money too.

There's plenty of moments like that. My vote for a close second in the stupidity department is when Martin finally teams with Dawson and a small crew of thieves to rob a country club housing a well-to-do bookie. They need a distraction so what do they do? Play a round of golf, putt with an iron, piss off the loner playing behind them, miss 238 shots and then club him over the head when he offers help. The bookie, his security guard and mob gunman run from the room with the freaking safe exposed, leaving Martin -- an internationally known killer so how do they not recognize him? -- in the room. Upon finding the passed out golfer, the bookie (Clegg Hoyt) deadpans 'Probably passed out because he got a hole-in-one.' The movie is full of such gems, but those are the brightest and most memorable. I'd like to think Matthau realized he was directing/starring in a stinker and just went for it, but who knows for sure.

Through all the craziness, goofiness and cheapness, I did like this movie for all those reasons. It is a lousy movie. Martin and sexy librarian Carol fall for each other almost instantly, but we never actually see it. Check that, we see him throw an orange her way which she throws back. Ah, true love! The Martin character is a pretty nasty dude, dispatching cops almost at will, but he's not portrayed as a nut or psychopath, just a crook looking for some money. I think it's better because it is so odd in that sense. Here's the main character. He kills cops. That's all, no explanation provided. It's a bomb of a movie, just 65 minutes long, and it's certainly a lot of fun to watch right up until the inevitable ending. Also look for Garry Walberg as Adolph, Dawson's main henchman. Follow the link below to watch the full movie. 

Gangster Story (1959): **/****

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tomahawk Trail

In 1958, Chuck Connors became a star across America with the debut of The Rifleman on TV. It ran for five seasons before Connors moved on to other film and TV roles. For five years before his star-making turn on TV, he starred in countless movies -- usually in supporting roles -- and TV shows as a guest star or background player. They weren't all winners, but there were some good ones in there, like the 1957 B-western Tomahawk Trail.

On a routine patrol out of Fort Bowie in the southwestern desert, Lt. Davenport (George N. Neise) is putting his cavalry company in grave danger. A veteran of the Civil War and fighting for five years with the Sioux, Davenport has experience, but not fighting Mescalero Apaches. His patrol's horses have been driven off, leaving his 16-man patrol stranded and walking out out of the desert as well as losing their supply and ammo packs. With Apache war parties on the trail, the patrol is in serious trouble, forcing veteran Apache fighter Sergeant Wade McCoy (Connors) to take over, risking a court martial in hopes of getting his men to safety. The situation gets worse when the patrol accidentally stumbles upon an Apache chief's daughter (Lisa Montell). Now it's a race against time to see if the patrol can get to Fort Bowie before the Apaches close in.

The cavalry vs. the Indians, is there anything more familiar in a western? Okay, maybe cowboys and Indians instead. From director Lesley Selander, 'Trail' is about as meat and potatoes as a western can get, and I mean that in a positive way. There's no concept of a bigger picture of what's going on with the Apaches or why they're on the warpath, no worry about what the patrol was actually looking for. It's laid out and let free. Fairly simple, right? It can't be much else, clocking in at just 60 minutes (don't pay attention to the 96-minute running time listed at Wikipedia). It plays like a TV episode with anything even remotely superfluous stripped away. In other words, it's about as barebones as possible.

The story is told exclusively from the perspective of the cavalry. While the Apaches are mentioned, including their chief, Vittorio, we never really see more than 10 or 15 at a time. Even the chief is shown in a long, long shot on the horizon without even a close-up. Instead, we never leave the cavalry. We don't see much of the opening attack on the patrol and its supply wagons, Connors' hard-boiled narration playing over the action. There's some good build-up with some decent action scenes as the Apaches close in -- including a pretty cool showdown at an abandoned outpost -- but the ending is rather abrupt. Maybe the already rather small budget simply ran out.

What will draw most western fans is the casting of Connors in the lead. As the tough as nails Sgt. Wade McCoy, Connors is the prototypical western star. He's young, but he's got plenty of experience in fighting the Mescaleros over his time with the cavalry. Neise is a preening, obnoxious and generally clueless Lt. Davenport, an experienced officer who refuses to admit when he's wrong. When he puts his patrol at risk, McCoy finally steps in. Some other good supporting parts go to John Smith as Pvt. Tim Reynolds, a deadshot with a rifle and experienced trailsman who's close with McCoy, Robert Knapp as Pvt. Barrow, a troublemaker who ruffles feathers with McCoy, Eddie Little Sky as Johnny Dogwood, the Apache scout working with the cavalry, and Harry Dean Stanton as Pvt. Miller, Davenport's loyal adjutant. The rest of the patrol is kept in the background, nameless soldiers destined to take Apache arrows, spears, tomahawks and bullets as necessary.

Even in a movie that barely breaks the 60-minute mark, 'Trail' manages to insert a love interest into the already barebones story. That comes courtesy of Susan Cummings as Ellen Carter, a white woman taken captive by the Apaches who bonds with Montell's Tula during her captivity. As one IMDB reviewer says, Cummings is there so Connors can have someone to kiss -- other than an eager cavalry trooper -- as the story fades out. Nothing flashy or memorable here, and probably only worthwhile for diehard fans or any fans of Chuck Connors.

Tomahawk Trail (1957): ** 1/2 /****      

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Directing 2008's In Bruges, Martin McDonagh made quite the debut behind the film camera. As an audience, we've had to wait four years for his follow-up, but it was worth it....I think. The follow-up is 2012's Seven Psychopaths, a truly odd, truly entertaining flick that defies just about any description I can come up with.

Working in Los Angeles, Marty (Colin Farrell) is struggling to complete his screenplay for a film he calls 'Seven Psychopaths.' His biggest issue is coming up with the actual psychopaths for which he has actually one. As he tries to come up with the characters, Marty gets mixed up with a predicament his friend, Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell), has fallen into. With his highly religious partner, Hans (Christopher Walken), Billy kidnaps dogs and then has Hans return them to their owners for the reward. Billy's picked the wrong target this time though, stealing a dog named Bonny from its owner, Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who just happens to be a real-life psychopath and rather unpredictable gangster. Right in the mix of it all, Marty may have found all the inspiration he'll need for his screenplay....if he can survive that is.

I loved In Bruges when I first saw it, and I loved it even more on follow-up viewings. So when I saw McDonagh was directing a similarly themed ultra-dark, ultra-violent flick, I was psyched. Several days since watching the movie, I can say I did like it even though I'm still processing it. I watch some movies, and I know exactly what I want to say. Then there's movies like this where any description doesn't seem perfectly appropriate. It bounces among countless different descriptions from dark humor to gut-wrenching drama to graphic violence to a buddy flick. Somewhere among all those at-times appropriate descriptions is a really good movie. Putting those all together into a non-rambling review? Well, let's see what I can come up with.

McDonagh deserves a lot of credit for this one. Bringing all these seemingly disparate things together with the cast he's assembled could cripple many directors. And while there are times the movie seems to have lost its way, it always rights the ship. It is about Marty and his struggles. It is about Billy and Hans' dog kidnapping operation. It is about Charlie's hunt for his dog. At the same time, it's more than that. We meet plenty of other characters in a variety of storytelling techniques. We also hear about the Jack of Diamonds killer who may or may not be involved with the kidnappings. We also delve into Marty's screenplay, meeting two of his psychopaths, a Quaker father (Harry Dean Stanton) seeking revenge for his daughter's murder and a former Vietcong soldier turned priest (Long Nguyen) planning an ultimate revenge. These asides come through Marty's narration, and they're great.

This ability to craft such a stylish, twisting and turning story is a testament to McDonagh's ability. It is a script that weaves among all these stories, flashbacks and what-ifs, never staying in one place too long or settling. The weird thing is; all those asides are both real and fake. The Quaker father actually has a very real connection to Marty, Billy and Hans' story. The Jack of Diamonds killer similarly has a connection, and the Vietnamese priest becomes real as Hans tries to come up with a suitable ending for a story that Marty is struggling to come up with. At one point, Billy -- desperately trying to help Marty finish his screenplay -- comes up with a ridiculously over the top action finale sequence full of explosions, dismemberments, and action cliches that a 1980s movie would appreciate. The what-if sequence blends all the characters we've met -- real, fake and written in a script -- in an inspired sequence that stands out from the rest of an already very enjoyable movie.

What stood out for me most was the buddy aspect that works so well in 'Psychopaths.' It's reminiscent of the relationship between Farrell and Brendan Gleason in McDonagh's In Bruges. Marty, Billy and Hans are three very different people but there's an odd friendship that just works among them. Marty is a worrier, especially about his screenplay and girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), Billy wants to help him out wherever and whenever possible, and Hans is looking out for wife (Linda Bright Clay) fighting through cancer treatments. Much of the second half of the movie is the trio sitting around a campfire in the desert talking, coming up with ideas for the screenplay, busting each other's balls, smoking peyote and drinking. Directing and writing the script, McDonagh has a knack and talent for creating believable, funny and even emotional relationships among male friends. I loved the scenes with these three amidst all the chaos around them, bringing the movie down to a more personal level.

The rest of the cast is similarly spot-on. Replacing Mickey Rourke (who dropped out during filming), Harrelson is perfectly nuts as Charlie. We don't know why he's nuts. He just simply is....NUTS. Tom Waits is a scene-stealer as Zachariah, a potential psychopath for Marty with quite the checkered past. The image alone of a weathered Waits sitting on Billy's doorstep petting a white rabbit is surreal and perfect. His phone call with Marty is surprisingly funny too in an effective emotional scene. Also look for Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Pitt (great in the opening scene), Olga Kurylenko, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe, and Zeljko Ivanek as Paulo, Charie's enforcer.

A weird, weird movie, but one I liked. It's a flick that is really all over the place and would probably benefit from a repeat viewing. For now though, I'll still give it a high rating. Beware of some at times shocking violence to go with a truly dark sense of humor. Probably not for everyone, but still highly recommended.    
Seven Psychopaths (2012): ***/**** 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Posse from Hell

Ah, the posse, where men can be men manly stuff? Ride horses, shoot guns, track bad guys, eat jerky and drink bad coffee around a fire out in the desert under the stars. Pretty cool, huh? Eh, probably not, but for a western nut like myself, I could get on board with that. Obviously it wasn't a pleasant experience -- tracking down the bad guys to bring them to justice -- but there's been countless westerns following the posse, but few have been better than 1961's Posse from Hell.

Four very dangerous, murdering convicts led by an outlaw named Crip (Vic Morrow) descend on a small, peaceful western town, wreaking havoc and leaving a handful of dead in their wake, including the town marshal. The gang steals $11,000 from the bank and also kidnaps young Helen Caldwell (Zohra Lampert) and takes her with them. As a posse forms the following day, a new deputy arrives in town. His name is Banner Cole (Audie Murphy), and he immediately assumes the marshal's duties, starting with forming the posse. His honesty about the coming hunt scares many people away, leaving Banner with just six men riding with him to take down a four-man gang. The trail awaits with ambushes, double crosses, personal grudges and cowards waiting around every corner. Can Banner hold the group together long enough to get the gang?

From director Herbert Coleman, here is an example of a solid western that's flown under the radar in the 50-plus years since its release. It doesn't hit the 90-minute mark -- wrapping up in 89 instead -- and is most definitely a B-western. 'Hell' was filmed on the backlots with a few excursions to the California desert. The music is pretty standard stuff to the point the full cast and crew listing don't even list a composer. So why does it work then? Western novelist Clair Huffaker (wrote the novel and the screenplay) knows what he's doing. He knows the western and more importantly the characters. His good guy is resolute, his bad guys extremely nasty, and the rest are cannon fodder. Familiar? Maybe, but it's fun and entertaining throughout.

Maybe because it was a B-western and not a huge studio release, 'Hell' can get away with some stuff. That stuff ranks pretty high on the nasty, dark meter. There are things you would expect out of a spaghetti western or revisionist American western from the late 1960s or early 1970s, not a 1961 western. Morrow's Crip is a cold-blooded killer (channeling a similar character he played on an episode of The Rifleman) who favors a double-barreled shotgun and kills with no discretion. His gang kills because they can, not because it actually accomplishes anything. After leaving the town behind, Crip's gang even rapes Helen and leaves her for dead. Banner's posse is equally treacherous with insane, cowardly, big-talking individuals who can't back themselves up. It's a refreshing change of pace from some straightforward white hat good guys and black hat bad guys.

The king of the American B-western, Audie Murphy is an ideal lead. At times, his acting could be a tad wooden, but his stone-faced, almost monotone delivery plays well here. He's less than interested in the feelings or reactions of his posse. He's out there to do a job, not worry about the personalities of these people he's just met. The best dynamic is between Murphy's Banner and John Saxon's Seymour Kern, an Easterner working with the bank in town who's told to go with the posse to watch over the recovered money. The veteran cowboy and the inexperienced Easterner is a familiar convention, but it works. The rest of the posse includes Robert Keith as a power-happy former Union officer, Rodolfo Acosta as a Mexican cowboy known for his tracking ability, Royal Dano as Helen's drunken uncle, Frank Overton as the revenge-seeking townsperson trying to avenge his brother, and Paul Carr as the fast-draw with a pistol who's got little real life experience with his pistols. Also look for Lee Van Cleef as one of Crip's gang. It's a cool group with a variety of personalities, some around to be targets for Crip's gang.

The story is fairly episodic once the posse gets out on the trail. With seven members of the posse, it's clear some aren't going to make it so it becomes a guessing game as to who will survive. There are some surprising twists there so stay tuned through the end. Overall, the story doesn't really know how to end so it does drag a little in the final 15-20 minutes, but the build-up is so worthwhile I barely noticed. It's not enough to detract from a western I very much enjoyed. Highly recommended. Give it a shot at Youtube, link included below.

Posse from Hell (1961): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Whistle Blower

Espionage flicks typically go one of two ways. One, the James Bond route; lots of action, explosions, beautiful women, gunfights, that sort of thing. Two, the more realistic way, films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Argo. They both have their positives to take away, and sometimes it just depends what you're in the mood for. Where does 1987's The Whistle Blower fall? Oh so serious.

A veteran of the British Navy who served as a pilot during the Korean War, Frank Jones (Michael Caine) has moved on with his life and now has a mildly successful sales company. More and more, Frank finds himself talking his idealistic young son, Bob (Nigel Havers), down off the ledge about the nature of his job. Bob is a Russian linguist working for British intelligence, but he's become disillusioned about how the nature of the espionage is handled. Frank tries to convince him that with a struggling economy, any job is a good job, especially for a language specialist in Russian. Frank is stunned then when he receives the news that his son died in an accident, falling off the roof of his apartment building. Everyone from the police to the coroner believes it was an accident, but having talked to his son, Frank knows his son was investigating some deep, dark things. Was it an accident or part of a cover-up of something far more sinister?

Thank you, Netflix, for this one. I found it while looking through Caine's filmography/listing, and after months of procrastinating and avoiding it, I gave it a shot this week. There's no question what type of espionage flick this one is. It is the most serious of serious. No deadpan humor, no sexy secret agents, no guns a' blazing with explosions and fireballs. This is a gentlemanly espionage....well, mostly. From director Simon Langton, 'Whistle' manages to be both highly unsettling and low key in its delivery. You don't hear that often, do you? It can be a tad on the slow side, a little dull at times, but for the most part, I liked this one.

No surprises here, but Michael Caine will be my first, second and third reasons for watching this movie. Even when a movie is lousy, Caine is eternally watchable. When a movie is halfway decent, like 'Whistle' is, his performance can help bring it up a notch or two. Reflecting the solemn and serious tone of the story, it is a mostly understated, underplayed part for the screen veteran. He loves his son while also being frustrated by him. When Bob dies under suspicious circumstances, Frank is the only one who believes there could be more to the story. The portions of the story that follow are the movie at its best; an angry, confused and curious father searching for answers about his offspring. He even gets a few chances at some rabid outbursts, and let me tell you, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of a Caine outburst.

On top of Caine's performance, I liked the subtle nature of the story. At 104 minutes, it is never in a rush to get anywhere. Early on, it's not even in a rush to lay everything out. It's like as an audience we're dropped into a story that already had a prologue. Names, situations, backgrounds, reputations, they're all thrown at us, and we're forced to figure it out on the fly as it comes at us. Much of it surrounds British intelligence's effort to monitor Russian messages electronically. One agent Dodgson (Bill Wallis) has been pitting the Brits/Americans vs. the Russians, and those crafty Brits intend on figuring out what's going on. Their investigation leads to a traitor (John Gielgud) who's lived in England for over 20 years. As he continues to look for answers concerning his son, Frank finds out what his son was involved with, but also how far those intelligence agencies will go to produce effective results.

Like 2011's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 'Whistle' delves into the inner workings of the intelligence agencies. It isn't just them looking out for the country's well-being, but seeing how far they can push it to test the limits of their power.  It's a pretty frightening thought. Is one life expendable if it could lead to a huge payoff intelligence-wise? James Fox has an unsettling part as Lord, a British higher-up who calmly lays out a brutally sadistic plan, Barry Foster plays Charlie Greig, an old Army buddy of Frank's now working in Intelligence, and Gordon Jackson plays Bruce, the agent in the field putting plans into effect. Also watch for Felicity Dean as Cynthia, Bob's new girlfriend, a soon-to-be divorced woman with a kid, and Kenneth Colley as Pickett, a leftist crusading journalist desperately searching for a deeply hidden story.

I wish I had liked this movie more. For all the positives, it is slow, and it lacks a certain energy. Understated is one thing, but the story is so underplayed that I never really felt any sense of worry. The ending is disappointing although the final scene is moving, featuring some very cool on-location shooting at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.

The Whistle Blower (1987): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Happy Thieves

If you've made it this far, maybe you can go a little further. Oh, Shawshank Redemption quotes! Anyways, I've been reviewing a fair share of heist/caper movies recently thanks to Turner Classic Movie's heist marathons. Only a couple more, I swear. Here we go with the relatively unknown 1961 heist flick, The Happy Thieves.

Jimmy Bourne (Rex Harrison) is an art thief, and a really good one at that. Pulling a long recon to steal a painting at a Spanish villa, Jimmy pulls off the job successfully. He gets away unnoticed, handing the rolled-up painting to his partner (and future wife), Eve (Rita Hayworth). Getting it through customs though, Eve loses the tube, forcing Jimmy and his forging art painting partner Jean (Joseph Wiseman), to improvise. It doesn't take long before the truth comes out. A visitor at the Spanish villa, Dr. Munoz (Gregoire Aslan), has pictures that can blackmail Jimmy, Jean and Eve....unless they pull off another art heist for him. Munoz wants the crew to take a Goya painting from the Prado Museum in Madrid. The problem? The painting is large, really large, and won't make for an easy job. The alternative is simple; jail.

Watch enough movies from any genre, and you will become familiar with it and all its conventions, cliches and stereotypes. If you like that genre enough to keep coming back to the well, that's a good thing. Not every heist movie is an extremely dark, cynical story, but the best and more memorable usually are. The job is usually the easiest part with the fallout following the job usually producing more fireworks. From director George Marshall, 'Happy' falls in between unfortunately. Everything from the music to the characters reflects a light, positive, even goofy tone. At the opposite end of the spectrum are some very dark, very surprising twists. If the story had picked one or the other, it could have been significantly better. Don't waver back and forth. Pick a route.

Through the light and the dark, I was most drawn to the casting. Harrison, Hayworth and Wiseman as a small team of crooks pulling an art heist? Count me in. These are three very respectable actors. I don't mean that heist movies don't attract good actors, but seeing actors of this caliber is pretty cool. Harrison as Jimmy is the quiet, gentlemanly thief, always composed, always ready with a contingency plan. Hayworth is okay as Eve, but the character gets on the shrill, worrisome side almost immediately. I didn't buy the chemistry between Harrison and Hayworth either. My favorite part was Wiseman as Jean, an accomplished painter who paints duplicates for Jimmy, usually fighting off his own nerves (some untimely throwing up too) in the process at the job gets closer, or unfortunately...during the job.

Also joining the cast is Aslan, doing what he does best as a menacing, intimidating villain, favoring a walking cane with a rifle in it. Alida Valli plays Duchess Blanca, a well-off, mysterious European woman with her hand in everything. Virgilio Teixeira has a fun and small but key supporting part as Cayetano, a Spanish bullfighter who may be an unknowing participant in Jimmy's job. Also look for George Rigaud, Britt Ekland, Peter Illing and Gerard Tichy in smaller parts.

I did like a lot about this movie. Marshall films in black and white, shooting on-location in Madrid and in Paris. That B&W look gives 'Happy' a throwback, retro visual look. It's a beautiful end product. I also liked the musical score from composer Mario Nascimbene, a mixture of light-hearted music and soft whistling. It leans more toward the light, positive side of the story. When the story turns to the dark, the score doesn't necessarily keep up in the tone department, but I liked the score just the same.

So back and forth between light and dark, the highlight of this heist flick is the actual heist at the Prado Museum. We know how Jimmy and Jean will pull the job, using Jean's forged duplicate to get their hands on Goya's The Second of May 1808. It's a straightforward, pretty simple job that takes advantage of a diversion outside the museum to distract the guards, but like the parts of the movie that do work, it has a certain charm to the developing caper. The bad part? The diversion Jimmy utilizes ends up involving murder, but he doesn't seem bothered by that in the least. When the character background reflects that he's an up-and-up English gentleman only to show no worry about a friend being murdered struck me as odd and out of place. I liked parts of 'Happy' enough, but not enough to really recommend this one fully.  Give it a try at Youtube at the link below.

The Happy Thieves (1961): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Released in theaters in November 2012, director Robert Zemeckis' film Flight has generated all sorts of positive buzz. It received almost uniformly glowing reviews, and star Denzel Washington has earned a Best Actor nomination for his lead performance. It's a decent enough film, but seriously....did I miss something? I came away hugely disappointed, even bored, with this one.

A longtime pilot, Captain Whit Whittaker (Washington) heads to the Orland airport to pilot a quick flight from Orlando to Atlanta, barely in the air for an hour. But as the flight nears its destination, Whittaker's co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) freaks out when the plane's controls go dead in his hand. Whittaker calmly tries to right the ship, but nothing he do seems to help, especially when the airliner starts to nose dive straight down to the Earth. With time running out, Whittaker does save the day, controlling the plane and turning it so he's actually flying upside down. He puts the plane down in a field, and 96 of 102 people onboard make it through the horrific incident. Whittaker is a hero, or is he? A toxicology report says otherwise, and an investigation reveals a much deeper, darker side to the supposedly heroic Captain Whittaker.

I'm vastly disappointed that I have to say I was hugely disappointed with this film. The combination of Washington, Zemeckis and a strong supporting cast seemed like it would be all I needed to go along with this one. So what happened somewhere along the road? I'm not quite sure. The best I can come up with is that I don't really know the point of the movie. I don't know what Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins are trying to say. The movie clocks in at 138 minutes, and we get our money's worth. It feels long, very long. The story isn't quite episodic, but that's only because nothing really happens. We see Whittaker talk to a long list of people, all in hopes of figuring out his own fate and involvement with the crash. There are some truly dumb transitions, plot twists and turns that are horrifically stupid, but the story needs them to happen. That's never a good reason. Dumb rarely helps a smart movie.

All I can come up with as to Zemeckis and Gatins' intentions is a character study of a truly unpleasant, very dark, flawed individual. Washington has done dark before, but nothing quite like this. His Whit Whittaker is one of his most easily hated characters. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Whit is addicted to all sorts of drugs and is a functioning alcoholic. He flies the plane drunk and with drugs in his system, most notably cocaine. Was it his fault? No, it was a mechanical issue, but how can anyone trust him? Does he want anyone to trust him END OF SPOILERS KEEP ON READING I don't need a main character to be 100% sympathetic -- I love dark main characters -- but here, I was actually rooting against Whit. He is offered help by everyone around him, and still he refuses. It's a decent enough performance from Washington, but Oscar nomination worthy? I think not.

Where the movie doesn't fall short is in the supporting cast. Bruce Greenwood plays Charlie Anderson, the pilots' union representative working closely with Whit as the crash investigation grows. Don Cheadle plays Hugh Lang, a top-level lawyer who knows every nook and cranny, and he's going to use all of them to help get Whit off unscathed. I liked both performances a lot, two men genuinely trying to help Whit even though they're rebuffed at every opportunity. John Goodman hams it up as Harling Mays, Whit's drug supplier, who is around for three quick scenes. Along with Geraghty, Nadine Velazquez and Tamara Tunie play two of the flight attendants on the doomed flight. Kelly Reilly plays Nicole, a woman in her late 20s struggling with drug addiction who meets Whit following the crash. And last, Melissa Leo plays Ellen Block, the head of the NTSB investigating committee.  

Is the point of the movie to show a truly flawed, not particularly likable character like Washington's Whit Whittaker? I feel like there should have been more going on than just that. Flaws are interesting, but alcoholism doesn't translate well in the interesting department. Similar to Days of Wine and Roses, it isn't appealing in the least to watch an individual keep regressing into their own inner demons. How many times can we see the same thing before it gets repetitive? I was intrigued by Whittaker, but that's all. I was never truly into the character, the film, or the story. His budding relationship with Reilly's Nicole doesn't go anywhere and drags down an already slow-moving story.

Some scenes do work. The opening plane crash sequence is startling and unsettling, but it doesn't come as much of a surprise. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen it. Just the same, the image of Whit's plane flying upside down is an amazing visual to watch. As well, the final scenes at the NTSB hearing are solid as Whit is interrogated, his inner demons torturing him as he decides how much to admit to. The build-up to those scenes feature some of those awfully dumb twists that come across as unnecessary. I just don't know. Almost all the reviews were positive, but I just didn't like this film enough to recommend it. Very disappointing.

Flight (2012): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Here we are again. Want to start a fight on the Internet? Say something, anything, and someone will disagree with you. That's minor stuff. How about a smart, well-written movie about a complicated topic like time travel? For better or worse, there are certain rules to time travel (via the movies at least, I can't say I've time traveled....that I know of, ooohhh!!!!) so we get fun time travel (Back to the Future, Bill and Ted) and serious time travel (Terminator, Lost, Planet of the Apes). Our newest entry? That's 2012's Looper. Let the arguments continue!

It's 2074, and time travel has been invented and quickly deemed illegal. Organized crime still uses time travel though, sending people back through time 30 years to be killed and disposed. Waiting for them back in 2044 are hired killers called 'Loopers,' one of which is Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). At a prearranged time and place in the countryside, Joe waits with a blunderbuss shotgun for his victim to appear in front of him. He shoots, kills them and burns the body, getting his payment in silver for his work. There is a rule though that's been dubbed 'Closing the Loop.' At some point, your future self will be sent back, and the Looper has to kill his future self no questions asked. Joe is good at what he does, and even though he knows it's coming, he's still stunned when his future self, Old Joe (Bruce Willis), appears in front of him. He's so stunned though that future Joe escapes. Joe has broken a rule, and now his employer is gunning for him. His only solution? Kill his future self and make up for it.

That is a very limiting plot description. Describing the job director Rian Johnson did both directing and writing the script for 'Looper' could be an entire review in itself. It is a phenomenal script, smart, interesting, always entertaining and doesn't get too bogged down in the inane details that Internet-goers just love to argue about. Go ahead, try reading the message boards at....well, anywhere. It's beyond painful to read. Cut away any number of arguments and disagreements, and it comes down to this. There just aren't a whole lot of smart movies out there. More than that, there aren't many smart movies that are entertaining too. This one is. It presents an incredibly unique, well thought out premise, and lets it breathe a little. It's an action movie, but it's not packed to the seams with action. The script will no doubt present some opportunities for "discussion" (does that exist on the Internet?), but they're all for the good if you ask me.

With his script and film, Johnson has created his own unique world. His script, his rules. All the Loopers work for Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man from the future sent back through time to run the Loopers for the man in charge. He finds troubled teenagers and "puts a gun in their hand." Working for Abe are a small army of  'Gat Men,' hired killers who help him keep his grip over the city. Who do they work for? A mysterious man in the future called the Rainmaker. No one knows how he came to power or any of his background. He simply puts everything in motion and rules with an iron fist. Then there's the "tweak" of the future. A small percentage of people have telekinetic powers. It's nothing major, just an ability to hold things up with your mind, but the people are looked upon strangely just the same. Johnson does a great job with all these little touches that give this future version of life touches of reality.

I loved the style of Looper from the very beginning. It's set in 2044 Kansas City which doesn't look too far removed from modern day. Some sort of cataclysmic event has changed how we live, but it's never spelled out for us in great detail. This is our modern world with a slight tweak here and there. The technology is basically the same with a few advances -- hoverbikes, advanced helicopters -- but there's also been a step back. Vagrants and homeless people live on the streets in large numbers. Food is scarce. In a sense, the world has righted itself to a point. The wardrobe is worth noting too. Gordon-Levitt's Joe has a retro look; leather jacket, shirt and tie, jeans. He almost looks like a man right out of the 1950s. The Gat Men hunting him look like stylized wild west gunfighters, all using a long-barrel pistol and wearing black clothes and ankle-length dusters. In the gunfights, we see dusters swooping through the air, something simple that looks incredibly cool.

And oh right, the characters. I almost forgot about them. Gordon-Levitt is one of my favorite actors, and he turns in another solid performance here as Joe, a tragic, scarred character if there ever was. He knows his road will not end well, and he's trying to put his life on the right track. How then does he react when he sees his future self appear in front of him? How would you react? Understandably a little freaked out. Willis does a fine job too in a particularly nasty part as future Joe. Having seen what happens with his life, future Joe wants to right and wrong, and that involves killing several people. The physical similarity isn't perfect with Gordon-Levitt wearing some eye/nose makeup, but it's good enough. The scenes between the two are perfect, especially a mind-bending conversation at an isolated country diner. Joe is talking to himself from the future. Really try and wrap your head around that. Pretty cool premise, huh?

Joining the duo in the cast is Emily Blunt as Sara, a single mom trying to protect her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), who may hold a key to the future. Gagnon delivers an incredible performance as Cid, layered and nuanced like an actor with 20, 30 years of experience. It's a great part. Paul Dano has a small part as Seth, a fellow Looper, while Garret Dillahunt and Noah Segan play Jesse and Kid Blue, two of Abe's Gat Men. Piper Perabo nudes up as Suzie, Joe's quasi-girlfriend and stripper/dancer.

Now for a little time travel analysis, but even I'm not exactly sure of every single detail so bear with me. You meet your future self. The logical thought is that everything you do in the moment should already be a memory in your future self, right? Well, because you're meeting your future self, aren't you changing that memory? 'Looper' finds a logical way around that. Future Joe's memory (Willis) is cloudy, things changing as Young Joe (Gordon-Levitt) does different things. Young Joe learns something, Future Joe is instantly aware of it because it is in fact....a memory. Head hurt much? Yeah, mine too. Willis' Joe delivers a perfect line for anyone who gets too hung up on the time travel aspect, plot holes or not. He explains "I don't want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we're going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws." Call it a cop out, but it works for me.

I really enjoyed this movie, especially the ending. It can be taken one specific way, but who knows? It leaves the door open for interpretation. Joe makes a choice that he thinks should right things for the future, but anything could happen. Time and the universe have a way of course-correcting (thank you, TV's Lost). The movie itself is a gem though. I loved the premise, the style, the characters, seeing Gordon-Levitt become Willis in a highly stylized montage, and I loved the ending. Can't recommend it enough.

Looper (2012): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 18, 2013


I think heist films can unfairly get criticized at times. They're not quite low-brow, but there's something simple and straightforward about them. Now with that said, there have been some very talented directors who have taken a crack at a heist flick like Jean-Pierre Melville, Jules Dassin, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, and in a surprising twist, Richard Brooks in 1971's Dollars (also released as $).

An American banking consultant working in Hamburg, Germany, Joe Collins (Warren Beatty) has helped one highly respected and well-regarded bank install a state of the art security system. German banking allows individuals to keep security deposit boxes that no government or police enforcement agency can examine, a law that several shady characters are taking advantage of....and Joe knows it. He's working with a call girl, Dawn (Goldie Hawn), who has done some "recon work" to root out some of these shady types with deposit boxes at Joe's bank, and together the duo has found three such individuals. Joe knows all the ways around the newly-installed security features, but he also has an ace up his sleeve. If they can pull off the job, the victims aren't going to be able to go to the police with their stolen money now....well, stolen. If only they can pull it off.

I thought I was in for it early on in this Brooks-directed heist flick. The reviews I'd perused claimed this was a comedic-drama, a spoof of heist films. Spoofs? Oh, no, I'll pass thank you very much. With the cast and director involved though, I had to give it a chance. I was then even a little bit more confused when the movie starts, and it didn't feel like a spoof AT ALL. It seemed like the polar opposite, a twisting, turning story involving an opening segment with countless characters and situations that were completely unexplained. Who's that?!? What's he up to?!? I'm confused!!! Well, thankfully things right themselves, and this ended up being a very enjoyable, smart heist flick with just a touch of humor to keep things light.

In 1971, there weren't too many people around cooler than Warren Beatty. Okay, check that. That's true now too -- Beatty is awesome no matter the age, year -- but it was especially true in 1971. His cool was an effortless one, an ability to put an audience at ease almost at will. So while his part as Joe Collins isn't a flashy part, it's a cool part. He has a couple noteworthy scenes including his explanation of the intricate security system and later a rant about the science and percentages of bank robbing. As his co-star, Hawn was the weak link here. She's a little too shrill, a little too goofy for her own good. Cute as a button? Yes. As the duo's three targets, we've got Sarge (Scott Brady), a longtime Army soldier stationed in Germany working the black market, Attorney (Robert Webber), a lawyer who's been shorting a Las Vegas casino for years, and Candy Man (Arthur Brauss), a smuggler who specializes in everything from drugs to cash. Also worth mentioning is Auric Goldfinger himself, Gert Frobe, as the trusting bank manager Joe works with.

So while I liked this heist flick -- and more as it developed -- there's some flaws I have to bring up that bothered me. For one, the spoof criticism isn't valid in my mind. For the most part, it's a pretty serious movie. Why then have Little Richard sing two songs on the soundtrack? They feel out of place and reek of early product placement to me. I usually like composer Quincy Jones' soundtracks, but this one fell short for me. And then there's just the general weirdness. In one scene, we see Hawn's Dawn with Webber's character pre-hook-up. She dresses as a fireman to "put out his fire" while also spraying him with a water bottle. Maybe it's just the angle (and/or my dirty mind), but the angle Brooks chooses to shoot from sure makes it look like Miss Hawn is peeing on Mr. Webber. Oh, the Candy Man also gives his cat a dose of acid -- I suppose to see if its the real is -- and disposes of the body in his apartment heater. Weird much?

Now that we've got that unpleasantness out of the way, let's get back to the positives. I liked that Brooks shot on location as much as possible in Hamburg, Germany and Sweden. It feels authentic. The best thing going though is two separate set pieces that help bring the movie up a notch or two. The first is the actual heist in Joe's bank vault. The plan is ingenious, and without giving away any spoilers, an extended sequence that is dripping with tension. Okay, here's a hint. He actually pulls the job with hundreds and thousands of people watching him do it. Confused? Don't be. It's a gem of a scene with a great payoff.

Then there's the finale. If an epically well-done and choreographed heist/robbery scene wasn't enough for you, the ending should satisfy your desire. Joe and Dawn are on the run with two of the three bad guys hot on their tails. In a sequence that runs an entire 30 minutes, we see a chase with barely 15 words spoken. It sounds simple, but a chase with two people chasing one person can be an incredibly exhilarating sequence to watch. No frills, no crazy twists, just one person running for his life with two people chasing him close behind. It rivals a similar chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but with a seriously darker edge. It keeps going and going to the point you feel a little tired just watching it. Credit to Brooks, Beatty, Brady and Brauss for keeping the momentum going, never wavering at any point. A few oddities aside, I liked this one a lot. Highly recommended.

Dollars (1971): ***/****

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Dangerous Days of Kiowa Jones

The 1950s and early 1960s were the era of the TV westerns. Countless shows from Bonanza to Gunsmoke, The Rifleman to Rawhide and many more dotted the TV landscape. Audiences wanted to see them, and the studios and channels obliged them. By 1966 though, their popularity was waning a bit. A TV movie that was never picked up as a show, The Dangerous Days of Kiowa Jones, was unfortunately a tad bit too late.

A drifting cowboy on the trail to a job, Kiowa Jones (Robert Horton) stumbles across two prisoners at an isolated cabin guarded by Marshal Duncan (Gary Merrill), a peace officer slowly dying from fever and smallpox. Duncan enlists Jones' help, swearing him in as a deputy to help him transport the duo. The cowboy wants nothing to do with it, but goes along with Duncan's plan just the same. It's less than a day later though when the Marshal dies from the fever, leaving Jones to bring the two prisoners to justice in Fort Smith. There's a problem though. One of the prisoners, Bobby Jack Wilkes (Sal Mineo), has made a standing offer. Anyone who rescues him from the hangman's noose will be rewarded with $2,000. As if his impromptu job wasn't tough enough, now Jones has to defend his prisoners from every man in the territory who can carry a gun.

First shown on TV in 1966, 'Kiowa' wasn't picked up by a network. It's unfortunate because it certainly has some potential. I think the biggest positive is Horton as the titular Kiowa Jones. He had already starred in Wagon Train and A Man Called Shenandoah so he was familiar with audiences and the genre. In other words, he knew what worked. Horton was never a huge star on film or on television, and besides the oh so awful but oh so good The Green Slime, I'd never seen him in anything in either format. The best TV westerns had memorable lead characters, and I feel like Horton's Kiowa Jones certainly had the potential to be a pretty memorable lead.

Why is that you ask? Simple. Like I reviewed recently in A Man Called Gannon, there's something iconic and even a little romantic about the concept of a drifting cowboy. Everything he owns is on his horse with him. He rides from town to town and job to job, living on his own and by his own code of ethics and morals. Horton is able to put a fresh spin on it. His Kiowa Jones is a likable, easy-going cowboy who carries a rifle but doesn't wear a pistol. Thrust into the unlikely position as a deputy, he commits to it because he gave his word. Nothing else. It would be easy to ride out, leave the Marshal behind. He could even hand over his prisoners to any of the gunmen trying to free Bobby Jack. The best part? Kiowa wants nothing to do with the $1,000 reward he would earn by delivering the prisoners. His reasoning? He'd just get in trouble with it. He likes his easy-going lifestyle. That money would just be a hassle. I really, really liked what Horton did with the Kiowa Jones character.

Getting the prisoners to Fort Smith provides about as difficult as you would assume, but 'Kiowa' introduces a solid list of supporting characters along the trail. Doing what seems like a rift on Billy the Kid, Mineo is a scene-stealer as Bobby Jack. He cackles and laughs hysterically, defying Kiowa to just let him go. The dynamic between the two reminded me a little of Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur, albeit on a smaller, less dark level. Nehemiah Persoff is similarly a scene-stealer as Skoda, Kiowa's second prisoner and a gypsy who's accepted his fate with the hangman, predicting what comes with his tarot cards. In an interesting addition, Diane Baker plays Amilia Rathmore, a middle-aged, single, even a little plain woman traveling by wagon to her new teaching post. I especially liked the give and take between her and the trail-wise Kiowa.

On the trail, also look for Royal Dano as Otto, an aging family patriarch out for revenge against Bobby Jack, with his two sons (Lonny Chapman and Zalman King) along for the ride. Harry Dean Stanton and Val Avery make a quick appearance as two greedy bounty hunters tailing Kiowa, Bobby Jack and Skoda with dollar signs for eyes. Robert H. Harris plays Dobie, the hangman.  

Clocking in at 98 minutes, the story in 'Kiowa' is episodic, dealing with one issue at a time before moving on. It is a TV movie so the budget wasn't gigantic. The entire movie is spent on the trail so there's no need for extras or towns. Nighttime scenes are clearly indoor sets, but with my penchant for anything 1960s and/or westerns, there's a certain cheeseball charm to the lack of budget. The music is a little goofy at times, little too light-hearted, but it works. Mostly though, I liked this movie a lot for the casting. I loved Horton as Kiowa. It's a fun part, but there's a darkness to it as evident when the peaceful Kiowa is forced to kill a man. It's a surprisingly dramatic moment in a surprisingly good western. Too bad it was never picked up as a show, but this is a pretty good stand-alone flick on its own.

The Dangerous Days of Kiowa Jones (1966): ***/****

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Twilight Zone: The Movie

Airing for five seasons on CBS between 1959 and 1964, The Twilight Zone is one of the all-time great television shows. A mix of horror, science fiction, paranormal and all sorts of wackiness, almost all the episodes were able to deliver some shocker/twist in the end. It's been revived several times in TV reboots, and even received a big screen adaptation, the much-maligned 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie, a film shrouded in controversy even before its release.

The story is broken down into four separate segments, including a prologue. The first segment follows Bill Connor (Vic Morrow), a despicably racist middle-aged man who finds himself in a variety of different situations where he's the one being prejudiced against. The second takes place at a retirement home where one of the residents, Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers) offers his fellow residents a chance at a new life of sorts. In the third, a young woman, a teacher, Helen (Kathleen Quinlan), is on a road trip west when she meets Anthony (Jeremy Licht) with a strange hold and ability to control his family. And last, John Valentine (John Lithgow), a man who hates flying, is on a cross-country flight and struggling mightily as the plane flies through a storm. Looking out the window, Valentine is absolutely convinced that something is out on the wing, tearing up the engine. No one else on board sees it though. Is he nuts?

I loved the original Twilight Zone episodes from creator/writer Rod Serling so I went into this movie with some at least modest expectations. As a result, I was more than a little worried as I watched the prologue, two men (Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd) driving at night on a road trip out in the desert. The tone was okay -- feeling like a set-up -- if a little odd, but a really stupid twist (supposedly a shocker?) comes completely out of left field. If it was supposed to be a shocker, it came across as laughable. Thankfully, it wasn't a complete harbinger of what was to come. For the most part, the movie does what it's supposed to do. It's creepy, unsettling and plays like a tribute to the original show. Is it perfect? No, not at all. Of the four segments, one is really good, two only good, and one really bad.

Beyond the actual movie, 'Zone' is known for a horrific accident that claimed the lives of three cast members on-set, including star Vic Morrow. Filming the movie's opening segment, Morrow and two child actors were killed when a helicopter crashed onto them after several explosions sent the helicopter out of control. There is actually some horrifically brutal footage of the accident via Youtube if you're curious. It's sickening stuff. The accident put the film in limbo, producers and the studio debating whether to continue with the film. The first segment's director, John Landis, took a ton of heat for the accident (understandably so), even getting through a lawsuit that ruled no one was at fault for the accident. With absolutely no disrespect meant to Morrow or the two child actors, a cloud hung over the film's production and eventual release. The opening segment with Morrow is one of the "only good" segments, but it's difficult to watch it without thinking about what actually happened in bringing this portion of the film to life.

Almost as a novelty, the four segments were divided by four different directors, Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller. The odd part? Spielberg -- the most accomplished of the four by far -- delivers the weakest segment of the film by far. Apparently Spielberg was greatly affected by Morrow's death and debated even continuing the film. He did stick with it, but biographies claim the director just mailed in the effort, and it shows. While Crothers does a good job in his part, the segment plays like a happy go-lucky after school special. In other words? Nothing like the best Twilight Zone episodes, not even the average ones. Directing the prologue and the opening portion, Landis' parts are hit or miss. The Morrow story is good, but it had to be edited on the fly following Morrow's death. The end result is a rather abrupt ending.

Thankfully, the final two portions make up for the somewhat slow start. The Joe Dante portion is based off a Zone episode titled 'It's a Good Life' with the original star, Bill Mumy, making a quick appearance. Quinlan does a fine job as Helen, the young teacher thrust into something she can't even comprehend at first. 12-year old Licht is incredibly creepy as young Anthony, a boy with special powers. Also look for Kevin McCarthy and William Schallert in key parts. The highlight though is George Miller's segment, based off maybe the most well known and classic Twilight Zone episode ever, 'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' starring William Shatner. Lithgow's performance as an obsessed, possibly paranoid airline passenger is the best performance in the entire movie. It is a truly unsettling segment, also delivering the biggest and best twist of all the four stories.

In the end, the TV show turned movie is a mixed bag. More than a movie that stands on its own, it plays like a tribute without a whole lot originality. Wrapping up at just 101 minutes, it covers a whole lot of ground. Could 15-20 more minutes have aided the cause? Maybe not, but it couldn't have hurt. Also listen for Burgess Meredith as the narrator, transitioning from story to story and keeping us mildly much as the Twilight Zone will allow!!! Imagine a dun-dun-duh!!! at the end of that statement.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


I love heist and caper films. I tolerate romantic-ish comedies. So while I was intrigued by 1966's Kaleidoscope when it popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule in January, I was also a tad bit worried. Would the two different genres combine to be good? Okay, that's not fair. I was looking for a movie I don't hate. I'm a cheap date when it comes to most movies.

Making his way across Europe and countless cities, Barney Lincoln (Warren Beatty) is taking down one casino after another, and his riches are growing quickly. While he's in London, Barney meets Angel (Susannah York) on the streets and quickly falls for her. Angel, on the other hand, isn't interested at all in the smooth first. After a chance encounter at a casino, Angel starts to tag along as Barney visits one casino after another. Only then does she start to question how he keeps winning and never loses. The young couple are falling for each other, but Angel has other plans, calling her father, McGinnis (Clive Revill), a Scotland Yard investigator, to look into things. What exactly has Barney gotten himself into?

So go figure, but heist-caper meets romantic comedy works surprisingly well. No, this is absolutely nothing new or innovative. An upper class, suave, well-to-do man has the hots for a woman who is perfect, but she wants nothing to do with him? I, for one, did not see that coming. (That was sarcasm by the way). It works because of Susannah York and a pre-Bonnie and Clyde Warren Beatty, their chemistry evident from the first scene. It's fun to see them go back and forth, always trying to one up the other as they start to realize they have genuine feelings toward each other. It's good, but not great, the first 30-40 minutes a little slow going. Never bad, just could have been better and more entertaining in the first half of the flick.

Overall, it's got a lot of little things going for it. Like several recent reviews -- Jack of Diamonds, Danger: Diabolik -- I've posted, Kaleidoscope has that always fun, always interesting 1960s style. With its lightly toned story (the "danger" is never really in question), Kaleidoscope globe trots around Europe. England is used as the backdrop for a majority of the story with some green-screen shots inserted here and there to show Barney's other stops. The score from composer Stanley Myers is solid and light without being too light-hearted. Give it a listen HERE. Even the scene to scene transitions are cool, the visual of a spinning kaleidoscope helping make the jumps.

While this is obviously Beatty and York's movie, I was more drawn to a handful of supporting players. Revill as Inspector MacGinnis is especially good. He's recruiting Barney for a dangerous mission that any James Bond fan will surely appreciate. Have you read Casino Royale? Seen the movie? Then you've seen this thinly veiled duplicate of the original Ian Fleming story for 007.  McGinnis needs Barney to break the bank of a narcotics supplier, Dominion (Eric Porter), who's fallen on difficult times financially. His trick? Barney snuck into Kaleidoscope, a playing card company and marked the card plates so he can read the cards where no one else can. Those cards happen to be at casinos and clubs across Europe, including Dominion's club. Revill brings some much-needed drama, Porter has some fun as the smooth, underplayed villain, and Murray Melvin plays Aimes, McGinnis' goofy assistant and dead-shot with a rifle.

It's in the last half of the movie that Kaleidoscope finds its rhythm in its James Bond-knock-off. There is something inherently simple and tense about a card game with hundreds of thousands and millions of dollars resting on one hand of cards. Director Jack Smight has some cool techniques with his camera, following the action around in long, unedited cuts, then zooming in for extreme close-ups. Watch some of the poker scenes HERE (SPOILERS). Generally underplayed and understated, the energy gets ratcheted up in the final act as Barney has it out with Dominion and his henchmen at a huge English countryside manor. I didn't love this movie early on, but I really liked the second half. Surprisingly good stuff. Worth checking out.

Kaleidoscope (1966): ***/****

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


The 1980s were a lot of things, but as far as sub-genres in movies, I can't think of a bigger one from the decade than the buddy cop movie. We've got Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, Running Scared and probably plenty more I'm missing. Well, we can add one more to that list, 1987's Stakeout.

Deeply into a long-running investigation, Seattle detectives Chris Lecce (Richard Dreyfuss) and Bill Reimer (Emilio Estevez) are reassigned to a case assigned by the F.B.I. A convicted killer of a federal agent, Stick Montgomery (Aidan Quinn) has escaped from prison, but there are few clues as to where he would head. Their solution is simple; set up stakeouts anywhere they think Montgomery might show up at. Chris and Bill -- along with another detective duo -- draw some of that stakeout duty, setting up an apartment observation post across the street from Stick's ex-girlfriend, Maria (Madeleine Stowe). The detectives brace for hours and days of mind-numbing duty...until they actually set eyes on Maria. That is trouble on one level, but what about when a lovelorn Chris falls madly in love with the woman they're observing. Uh-oh, here we go.

Like a good, old-fashioned peanut butter and jelly sandwich, there is something comforting about a buddy cop movie done correctly. From director John Badham, 'Stakeout' in its best moments follows that precise if familiar formula. That formula isn't exclusive to the cop angle, but it doesn't hurt either (think Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Put two like-minded men together, opposites or as similar individuals, who have worked together for an extended time, and let the hijinks begin! The partner relationship, like two close brothers, feels natural and real. The duo are friends -- maybe even best friends -- but they're always busting each other's chops, always ready to knock them down a peg, but when it comes down to it, they're always going to be there for each other.

'Stakeout' isn't a perfect movie, and as far as buddy cop flicks go, it's average, paling in comparison to the other ones listed above. When it does work though, it works because of that dynamic between Dreyfuss and Estevez. I was somewhat surprised by the casting, but it works. They play ridiculously well off each other, reflecting a partnership that goes back quite a few years. So go figure, the familiar cop partnership is the best part of this movie. I loved the bitching back and forth on stakeout, the bickering in the precinct, the jabbing back and forth at...every...given...moment. It works, simple as that. I won't go as far as saying it's the "science of stakeout," but it is fun to see the actual stakeout develop. The on-going rivalry between Chris and Bill and rival detective duo Dan Lauria and Forest Whitaker provides some very funny moments as the two pairs switch shifts, an escalating prank war going back and forth between the two. It's good stuff.

So it didn't take a nuclear physicist to figure out what the story was here. Two cops on stakeout, one falls in love with the woman they're observing. I can say I was surprised by how this developed. For one, I didn't think -- SPOILER WARNING STOP READING SPOILER -- that it would be Dreyfuss's Chris falling for Stowe's Maria instead of Estevez's Bill. Two, I didn't think it would work, but Dreyfuss and Stowe have a surprisingly strong chemistry. It's not their fault, just how their storyline develops. In a case of mistaken identity that Bill does nothing to correct, even promoting it, Maria starting to develop feelings right back at him. It gets to be a little much, disappointing because for the most part I enjoyed this one.

As the story focuses more on the surprising crush/love develops, Estevez gets left in the background unfortunately, but he makes the most of his screentime, especially with the escalating prank war. Stowe is quite the looker and holds her own in an otherwise all-male cast. Quinn too makes the most of his sinister appearance as Stick, drifting in and out of the story with his accomplice and cousin (Ian Tracey). In the final act, things get back to basics with the buddy cop angle as Quinn's Stick arrives on the scene in Seattle. The showdown in the end has all sorts of crazy shenanigans and mistaken identity, and oh yeah, wood chippers, shootouts and lots of random punching and fighting. It's a good movie, just not a great one. Give me a couple months and maybe I'll check out the rather unnecessary sounding sequel, 1993's Another Stakeout. No promises though so don't hold your breath.

Stakeout (1987): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, March 11, 2013

Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden

In the midst of awards season, director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is getting all sorts of Oscar buzz from Best Picture to Jessica Chastain for Best Actress. It's a movie I liked but didn't love, but I can appreciate the quality from beginning to end. The story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden is a massive undertaking which 'Thirty' does well at tackling. How about a smaller budget straight-to-DVD version of the same story? Uh-oh, this could be bad, but here we go with 2012's Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden.

As the years pass since the 9/11 attacks, the CIA, including an agent named Vivian (Kathleen Robertson), continue to search for clues that will ultimately lead to terrorist Osam Bin Laden. When a promising clue leads to a fortress-like compound in Pakistan, two field agents (apparently unlisted/uncredited in the cast listing) set up surveillance on the compound in hopes of figuring out for sure if bin Laden is in there. As the clues comes together, Seal Team 6, including young team leader, Stunner (Cam Gigandet), and veteran right-hand man, Cherry (Anson Mount), prepare to lead a raid to take out bin Laden should the clues and identity come together as planned.

Originally shown on National Geographic TV (I didn't know that channel existed) just a few days before the November 2012 election, 'Raid' is impossible to view without thinking of Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. It tells the same, exact story, right down to the division of the story among a handful of different stories. Where 'Zero' uses Chastain's Maya as a link to all the stories, 'Raid' has no real unifying hook other than the ultimate goal of hunting down bin Laden. It has a docu-drama feel to the too-short 91 minute movie, utilizing stock footage of the war in Afghanistan with election footage, some President Obama soundbites, quick editing of C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, and general B-roll.

Don't be confused though. While the title says this is a movie about Seal Team 6 and its raid for bin Laden, it's not exclusively that story. It certainly devotes more time to the team than 'Zero' did, but it's not just their story. The actual Team 6 story is pretty standard men-on-a-mission focus. Along with Gigandet's Stunner and Mount's Cherry, we're introduced to Mule (rapper Xzibit), Trench (Freddy Rodriguez), and Sauce (Kenneth Miller), and Lieutenant Commander (Robert Knepper). It's pretty typical stuff. The group bickers, fights, argues, makes fun of each other. The rivalry dynamic between Stunner and Cherry is hackneyed at best and feels like something you will have seen in countless other movies. The weird part? Beyond the rivalry thing, the men on a men angle, the specialists working together works surprisingly well. Kudos to first-time screenwriter Kendall Lampkin for getting that element correct.

Some scenes among the team stood out in a positive sense for me. An early mission in the desert is well-choreographed and full of tension with a surprising capper. The raid itself in the finale is nothing spectacular (especially having seen Zero Dark Thirty where that scene is perfection). Instead, it's the moments that are more personal that work. Mule and Trench talking about the mission near an airfield and how they ended up as Seals is well-written and well-acted. It's the definition of cliched, but a scene where the Seals video-message with their families right before the mission is authentic and emotional in in its simplicity. Anything new in that formula? Nope, but when the story has a finale that EVERYONE knows where it's going, there has to be something along the route to keep you interested.

Of the three storylines, the weakest is the C.I.A. angle. Robertson's Vivian -- quite the looker -- wears huge-rimmed glasses a 1960s librarian wouldn't have worn, apparently to dull down her looks (I guess?). She's joined by the always reliable William Fichtner as Mr. Guidry, a C.I.A. supervisor, and Eddie Kaye Thomas as a fellow agent with a different stance on the bin Laden hunt. These are the scenes that have the pseudo-documentary feel to them, and not for the better as they lack any real sense or urgency or energy. While I can't find their names listed in the cast, the third storyline of the two agents on the ground in Pakistan near the compound is more compelling -- by far -- than the C.I.A. angle.

I'll be giving this TV-movie the same rating as I did Zero Dark Thirty, but I'm not saying they're equally good or even on the same page. Many reviewers criticized the left-wing angle this movie takes, its lack of military accuracy on a ridiculously minute angle, or any number of other things. The moral of the story is what I go into every movie with. Did I like it? Even a little? Yes, I enjoyed this one throughout. Regardless of your thoughts, it would make an interesting companion piece to watch with Bigelow's Zero Darky Thirty.

Seal Team 6: The Raid on Osama bin Laden (2012): ***/****