The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, June 28, 2013

Jaws: The Revenge

We're on shark overload here so we might as well finish strong. Well, as strong as a third sequel in a progressively awful series allows. The Jaws series starts off on an epically strong film, follows with a pretty decent sequel, and then wraps up with two of the worst movies around. Putting a capper on the series, here's 1987's Jaws: The Revenge.

It's been years since her family has had to deal with shark attacks, and Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) is able to move on now. She's a widow -- Chief Brody died from a heart attack -- but living on Amity Island still. Her life is thrown up in the air when her son, a deputy on Amity, is killed by a great white shark. Ellen is convinced that it is a shark seeking revenge from her family's past involvement (read = killing) of sharks. Looking to get away some from her own demons, she travels with her oldest son, Michael (Lance Guest), and his wife and daughter to their home in the Bahamas. Everyone tries to convince her that her worries are absurd, but she can't shake the fear. Resting and relaxing though, Ellen is again shaken to the core when.....the shark shows up in the Bahamas!

Okay, let's clear this up now. This third Jaws sequel and fourth movie in the series is really bad. It currently possesses a 2.7 rating on IMDB and deservedly so. Now that said, I think it was miles ahead of Jaws 3-D, easily one of the worst movies I've ever seen on so many levels. To its credit, 'Revenge' basically pretends that 3-D never actually happened, and that's fine by me. What's bad is really bad. Whenever the shark is shown, you can actually see stitches in the shark, its bottomless mouth, the underwater crane actually transporting the shark. Still, it was filmed in the Bahamas (and that always looks nice), and the familiar Jaws theme is still cool. It's not good, but it is also isn't as God awful bad as some reviews made it out to be.

Maybe in some sort of existential sense, the premise here is pretty cool. Through three movies, the Brody family has dispatched their fair share of great white sharks. Ridiculous science assumptions aside, wouldn't it be kinda cool if a shark actually possessed the ability to grasp revenge? No? Okay, maybe it's just me. Sharks are killing and swimming machines so what if they were able to hunt someone specifically? Eh, the more I think about it the stupider it gets. The execution makes it worse. Ellen, Michael and Co. travel to the Bahamas and within three days a shark swims the entire trip down there from Amity Island. Yes, it follows them. A shark can somehow sense where they're going thousands of miles away and FOLLOWS them. Yeah, that's just not good.

Let's move onto the acting, ranging from really bad/wooden to meh to out of place. Reviews point to Gary's marriage with a studio exec as a main reason she reprises her role as Ellen Brody. It's eerily similar to the part Roy Scheider played in Jaws 2, but not as good. The part consists of her worriedly looking at the ocean with a vacant stare. Guest isn't much better, but he's a tad more animated at least (Karen Young playing his wife, they do have sex a lot, and Judith Barsi as their precocious daughter). In the bizarre 'Was he blackmailed into this movie?' casting, Michael Caine plays Hoagie, an island pilot who takes a shine to visiting Ellen. He's surprisingly good, but that's because he's Michael Caine more than anything else. Caine infamously once said "I never saw it, by all accounts it's terrible, but I have seen the house it built, and it's terrific." Also look for Mario Van Peebles as Jake, a Bahama marine researcher working with Michael, a truly cliched, stereotypical part that grates at all times.

A bomb in reviews and at the box office, the studio made an even stupider decision, inserting a new ending into the finale. SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS You can watch the original theatrical ending HERE, lousy but classic cinema compared to what the new ending is. The new finale actually has a shark jump clear out of the water, roar (because sharks can apparently roar), gets harpooned by the boat and spontaneously explodes. Footage from the original Jaws is even inserted (nice touch, huh?). One character is brutally bitten/attacked by the shark but manages to somehow survive. Yes, it's ridiculous. It certainly closes the series on a high note. Try as I might though, I can't give it as bad a rating as Jaws 3-D. I just can't. It's awful, but not on that level.

Jaws: The Revenge (1987): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Jaws 3-D

How do you make an unnecessary sequel even more unbearable? Add a gimmick! Here go we with one of the all-time worst sequels ever, 1983's Jaws 3-D. The original Jaws is a classic, Jaws 2 is pretty dumb but still entertaining, but this second sequel and third flick in the series is....Just....Plain....Awful.

Working at SeaWorld in Florida, Mike Brody (Dennis Quaid) is one of many employees readying for the opening of a new exhibit. It features underwater tunnels and a restaurant that allow park visitors to see what the ocean is like from an underwater perspective. The opening though has a minor hitch....a great white shark has been trapped in the enclosed water park, and it has already claimed a few victims. What to do? Working with his girlfriend and animal trainer Dr. Kay Morgan (Bess Armstrong), Mike and several other park workers manage to capture the shark, the first captured great white shark ever. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The captured shark is the baby.....and it's mom is angry and also trapped in the park. Where exactly is this immense 35-foot shark hiding? Can they find it and kill it before it claims any more victims?

Oh, good Lord, this movie was awful. My viewing recently was the first time I'd ever really watched this sequel, and it will most definitely be the last. This dreck doesn't even have that quality of 'It's so truly bad that it's good and entertaining.' What's unfortunate is that the basic premise -- a killer shark trapped in a highly populated area -- has the potential to be at least mildly entertaining. That's all it is though, just potential. There are any number of deal-breakers here from the lousy acting to the poorly written script to the horrifically bad special effects, and I use that term ever so lightly. All instances that in itself would be bad, but wouldn't you know it? '3-D' offers all of the above for our viewing pleasure!

I'll kick things off with the 3-D element here. By 1983, studios had at least some semblance of technology available, but apparently director Joe Alves pissed someone off and didn't get any of that technology. The actual use of 3-D technology is laughable here. We get countless shots of dolphins, fish and assorted sea life swimming right at the camera. Watch out! They're going to swim right at us out of the television! That's just one thing though. At one point, the 35-foot shark swims directly at the camera, but it is so ridiculously fake-looking that I ended up laughing. The shark doesn't move, doesn't swim. It just appears to be floating at us menacingly. Then, when the shark -- SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS -- meets his maker, its blood and jaw come spiraling at us. I'm not a fan of 3-D anything (even when some money is spent on it), but when it's this, just wow.

Okay, moving on. Let's tackle the script here. Yes, you guessed it. It is awful. The shark is almost secondary to the story and takes a backseat to basically everything. The first 30 minutes are spent with Mike (son of Roy Scheider's Chief Brody) and Kay as they meet up with Mike's younger brother, Sean (John Putch), and try to get him to have some sex with slutty water skier Kelly Ann (Lea Thompson). There's never any rhythm to any of the story, just random attacks that we never really see clearly and then a bunch of explaining. The reveal that the shark they've caught is hysterical. Apparently the 35-foot shark is hiding in a ventilation pipe. Yep, it's just sitting there waiting to strike. Also look for Louis Gossett Jr. as the park manager, Simon MacCorkindale as hunter FitzRoyce with P.H. Moriarty as Tate, his hunting assistant.

There was an art to how the original Jaws presented the lurking shark and its impending attacks. John Williams' score here is thrown by the wayside, just the main 'Shark theme' making the transition here. It's stupid. We never really see any of the shark attacks, and all the tension goes out the window. What we see of the attacks are quick and hard to follow. It also ends on a highly inappropriate freeze frame. People have just died tragically and horrifically via shark attack, but Quaid's Mike jumps out of the water with a pump of his fist. A super-imposed dolphin jumps out of the water and twirls in the air. Yeah for survival! It goes beyond dumb and entertaining here. It's just dumb to the point I felt stupider having watched it.

Jaws 3-D (1983): */****

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Jaws 2

Some movies are just too successful not to follow up. The first true summer blockbuster, 1975's Jaws was an instant classic, a film that's as successful in terms of story and characters as it is on a far more technical level. The question of course is that everything is wrapped up nicely in the original. We didn't need a follow-up, a sequel that explored more. On the other hand, money is a powerful motivator, isn't it? Let's continue with the series, 1978's Jaws 2.

It's been three years since Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) helped dispatch an immense great white shark terrorizing Amity Island, and things have gone relatively back to normal. His kids have grown up, and his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary), is working closely with development and construction on the island. In the midst of summer rush though, weird occurrences start to happen including the disappearance of two divers and a bizarre boating accident where the driver and water skier are both killed. A killer whale even washes up on shore with huge bites in its side. No one has witnessed anything funny though, but Brody is convinced that all the weird incidents, evidence and clues point to another great white shark patrolling the waters around Amity Island. Can he convince anyone else of what he believes before more lives are claimed?

Much like its classic predecessor, 'Jaws 2' seemed doom from the start. The Steven Spielberg directed film from 1975 was obviously able to right the ship, becoming a fan favorite and one of Hollywood's all-time best flicks. Making its follow-up though was far from a smooth ride. Filming started and went on for over a month before the studio decided it wanted to go in a different direction. In stepped director Jeannot Szwarc and the tone of the movie was lightened up a bit (as much as you can with a movie about a killer shark), some of the darker ideas left behind. Filming went on with some other issues developing, and the final product went on to gross over $200,000,000 at the box office.

If you're going to make an unnecessary sequel, might as well do it right. Less than pleased about having to play Chief Brody again, Scheider apparently had some pretty intense on-set incidents with director Szwarc and crew. You'd never guess from watching the finished product. In the original, Scheider was part of an ensemble, carving out his own niche alongside similarly scene-stealing Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. This is his film, and he embraces it (issues he was there at all aside). We see character development, especially considering how his earlier interactions with the shark impacted him. He becomes paranoid, even obsessed when the possibility of another shark arises. We see Brody's descent into that obsession, putting his job and family at risk. It's a character we like and sympathize with, and Scheider does a fine job.

Along with Scheider, Gary returns as Ellen Brody, Martin's wife who worries more and more about her paranoid husband. She believes him and supports him, but even she questions if he's lost his mind a little bit. Also returning is Murray Hamilton as Larry Vaughan, money-minded mayor of Amity Island.  Jeffrey Kramer plays Deputy Hendricks, Brody's goofy but well-meaning deputy.

Also setting it apart from the original is a more straightforward mentality. One of the most clever parts of the original is that we basically don't see the shark until the final third of the movie. The drama and tension builds until it's almost unbearable. Well, if you're watching a movie called 'Jaws 2,' you kinda know what it's about, right? No point in hiding the shark. The shark attacks are more aggressive, more in your face as we see the great white rip his victims to pieces (divers, swimmers, boaters, helicopters, stupid teenagers). Composer John Williams returns with his famous score, especially the main theme. Seeing the shark can be just as scary as the unknown, and we get our fair share of shark P.O.V. shots as he swims closer to his next meals. Similar to the original in the big picture, but it does enough to distance itself and create its own identity.

The biggest difference between the first two movies is the second hour. Instead of going on the hunt, Brody ends up being a rescuer. A bunch of horny, drinking teenagers, including Brody's son, Michael (Mark Gruner) and a tag-along younger son, Sean (Marc Gilpin), head out on their sailboats for the far-off lighthouse and more! The shark is in pursuit and wreaking havoc, Brody following behind in hopes of fending off the attacks. The build-up can be a little slow, but the last 45 minutes makes up for it. Also worthwhile to see how much it influenced future slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th among others. It's a solid ending to an enjoyable if unspectacular sequel.

Jaws 2 (1978): ***/****

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


The ocean is a big old place. Anything could be lurking in that water, right? It's a criminally simplistic fear, that of the unknown and the ocean is a perfect example. In a film that was the first real example of a summer blockbuster, 1975's Jaws is the rare perfect movie. Scared of the water? I am, and I won't be going anywhere near the water after watching this one.

Amity Island is a quiet, little resort town off the coast of New England, a town readying itself for huge crowds of tourists and vacationers on the upcoming Fourth of July weekend. The new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), has a problem though as the bloody remains of a teenage girl wash up on shore. The culprit seems obvious; a shark, but no one else is willing to back the Chief up. He gets help -- and a confirmation on the shark -- from marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who recommends the beaches be closed with the immense, hunting shark in the waters. More attacks come fast and furious though, leaving Amity no choice but to pay for an experienced, grizzled shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the great white shark once and for all. But as the trio heads to open waters, even they can't imagine what awaits in their hunt.

From a director who would go on to create a halfway decent name for himself, Steven Spielberg, 'Jaws' seemed doomed almost from the start. Based off a novel by Peter Benchley (the rare film better than the book here), the production went overbudget, over schedule and over everything as issues with a mechanical shark delayed shooting. A $4 million budget turned into $9 million. The end result? A classic film that audiences loved, the final product making $470,000,000 million in box office. It spawned three sequels -- none of them even remotely as good -- and changed the way films were made and the type of films Hollywood looked to make, market, and release for audiences. Not a bad formula for success, huh? Not at all.

On a very basic level, 'Jaws' is a horror movie. What is scarier than a creature that seemingly can't be stopped? The dark, gloomy, shadowy water can hide anything, and in this case it is an immensely terrifying 25-foot great white shark. As Hooper explains, all this oceanic creature does is swim and eat, eat and swim, nothing else. Maybe the best thing that could happen to Spielberg's famous film is the mechanical issues he had in shooting the shark. Because there were such issues, Spielberg tried to minimize the shark's actual on-screen time. We don't even get a really clear look/view of the shark until 80 minutes into a 124-minute movie (and it's a doozy of an appearance, watch the iconic scene HERE). It's all about the dread and impending doom. We know the attacks are coming, but that doesn't take away from that sense of doom hanging over every scene. It becomes almost unbearable at times, but more on that later.

I'll get to the actors and more focus on the story, but an additional star here is composer John Williams and his score, maybe the most instantly recognizable score EVER. Who doesn't know the dun-dun-dun-dun-DUNNA-DUNNA! theme that's paired with all of the shark's attacks? What separates a really good score from a great score is that ability to bring you into a movie. Williams' score succeeds on that level in epic fashion. You hear that theme, and for me, I get goosebumps right up my back (and I've seen this movie a ton of times!). It is moving and epic, unsettling and adventurous, a score that runs the gamut over the course of the entire flick.

From the opening scene -- skinny-dipping teenager eaten in pre-dawn darkness -- through the attacks and up to the finale, there's not really a weak point. Are there some parts that are better than others? Yes, most definitely. As good as the first hour is, the second hour is by far the best thing going here as Brody, Hooper and Quint board Quint's beat-up, shark-hunting ship, the Orca, and head out on the hunt. The next hour produces some of the most exciting chases and action scenes ever; just three men on a small boat doing battle with a shark of epic proportions. On a more personal level, the chemistry among Scheider, Dreyfuss and Shaw is phenomenal. It is perfect and simple and natural, three very different individuals forced to work together to accomplish a pretty suicidal mission. The movie is at home most on the high seas, Spielberg filming the entire shark hunt on the ocean. It sounds simple to do so, but it doesn't feel like a studio. It looks and feels like....the OCEAN!

When you think 'blockbuster,' you don't normally go to hugely impressive acting. Working with a scene-stealing shark, the cast here is spot-on and without the benefit of huge A-list stars, just hugely talented, reliable actors. I love Scheider as Brody, land-loving, water-hating Chief who wants to do right by the people nothing else. Dreyfuss as the highly intelligent Hooper is a perfect mix between inexperienced Brody and highly experienced Quint. Shaw of course is the biggest scene-stealer of them all, his grizzled veteran of the sea who's seen it all and done it all. Shaw's monologue explaining his involvement with the USS Indianapolis is a scene to behold as well (watch it HERE). Talk about a captivating, eye-popping scene, it's unreal and unsettling to watch. Kudos Mr. Shaw. Also look for Murray Hamilton as Amity Island's greedy mayor and Lorraine Gray as Ellen, Brody's wife.

It's easy to look past it when we're talking about the shark, the characters, the music and such that Spielberg at a young age is already showing a knack for the director's chair. If it gets lost in the shuffle, it's a shame, but this is an interesting visual movie to watch as Spielberg keeps us on our toes with his camera. Calm, cool long shots with little editing. Close-ups of Quint's eye, of the equipment clicking as the shark goes for the bait, the little things. The moral of the review is simple, I love this movie. It's got it all and features several of the greatest one-liners ever (my personal favorite being the subtle, perfectly delivered 'We're going to need a bigger boat.') It is a classic that deserves any and all of the accolades its received over the years. Look for reviews in the coming weeks of the sequels too.

Jaws (1975): ****/****

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Savage Seven

Writing this blog, I take some pride in doing reviews of countless guy's guys type of movies; westerns and war movies, film noir and heist flicks. Any and all, I'll give them a shot. How about a new addition? In 1,000 plus reviews, I've never really wrote a review of a true outlaw biker film, but there's a first for everything. Here's 1968's The Savage Seven.

At a tiny, isolated desert shanty town, a young Indian man, Johnnie Little Hawk (Robert Walker Jr.) is one of many poor Indians under the thumb of a very greedy, very sinister American businessman, Fillmore (Mel Berger). There is a constant back and forth as Fillmore consistently keeps the people down, but there could be a solution for all involved. One day, a biker gang led by Kisum (Adam Roarke) rides into the town and immediately starts to wreak havoc. The bikers don't seem too interested in getting involved with anyone else's problems; instead they want to booze, drink and party before moving on to the next town. Kisum is drawn though to Johnnie's younger sister, Marcia (Joanna Frank), and the gang sticks around. All bets are off though when Fillmore tries to cut a deal with Kisum and the gang to rid himself of the Indian villagers. Let the chaos and violence ensue.

The outlaw biker genre was a perfect time capsule of its era, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rebel groups of motorcycle riders terrorizing towns and populations......well, because they can. Who wants to stick it to The Man? We do!!!! Who wants to take what we want and forget about the consequences? We do! We're bikers so who cares?!? These are low-brow, cheap flicks that were meant as part of a double-bill at a drive-in on the weekend. We're not talking Shakespearean scripts here. We're talking about a biker gang with characters called Joint (Larry Bishop), Stud (John Garwood), Bull (Richard Anders), and Wolf (Walter Robles) among others. Cliches, stereotypes, cheesy one-liners, 'Savage' has it all, and let me tell's an entertaining mess of a movie that kept me entertained from beginning to end.

So like any sub-genre, know what you're getting into, and that will go a long way in determining what you take away from it. Director Richard Rush knows exactly what he's working with here and in its own oddness, delivers an almost perfect genre flick.

The formula here is as simple as they come. A movie that runs just 94 minutes is full of fistfights, brawls, drinking, riding and bizarre male bonding. more than five minutes go by at any point where someone doesn't get punched in the face. This isn't the type of flick that stimulates your brain, making you think for hours and days later about what you've just watched. You sit back and let it wash over you. Then, because the movie is pretty dirty -- literally dirty in terms of actual dirt, not sex -- you want to go take a shower. The story of bikers fighting Indians, Indians fighting bikers, Indians and bikers teaming up to fight the Man, it's always on the move and never slows down. It's incredibly stupid, but boy, is it fun.

Though he's buried a bit in the cast listing, Roarke is the star here as biker leader Kisum. He's the perfect roguish anti-hero. His mindset is simple; take what you want, and if you can't take it, take it anyways. In this case, he wants Joanna Frank's Marcia. At this isolated little Indian village, he sees some chances for fun and entertainment, becoming almost a biker Robin Hood (almost, he's still a dirty biker). A familiar face of the biker genre, Roarke is a scene-stealer. Walker Jr. is all right in a smaller part as an Indian (and he doesn't look the part at all), but he plays second fiddle to Roarke's Kisum. Playing the evil Man, Berger is a perfect evil, dangerously overweight, corpulent bad guy while Charles Bail is his karate-kicking enforcer, Taggart. The enforce announces one his attack intentions, yelling 'KARATE!' to which Bull answers 'CHAIR!' and hits him with a chair. You couldn't make up that type of quality script-writing if you try.

Without a lull along the way, 'Savage' still manages to ratchet things up in the final act in a battle royale at the village. After a brutal incident pits the bikers versus the Indians, Kisum's gang descends on the barricaded village, throwing themselves and the bikes at the heavily-guarded barricades. It's an extended action sequence that features some truly impressive biker stunts and jumps, not to mention some pretty rough hand-to-hand violence. It goes on for at least 15 minutes, not too bad for a cheap drive-in flick. 'Savage' is pretty low-brow and requires no heavy lifting in the brain department, but I enjoyed it from the start. Even Eric Clapton and Cream sing the theme! Listen HERE.

The Savage Seven (1969): ***/****

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Thieves

So I kinda like heist films if you haven't figured out. I'll give them all a shot no matter the positive/negative reviews. It's getting more difficult to find new ones though, even lesser known heist flicks from the past. In other words, it takes some digging to find any entries I haven't seen. Here's the latest find, a 2012 South Korean heist flick, The Thieves.

Working with a small crew of thieves and con men in South Korea, Popeye (Jung-Jae Lee) has earned himself quite a reputation as a capable organizer and thief. His crew has pulled off a successful job of an ancient artifact and is all set to do another job, if a somewhat curious one. A former associate (Uh-oh! Drama and history!) of Popeye's, legendary thief Macao Park (Yun-seok Kim) has a plan to steal a famous diamond, the Tear of the Sun, worth some $20 million. They won't be able to do it alone though, teaming with another infamous thief, Chen (Simon Yam), and his own team from Hong Kong to pull off the job. The diamond is under heavy security at a Macau casino. Macao Park's plan though is ridiculously detailed, counting on countless separate pieces working together at the exact right second. Let the fun begin.

The comparison for this heist flick is obvious, it's a South Korean Ocean's Eleven. Well, mostly, it's got a mean, downright dark streak up its back. It uses the basic premise -- team of thieves and specialists working together to pull off a job -- but manages to create its own identity. From director Dong-Hoon Choi, 'Thieves' now stands at the second highest grossing film in Korean history. I don't know how much to read into that, but I can safely say it was successful. It should be that way for a reason, right? No need to worry here. It's a winner. I liked it from the start, both for its familiarity with a great genre but also for an ability to add some solid tweaks, twists and turns in the process.

Maybe the coolest thing I was able to take away from this South Korean heist flick was its style. It was filmed in South Korea, Hong Kong and Macau, and there isn't a scene that isn't full of vibrant colors and movement. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way. The story itself is really interesting, but actually watching a good-looking visual film can be a treat, like here. Using that stylistic filmmaking as a jumping off point, the story does a good job keeping the viewer guessing too, but more on that later. More than though, it jumps from tone to tone smoothly. It is equal parts funny, dramatic, sexy and action-packed. One ridiculously cool action sequence has Macao Park running from heavily-armed gunmen, leaping off the side of a building and descending down the side. He swings back and forth with an attached bungee cord, his pursuers doing the same. With action scenes, it's harder and harder to come up with something audiences haven't seen, but this one is an action masterpiece.

Mostly though, 'Thieves' is a good flick because of the deep cast. I don't know much about Korean films/actors, but from doing a little research (Oh, clever Internet), it's apparent the cast here is as All Star as they get with a lot of name recognition and star power. Introduced to this cast, I came away very impressed. Lee as Popeye is the smooth up-and-comer, leading his crew that includes right hand man Zampano (Soo Hyun Kim), smooth-talking beautiful thief Yenicall (Gianna Jun), and Chewingum (Hae-suk Kim), an experienced if poor female thief. As the veteran thief with a checkered past, Yam is a quiet, subtle scene-stealer with his crew including goofy Korean-Chinese thief, Andrew (Dal-su Oh), young Johnny (Kwok Cheung Tsang) and safecracker Julie (Angelica Lee). Rounding out the team is Pepsee (Hye-su Kim), another safecracker who's worked with Popeye and Macao Park before. 

I was a little skeptical going in that with so many characters too many would get the short end of the stick. Choi does a great job keeping things balanced among all these characters with all their separate backstories and history. They each have their own personal style and look on top of their individual personality quirks. What brings it up a notch as a script, story and film is how it develops. It surprisingly keeps us guessing. We think we feel one way about a certain character, and then get hit with a twist, then another, and then another. With each passing twist, what we thought we know gets thrown out the window. And don't be fooled, there's twists galore right through the final scene.

'Thieves' is a rather leisurely 136 minutes and takes its time developing. It lays everything out nicely, setting up the characters and the coming heist. The highlight is not surprisingly the actual heist and the fallout. That's no spoilers if you're curious. It's the rare heist flick that goes smoothly. It is there where the twists get thrown at us. Just a good movie, and more proof scrounging for movies on Netflix and IMDB is worth the time spent.

The Thieves (2012): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mosquito Squadron

For four seasons in the mid 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired on NBC, pairing Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as two secret agents solving everything espionage could offer. By 1968 though, the show had been cancelled, leaving both actors to pursue other endeavors. Besides The Great Escape (made before UNCLE) and his recent starring turn in N.C.I.S., I haven't seen much else with McCallum. Let's jump into 1969's Mosquito Squadron.

Flying on a dangerous mission to knock out German rocket emplacements, Lt. Quint Munroe (McCallum), sees his friend and squadron commander, David Scott (David Buck), shot down in helping accomplish the mission. As he himself struggles with the loss of his friend, Munroe must also tell Scott's wife, Beth (Suzanne Neve), about her husband's death. In telling her though, he realizes he's had feelings for his longtime friend's now-widow. Dealing with some inner turmoil as he decides what to do, Munroe is also tasked with a new, far more dangerous and even more important mission. The Germans' efforts to develop a more powerful rocket is far underway, and the French underground has discovered where the Germans are building the rockets. Using a bomb with specifications suited for the mission, Munroe must lead a small squadron to knock out the place. There's more though. Scotty isn't dead, and he and other Allied prisoners are being used as a human shield near the bombing site.

Made on the relative cheap in the late 1960s, this WWII flick from director Boris Sagal is made in the vein of similar flicks like Battle of Britain, 633 Squadron and plenty of other aerial combat stories. Check that, it's not just made in the vein of those movies. It actually borrows quite liberally from those, even using footage from '633' and Operation Crossbow rather extensively. The pre-credits sequence is almost entirely from 'Crossbow', and significant amounts of aerial footage sprinkled in throughout are from '633.' I've long said a cheap, low-budget isn't a dealbreaker by any means, but there's got to be something better (even a little distracting) to overcome the cheapness. Mosquito just doesn't have it in a dull 89-minute flick.

Aerial combat is a frequent, worthy and entertaining background for countless war movies. Unfortunately, that's not enough for this cheapie B-movie. In an already too slow story, far too much time is spent on the taboo relationship between McCallum's Quint and Neve's Beth. Oh no! He loves her, but he can't! His dead friend wouldn't stand for it! It's his widow! The tortured relationship is painful enough to watch in the right hands, but this one lacks any sort of chemistry, realism or sympathy. This is DULL to watch. How many times can we watch Quint and Beth riding around on bikes in the English countryside? Having a picnic? Looking tortured and adoringly into each others' eyes? I'll let you find out for yourself.

Playing the moody, emotional, troubled officer, McCallum is all right as long as the story focuses on his aerial combat involvement. At least then when we see he's struggling with the death of his friend, it seems legit. For a movie about a "Squadron," very little attention is paid to Quint's men, Nicky Henson playing his co-pilot Wiley, Michael McGovern and Michael Latimer as two other pilot specialists training. Charles Gray and Dinsdale Landen play RAF superiors, officers who must send men on dangerous missions where chances of survival is slim. Credit and/or kudos to the script because virtually none of the characters are sympathetic, interesting or even connect with us as an audience.

The only saving grace for 'Mosquito' is the final 30 minutes as Quint and Co. take part in their dangerous mission to slow down the German rocket development effort, hidden away at a heavily guarded French chateau. Quint and his pilots (just the 3 of them) will drop their special bouncing bombs, the RAF will fly cover, the French resistance will lead an attack, and the P.O.W.'s used as a human shield will attempt a dangerous escape, all of this happening at the same time. Schizo much? It's an ending that's all over the place, but relative to the rest of the movie's general boring-ness, it's a great ending. Not enough to save the movie on the whole, but enough to save it from the drecks of the one-star review.

Mosquito Squadron (1969): **/****

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Major League: Back to the Minors

Here we go again, me being hypocritical. I'm usually pretty against any sort of sequels -- unless a movie calls for one -- in just about any form. But any-hoo, here we sit again. I'm against those sequels....unless I like them. So sue me. I've already reviewed 1989's Major League (a classic), 1994's Major League II (pretty bad but entertaining) and now, the trilogy trifecta, 1998's Major League: Back to the Minors (just bad, but entertaining).

A lifelong minor league player, Gus Cantrell (Scott Bakula) is on the last legs of his career as a pitcher, and he's trying to decide what the next step in his life is. Gus is approached by Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), now the owner of the Minnesota Twins, but he needs a manager to groom his Triple-A team, the South Carolina Buzz. Cantrell takes on the job, knowing the team isn't exactly ripe with ready major league talent. What he finds is much worse, a team of castoffs, screw-ups and has-beens, but Gus takes it on just the same, trying to teach the team how to be quality baseball players. That's one thing though because the Twins manager, all-around a-hole Leonard Huff (Ted McGinley), has quite the rivalry with Gus, making the new manager's job that much more difficult.

Okay, here we sit. I'll be giving this movie a mildly positive review. Does it deserve it in the least? Nope, not really. This movie is an epic dud, but I like it. I'm entertained every time I watch it. There is absolutely no reason to actually follow up the equally dud-ish Major League 2 with an even worse sequel. It tanked in theaters, recouping very little of its $46 million budget (where that money went I don't know). There's no explanation of why the story is the Twins instead of the Cleveland Indians, or how Dorn ended up as their owner. There are some ties to the first two movies, starting with Brewers broadcaster Bob Uecker as foul-mouthed radio man Harry Doyle, Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano, voodoo-Buddhist and power-hitting outfielder, Takaaki Ishibashi as intense, crazy outfielder Taka, and Eric Bruskotter as Rube Baker, the goofy catcher who struggles throwing. Other than that, there's not much in common.

Okay, here we are again. I did like this movie. I swear I did. My earlier budget question is legit. Where did this money go? It was filmed in South Carolina at some backwoods-looking baseball fields. There's no Triple-A team in the world that would play at these rinky-dink stadiums. The cast for the most part doesn't look like or act like baseball players, especially when they're actually on the field. Making it worse is the use of the worst special effects I've ever seen. Anytime a baseball is hit or thrown, a CGI ball is used instead of the actual ball. Ever seen a curveball just hang there? A home run hover? It looks so ridiculously fake that it's laughable. Other than that, I swear it's an entertaining movie.

Mostly, I liked this movie because of the characters. Bakula is solid in a familiar role as the baseball lifer, a guy without the skill but all the work ethic instead. Bernsen is Bernsen as not-so-clueless anymore Dorn. The new additions in the baseball department are certainly an eclectic group, including Downtown Anderson (Walton Goggins), the egotistical power-hitting prospect, Lance (Kenny Johnson), the player with a ballet background, Hog (Judson Mills), a Wild Thing-esque pitcher with a fastball and little else, Pop (Thom Barry), the aging outfielder turned first baseman, Doc (Peter Mackenzie) the intellectual junkballer, and three different actors playing twins, the Buzz's double-play combination, Juan 1 and Juan 2. It's a collection of fun characters that if familiar and from the stock character department, so be it. They're a likable bunch.

As far as baseball reality goes, this is not close to any sort of baseball I've ever watched. Minor league teams play major league teams, managers punch each other in the face in public and are rewarded, batters charge the mound but no one moves to stop them. I'm a baseball nerd so be forewarned -- the little things bug me -- before heading in. This isn't a good movie, but I like it anyways. If it was a stand-alone movie, maybe it wouldn't even be on my radar. But with the quasi-link to Major League, I'll watch it whenever it's on TV. Lousy, a stinker, stupid from the start, I still like this one. Start watching below.

Major League: Back to the Minors (1998): ** 1/2 /**** 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

K-19: The Widowmaker

A product of the Cold War, a slew of movies about nuclear destruction hit theaters in the 1960s, films like Fail Safe, The Bedford Incident and Dr. Strangelove among others. At the same time in the 1950s and 1960s, war movies following the exploits of submariners were a hot commodity, movies like Up Periscope and Run Silent, Run Deep. An interesting cross-breed of the two separate genres comes 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, based on a true story.

It's 1961 and the Soviet Union has finished producing its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19. Following a disappointing practice drill, the government has brought in Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) to replace then-Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) who will be kept on as an executive officer and second-in-command. The K-19 has been tasked with a dangerous mission; on its first voyage it must surface in the Arctic and fire an unarmed ballistic missile as a test run. Pushing his crew to the limits to make them the strongest, most trustworthy crew possible, Vostrikov tangles some with the friendlier Polenin. The differences are pushed to the side though when the K-19's nuclear reactor breaks down, putting the entire submarine at risk. Should the temperature rise too high, the K-19 would be destroyed in a thermonuclear explosion. Can they fix the issue in time?

From director Kathryn Bigelow, this 2002 drama is based on the true story of the Russian sub K-19, a ship that seemed doom from the very start (earning the nickname 'Hiroshima' from its crew). Reading up about the real-life incident, the story took some liberties with the history but generally sticks pretty close to the facts. It sat in my Netflix queue for quite a few months because I just wasn't psyched to watch it, but it ended up being a welcome surprise. If I have any complaints, it's that at 138 minutes, this is a long movie that takes a little too long to get into rhythm. Never boring, but not exactly exciting either in the early going. Composer Klaus Badelt's score is solid, using familiar Russian themes with some effective, quiet moments full of tension (and trust me, there's a ton of tension late).

That tension gets ratcheted up to a crazy level around the 60-minute mark when the nuclear reactor goes ka-put. It's at that point 'Widowmaker' finds its groove and the drama kicks in. The claustrophobic setting of the possibly doomed submarine adds to that sense of impending doom. The engineers and crew come up with a solution as the reactors' temperature rises dangerously high, an explosion coming up quick. The reactor has to be cooled with thousands of gallons of fresh water but a new piping and welding must be performed in the highly radioactive reactor room. Capt. Vostrikov must send men into the reactor knowing they will be doomed. That's basically the perfect dramatic moment, especially when the second and third crews see what the radioactivity did to the first crew, knowing now what awaits them. If that wasn't enough, the K-19 must also deal with the unexpected arrival of an American destroyer in the area and Russian government suspicion and involvement back in the USSR.

By 2002, Harrison Ford -- Indiana Jones/Han Solo himself -- wasn't taking a whole lot of roles (still isn't unfortunately I suppose). Other than his in-and-out questionable Russian accent, Ford does a fine job as Capt. Vostrikov. He's dealing with suspicions that he received the job because of his wife's political connections and now feels he must prove himself as a capable officer, commander and sailor. In the process, he drives his men to their limits and more. As his counterpart, Neeson is a very capable officer but one who has become a friend to his men too, not just a commander, an issue that comes up as difficulties arise and he must place his men in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is pretty faceless, lots of similar-looking men who don't do much to distinguish themselves from the crew. Peter Sarsgaard is solid as Lt. Vadim Radtchinko, the inexperienced reactor officer.

With more of a personal investment in the characters, the drama could have been effective on a far more effective, emotional level. Steve Nicolson, Christian Camargo, and Ravil Isyanov manage to distinguish themselves the most, but when the intensity picks up, it's hard to keep track of people. It's not a deal-breaker because the natural drama of the situation more than carries the movie through. Watching it, it was refreshing to see and appreciate a story that is focused on the human drama coupled with a much bigger possible worldwide effect. Not a whole lot of explosions or violence, just that all-important drama. Not a great story, but a really good one. Well worth checking out.

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002): ***/****  

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fast & Furious 6

I can't say I saw this coming. When I watched 2001's The Fast and the Furious in high school, I enjoyed it the story of an undercover cop trying to bust a street racing heist crew. Did I think it would become a hugely successful series that would spawn five sequels, and more to come? Nope, I definitely didn't see that coming....but that's just where it is. Go figure. I love where the series has gone, upping the ante with each passing movie. I L-O-V-E-D 2011's Fast Five and was naturally psyched for the sixth entry in the series, 2013's Fast & Furious 6. Moral of the more than lives up to expectations.

Having pulled off a successful heist in Rio, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his team have retired to spots around the world....for the time being. Having worked with and against Dom and his crew in Rio, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) has tracked them down. He needs their help to take down Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a former British special forces soldier who with his own crew of specialists has been stealing the pieces necessary to build the technology that could cripple a nation. Hobbs enlists Dom with offers of pardons for his past crime, but there's more. Dom's former love, Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) -- who was believed dead -- is working with Shaw, giving Dom all the motivation he needs to take Hobbs' offer. Dom seeks out friend and fellow driver Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and his team to help him, but even his crew's unique driving talents and criminal abilities will be put to the test against the likes of Shaw's crew.

Where Fast Five left off, '6' picks up without missing a beat. It does seem a long ways off from the street racing origins of the first film, but again, this is the rare series that gets better and better as it develops. I think much of that success can be attributed to director Justin Lin who quite simply just knows what he's doing. Since taking over the series with the third film, Tokyo Drift, Lin has helped take 'Fast and Furious' to different places than the first two movies. Yes, there's ridiculously exciting car chases and action and hand-to-hand fights and awesome cars and beautiful women and tough guys being tough and.....Yeah, I think that's it. That description could sound very common denominator, even stupid, but Lin has made an art of that formula. He takes these familiar genre conventions, throws them in a blender and comes up with these ridiculously entertaining popcorn flicks.

I will devote plenty of words to the action on display here (of which there is a ton), but I'm going to mention again what takes these movies up a notch beyond pure action flicks. It's the characters. If you've made it to the sixth entry in the series, you like something enough to stick with it. Yes, the cars and chases and action is awesome, but I genuinely like the characters and am rooting for them. I love the dynamic among Dom, Brian and the team, especially when you throw Johnson's Hobbs into the mix again. The script is far from Shakespearean, but it also knows these characters inside and out. At 130 minutes, you can't have all action (well, I suppose you could), but as was the case with 'Five,' some of the best moments come from the quieter moments as members of Dom's crew interact, bust each other's balls or even.....just talk!?! I know, crazy, right? Kudos to screenwriter Chris Morgan for turning in an underrated script.

Let's face it though. These are some pretty cool characters, and there's a whole lot of them. The original stars, Diesel and Walker, are the basis for it all, enemies turned friends turned family. Neither are considered great thespians, but they are great tough guys, great action stars. Their back and forth is natural, not forced, and flows effortlessly. Johnson again is a great addition to the series, and he also looks like he could tangle with a dozen or so grizzly bears and come out on the winning side. Jeez, look at his arms! Also returning to round out the team is Tyrese Gibson as Roman, the motor-mouthed driving specialist, Sung Kang as Han, the master thief and chameleon extraordinaire, Gal Gadot as Gisele, Han's girlfriend of sorts, weapons specialist and precision driver in her own right, and Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as Tez, an electronics and tech whiz. Jordana Brewster and Elsa Pataky also return in small, cameo-like parts as the love interests.

With so much talent assembled, new names aren't necessary, but the new stars are gems here, especially Evans as Owen Shaw, the brutally efficient, ice cold master thief/criminal who finds himself working against Dom and Hobbs. As a villain, he's the best the series has seen mostly because he's a more than worthy opponent for our heroic anti-heroes. His one-on-one scene with Diesel near the midpoint of the film is a gem. Evans isn't a huge physically imposing bad guy, but his intensity goes a long way. Also joining the crew is Gina Carano as Riley, Hobbs' assistant in the developing case. She isn't given a ton to do, but she does get not one, but TWO fight scenes with Rodriguez (who's "death" in Fast and Furious is explained in somewhat believable fashion). It's tough to find fault with that statement.

Blah blah blah talking and dialogue and scripts blah blah blah. FAST CARS! EXPLOSIONS! CHASES! I thought 'Five' had set the bar at a pretty unattainable level.....well, yeah....I was wrong about that. Things get ratcheted up even more with three amazingly choreographed set pieces. The first has Dom, Brian, Hobbs and Co. racing through the night streets of London in pursuit of Shaw. An excellent sequence in itself, but just the start. The follow-up is a chase along a Spanish highway overlooking the sea. Oh, and there's a tank, and American muscle cars, and crashes, and ridiculous collateral damage. It features stunts so ridiculous, premises so beyond reality that it's almost laughable. You know what? I didn't care. Just sit back and watch it develop. This scene defies the laws of physics countless times, and it doesn't matter.

Both of those set pieces could make a movie worthwhile to watch on their own, but then there's the finale. Shaw is making his escape via an airfield (apparently the longest runway in the history of aviation) as an immense cargo plane tries to land to pick him up. Dom, Hobbs, Brian and the entire team are racing behind him in a variety of souped-up muscle cars trying to keep the plane on the ground. This extended sequence is schizophrenic in the best sense of the word. Cars zipping around at inordinate speeds, fistfights and brutal hand-to-hand fights, explosions left and right, it's an incredible, adrenaline-pumping scene. It goes on for something like 15-20 minutes, and It....Is....Nuts. It's hard to give audiences an action scene we haven't seen before, but Lin and screenwriter Morgan find a way to improve on the finale chase in 'Five,' but yep, they completely succeeded. And credit to Lin, he cuts the action so you can see it, always keeping tabs on what's going on. At no point it is an indecipherable blur.

That's enough rambling movie crush for now. Having just watched this newest entry earlier today, I feel like it's too soon to compare the films. I think I liked Fast Five a tad bit more, but it's really close. The more I think about this one, the more I like it, and here's why. This is a movie that knows exactly what it is and isn't trying to be anything else. It is a popcorn flick that will hopefully get your adrenaline pumping. It is fun from beginning to end whether it be the cast (who appear to be having a ball) or the ever-increasing and ridiculous action. It's just fun. If it isn't The Godfather or Citizen Kane or an all-time cinema classic, so be it. Sit back and enjoy it.

Oh, and yes, there will be a sequel. Much the same way Fast Five led into this film with a post-credit scene, so does '6' and it is a doozy. It ties the series all the way back to Tokyo Drift with a mystery that has baffled some series fans about the fate of one of the key characters. There's a huge star added to the mix -- no SPOILERS here -- setting the series up nicely for future ventures. I, for one, am most definitely psyched to see where it goes.

Fast & Furious 6 (2013): ****/****

Friday, June 14, 2013

Kill the Umpire

Across preferred sports, favorite teams and athletes, classic games and series, most sports fans can agree on one thing.....officials are brutal. Referees, umpires, call them whatever you want, but fans can always find solace that an official will mess up a call here and there. They're easy targets, aren't they? For the most part and on a percentage basis, they get it right. But what's the fun in that? There aren't many movies out there about umpires, but here we go with 1950's Kill the Umpire.

A former baseball player with a family, Bill Johnson (William Bendix) loves one thing above all else, and it keeps getting him into trouble. Bill loves baseball. He can't get enough of it to the point he keeps losing his job because he bails far too often to go to afternoon ballgames. His wife (Una Merkel) has finally had enough and threatens to leave him unless he really buckles down and commits to keeping a job. Bill's father-in-law, Jonah (Ray Collins), is a former baseball umpire and recommends Bill -- with all his fandom and knowledge of baseball -- trains to become an umpire himself. As a sports fan who hates each and every umpire, Bill bristles at the very thought, but in hopes of keeping his family together, a less than enthused Bill half-heartedly goes along with it.

That is one misleading plot synopsis if there ever was one. Brace yourself, but this 1951 movie from director Lloyd Bacon is a slapstick farce comedy. That in itself isn't a deal-breaker. I love The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and all sorts of physical comedies from the 1930s through the 1950s. What is a deal-breaker is how over the top and ridiculous the slapstick is here. I figured a story titled 'Kill the Umpire' wasn't going to be heavy, dark drama, but the humor here was painful to watch. At one point, Bendix over-inflates his chest protector, gets his cleats stuck in the floor and bounces back and forth like a bouncy ball between the floor and the lockers. Everyone has a good guffaw at that craziness. The best physical humor is just funny, the actors/actresses don't have to try too hard.

Of course, that's not what's going on here. Late in the movie, Bendix's Bill falls out of an ambulance -- it's a long, meandering story -- but manages to catch on to part of a fence the ambulance crashed through and is now dragging behind it. He is able to stand up on the broken fence and basically surfs behind the fleeing ambulance. Seriously, there's no good, rational way to explain how he gets into that troublesome predicament. Just go with me, he's there. Funny is funny when it works, but the on-screen theatrics here were brutal to watch. Too bad because in the more subtle moments, Bendix shows off a low-key comedic timing that still shows how physical comedy can work. I like Bendix a lot, always have, and in small doses here, he's very good. The script is all over the place though, kneecapping him whenever he gets into a rhythm.

In the supporting cast, Collins is pretty good as a straight man to Bendix's Bill. His friendly father-in-law just wants to help out his son-in-law, even if it's something the guy hates to do. Merkel is pretty shrill -- understandably so to be fair -- as Mrs. Johnson with Gloria Henry and Connie Marshall playing the Johnson daughters. Better known as Fred Mertz in I Love Lucy, William Frawley is solid as Jimmy O'Brien, the owner of the umpire school, Tom D'Andrea is Roscoe Snooker, Bill's friend at school, and an uncredited Alan Hale Jr. as a baseball player who comes across Bill's wrath (sort of). Also uncredited are Jeff York and Robert J. Wilke as big-time gamblers trying to bribe Bill.  

There are moments that do work here. Bill at Umpire school provides some really funny laughs, especially when he's trying to get kicked out of the school. His final test at graduation -- with an unfortunate mix-up with eye drops -- is the sort of physical humor that works so well, dubbing him a nickname Bill 'Two-Call' Johnson. Earlier ventures showing Bill absolutely losing his mind at umpires' calls is perfect, the fired-up fan even charging onto the field to argue. I did like it, but it's too goofy for its own good. A disappointing mild review.

Kill the Umpire (1951): **/****

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Angels in the Outfield (1951)

Growing up, you appreciate some movies more than you probably should because....well, because you're a kid. When you're a kid, everything's cool. One of my favorite movies as a youngster was 1994's Angels in the Outfield. Oh, by the way, I still love that movie. It took years for me to discover that the 1994 Disney movie is actually a remake. Who knew? Here's the original, 1951's Angels in the Outfield.

It's midseason, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and foul-mouthed manager Guffy McGovern (Paul Douglas) is slowly losing his mind. Fans are turning on him, his players hate him and his "managerial tactics," and the press corps is ready to lynch him. One day, a home and garden-esque reporter, Jennifer Paige (Janet Leigh) writes a scathing column of his antics, finally pushing Guffy to the brink. Following one game, Guffy hears an angel address him, telling him to clean up his act and stop berating his team, fans and umpires alike. As long as he does that, angels will help out his team. Guffy obviously thinks it's a big prank....until the hapless Pirates start winning a whole lot of games. Could something heavenly actually be helping the Pirates? The gruff manager keeps his secret just that, secret, until one day a little girl, Bridget (Donna Corcoran), comes out to a game and actually sees the angels on the field. Is Guffy's secret blown for good?

I love sports so I'll watch basically anything even remotely sports-related. But of all the sports, baseball will always be my favorite. The sport translates seamlessly to the big screen, and this entry from director Clarence Brown is an underrated one. So story and characters aside, I think any true baseball fan will get a kick out of this one. It was filmed on location at real-life stadiums, especially Forbes Field in Pittsburgh but also look for Old Comiskey Park in Chicago and a Wrigley Field lookalike in L.A. That throwback, nostalgic feel of a baseball era long since past is evident from the opening credits -- a sample of Take Me Out to the Ball Game -- and never really lets up. There's an appreciation for baseball here that any fan should get a kick out of.

If I didn't know any better, I would have said this was a flick directed by the master of the cornball sap, Frank Capra. I was wrong, but the tone isn't far removed from typical Capra sweetness. There's always that potential with a really happy, sweet story that it goes too far, but that's not the case here. That's the word that comes to mind though; sweet. It's a good story without a mean bone in its body. We never actually see the angels out on the field or in the dugout, only that Corcoran's Bridget sees them clearly on several occasions. Is it a surprise that Douglas' gruff Guffy becomes a sweet, lovable guy? Nah, not at all. At different points I found myself questioning the movie. If angels are helping the Pirates then does that mean they're rooting against other teams? I think it's a valid question, but quickly put it out of my mind. This isn't a film interested in that at all. It's a good, old-fashioned, entertaining story.

Without featuring much in the way of star power, 'Angels' benefits from a lesser known cast. Douglas is an underrated actor, hamming it up a bit here as Guffy but never pushing too far. Leigh is mostly around as a pretty face -- no disrespect intended -- as the non-sports reporter trying to figure sports out. I thought the best part was nine-year old Corcoran as Bridget, a young orphan who spots the angels and bonds quickly with Guffy and Jennifer over the course of the season. It sounds sappy (sorry, I'll stop using that), but I thought it was a cool touch that the angels only appear to a child (an innocent), and not too cynical adults. Also look for Keenan Wynn as the angry radio man with a hatred for Guffy, Spring Byington and Ellen Corby as the nuns at the orphanage, and Bruce Bennett as Saul, a veteran pitcher trying to make it through one last season. Bing Crosby, Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio and baseball great Ty Cobb also make some cool cameos as themselves.

There are things here that I could easily criticize if I was in a foul mood, but I'm not going to. Guffy talks to an angel (voiced by James Whitmore) out on a dark baseball field with the game already in the books. We hear about 'the Heavenly Choir,' the team of angels that are helping the Pirates with some "hunches" in-game. If this sounds like a cop-out, so be it. You can't overthink/overanalyze this movie. Just enjoy it. It's that perfect mix of sappy, cornball charm with some baseball and old-fashioned Americana in it. Appreciate it and sit back.

Angels in the Outfield (1951): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ride Clear of Diablo

World War II hero turned movie star Audie Murphy knew what his fans wanted. Action movies and westerns, rinse, lather and repeat. Why fix something that isn't broken? So for the most part, Murphy's career doesn't offer more than a classic or two, but there is something familiar, comfortable and most importantly, enjoyable, about his films. Take 1954's Ride Clear of Diablo, a solid western that is content to be just that and little else.

A railroad surveyor, Clay O'Mara (Murphy) has received word that his father and son have been brutally gunned down by cattle rustlers stealing the family's herd. He heads home in hopes of tracking down the rustlers/killers but wants to do so legally. Clay approaches the Santiago sheriff, Kenyon (Paul Birch), about taking a job as a deputy so his efforts will be on the up and up, very legal. The sheriff approves, telling Clay that a good place to start in hunting down the rustlers is to go after infamous gunfighter and wanted killer Whitey Kincade (Dan Duryea). Bringing in the bandit is one thing, but Clay may have bit off more than he could chew. In his efforts, the new deputy finds out that Sheriff Kenyon and a lawyer in town, Meredith (William Pullen), may know far more than they're letting on.

This 1954 western was recently on Encore Westerns -- they seem to have a lot of B-westerns available on their programming -- and as a fan of Audie Murphy, I wanted to give it a try. It's received a solid rating at IMDB (6.8 as I write this review), but I didn't come away hugely impressed. I enjoyed it, liked it but at the same time didn't love it. 'Diablo' doesn't do much to distinguish itself from the rest of the pack in terms of B-westerns, but director Jesse Hibbs does a good, workmanlike job behind the camera. Pretty forgettable, but decent enough in the moment.

The biggest thing to take away from 'Diablo' is the early quasi-buddy pairing of Murphy and Duryea. It's an interesting Odd Couple pairing with Murphy's resolute, revenge-seeking lawman and Duryea's ruthless but intelligent hired gun teaming up. It isn't a friendship -- far from it -- but there's at least a mutual respect between the two men who are very different but hold more similarities than they might care to admit. Duryea's Kincade has a sick, morbid curiosity, always putting Clay into compromising situations to see how he'll handle it. Somewhere along the way, maybe they do become odd friends. I liked the dynamic between the duo a lot, their dialogue scenes together in cantinas and saloons, even just on the trail are Westerns 101, but they work.

In a movie that runs about 80 minutes, too much time is spent on a possible love interest for Clay in Susan Cabot's Laurie, the sheriff's well-meaning niece. She's engaged to the sinister, conniving Meredith (meh in the villain department), but wouldn't you know it? Laurie might just like Clay too. A far more interesting female part goes to Abbe Lane as Kate, a dance hall girl looking out for herself above all else. As for the villains beyond Kenyon and Meredith, Russell Johnson (Yes, Professor from Gilligan's Island, and yes, it's unsettling) is a greedy hired gun while Jack Elam plays Tim Lowerie, a rustler who takes an instant dislike to Clay upon arrival. Denver Pyle is solid in a smaller supporting part as Reverend Moorehead, his conversations with Clay about the right and wrong of the brutality of the west a highlight. 

Mostly though, whenever Murphy and Duryea aren't together, the story in 'Diablo' runs a little slow. It picks up the pacing some in the finale as the duo team up to bring the rustling killers to justice including a surprisingly vicious final shootout. The script getting there is full of holes. How can Clay not see that Sheriff Kenyon is basically sending him on suicide missions every other day? Is he that stupid? A decent western, but nothing more.

Ride Clear of Diablo (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Relentless Four

First airing in January 1966 and running for three seasons, TV's Batman became one of the all-time great campy shows to ever grace the screen. It made Batman himself, Adam West, a star, an unlikely superhero with his ridiculously deadpan delivery. Before his starring role though, he was like a lot of actors, taking supporting parts in both film and television. But did you know Batman was actually in a spaghetti western? The answer to that trivia question is 1965's The Relentless Four.

A Texas Ranger working in Arizona, Sam Garrett (West) tries to rescue a pardoned criminal but fails. Instead, four bounty hunters gun the man down before Garrett can save him. The Ranger however can still prevent them from earning their bounty, costing them some $500. Garrett thinks nothing of it as he just does his job, but the bounty hunters, led by Lobo (Claudio Undari), aren't so forgiving. The quartet sets him up as the murderer of a very rich, very successful local rancher, and they've got witnesses to boot. With everyone against him now and a date with the hangman's noose drawing ever closer, Garrett must not find a way to prove his innocence and catch the real killers at the same time.

From director Primo Zeglio, 'Four' is an average example of what an early spaghetti western was. Just a year removed from Sergio Leone's classic A Fistful of Dollars (which helped jump start the whole sub-genre), spaghettis were still in their infancy. They weren't as nasty as some later entries, still reflecting the cleanness of American westerns with a bit of that throwback feel. In other words, they're neither truly Italian or American, instead some messy ground in between. 'Four' uses some of the same locations 'Fistful' used -- and to great benefit -- while also exploring some of the Almerian desert that isn't so familiar. The score from Marcello Giombini is a step above the average, including a really bad, really catchy theme song, 'Ranger,' sung by Ettore Lovecchio.

So Batman plays a spaghetti western hero? If that's not the start to a winning formula, I don't know what it is. Unfortunately, West and his instantly recognizable monotone voice have been dubbed so we don't get the pleasure of actually hearing him speak. He's a solid lead but nothing special, sticking closer to the American western hero than the spaghetti anti-hero. There's also the issue of his action scenes. Every time he punches someone -- and he does that a lot -- I kept waiting to see 'BAM!' or 'ZOW!' appear on the screen in the true Batman vein. Yes, I realize the show hadn't been created yet. I'm trying to be funny. The fight scenes are pretty bad by the way, hokey and just not authentic-looking in the least.

Beyond West as Ranger Sam Garrett, 'Four' has no star power, not even a little. I recognized a few faces from other spaghetti westerns, some other Euro flicks, but none of them can be considered huge stars. Undari is a decent counter to West's Garrett but as far as worthy villains go, he's standard vanilla. His bounty hunter counterparts include Renato Rossini, Jose Jaspe and Raf Baldassarre. Roberto Camardiel is memorable as Anders, the rancher who becomes a pawn, Paola Barbara as his blood-seeking wife with Dina Loy as his less bloodthirsty daughter. Luis Induni plays the Sheriff, caught in the middle between his duty and his friendship with Sam while John Bartha plays John, Sam's friend trying to shield him from being gunned down.

For about 30 minutes here, I enjoyed 'Four.' It was nothing special, but it was fun and a good-looking spaghetti western at that. Somewhere along the road, it loses its footing. It becomes downright dumb, even repetitive in a 90-minute movie. At one point, West's Sam could basically end it all, righting everything that's happened to him, but he throws his guns away and runs.......runs.....from his wounded opponent. The finale features a twist so epically stupid it made me laugh. Too bad because the potential was there for an early forerunner of the darkness of the spaghetti westerns. But no, it's dumb, and making it worse, a final wrap-up scene expands on it, actually explaining the badness. Probably worthwhile only for fans of either spaghetti westerns, Batman's Adam West, or those.....nah, that's it. Just those two.

The Relentless Four (1965): **/****  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Breakthrough (1979)

Released in 1977, Sam Peckinpah's Cross of Iron is a forgotten masterpiece, a war movie that doesn't get the credit it deserves. Not necessarily remembered as a classic, it ends on a particularly downbeat if effective ending, making the news that there's a sequel kinda hard to believe. I'm a big fan of Peckinpah's original so here goes with the unlikely follow-up, 1979's Breakthrough.

Under a withering Russian attack, German forces are retreating all along the Western Front. Among them is Sgt. Rolf Steiner (Richard Burton), a hardened veteran who's seen all the fighting can offer throughout the war. Amidst the fighting, he's granted a 14-day leave in Paris, but just as he settles in, the Allies attack at Normandy with his division transferred to the fighting. Upon catching up with his men, Steiner is given a dangerous mission that could ultimately bring the war to an end, but at minimum could save thousands of lives. In between Allied and German lines, Steiner meets an American officer, a tanker, Col. Rogers (Robert Mitchum), who isn't sure whether he can believe what Steiner is telling him. A decision must be made though quickly with an Allied offensive imminent.

In terms of original to sequel, this 1979 WWII flick from director Andrew V. McLaglen bears little resemblance to its predecessor. The ending in 'Iron' is open for interpretation as to whether certain characters survive, but this sequel answers that question (They make it by the way). And other than character names and that this too is a World War II movie, there are no real unifying links. It seems an odd movie and storyline to continue, but whatever, it happened so here we sit. It's not a particularly good movie -- most reviews rip it pretty mercilessly -- but I managed to get some enjoyment out of it. Then again, I'm a sucker for basically any western and war movie. You've been warned!!!

So now that I've established that I liked this movie, let's move ahead with ripping the movie some! While I like many of McLaglen's films (The Wild Geese, The Devil's Brigade), I can admit he was far more a workmanlike director than a master filmmaker. To say the story drifts a little bit would be a vast understatement. It starts in Russia, moves to Paris, jumps to Normandy and involves German and Allied knowledge of assassination attempts on Hitler. Oh, and Steiner's commanding officer, Major Stansky (Helmut Griem), is power hungry and doesn't care who gets caught up in the killing, civilians and innocents alike. The budget is obviously pretty limited with a fair amount of stock footage used from other war movies of the era. The score is atrocious, an oddly horrific mix of spaghetti western tones, country music, odd rock and roll notes, and hippie-psychedelic noises. It's not just bad, it's distracting, and that's significantly worse.

Here's the issue that I'm noticing in a lot of reviews. The cast here has some pretty impressive name recognition -- more than Peckinpah's original -- but it's not necessarily good performances. It's a fair criticism that most of the big names gathered are clearly phoning it in. On the other hand....oh, Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum! Replacing James Coburn, Burton does a decent job as war-weary Steiner. Mitchum is clearly not too interested in the part, but I like Mitchum so there. Also look for Rod Steiger, pissed off as usual and screaming orders as an American general, Webster. Michael Parks has a good supporting part as Sgt. Anderson, Mitchum's assistant and jeep driver. Klaus Lowitsch returns from 'Iron' as Cpl. Kruger, Steiner's fellow NCO and close friend. Curd Jurgens also plays a familiar role, an aristocratic German general frustrated with Hitler's leadership.

Schizophrenic story with far too much going on, aging stars with less than spectacular acting jobs, and a budget that's limited in basically all aspects. The action is okay, including the finale as Maj. Stansky attempts to set up an ambush for an attacking American tank battalion, but that's really the only memorable set piece. Why did I even remotely like this movie? I have no freaking idea. I was entertained throughout -- maybe because of the badness -- and that's all I'm looking for. Also worth mentioning, do a shot every time Mitchum asks about the anti-tank emplacements. You'll be drunk in minutes.

Breakthrough (1979): ** 1/2 /****  

Saturday, June 8, 2013

This Is 40

Released in 2007, Knocked Up was a more than worthy follow-up to director Judd Apatow's surprise success with The 40-Year Old Virgin. It was an uneven if funny flick with a whole lot of talent assembled and a decent amount of laughs. Apatow takes a few key characters from 'Knocked' and hits us with a quasi-sequel, 2012's This Is 40.

Married for 16 years, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) are about to hit a big milestone....they're both turning 40. Well, Pete's turning 40, but Debbie refuses to admit she could possibly be 40 years old. Their marriage and home life have hit a bit of a rough patch as Pete's record label is struggling to find a niche while Debbie's boutique losing money by the barrel. Back at home, teenager Sadie (Maude Apatow) is mad at everything while younger daughter Charlotte (Iris Apatow) is just trying to grow up and not get killed by her sister. Both Pete and Debbie are struggling to find any sort of norm and with a whole bunch of problems from marriage to family to finances to work, nothing comes easy, and their marriage is paying the price.

Do you notice anything about the plot description? Well, my first thought upon finishing the movie and then starting the review that nothing about it screams funny. I get it. Life's inherent goofiness, craziness and uniqueness can produce some laughs from a natural place. '40' does have its moments. The cast is far too talented not to get some laughs, even if it was by accident. Those laughs come mostly in the meandering first half of the movie that introduces a whole lot of characters and a whole lot of subplots. It is funny. Apatow does know how to write characters and a solid script, but it also goes down a very dark route in the second half. The laughs are left by the wayside, and '40' turns into one depressing, not so enjoyable movie in the second half.

Key supporting players in Knocked Up, Rudd's Pete and Mann's Debbie get their shots at the lead roles here. While it isn't always funny (far from it), the comedic duo does have a very believable chemistry together. That's not always a good thing though for this longtime married couple who has seen their marriage lose some of its luster. Both are talented actors/comedians, whatever you want to call it, but at a certain point this movie becomes Pete and Debbie screaming at each other over and over again. Oh, and again. I haven't been married for 16 years -- I'm 27 as I write this -- so I don't know about all the good and bad of a 16-year marriage. It feels authentic because obviously marriage isn't a walk in the park. As this marriage though hits a rough patch, it ceases to be an enjoyable film. '40' is too downbeat for its own good, and even talents like Rudd and Mann can't save it from its own darkness.

As a director, writer, producer, Apatow is a very talented guy, and people clearly want to work with him. The supporting cast in basically all his movies illustrate that point. Jason Segel returns as Jason, Deb's trainer who's got a way with the ladies. Albert Brooks is a welcome addition to the cast as Larry, Pete's father who keeps borrowing money, while John Lithgow plays Deb's estranged father. Megan Fox shows she's got some comedic chops as Desi, one of Deb's employees while Chris O'Dowd and Lena Dunham (of HBO's Girls) play two of Pete's record label employees. Robert Smigel is memorable as Barry, Pete's friend.

So obviously a lot of talent is on hand here. At a certain point I got the feeling Apatow just ran with the premise that 'Hey, I'm working with (Insert Star's Name here)!' and didn't know what to do with himself. Oh, and there's more names so keep on reading. It's almost schizophrenic in its entirety. Brooks and Lithgow are somewhat necessary to the story. Other than that? Not so much. Segel is a trainer who wants to hook up with Fox who may or may not be stealing from Deb's store. O'Dowd is a goofy quasi-stoner who wants to hook up with Fox. Dunham makes a couple snarky comments. Smigel is perfect in deadpan fashion. There are too many storylines going on here from Deb and Pete's financial troubles, to a subplot with British rocker Graham Parker, to a drug-laced weekend getaway, to problems with the kids at school. Is this life? Yeah, in some fashion, but that doesn't make it a good movie.

The word that came to mind a lot as this movie wore on was 'self-indulgent.' '40' clocks in at a robust, far too long 134 minutes. With an episodic, drifting story, it goes on endlessly and could have been cut by about 40 minutes. The very funny Melissa McCarthy makes an appearance as a foul-mouthed mother, her improvised scene never ending (and uncomfortable to boot). Returning from Knocked Up, Charlyne Yi is ridiculously unfunny as the pill-popping Jodi, delivering a painfully awkward scene under the drug influence. Did Segel or O'Dowd even need to be in the movie? I wanted to like this movie, but I just couldn't get on board with it. A huge disappointment.

This Is 40 (2012): **/****