The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Martin Short is a talented guy. No doubt about it. But like any talented individual -- drama or comedy -- there comes along some movies so horrifically stupid, so horrifically bad that it is difficult to wrap your head around. Universally panned by critics and audiences alike, earning just $7 million in theaters, is 1994's Clifford.

Flying to Hawaii with his parents, 10-year old Clifford (Short) wants nothing more than to go to Dinosaur World in Los Angeles. How bad does he want to go? He sneaks his way into the cockpit, meets the pilot and when he can't convince him to land.....makes the engine stall by pulling/pushing buttons. Landing in L.A., Clifford's not allowed to get back on a plane -- any plane -- leaving his parents in a lurch. Wouldn't you know it, there's a solution!!! Clifford's uncle Martin (Charles Grodin) is in a spot. He needs to convince his fiance, Sarah (Mary Steenburgen), that he doesn't hate kids. What a coincidence!?! Martin takes Clifford in until his parents come back, even promising his nephew to take him to Dinosaur World. What's in store though when Martin's job forces him to back out? Watch out.

There are just certain movies....yeah, I don't even know how to say it. This is a truly awful movie. It is currently rocking a 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, somehow managed a 4.7 rating at the IMDB, and earned a half star review from Roger Ebert. As Ebert so eloquently put it, "The movie is so odd it's almost worth seeing just because we'll never see anything like it again. I hope." The humor is beyond ridiculous. It's to the point I questioned if I was watching a spoof. Is it beyond intentionally dark? Is it smart because it is so dark and bizarre? No, not at all. It is bizarre almost from beginning to end. 'Clifford' was actually filmed in 1990 but with studio issues it wasn't released for four more years.

I do like Martin Short. He's a key and funny ingredient to one of my all-time favorite comedies, The Three Amigos. His Jiminy Glick character is great, but this part? Wow. The sad thing is his character does have some funny moments. To put it lightly, Clifford is....quirky??? He talks to a toy brontosaurus he's named Stefan. He plays a bright red recorder. He wears a suit jacket with shorts and high socks. There are touches in there someplace for a good character, but it goes wasted in a horrifically bad way in a script from Jay Dee Rock and Bobby Van Hayes (wouldn't you know it? This was the only time either ever worked in Hollywood). Behind that innocent smile and seemingly calm childlike demeanor is a demonically manipulative, truly evil little boy. Also, it's just weird that a 40-year old man is playing a 10-year old. It just is.

His cutesy antics are beyond belief. At different points, he almost crashes a plane (a FREAKIN' plane...and it's for laughs), replaces a Bloody Mary with Tabasco sauce as Martin prepares to give a toast, pays off a kid to replace him so he can hide in his dinosaur costume, sets Martin up as a terrorist who has a bomb and is ready to use it, tricks Martin into going to San Francisco on a train and then heading back to his uncle's home and hosting a drinking party, and then replaces his work on a disk with a real-life explosive. In what world is that funny? It is beyond bizarre and never figures out what tone to take. Short is talented and some of his mannerisms here are funny. On the other hand, a little creepiness goes a long way. Director Paul Flaherty wears out his welcome quickly and is never able to recover.

So to get people into this movie, did someone have some highly incriminating evidence against this many people? With 1992's Beethoven, Grodin showed he could do a controlled crazy, but he's all over the place here. He hams it up, mugs it up and never stops, screaming through much of the movie. Steenburgen too looks confused as to why she's here. Dabney Coleman is Martin and Sarah's boss. His developed personality? He wears a toupee and wants to hook up with Sarah. Richard Kind and Jennifer Savidge appear briefly as Clifford's parents, clearly at the end of their rope and ready to get rid of him. Even Ben Savage -- later of Boy Meets World -- makes an appearance in an odd storytelling technique as Clifford -- now a priest in 2050...I have no idea, just go with it, tells the boy how crazy a kid he used to be.

I don't know. I'm confused. Why is Clifford so messed up? Why does he act this way? We don't find out. He's just off-the-wall crazy, no explanation provided. That's the movie. Truly dumb for the sake of dumb. It deserves it's place in the Hall of Worst Movies Ever. By the time the end came along and Martin was trying to kill Clifford on an amusement park ride at Dinosaur World (yes, you read that right), I didn't even know what I was watching anymore.

Clifford (1994): */****

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Pale Rider

By the 1980s, the western genre had played out the string. Revisionist westerns of the 1970s had nailed that coffin shot, leaving an occasional western for a 1980s audience, flicks like The Long Riders (good), Tom Horn (a near classic), Heaven's Gate (potential but a disaster), and Silverado (okay but meh) among others. What was the most financially successful western of the decade? That would be 1985's Pale Rider.

It's the 1880s somewhere in the California mountains and Hull Barrett (Michael Moriarty) is one of many miners trying to carve a life for himself in a small, isolated mining village. Some gold has been found -- enough to keep the people around -- but no huge lode just yet. Finding any gold strike has proved to be extremely difficult as a local businessman and miner himself, LaHood (Richard Dysart), constantly sends a gang of thugs to disrupt the village's activities. Miners and not gunfighters, the village doesn't know what to do following one particularly dangerous raid. The situation seems hopeless until a mysterious drifter known only as the Preacher (Clint Eastwood) arrives in town. He instantly tangles with LaHood's thugs, prompting a bigger showing of power. Will the Preacher be able to hold off LaHood, especially when he calls in help from a corrupt marshal?

Making over $41 million in theaters in the United States alone, 'Rider' was a huge hit with audiences. Both producing and directing as well as starring, Eastwood makes his return to the western genre that helped make him an international star. His last true western was a classic in itself, 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales. It is an interesting if not particularly unique western, borrowing very liberally from both Shane and another Eastwood flick, High Plains Drifter. I liked it if I didn't love, a dark if still traditional western that is worth a watch. The filming locations in the Boulder Mountains and Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho are a change of pace visually, beautiful, cluttered and claustrophobic like it's hanging over the story. Composer Lennie Niehaus' score was forgettable as I'm unable to member a single note or tune.

This is one of a few Eastwood movies that's evaded me over the years. I heard less than sterling reviews, but when it showed up on TCM's scheduling recently I wanted to give it a shot. Eastwood is one of a few faces of the western genre, a huge star who's name is instantly associated with it. He plays a similar character here to what we're familiar with, a quiet (although he talks more than usual) drifter, a gunman who travels with the clothes on his pack and his bedroll and saddle. He doesn't seem to take money, only doing what he believes to be right; in this case, defending the miners against the greedy, evil LaHood. Though he is downright talkative relative to his other roles, Eastwood is a menacing, intimidating presence more than anything. His Preacher is a great character, a familiar if worthwhile anti-hero.

The most accurate description I can give of this movie is Shane meets High Plains Drifter. It blends the idea of a hired gun -- Shane -- protecting landowners/farmers with a possibly other-worldly potential -- as was the case in HPD. Nothing is ever spelled out, but there is obviously the intention that Eastwood's Preacher is some sort of avenging angel, quoting literally Revelations. Preacher actually shows up following a prayer asking for help. He moves effortlessly, seemingly disappearing at times, especially in a final showdown. Hired guns fire blindly where they saw him, but he's not there anymore. Is he a ghost? Is he dead? An avenging angel? There's another route, one that I prefer. Preacher is a man back from the dead -- we see his back riddled with past bullet wounds -- and one key character appears to know him from somewhere. However you interpret the character, it allows for some pretty cool possibilities.

The supporting cast, while solid, doesn't jump off the page. Maybe there's too many characters, too much going on. Moriarty is the Joe Starrett character, the miner trying to build a life for himself, taking in a widow (shrill, annoying Carrie Snodgress) and her daughter (Sydney Penny), both taking an instant like to Preacher. He pairs well with Eastwood, both good men, one just more pure. Dysart is a decent villain but underused. The real villain is John Russell as Stockburn, an aging, corrupt marshal who works for whatever law will pay him and travels with six gunslinging deputies (including Billy Drago). Also look for Chris Penn as LaHood's bullying, entitled son and Richard Kiel as one of his miners/henchmen. That's just the start though with at least a dozen other speaking parts, none given a whole lot to do.

The action too is saved for a few specific set pieces. One, Preacher's introduction in town as he whales on a handful of LaHood henchmen with a solid piece of hickory, almost like a samurai wielding a sword (watch it HERE). The best is the finale as Preacher goes up against Stockburn and his deputies on an empty, quiet street. This is the scene that most convinced me the character is some sort of avenging angel, especially the ultimate resolution. I did like this western, but it is missing something that prevents it from being a classic. The insistence on Snodgress' Sarah and Penny's Megan both falling for Preacher is a little much, especially in execution in some painfully stilted scenes. Even the final scenes loses some effectiveness because of it. A good western, not a great one.

Pale Rider (1985): ***/****    

Monday, July 29, 2013

Going the Distance

Something has changed in the romantic comedy vein. In the 1990s, stars like Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock starred in cute, funny and worthwhile rom-coms that guys can actually tolerate. Something changed there in the early 2000s where the genre became one shrill, obnoxious movie after another (Guys need not apply). Oddly enough, director Judd Apatow is responsible for another change in the genre. Adult romantic comedies that men and women alike can enjoy, a trend he started with 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up. No Apatow connection, another in the same vein is the enjoyable 2010's Going the Distance.

Hours off a breakup with his girlfriend, New Yorker Garrett (Justin Long) is in a bar with two of his friends when he meets Erin (Drew Barrymore). They hit it off immediately, ending up back at Garrett's apartment. But the next morning rather than part after a one-night stand, they exchange numbers and agree to go out again. The young New Yorkers start dating and fall hard for each other, but there's a catch. Erin is heading back to California soon to continue her graduate work at Stanford. Both Erin and Garrett know the pitfalls of a long distance relationship, but they decide they don't want to break up, giving the long distance thing a try. It starts off smoothly enough, but after weeks and months apart, the struggles start to pop up. They still feel strongly for each other, but is it enough to get them through an extended rough patch, especially when Erin is offered a job in San Francisco?

From director Nanette Burstein and screenplay writer Geoff LaTulippe, 'Distance' struggled mightily in theaters during its theatrical run in 2010. It doesn't rewrite the romantic comedy genre -- I imagine that would be tough to do -- but again, I liked it. I didn't rush out to see it or rent it in 2010, but watched it recently and enjoyed it from beginning to end (call it The Girlfriend Effect, seriously though, I did like it). One of the best things going for it is that the story is based in some sort of reality, not movie reality. 'Distance' tries to show some sort of dating reality, of being single, of being married. It is funny but I never got the sense it was trying too hard. These aren't movie boyfriend and girlfriends with all sort of outlandish, out of this world problems. It's just a young couple fresh into a relationship trying to work things out. Pretty crazy, huh? 

Sink or swim moment here for a romantic comedy. Do you like the stars? Are they so annoying you're actively rooting against them? Do you want them to meet a gruesome end? Thankfully, the casting of Barrymore and Long is a winner. Dating at the time the movie was filmed, they have an easygoing, natural chemistry that flows well as the relationship gets deeper and more emotionally connected. Sure, Long's name is Garrett (cool movie name, dude), and he works for a hip record label (are there 6 million record labels out there so all hip movie characters can work at one?), but Long does a good job as a pretty typical single guy on the dating scene. I thought maybe Barrymore was a tad old to play the character but then realized she's 35 and just seems like she's older because she's been acting since the early 1980s. Either way, I liked the duo together.

Really though, the biggest reason I'll recommend this 2010 romantic comedy is the rest of the cast. I liked Barrymore and Long together, but the strength is in the supporting players, especially Charlie Day (of It's Always Sunny) and Jason Sudeikis as Garrett's friends Dan and Box. The duo and the relationship among the friends gives a funnier dimension to the story. Day's Dan has no filter (not by choice, he's just goofy and talkative) and as Garrett's roommate, likes to DJ his hook-ups, listening through the paper thin walls in one of the movie's best running bits. Sudeikis' Box has grown a mustache in hopes of hooking up with a cougar looking to reclaim her younger glory days. While I liked the entire movie, I especially liked scenes with Long, Day and Sudeikis. The script gives them some really funny moments to work with, and they don't disappoint.

Sit back down though, we've also got Christina Applegate as Erin's worrying older sister, Corinne, with comedian Jim Gaffigan especially memorable as her husband. Ron Livingston has a thankless, quick part as Garrett's boss at the record label while Oliver Jackson-Cohen is Erin's dreamy co-worker, a smooth English bartender. Rob Riggle has a good one-scene appearance as a married man who's less than pleased with Garrett's big-time efforts to impress Erin while Leighton Meester plays Garrett's girlfriend in the opening scene.

Romantic comedies can get too goofy, too stupid and as was the case with the recent This Is 40, too self-indulgent. This was an enjoyable, very funny and at times decently smart romantic comedy that benefits from a strong cast. Now, if we could get more romantic comedies like this, then we would be onto something.

Going the Distance (2010): ***/****

Friday, July 26, 2013

Sex Drive

If we listen to everything movies teach us, teenagers apparently like to have sex and aspire to have as much sex as humanly possible. So I hear, I could be wrong. But with that premise, we've gotten a lot -- a lot -- of teen sex comedies, some better than others. It's a sub-genre all to itself, one that audiences are quite familiar with. In other words, you've got to do something new/surprising to be effective. Take 2008's Sex Drive, a flick that seems pretty been there, done that in its raunchiness. Brace yourself's good, really good.

Having just graduated high school, 18-year old Ian (Josh Zuckerman) is a virgin and trying his best to lose that virginity. He has a crush on his longtime friend Felicia (Amanda Crew), but she seems to see him as nothing more than a good friend she can talk to about anything and everything. Ian is also talking to a girl from Kentucky, Ms. Tasty, online although he's pretending to be a muscle-bound football player. One night, Ms. Tasty tells Ian he should come visit her, and because he drove all that way, she'll have sex with him. Ian is wary of driving all that way, but his ladies man friend Lance (Clark Duke) convinces him otherwise. They "borrow" Ian's brother classic 1969 GTO and hit the road, but Felicia tags along -- even if she doesn't know the real intention of the road trip. Chicago to Knoxville, Tennessee? What could go wrong?

With movies like Superbad and the American Pie series (among countless others), the teen sex comedy is nothing new for audiences. 'Drive' is actually based off a novel by Andy Behrens (a Yahoo Sports writer), and I for one can say I was very surprised to hear that a sex comedy was based off a novel. Reviews are solid for Behrens' novel though with director Sean Anders obviously amping things up in his flick. There are touches that feel too familiar, but the teen sex comedy road trip buddy flick is just that, familiar. Ian, Lance and Felicia run into all sorts of eccentric horny people and various craziness on the road, but you knew that going in. None of this is intended as a negative or a dig at the movie. It's all very funny, the laughs treading that fine line between awfully stupid and just goofy that is funny.

Through all the sex jokes and general raunchiness, the heart of this flick is in the characters. The best example I can come up with is Superbad where we (well, I did) liked the main characters, making the hijinks they get into more fun to watch. That's especially the case with our teenage trio -- in the film at least -- as they steal a classic car and head south. Zuckerman is really good as Ian, your typical average high schooler who leans toward the nerdy side. Sometimes it's a little exaggerated, but 'Drive' gets the awkwardness of high school right on all levels. Duke is a scene-stealer as Lance, a chubby, pretty normal looking guy who has nonetheless turned himself into a ladies man with his ultra-confidence. Mostly though, he's a good friend to Ian, genuinely looking out for him. Crew is solid too as Felicia, the girl of Ian's dreams who may or may not like him too. Uh-oh, didn't see that coming!

Following the genre formula, we do meet some rather zany personalities along the way. 'Drive' doesn't have much in the way of star power, but Anders and John Morris do a really good job writing a screenplay off Behrens' novel, especially throwing a long line of kooky supporting characters at the viewer. Let's start with James Marsden as Rex, Ian's older brother who's a gearhead and convinced his little bro is gay. When his car gets stolen, he's understandably a little upset. Seth Green is another scene-stealer as Ezekiel, an Amish mechanic who can't pass up a good chance to lay some sarcasm down. Alice Greczyn is Mary, an Amish girl who takes a liking to Lance and vice versa, Katrina Bowden is the girl of Ian's sex dreams, Ms. Tasty, Charlie McDermott and Mark L. Young as Andy and Randy, two motor-mouthed teenagers who are always on the lookout for a hook-up, Michael Cudlitz as a pissed-off pursuer on the highway, and David Koechner as a wayward hitchhiker.

There's no point in overanalyzing this one. It's from a familiar sub-genre, but it does plenty to distance itself from the pack. Different characters and situations should seem familiar. If you've seen any other teen sex comedy, you've seen some of the predecessors to this one. The humor can be pretty raunchy -- especially the unrated version -- and there's random bits of nudity sprinkled in throughout the movie. I liked it a lot though. It is goofy from beginning to end, but the characters are at least remotely believable and sympathetic, and the laughs are there throughout. Definitely give this one a try.

Sex Drive (2008): ***/****

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Broadcast News

Here in 2013, we have something called the 24-hour news cycle. If something major happens, it is reported in minutes (sometimes seconds) and channels like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and countless others keep on reporting until something new comes up. Kinda terrifying in a way, don't you think? How do they do it? How do they manage it? Well, it may seem a little dated now 26 years later, but 1987's Broadcast News gives quite the look into the world of television news.

Working for a major news outlet's Washington bureau, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) is an up and coming producer working behind the scenes. She's knowledgeable about an endless line of subjects and when it comes to working on deadline under pressure, there are few that can top her ability. Jane is close with one of her reporters, Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), a similarly very intelligent field reporter, the two forming quite the news team and friendship beyond the news. They both worry about the future of the business, focus turning more to looks, pandering and emotion over news, especially when the news outlet hires Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a young, handsome anchor who's good at what he does but without the education, the background, the desire to tell the news. Basically....he's nice to look at. Jane starts to worry about herself having met Tom. She likes him, is drawn to him, but will she stand by her morals and beliefs or what she thinks she wants?

Written and directed by James L. Brooks, 'News' still resonates now in 2013 for anyone who's ever watched a nightly news broadcast, a breaking news story or even just wondered how it all comes together. It is smart, well-written and well-acted, a rare blend of drama and comedy (of the romantic variety too....uh-oh!). Voted by the American Film Institute as one of the funniest 100 movies of all time -- coming in at No. 64 -- the best aspect of 'News' is Brooks' script. It covers a lot of ground in its 133 minutes, and audiences ate it up, not to mention during the awards season when it picked up seven different Oscar nominations (including all 3 starring roles, best director, best picture) although it didn't win a single one. I thought Brooks especially deserved an Oscar win, but that's just me. Any-hoo, here we go....

It is rare to see a movie with characters who are both sympathetic, believable and unlikable all at the same time. That's life, huh? None of us are perfect, but we rarely see that in films as scripts call for very broad strokes to bring characters to life. A bad guy is a bad guy, a good guy is a good guy. It's pretty black and white. Not the case here. Hunter, Brooks and Hurt do phenomenal jobs bringing these characters to life. At different points you do like each of them, hate/dislike each of them, and root for each of them. Hunter's Jane wants to stand by her beliefs, but she's also a woman and wants to be seen as sexy too. Hurt's Tom wants to be good at what he does, but he's got some other issues he's working with too. Brooks' Aaron wants the fame and respect, but he wants to earn it the right way. He doesn't want any favors done for him. He's going to make it to the top his way.

Now here comes the issue I had. No, it's not a dealbreaker although it did threaten to bring the movie down a notch or two. Great characters, really well thought out script, and it resorts to.....a love triangle? Is there a lazier approach in a romantic comedy available to a scriptwriter than a love triangle? It makes it all seem so trivial. Oh no! Jane has an epic crush on the very handsome but all style and no substance Tom? Oh no! She also likes Aaron because he's good at what he does and is her neurotic, intelligent equal? Oh, the horror! In a movie that delves into the world of television news and does it so well, the script resorts to a love triangle? Because we like the characters, it's a tolerable plot device, but I resented its use just the same. To Brooks' credit, he doesn't wrap it up in tidy fashion with a bow. The final scenes feature a few reveals that show everything doesn't end up the way you think it would.

Those three performances dominate the screentime, but watch out for some good supporting parts. Jack Nicholson is buried down in the cast listing for his smaller part as Bill Rorisch, the legendary nightly news anchor who everyone at the bureau respects and idolizes. Robert Prosky, Joan Cusack, Lois Chiles, Christian Clemenson and Peter Hackes all star as different personalities around the bureau, studios and bullpen.    

As good as the characters are, the most memorable parts of 'News' are the set pieces. We see Jane and Aaron out in the field, working in the studio to get a piece done under a ridiculous deadline so the national news can air it, the in-office tension over how a package lands. The best part though is obvious, a breaking news story in Europe about an American base being attacked. Rushing to report the news, Tom is sent to the anchor desk, Jane in his ear guiding him through it, and a disappointed Aaron still helping out from home. It's a great look into the inner workings of the business in all its adrenaline, chaos and up-to-the-minute developments. It's a really good movie that I think could have been a great movie. Still, I liked it a lot, mostly for the 3-D characters who actually behave and act like human beings. Go figure.

Broadcast News (1987): ***/****

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Our Man Flint

By 1966, the James Bond series was up and running, international hit one after another with Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball already hits with audiences. Where there's success, comes knockoffs though, and the spoofs weren't far behind. One of the first to follow in Bond's footsteps was 1966's Our Man Flint.

All around the world, horrific weather catastrophes are wreaking havoc. What's the cause? Three scientists working for international criminal organization Galaxy have created a weather machine that can cause thunderstorms, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions. Galaxy demands that all the world's nations capitulate to them, but a N.A.T.O.-like organization, Z.O.W.I.E. (Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage) has one last solution; get super-spy Derek Flint (James Coburn) out of retirement and let him try to take out Galaxy and its weather weapon. Flint is a hard sell, but he takes the job eventually. There is little in the way of clues and no idea where Galaxy's base is. Flint pursues the one piece of evidence he does have, but Galaxy and its henchmen are waiting for him.

As a huge fan of the 007 series, I'll give any spoof a shot. I'd seen In Like Flint (the sequel to this 1966 original) and liked it if I didn't love it, the same for Dean Martin in the Matt Helm series. From director Daniel Mann, 'Our' is a solid if unspectacular entry into the spy spoof genre. It pokes fun at James Bond, even mentioning a rival and fellow agent of 007, his code name Triple-O 8. At one point, Flint even brings up Spectre, Bond's main rival, and calls 007's Walther PPK, booby-trapped briefcase 'crude.' It knows where it's coming from and has some fun with it while still paying tribute, not like the goofier but still funny Austin Powers series.

The biggest thing going for both movies is the casting of James Coburn as Flint. Already a star thanks to his parts in The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Charade (among others), Coburn wouldn't seem like an obvious choice to play Flint, but he makes it is own. Up until this point, he was more of a stoic anti-hero and man of few words. It's a showier part here but never an obvious one. Coburn's Flint is an epically successful ladies man, knowledgeable about anything and everything, and a specialist in karate and hand-to-hand combat, disliking the brutality of guns. His lankiness, that charming smile, that ever-calm demeanor, it all adds up to make a great character. At one point, he pursues a lead because he knows the ingredients to bouillabaisse, visiting every restaurant in Paris until he can find it, just knowing how it would taste. There's some pressure playing the American James Bond, but Coburn kills the part.

What's lacking though beyond Coburn is any more memorable characters behind him. Lee J. Cobb is a scene-stealer as Cramden, the Z.O.W.I.E. commander and Flint's former commanding officer, always trying to keep tabs on his agent but usually just going along for the ride. Gila Golan is the gorgeous Flint girl, playing Gila (original name, huh?), a Galaxy member tasked with bringing in Flint, preferably alive and before he can complete his mission. The main villain is Malcolm Rodney, played by Edward Mulhare, but he lacks any real charisma, any punch in terms of an intimidating Bond villain. He never really poses a threat to Flint, too bad because his henchman, Gruber (Michael St. Clair) is dispatched far too quickly. The three quasi-evil doctors are played by Benson Fong, Rhys Williams and Peter Brocco. As for Flint's harem of beautiful, scantily clad women, look for Shelby Grant, Sigrid Valdis, Gianna Serra and Helen Funai, around as eye candy without more than 10 words said among the four.

The rebellious, roguish super spy, the sexy women around every corner, the impregnable island fortress, the power-hungry villain, the impossible situation that screams suicide. This spoof has all the touches of a good Bond film, but just in the laugh department it is missing that special something that could bring it up a notch or two. It only runs 107 minutes, but it drags, especially in the second half. One episodic set piece to another, they don't always add up to a really good final product. Through it all, Coburn's laconic, smart-assed Flint makes it worthwhile, but it's not a classic. Just an enjoyable movie that's good for a couple laughs.

Our Man Flint (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Monsters University

Since Toy Story was first released in 1995, Pixar has become a cash cow among audiences. Children and families alike love the animated films, many of them becoming instant classics. That said, just about anyone who has seen a few of these movies no doubt has a favorite movie among the bunch. It's like picking pizza...even the bad ones are still good, but for me, one of my personal favorites has always been 2001's Monsters, Inc. How then can you go wrong with a prequel, 2013's Monsters University?

Ever since he was a young, little monster, Mike Wazowski (voice of Billy Crystal) has wanted one thing more than anything else. He wants to go to Monsters University and get his degree in Scaring, hoping to ultimately become one of the all-time great scarers. Mike eventually does get into MU, devoting himself to learning the ins and outs, every little thing he can about becoming the best monster he can be. He meets another freshman, James "Sully" Sullivan (voice of John Goodman) who seems to get by on his family name and a natural ability to scare. The two freshmen become fierce rivals, but when they get on the wrong side of some of the school administration, they have to team up. Can Mike, Sully and a handful of members of a nerdy fraternity on campus work together to win the famous Scare Games?

Made 12 years after the original, 'University' gets at least a partial pass just because it's fun to see these characters we love back again for more. It's great to see Mike and Sully, see how they met and eventually end up at Monsters, Inc. where we saw them in the first movie. It's cool to see the introduction of some other characters we've met prior, not to mention a solid list of other characters we're meeting for the first time. Thankfully though, director Dan Scanlon doesn't go for the status quo. Is another Monsters movie even necessary? Over a decade, not particularly so Scanlon comes up with a gimmick that ends up working really well; the prequel. Instead of some retread sequel, we get an enjoyable, worthwhile prequel. It sounds obvious to give credit where it's due, but it felt refreshing to see an original prequel rather than a well-worn, comfortable (if dull) sequel. Point to you, Mr. Scanlon.

As is the case with all the Pixar movies I've seen, the voice casting is impeccable again. The pairing of Billy Crystal and John Goodman as Mike and Sully is pretty perfect. Crystal's higher-pitched, almost nasally voice at times is a natural fit with Goodman's deeper, almost baritone voice. Also, seeing them as enemies rather than friends is a cool, surprising twist. The visual doesn't hurt either; Mike a small, gangly green monster with one enormous eye while Sully looks like a teddy bear on steroids, immense and tall with blue fur and pink polka dots to go with his horns. Forcing the duo to work together was a nice touch as well, giving the story a bit of a lesson for its younger members of audiences without being really obvious or overly heavy-handed. LISTEN to the MESSAGE! It never feels like that. Mike with his stubborn edge and thirst for more, Sully with his natural ability and self-confidence, it's a monster match made in Heaven.

The rest of the cast in the voice department doesn't disappoint either. Returning (pre-returning?) from 'Inc.' is Steve Buscemi as Randall, Mike's roommate who can turn himself invisible and hasn't quite created that mean, evil streak we see years later. Helen Mirren is a welcome addition to the cast as Dean Hardscrabble, the legendary dean of Monsters University who comes to work against both Mike and Sully with Alfred Molina as Professor Knight, the teacher in Scaring 101. Nathan Fillion is a solid choice to play Johnny Worthington, the All-American college guy and head of the fraternity that's always the coolest on campus. Also look and listen for the voice talents of John Krasinski, Tyler Labine, Aubrey Plaza, Bonnie Hunt, Bill Hader, Bobby Moynihan and John Ratzenberger as the Abominable Snowman in supporting parts.

The best thing to come out of this 2013 prequel though is the handful of characters we meet at Oozma Kappa, the nerdy, disrespected fraternity Mike and Sully are forced to join to be eligible for the Scare Games. The group includes Don (Joel Murray), a 40-something salesman who went back to school for a new job, Squishy (Peter Sohn), a nerdy, quiet youngster looking for friends, Terry (Dave Foley) and Terri (Sean Hayes), a two-head monster, one who wants to dance and the other to study, and Art (scene-stealing Charlie Day), the goofy, off-the-wall monster with an odd past who also looks like a Muppet. Obviously, part of the appeal from the OK Fraternity comes from their physical appearance which proves difficult to describe, but check out the visual HERE. The genuine friendship, the bonding, this key introduction of the OK characters goes a long way and for the better, great additions to the story.

So we've made it this far, and I haven't really mentioned the visual here other than the appearance of the many different monsters. Pixar did it again, producing and making an incredibly visual film, full of color and excitement, deep and rich to the point some shots look like paintings. Mostly though, reviews for Pixar films could be done quickly and capably. It's good -- sometimes really good -- and you will no doubt get some really solid laughs and enjoyment out of it. 'University' isn't on par with the original, but it's a worthy addition to the Pixar archives for sure. A very solid prequel to a classic. The Pixar short before the movie, The Blue Umbrella, is okay but nothing special.

Monsters University (2013): ***/****   

Sunday, July 21, 2013


As a director, Alfred Hitchcock had a ridiculously successful run, consistently good throughout his career. Of a career though that spanned six decades, he had his best string of films over the late 1940s and basically throughout the 1950s (for me at least). For all his good ones though, there were some duds, including one film often cited as his worst, 1969's Topaz.

It's early 1962 and American intelligence agents, including Michael Nordstrom (John Forsythe), has managed to convince and arrange for the defection of a high-ranking KGB official (Per-Axel Arosenius). Debriefing him after a tense escape in Copenhagen, Nordstrom and his fellow agents discover that the KGB officer knows the vague details of the Russians sending nuclear ballistic missiles to Cuba. Needing answers as to where and how many missiles, Nordstrom seeks out a French agent, Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford), with who he has worked in the past. He enlists him to investigate the missiles, knowing that any American involvement could lead to a nuclear war. Following what little leads he has, Andre pursues the case, even traveling to Cuba to investigate. What and where will the trail lead though? Countless lives hang in the balance.

I was surprised to find out that one of Hitchcock's last films was a story about a little known chapter that ultimately led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, 'Topaz' based closely on the Sapphire Affair, the story of French involvement with the intelligence movement. I'll get more into my specific issues/compliments with the story later, but the real historical basis seems like an odd choice for a director who specialized in making films with unique, original stories. In the meantime, something doesn't translate. The finished product is a film that aspires to do and be a lot, but it never quite makes it. There is something missing as if Hitchcock couldn't decide what type of film to make, what tone to take, what story to focus on. Instead, we get a 143-minute film that drifts along, mixing up some beautifully shot, high tension scenes with long, dull scenes that go nowhere.

In casting his film, Hitchcock made a point of casting relatively unknown Stafford in a lead part. By 1969, he had been in a couple Euro-WWII movies, a couple spy flicks, but he was not a known commodity for audiences. It works well. I thought Stafford was a strength, his part as Devereaux a solid, layered character. As a favor to a friend (Forsythe's Nordstrom), he gets involved in an international incident that is bigger than him. He sees what's at risk and continues on even when his life is at danger (and of those around him). We also see his interactions with his wife (Dany Robin) and their troubled marriage, his journalist son-in-law (Michel Subor), and a former contact and lover in Cuba, Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor). It's not a flashy James Bond-esque spy, just an intelligence agent who's human and follows the clues and leads as presented.

While the eventual focus here is on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Russians supplying the Cubans with nuclear missiles, it is more of a MacGuffin that gets the story moving. It moves in episodic fashion, first the Russian defection, then the Americans, and then Devereaux's involvement and all the people he meets and places he goes to. Some work better than others. His recruitment of Roscoe Lee Browne's Caribbean agent is a highlight as he poses as a journalist to infiltrate a Cuban diplomatic party visiting New York. His venture to Cuba where he meets Dor's Juanita and an oddly cast John Vernon as a Cuban officer and Castro supporter is more hit or miss. Too much time is spent on Andre and Juanita's passionate affair, not enough on the actual mission and Vernon's officer's suspicions.

That's the entire movie. It's good for a stretch and's just there. 'Topaz' lacks any real urgency or energy. It drifts from episode to episode and takes too much time actually getting to the crux of the mission or investigation. There are parts that work extremely well, especially the conclusion to the Cuba venture with a simple, artsy and very effective single shot. Those moments that work so well are fewer and far between as the story develops. By the time a double agent is revealed in the French intelligence field, it lacks any punch. As things should be raring up to an uncomfortable level, the movie is limping to the finish line. Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret co-star as Devereax's fellow agents, Claude Jade as his daughter, and Edmon Ryan as McKittreck, a high-level American agent leading the defection charge.

I don't know. I hate just saying a movie was boring as a reason I didn't enjoy it. That's it though. This is a dull, slow-moving flick that has lots of potential and some really cool individual moments. All combined though, it never quite adds up to anything you would expect from a Hitchcock film. Sorry to say I came away disappointed with this one.

Topaz (1969): **/****

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

As different eras and time periods pass, highly successful genres in Hollywood find ways to stay fresh, changing with the new times. Almost always though, there's a common tie, some link to what originally made the genre successful with audiences. Take science fiction. It is a genre that has been aided by the invention of all sorts of new technology, especially CGI. But what's the best time period for the genre? I'll watch a sci-fi flick from any decade, any time period, but for me, the genre was at its absolute strongest in the 1950s. I caught up with one classic I'd never seen before, 1956's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Returning to his home in Santa Mira, California, after attending a two-week convention, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is alarmed by the amount of requests he receives from patients upon his return. Several people are complaining that their loved ones seem a little off, that the people they've known all their lives simply aren't themselves. Bennell looks into it a bit but doesn't think much of first. A friend and neighbor (King Donovan) has found what he believes to be a dead body that somewhat resembles him but without any distinctive features or fingerprints to identify him. With a longtime crush and recent divorcee Becky (Dana Wynter) at his side, Bennell starts to investigate and is stunned by what he finds. Some sort of extraterrestrial race is in fact replacing human beings with almost duplicate versions of themselves, but eliminating emotion in the process. Can Bennell figure out how to stop the rapidly reproducing duplicates in time?

The 1950s were packed to the gills with everything from Forbidden Planet to The Day the Earth Stood Still, It Came From Outer Space to The Thing. As far as comparisons go, 'Invasion' is interesting because of some similarities with 1951's The Thing, but also how it impacted John Carpenter's The Thing remake. From Don Siegel, this 1956 sci-fi creeper is a gem. Based on a serial that ran in Collier's Magazine, it is smart, well-written and scary without having to resort to obvious GOTCHA! scares and thrills. Filmed in black and white, it is subtle and unsettling, Siegel using his camera in a variety of different angles, POV, and tracking shots. The shadowy black and white works well, almost like a sci-fi film noir, building that sensation of impending doom expertly. We know something isn't quite right, but what is it exactly?

An obvious influence on Siegel's film is rather timely for a 1950s audience, but now in 2013, it's easier to keep it in perspective. With McCarthyism and a Red Scare permeating the United States, Americans were worried about an ever-constant threat of Commies and Reds affecting an American way of life. What better way to translate that than in a story of a mysterious alien race that secretly and covertly tries to change who you are? The end result? An eerily similar version of what you used to be, but not quite spot-on. Now, we can look back on that secondary layer to the story and see it for what it is. I wonder if 1950s audiences picked up on it. Regardless, Siegel and the script don't overdo that angle. It is underplayed, just another subtle layer to the scares.

A really solid character actor who never quite became a huge star, McCarthy is a great lead here as Dr. Miles Bennell, a likable, smart and smooth doctor who questions things as much as anyone. But something that's hard to explain like this? How could people literally be replaced without anyone else noticing? McCarthy does a good job showing that slow burn as he figures out exactly what's going on, from a doctor who thinks things out to a man who appears unhinged when he learns the truth. Avoiding just being the pretty face along for the ride, Wynter more than holds her own as the female lead. The rest of the cast is lesser known actors, the ensemble as a whole doing a pretty cool job. Larry Gates plays a similarly questioning psychiatrist who Miles seeks out for help, Donovan and future Morticia Adams Carolyn Jones as Jack and Teddy, a couple who finds a suspicious body, Jean Willes as Miles' nurse Sally, and even future director Sam Peckinpah as Charlie, one of the townspeople affected by the quasi-alien invasion.

There really isn't a weak moment in the film, but with an 80-minute running time, things really pick up about the 35 or 40-minute mark. We start to learn what's really going on, and unlike most sci-fi movies that feature a twist, this one works. Sometimes films try so hard to really throw you for a loop that the twist comes across as laughable. Not the case here thankfully. Besides, even if you don't buy the twist/explanation, the final 30 minutes are so fast-paced you won't even notice. Siegel's camera work (including some cool tracking shots from a distance) and a race for survival provide some ridiculously tense moments. The ending is a little weak, Siegel being forced to film a prologue and epilogue (featuring uncredited Whit Bissell and Richard Deacon) that starts off well enough but ends up weakening the possible darkness of his original ending. Still a classic, still well worth tracking down.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): ****/****

Friday, July 19, 2013

Identity Thief

Although she worked regularly in film and television from the late 1990s, Melissa McCarthy truly burst onto the scene with her Oscar-nominated part in 2011's Bridesmaids. Since then, she's been all over the place with her successful CBS sitcom Mike and Molly and movies like This Is 40, The Hangover Part IV, and another 2013 entry, Identity Thief. Is it worth it to seek it out?

With a decent job, a nice house, two daughters and a third on the way with wife, Trish (Amanda Peet), Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman) has a pretty decent life, if a dollar-conscious life. He's even started a new job that will pay him more money, giving his family far more financial security....or so he hopes. Sandy starts getting calls from an odd assortment of places confirming appointments and reservations, and then he finds out what's going on. His identity has been stolen, and someone is racking up huge amounts of debts on his accounts. The police are basically handcuffed by the law and jurisdiction, but they can tell Sandy that his thief is a woman, Diana (McCarthy), living it up in Florida on his credit. The only catch? The cops can't do a thing, leaving Sandy to bring her back to face the charges. Oh, this should go smoothly.

I think this comedy from director Seth Gordon is undone by one fatal flaw. If this sounds preachy or condescending, so be it. In the age of Internet thievery and identity theft, the premise here is obviously incredibly timely. Why then does Gordon, scriptwriter Craig Mazin and the film insist on trying to make McCarthy's Diana sympathetic? Again, if that sounds naive or innocent, get over it. She robs people -- more on that issue later -- and then creates her own identity with their name, credit card info and social security number. Maybe it's not even that she does it, but that in the third act 'Thief' tries to rationalize why she does it. Oh, no, she was abandoned as a child! Oh, goodness, I'm sorry you robbed me of all my money! We're good, don't worry about all that identity theft. Just commit, make McCarthy a bad guy. Don't try to rationalize it all.

Onto bigger and better things, other flaws that do a solid job of kneecapping this movie that in its early goings had some potential. The script is atrocious. So many scenes happen and/or develop simply because the movie needs to continue, not because it makes any sense at all for those things to happen. Example No. 1: In the opening scene, Bateman's Sandy picks up the phone and gives McCarthy's Diana his social security number because she says his identity has been tampered with and "her company" can offer security. He gives it to her. Are you kidding me? This guy is a high-level, very intelligent accountant, and he just throws his number out there because the voice at the other end asks for it? Awful. Oh, and my random favorite is when the story requires Sandy and Diana to be stranded in the middle of nowhere. Sandy's rental car is across a lane of traffic on an expressway (just go with it, it's a long story how it got there). An 18-wheeler semi crashes into it at full speed, incinerating it on impact. In what world does that happen? The truck wouldn't stop, turn, avoid it? Then, upon hitting the car, it wouldn't stop?

Amidst all this garbage is the potential for at least a mildly entertaining movie because of the pairing of Bateman and McCarthy, an Odd Couple match made in hell. They do have a great chemistry together, the lunacy of what Bateman's Sandy actually has to do providing some really funny moments through the first 45 minutes. Though the script does her no favors, McCarthy is an extremely talented actress and comedian. She commits to her parts physically, taking abuses you wouldn't normally expect of a female comedian. Once Sandy dupes her into going back to Denver to settle things, Diana basically decides to make the trip a living hell. Some scenes go too far, just pushing further than they need. If the flick would have figured out a better, more pointed tone, then we'd be onto something, but instead the two talented actors are left swinging in the breeze. Bateman's deadpan delivery paired with McCarthy's over the top antics work surprisingly well.

The rest of the cast doesn't come away so well. Peet is good in a thankless part as Sandy's worrying, well-meaning wife. Jon Favreau is ridiculously bad as Cornish, Sandy's ignorant, very rich boss who has no concept of what human interactions are really like. Genesis Rodriguez and rapper T.I. are unnecessary as two henchmen of a jailed drug cartel leader (Jonathan Banks) who Diana pisses off (because there wasn't enough going on in the story already) and are trailing her. Similarly unnecessary is Robert Patrick as a debt collector with $ for eyes. Also look for John Cho and Morris Chestnut in supporting parts. 

While I enjoyed the first 40-45 minutes or so, things derail and do so quickly. The movie clocks in at a ridiculously long 111 minutes. There are multiple points where I thought things were wrapping up, and then it keeps going. One stupid scene after another develops, things getting more ridiculous by the scene. At one point, Sandy actually has a snake fall from a tree onto his neck, Diana trying to remove the snake with a stick on fire. By the time Diana meets Sandy's family and we hear her sob story, I was done. It's a wasted opportunity here. Hopefully there isn't a sequel coming our way either, but I certainly wouldn't be surprised.

Identity Thief (2013): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Broken City

When you find something you're good at, stick with it, right? Actors can find their niche, that genre where audiences love seeing them in no matter how many times they come back to the well. For me, I've always been a Mark Wahlberg fan, an actor who finds himself playing a police officer in The Other Guys, The Departed, Max Payne, We Own the Night, and The Corruptor. We have a new entry to the listing, 2013's Broken City.

A veteran detective in New York City, Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) is exonerated for the murder of a young Latino man accused of rape and murder. The trial creates all sorts of waves though amongst the population, forcing NYC Mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe) to ask for his resignation. Taggart is stunned but goes along with it, starting up his own P.I. agency. Seven years go by, Billy struggling along to keep the business afloat as he dates his longtime girlfriend (Natalie Martinez). Preparing for another election, Hostetler asks Taggart to take a job for him, investigating the mayor's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who he suspects of having an affair. Promised an impressive payday, Billy takes the job but quickly realizes he hasn't been told everything that's going on. Big business, billions of dollars and even murder is just some of what the ex-cop has stumbled into.

Politics are bad and/or corrupt, the police can be caught up in some shady, criminal stuff, and people in general tend to be pretty greedy and will do anything for a payday and to protect their own behinds. Nothing too crazy, out of left field in that statement, huh? Crime movies use all three premises as jumping off points to the point that they become ultra-familiar. Using all three, 'Broken' doesn't have much new going for it. It adds little to the crime-political thriller that we haven't seen before, but I found myself liking it just the same. Go figure. There is a familiar comfort zone with the story, recognizable characters and a story that does its best to keep us guessing (even if it's never too hard to see where it's going). It struggled in theaters thanks to some less than positive reviews, but it's a movie that genre fans will hopefully get some enjoyment out of.

As a movie fan, it doesn't take much to get me interested in a movie. Case in point? Wahlberg vs. Crowe, two of my favorite actors going toe to toe. Wahlberg is playing that familiar role, the everyman cop who's had some trouble/demons in his past but has seemed to gotten a grasp on his life. Crowe is a hammy scene-stealer as the longtime NYC Mayo who knows the ins and outs of City Hall, NYC and all the city has to offer. It's cool to see him as a bad guy -- albeit a pretty smooth one. Their scenes together are solid, two toughs bouncing off each other well. Wahlberg's part unfortunately goes a little too cliched, his fiery relationship with longtime girlfriend screaming Cop Cliche, especially as it develops in the second half. As the evil, manipulative politician, Crowe's Hostetler doesn't offer much new, but there's talent here to appreciate.

Director Allen Hughes has quite a cast beyond his two leads too, starting with Zeta-Jones in more of a window dressing part as Hostetler's disgruntled wife Kathleen. Also look for Jeffrey Wright as Taggart, the police commissioner who has a less than pleasant working relationship with the mayor, Barry Pepper as the opposing mayoral candidate trying to take down the longtime mayor with Kyle Chandler playing his campaign manager, Alona Tal as Kate, Billy's lone employee and assistant and Michael Beach as Taggart's former partner who has risen through the ranks in the NYPD.

For the most part, this crime-political thriller kept me entertained throughout. It develops through the first hour about the way you would expect. It's near the halfway point that things get thrown for a loop. A twist is thrown our way that I didn't see coming, and then another and another. 'Broken' barely manages to tread that fine line between trying too hard to surprise us and just delivering a good story. It gets a little too dramatic, a little too intense, but the NYC shooting locations provide a good backdrop and composers Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne turn in a good, New Wave-ish musical score.Good, not great and a little cliched crooked cops and politicians story.

Broken City (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wild Target

You don't need to be a huge star, a huge name to be popular with audiences. Take Bill Nighy, a British actor who's starred in Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Valkyrie and countless other movies. How many moviegoers could actually pick him out of a lineup? He's an immensely talented actor as he shows in 2010's Wild Target.

A middle-aged man living outside London, Victor Maynard (Nighy) lives a quiet, dignified life. There's a catch though; Victor comes from a long line of hired killers and assassins. He's good at what he does, and there are no assassins better than him. He's managed to keep his identity and appearance hidden over these many years, working through middlemen and phone calls. Victor has now been tasked with killing Rose (Emily Blunt), an accomplished thief who duped a well-connected mobster, Ferguson (Rupert Everett), out of $900,000 with a fake Rembrandt. Ferguson wants her dead, and Victor intends to oblige. Tracking her down though, Victor instead sees one of Ferguson's henchmen about to kill her....and shoots him instead. Rose already knew she was in trouble, but she mistakes Victor for a police officer. Now, he's protecting the girl he's supposed to have killed already.

This is going to sound immensely stupid, but I've got to say it just the same. Now, obviously this is a British-made movie -- both cast and crew -- that was filmed on location in England. But any-hoo, this is a very, very British movie. The humor goes two ways. Some is incredibly dark, subtle stuff. Chasing Rose, Victor walks into a fitting room, fires blindly into the room, hits a target, realizes it isn't Rose and simply walks away. It's played for laughs, but for the most part it works. If you're going to do a movie about a hired killer, go really dark or really goofy and stupid. For the most part, director Jonathan Lynn leans toward the dark, but it's pretty funny dark. There's also some far goofier humor that reminded me of some Benny Hills antics, and that's not always a good thing but more on that later.

The best thing about this flick was Nighy as hired assassin Victor Maynard. The highly skilled, loner hired assassin is a familiar character that's been in hundreds and thousands of movies. It is a familiar part, but Nighy makes it his own. The history helps as we learn his family is a long line of accomplished killers, his father teaching him the tricks of the trade as he grew up while his mother (Eileen Atkins) similarly helped, but now she just worries about him and why he doesn't have a wife. Victor is the prim and proper Englishman, a quiet, dignified and distinguished gentleman....who just happens to kill people. He lives in a quiet, perfectly manicured country house where dust and dirt are mortal enemies, even his furniture covered in plastic. He has no real friends though, living his own isolated life, making his post-hit predicament a tad more interesting.

And here comes some of that British humor, almost all of it good. We get a flick with three people on the run and a long line of people pursuing them. Some parts are better than others, but they're all having a lot of fun. Blunt is one of my favorite actresses, and she's a great counter to Nighy's button-down killer. She's a kleptomaniac, stealing things non-stop. Her more brash, colorful personality bristles at the all-business Victor, and their scenes together produce some really funny moments. Also on the run is Tony (Harry Potter's Rupert Grint), an apparently homeless young man who witnesses the shooting and oddly enough, becomes Victor's apprentice. Everett is underused as the humorous but sinister Ferguson with Gregor Fisher as Mike, his much-maligned, much-beaten up henchmen. Also worth mentioning is Martin Freeman as Dixon, a brutal, sadistic killer with no qualms about his victims, and his dimwitted henchmen Fabian (Geoff Bell). Lots of characters, lots of fun, some better utilized than others.

'Wild' packs a whole lot into a 98-minute movie. The first 45 minutes are pretty frenetic with chases and shootouts and twists and turns. The second half of the movie slows down a little too much for my liking as Victor, Rose and Tony retreat to his isolated country home. We get to know the characters better as they bond on the run, but the pacing drags in a big way. Mostly though, I liked this flick from beginning to end. It's fun watching Nighy's Victor improvise on the fly, especially as he wavers between helping and killing Rose. Funny, quirky movie that doesn't try too hard and while it treads the fine line, it isn't too cute.

Wild Target (2010): ***/****

Monday, July 15, 2013


I knew this day would come....I just didn't know when and in what form. Well, it's here. There is a new champion at the top, that one film that can be universally dubbed as the greatest movie in the history of cinema. Not just Hollywood, not particular to one country's film industry. This is a film that covers all and more. It is..............2013's Sharknado. There will be no discussions or arguments. This is simply the best film ever.

Running a mildly successful bar on the Santa Monica Pier, former surfing champion Fin (Ian Ziering) sits back and remembers his glory days fondly. One day, it's all thrown for a loop when a horrific storm rolls up the coast, bringing it with it countless sharks of all varieties. High winds turn into a hurricane, turning the pier into a disaster area, the weather eventually pushing inland and with countless sharks to boot. Fin's concern is on one thing, saving his separated wife, April (Tara Reid), and daughter, Claudia (Aubrey Peeples). With some friends from the bar, Fin heads to April's house as the storm picks up. More and more sharks are swimming through the streets, popping out of storm drains, anywhere and everywhere. There's more though that the hurricane is hiding. In the distance, Fin is starting to see something else; immense waterspouts that seem to be lifting something...sharks. You know what that means, once they hit shore they will turn into.....SHARKNADOS!!!

Premiering last week on the SyFy channel, 'Sharknado' blew up on Twitter, producing immense amounts of buzz and attention while only gaining decent ratings. Let me tell you, you NEED to watch this movie. It is great. It is best watched with many friends and much booze. Sit back and enjoy it, and be ready with the remote because you'll be laughing so hard at times you'll have to rewind to actually re-listen to the other horrifically awful lines you missed. Let there be no doubt. This will be a one-star review, but it's supposed to be a one-star review! It's a SyFy movie so it's supposed to be a horrifically guilty pleasure with gigantic plot holes, horrific special effects and some of the most awful, wooden acting you've ever seen. It all adds up to a modern classic, one of the best worst movies I've ever seen. I'm also completely recommending it.

There's no point in analyzing this one on its so-called "technical merits." It probably cost about $148 to make, and let me tell you, it certainly reflects that. The special effects are laughable, the greenscreen work even worse, and any semblance of a script was left behind ages ago I imagine. I laughed throughout and feel confident saying I would on repeat viewings. By my count, I remember three different Jaws references, including one character, the babely Nova (Cassie Scerbo), explaining why she hates sharks so much, giving her own watered down version of Robert Shaw's classic speech. Upon hearing this story, Fin's son, Matthew (Chuck Hittinger) states "I really hate sharks now too!" Talk about an impeccably delivered line. Nova later deadpans "We're going to need a bigger helicopter!" which also caused me to wet my pants I laughed so hard. It's just a solid script.

Oh, Beverly Hills 90210, where have you gone? I'll give Ian Ziering credit. He commits here, and that's what you've got to do if you're in a movie called Sharknado. It's bad stuff so you might as well have fun with it. His Fin is our hero, a family man trying to bring his family back together. Yes, there's enough time for some after school special crap about bringing an isolated family together. Yeah, a lesson! Ziering is hamming it up but without looking like it. In a sea of dreck, he's pretty good. His crew of friends and customers include Scerbo's Nova, hating sharks while wielding a pump-action shotgun and wearing a bikini top and jeans shorts, Aussie surfer dude Baz (Jaason Simmons) who's always ready with a cheesy one-liner, and George (John Heard, the Dad from Home Alone) as a booze-hound who frequents Fin's bar and makes everything weird. At one point as he overlooks a blood-covered patch of water, Baz actually says "It must be that time of the month." Yes, that just happened. It's that prideful of a script.

Then there's Tara Reid of American Pie fame doing.....well........something. She looks confused, like she's questioning how she got here and what exactly she's doing. If you're going to be in a bad movie, just own it. Wooden doesn't begin to describe her acting style here. As sharks rain down all around her, Miss Reid looks downright bored. She narrowly beats our her film kids as the worst acting on display.

Blah blah blah, this is a review for a movie called Sharknado, or for the newbs among us, a tornado filled with sharks. Yep, that could be the stupidest, coolest thing I've ever written. How could that not be an amazing movie? These waterspouts apparently scooped up the sharks at sea and are now flinging them around Los Angeles, leaving Fin and Co. to navigate a shark-infested city. It's amazing stuff. At different points, Fin has to fight a shark, rescue a school bus full of stranded kids, rappelling down a bridge to get them, and then also unleashing a chainsaw attack on those damn, dirty sharks. Oh, sorry, wrong movie. It takes a little while to get to the Sharknados unfortunately, but once they arrive, watch out. You are in for a treat.

The best is really saved for the last here as Fin, Baz, Matthew, Nova and Co. figure out a plan of attack. That plan? Fly a helicopter into a hurricane and throw a bomb at it, reversing the tornado/hurricane's "power." I'm no science expert, but that sounds legit enough to me. It's an amazing final sequence. Do a drinking game about who will and won't survive. You'll get some surprising results. Ziering's Fin saves the best for last, using his chainsaw for one last kill and making a surprising rescue. Look, if you've made it this far, you have a sick sense of humor. This is a truly bad movie, but it's amazingly entertaining. Good for a lot of laughs so get on board with Sharknado!

Sharknado (2013): */****

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pal Joey

There aren't too many actors-performers-entertainers cooler than Frank Sinatra. A movie star since the 1940s, Sinatra hit his groove as a dramatic actor in the mid 1950s in films like From Here to Eternity. How about 1957's Pal Joey? Based off a novel turned stage play, it allows Sinatra to show off that dramatic side while also playing a role that ain't so far removed from his real-life persona. 

Kicked out of one town after another, second-rate singer and performer Joey Evans (Sinatra) arrives in San Francisco on the train with a few bucks in his pockets and the clothes on his back. A performer and singer, Joey wants nothing more than to have his own club, his name in lights outside, but his own troubles with women always derail those plans. He does manage to get a job at a small club where he meets Linda (Kim Novak), a naive, young dancer who still manages to see Joey's act. Undeterred, Joey still has his eyes set on her when he meets Vera Prentice-Simpson (Rita Hayworth), a former stripper turned lonely widow looking for a project. Getting along with Vera and more, Joey has a chance to hit the big time if he plays his cards right, but his old ways are just waiting to make an appearance, ruining everything.

A book turned highly successful musical turned highly successful movie, 'Pal' has quite the history. By the time it reached theaters in director George Sidney's film, it had undergone quite the transformation. Characters have been completely removed, some plot lines thrown by the wayside, other characters tweaked and turned to help make a pretty involved stage play more manageable. Sidney's film version picked up four Oscar nominations (but didn't win any) and two Golden Globe nominations, Sinatra winning for Best Actor. It is a fine example of a time and era in Hollywood long since past, stylish and cool without ever really trying too hard.

Here we are though, an issue I think I will have with every musical ever made. The singing, and more importantly, the out of left field, random, unexplained singing where everyone knows the words spontaneously (including the dance numbers). How does 'Pal' solve that issue? All the songs are naturally in the film's story, Joey, Linda and Vera all singing because the story requires it. Novel concept, huh? Sinatra gets his chance to sing, showing off that natural, easy-going stage ability, including The Lady Is a Tramp (HERE) and I Could Write a Book (HERE) among others, with Novak also getting a chance to sing/perform, Hayworth as well (performing but lip-synched). The best thing going though is simple. The songs are catchy, whistle-worthy songs that will be in your head for days. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it works here.

The Wikipedia entry for this flick is spot-on, many critics pointing to it as the definitive Sinatra flick. Sinatra does a fine job making a pretty despicable character at least mildly tolerable and even likable at times. Is it a stretch for him to play a smooth-talking, extremely talented, schmoozing entertainer?, but he brings it to life. There are times you just want to slap the character, but that would be too perfect. It's Sinatra playing Sinatra with a slight twist. With several characters completely wiped from the play, the focus remains on Sinatra, Novak and Hayworth. Novak as Linda is in sex kitten mode, singing with that sultry voice and dancing with.....well, not much on (watch HERE). Hayworth as the slightly older, very smart and been there, seen that Vera is a scene-stealer as well, manipulating and twisting things as she sees necessary. A fine trio to lead the movie's smallish cast.

Also look for Barbara Nichols as Gladys, the conniving dancer/performer Joey bristles at, Bobby Sherwood as Ned, the bandleader who knows Joey's past and typical transgressions, and Hank Henry as Mike Miggins, the club owner who not so willingly gives Joey a shot at his club when he makes a high-reaching promise.

Having seen the play on the North Side of Chicago with the girlfriend in April, I was surprised to see how much was in fact snipped, cut up and prodded along to turn it into the film version. A lot has been changed. Most of the changes were wise choices in hopes of keeping the movie doable in a 109-minute final product. It is a 1957 movie, and the ending is basically the complete polar opposite of the play. For any sort of reality, it's dumb, basically washing away any character study we've developed up to this point with the Joey character. For the sake of a happy ending though, it works....I suppose. It drags a little in the second half, but the talents of the cast make up for some of the slow going. Long story short, it's Frank Sinatra being as cool as he ever was.

Pal Joey (1957): ***/****

Thursday, July 11, 2013

When Time Ran Out

With The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno to his name, producer Irwin Allen had quite the track record when it came to disaster flicks. In this case, he went back to the well once too often, and the end result is a less than quality final product, 1980's When Time Ran Out.

On a remote island in the Pacific, extremely successful businessman Shelby Gilmore (William Holden) is putting the final touches on his newly constructed hotel resort with his partner, Bob Spangler (James Franciscus), a longtime native of the island. Miles away from the oceanside resort is a volcano that's been dormant for over 60 years, but it is starting to show signs of another eruption but on a far greater scale than it's ever shown. Drilling an oil well on the island with his crew, Hank Anderson (Paul Newman) sees all the telltale signs of what's to come, but he can't convince Spangler to prep for what promises to be an epic disaster (money is a powerful motivator, isn't it?). As he makes a last ditch effort to convince others, the volcano explodes in grand fashion. Can all the island inhabitants and guests find a way to survive?

Like any successful genre, 'Time' follows the formula laid out by countless other disaster flicks. Assemble an all-star cast of actors and actresses, put them in some ridiculously perilous situation, and see who survives. The only problem? Well, other than the script that is. By 1980, the genre had outlasted its welcome a bit. Audiences had seen just about every calamity a disaster film could throw at them. How many times can you see the same movie over and over again, just replacing the man-made disasters, natural disasters or various diseases? 'Time' bombed in theaters and received some very poor reviews. Star power aside, it's got nothing going for it. Other than that? It's a real winner.

What sucked me in was the casting. To be fair, these are all cardboard cutouts of real characters, but the star power is legitimate. Newman is sleepwalking as Hank, the quiet oil driller who steps up as a hero because all disaster movies need a hero. He's also in trouble when he meets his ex, Kay (Jacqueline Bisset, around to wear a low-cut, tight T-shirt), who's now dating Holden's Shelby. Uh-oh, relationship drama! Sit back though, we're just getting started. Franciscus is the big villain -- $ $ for eyes -- who's cheating on his wife, Nikki (Veronica Hamel), with a hotel employee, Iolani (Barbara Carrera), who's engaged to islander Brian (Edward Albert). And just because, there's also Ernest Borgnine's NYC cop tracking a possible crook (Red Buttons) while Burgess Meredith and Valentina Cortese play an old married couple. There's also Alex Karras as Newman's right hand man, Pat Morita as a saloon owner and Sheila Allen as Mona, his wife.

Now more than just the all star cast is how the all star cast is treated. You could do a drinking game with these movies, or you could keep a scorecard. Every time a celebrity dies, take a shot. Throw $20 in and whoever guesses which celebrities survive and which ones don't gets all the money. The volcano explodes about halfway through director James Goldstone's flick, giving plenty of time for all the celebrity carnage. There's some surprises here, but nothing gigantic. Still, you've got to stick with it. Who makes it?!? Who doesn't?!?

Mostly though, the issue here is that it's just too dumb for it's own good. The volcano explodes so Newman's Hank leads a small group of individuals away from the fast-moving lava. Seems like sound thinking, right? Oh, no, they're all celebrities! Something bad might happen to them! It's beyond cliched here. The group must actually walk along a mountain ledge that's about to fall apart. Then, they've got to navigate a rickety wooden bridge that stands over a deep, flowing river of lava! That extended sequence goes on for about 20 minutes and actually ends with Meredith saving two kids by walking a tight rope (read = thin wooden rail) with a balancing act. The scene goes on and on, lacking any real tension.

For a movie budgeted at $20 million, it's hard to see where all that cash went. The special effects are laughable, especially the projectiles thrown from the volcano, usually landing directly on the hotel and/or people. The two sequences above were clearly shot on a poorly lit indoor stage, adding a nice touch of realism to the proceedings. That's a joke by the way. Then, at different points, the volcano is either right on top of the hotel or miles away as needed. Whatever is most appropriate for that given shot. This one's a dud. Even the all star cast couldn't save this one.

When Time Ran Out (1980): */****

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Where Eagles Dare

With his novel The Guns of Navarone (and its film version), author Alistair MacLean deserves an all-time spot in the impossible, suicide, men on a mission genre. Not all of his novels are winners, especially some of his later entries, but as far as success goes, 1968 was a year that was hard to beat for the author. Two of his novels were made into highly successful adventure movies, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare.

It's the winter of 1944 and an American general's plane with knowledge of the coming Second Front has crashed in the Bavarian Alps. Captured by German forces, General Carnaby (Robert Beatty) is sent to the Schloss Adler, a mountain fortress home to the SS in the district. A commando team headed by Major John Smith (Richard Burton) is being parachuted into the mountains disguised as German soldiers. Their mission is straightforward if extremely difficult; gain access to the heavily guarded, fortified castle and rescue Carnaby before German interrogators can get the information out of him that they need. On Smith's team are five fellow British commandos and one American Ranger, Lt. Schaffer (Clint Eastwood). Almost the second the team lands, things start to go wrong, and Major Smith isn't letting on everything he knows. Is there something else going on with this mission, more than the others could even guess?

The story of this movie comes from MacLean, who on a request from a producer and Burton wrote a novel that could be made into a fast-paced adventure film. MacLean wrote the novel which became a huge success and was quickly put on the fast track, the film getting its release in 1968. As far as war/adventure films go, there are very few that are more fun than this one. Better ones? Yes, but in terms of pure entertainment value, this one is hard to beat. Director Brian G. Hutton (Kelly's Heroes) does a fine job crafting a twisting, turning story that is almost secondary to the war-time shenanigans. Many reviews that you read are from viewers who were genuinely confused watching this flick. I don't blame them. It took me multiple viewings to pick up everything you need to know. 

The beauty of that statement is that this WWII espionage film can be enjoyed on different levels. We find out quickly that there's far more to the mission than we know. I won't reveal any spoilers here, but there's a-plenty of them! From the second the team parachutes into Bavaria, one of the commandos is killed by one of the team. What's going on? MacLean's script does a fine job parceling out hints here and there about the actual intent of their mission, finally revealing itself in a mind-bending, classic scene in a huge, Medieval-looking dining hall near the halfway point. The build-up is a little slow-moving, but it's worth it. Scenes you thought were pointless end up having key importance later in the movie. We see Smith and Schaffer prepping for their getaway days and hours in advance. We see the inner workings of this suicide mission. Not too many men on a mission movies go into such a detail, therefore setting 'Eagles' one step above so many other like-minded flicks.

Some pairings are just too perfect. Case in point, Burton and Eastwood. Burton as Maj. Smith is the highly capable, brutally effective and nearly brilliant secret agent and commando. He did a lot of acting parts in his career so it's great to see him do a movie that's just fun. It shows. It looks like he had a phenomenal time doing the part, his silky smooth voice, his smartass smirk ever-present on his face. And his radio call sign 'Broadsword calling Danny Boy' sounds almost Shakespearean in its delivery. As his American counterpart, Eastwood is given little to do other than look very cool, and he succeeds on all levels. Burton's Smith calls him a 'second rate punk,' an American Ranger and brutally efficient killing machine. Through all the craziness, it works. This is two pros who look to be having a lot of fun. Also in the team is Donald Houston, Peter Barkworth, William Squire, Brook Williams and Neil McCarthy.

Though Burton and Eastwood are in almost every scene, the supporting cast is solid just the same. Mary Ure plays Mary, a longtime fellow agent of Smith's (and some romance too) secretly along for the mission, with Ingrid Pitt as Heidi, an Allied agent working in the town below the fortress. Patrick Wymark and Michael Horden play Col. Turner and Adm. Rolland, two high-ranking officers back in Britain who knew the true intention of the mission. Rounding out the cast is some familiar faces as the evil German counterparts including Anton Diffring, Ferdy Mayne and Derren Nesbitt.  

While all the build-up, background and twists are fun, the movie's most entertaining feature is the finale. The truth of the mission revealed, Smith, Schaffer and Mary (with some friends along for the ride) must basically shoot their way out of the mountaintop fortress, causing as much chaos as they can along the way. Eastwood's Schaffer alone single-handedly dispatches a whole German division on his own. The shootouts in the dark, poorly-lit castle hallways are a highlight, but the coolest sequence has Smith fighting two Germans aboard a cable car hundreds of feet off the ground. Adrenaline-pumping action, it is a doozy. It's ridiculous action throughout, our heroes able to pick off enemy soldiers at will while the hundreds of enemy soldiers can barely manage to nick our intrepid heroes. And how many packs of dynamite can two men manage to carry? Apparently 385 by my count.

This is not meant to be a serious war film. It's meant to be a film you enjoy from beginning to end. The on-location shooting in Austria, including the Hohenwerfen Castle and in and around Werfen, are spot-on choices for accuracy and realism. As a topper, composer Ron Goodwin's score is big and booming and equally perfect, keeping the tension building and driving the action. Listen to the main theme HERE. In the vein of MacLean's The Guns of Navarone, this is a popcorn flick at its best. Sit back and enjoy Burton and Eastwood win WWII with pretty girls, plenty of action, and even more twists and turns in that ridiculously convoluted plot.

Where Eagles Dare (1968): *** 1/2 /****
Updated February 2009 review