The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Despicable Me

Growing up with a younger sister, I watched any and all of the Disney princess movies. While I didn't like/love all of them, it's easy to see the appeal. Animation certainly has changed over the last 20-plus years with Pixar kicking the door open for a new wave of CGI animation. It continues to adapt, develop and change, putting an ever-constant new spin on cartoon flicks, like 2010's Despicable Me. Princesses? Nah, super villains!

As far as international super villains go, Gru (Steve Carell) has no rivals...until now. His reputation takes a major hit when the Great Pyramid in Giza is stolen and replaced by an up and coming villain with all sorts of potential for mayhem, Vector (Jason Segel). His solution is extreme and drastic but will no doubt bring all his doubters back around. Gru's going to steal...the MOON! The problem? Vector has already stolen a newly developed shrink ray he needs to use to pull the job off. His solution is an odd one as Gru adopts three young orphan girls who will unknowingly cause a diversion that allows him to get into Vector's heavily guarded lair. What Gru sees as a smash and grab job concerning the adoption just isn't so simple. The super villain may have bit off far more than he hoped, and there's no going back.

From directors Pierre Louis Padang Coffin (yes, that's a name) and Chris Renaud, 'Despicable' was a huge success upon its initial release, earning over $540 million. It spawned a sequel -- released this summer -- that was an even bigger success -- that has currently made over $800 million worldwide. What's the appeal that spawned such a worldwide success? I think it's a lot of things. The animation from Illumination Entertainment is unique, well-made and polished while not screaming out "LOOK AT THIS CGI!" More than that though, I think it's the story which isn't a typical animated storyline. It's dark at times (maybe a little too dark), but it is original, always entertaining and smart. Usually the super villain is quite obviously the bad guy so seeing him as a bad guy who's not so bad provides a great change of pace. Oh, and Gru's minions. This movie wouldn't have the same success without them, but more on those cute yellow guys later.

The heart of the movie comes from Gru and his ulterior motive intentions in adopting three little girls who live at an orphanage run by Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig). Carell as Gru is a great choice, his voice talents making this super villain a goofy-looking, Eastern European sounding mastermind. His look with his chicken legs, bald head and ever-present scarf is quite the visual too. He's one mean guy though, softened some and surprisingly when he adopts, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), the oldest of the girls and very smart/aware, Edith (Dana Gaier), the middle girl and quirkiest of the crew, always wearing a ski cap low on her eyes, and Agnes (Elsie Fisher), the youngest and cutest girl who loves unicorns more than anything in the world. It's fun to see mean, gruff Gru go from complete confusion at how to care for three little girls to slowly warming up to them as they help him and stay in his huge super villain mansion.

As for the rest of the voice talent assembled, they do some good work. Jason Segel seems unlikely casting to play Vector, but it works, this nerdy and smart super villain proving quite the quirky opponent to the more experienced Gru. Russell Brand does a fine job as Dr. Nefario, an aging assistant who's worked with Gru for years on countless dastardly deeds with Julie Andrews playing Gru's hard to impress mother. Along with Wiig, also listen for Will Arnett, Danny McBride, Jack McBrayer, Mindy Kaling, Rob Huebel and Ken Jeong lending their voices.

Onto the minions! While Gru's story with the little girls is the heart of the movie, what most viewers came away with was a love for the adorable little yellow minions. Standing about knee high, these yellow guys wear overalls and goggles over their one or two big, round eyes. Their hair is pointy, parted and not there at all. Directors Coffin and Renaud with Jemaine Clement provide their voices, usually unintelligible gibberish with occasional moments of clarity. They are really cute, really adorable and really funny, most of the time helping Gru's directives but causing their fair share of mayhem in the process. It's their look, it's their giggling and laughing, their love of exploring and curiosity...which usually leads to more trouble. They're essential additions to the cast and helping make this more than just any old animated movie. And yes, the minions are slated for their own spin-off, scheduled for December 2014. Watch a sample of their shenanigans HERE.

It took me awhile to catch up with this one, but I'm glad I did. Surprisingly funny for kids and adults with a ton to recommend. Mostly though........minions! Hopefully I can find the sequel in a second-run theater and catch up with that one too.

Despicable Me (2010): ***/****

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lafayette Escadrille

Before the U.S. entered the fighting in World War I, Americans still had a chance to join the fighting themselves, especially those wanting to fly. The Lafayette Escadrille was created as a fighter squadron of American volunteers who wanted to help turn back the Axis forces. The famous squadron has been in three film adaptations of their exploits, including a silent film, recently with 2006's Flyboys, and a real dud of a flick on basically all levels, 1958's Lafayette Escadrille.

Having gotten in trouble with the law and subsequently with his father, Thad Walker (Tab Hunter) flees and sneaks onto a ship out of New York heading for Europe. His plan? Join the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of flyers in the French army created for American volunteers looking to join the fighting in World War I. He's worried about his trouble with the law stopping him from the squadron, but he's accepted and arrives with three other Americans. They begin training under French commanders, learning to work as a team -- mostly on the ground with very little actual training in a plane. Thad's mind is elsewhere though. He's constantly thinking about Renee (Etchika Choureau), a beautiful young French woman he met in Paris before shipping out to training camp. Can he focus enough on the training and flying to become a flyer?

How do I put those delicately? From director William A. Wellman, this movie just ain't good. It's almost painful at times to actually get a movie that runs an endless 93 minutes. For starters, it isn't really much of a story about the American flyers flying with the French. That must have been a ploy by Wellman. Point to you, Wellman! It's a bizarre mix of a forced love story, out of place physical humor, and broadly written dull characters. How many scenes do we need of a French drill sergeant (Marcel Dalio) who can't speak English trying to get his volunteers to march in formation? Oh, but one of the Americans speaks French and is just messing with the sergeant?!? That's hilarious. The actual training scenes are embarrassing, rickety wooden planes crashing into each other, even running into a bakery and a bakery thief. It doesn't have to be a consistently dark tone, but a Keystone Cops tone is exactly what shouldn't have been done.

Much like 2006's Flyboys -- which I liked a lot -- 'Lafayette' devotes far too much time to an unnecessary love story that is criminally boring to watch develop. I've never been a huge fan of Hunter as an actor, and here the 27-year old just doesn't bring the character to life. First off, it's hard to root for him. As we meet him, he's stealing a car and actually crashes at high speeds into a kid on a bike (the kid's only injured thankfully). His Thad comes from a tough house where his rich dad was very tough on him. Boo-hoo, I don't feel for you, buddy. It's not just that I didn't like the character, I was actively rooting against him. That's always a good jumping off point for any movie. His relationship with Choureau's Renee brings an already slow-moving story to a grinding halt. At the 45-minute mark, the story focuses almost exclusively on the love story away from the airfield. I felt like I'd stumbled into a different movie, a far more boring movie.

But wait, there's hope! Right? Eh, maybe not. I was intrigued by the supporting cast here so I held out hope. Thad's fellow pilots he arrives with include David Janssen as the smooth-talking, pencil mustache pilot, Duke, William Wellman Jr. playing a variation on his dad who actually flew as a WWI pilot Jody McCrea as Tom. As for the rest of the pilots, look for a pre-Rawhide Clint Eastwood, pre-Billy Jack Tom Laughlin, and Will Hutchins. The problem becomes that many more pilots are introduced, but they're a faceless bunch of characters that never amount to anything. We're actually introduced to them as they're sleeping -- so we don't actually see most of their faces -- as Wellman Sr. narrates what will happen to them. We don't actually see any of that happen, but we learn that most of them will die. It would have had at least some emotional impact if we actually got to know them. Also look for Paul Fix briefly as an American general.

It's a film that wasn't intended to be a classic but is still highly disappointing. The actual aerial footage of the WWI-era planes is pretty cool, but there's very little of it. We don't even see a dogfight until the last 10 minutes of the movie, and by then I had long since checked out. A cool cast makes it almost worth watching as a sort of guilty pleasure, a way to check off an actor like Eastwood's filmography, but it has little else to recommend. It's Rebel Without a Cause in planes, but they forgot to bring the planes. Pass.

Lafayette Escadrille (1958): */****

Thursday, September 26, 2013


There are names of star athletes in sports and then there are star athletes. Maybe the most influential athlete from the 20th Century, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball, becoming the first African American man to play in the majors when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1947 season. Robinson played himself in a 1950 movie about his life, but some 60-plus years later, he's gotten a major studio bio-pic release, 2013's simply and appropriately named 42.

Returning home from serving in World War II, former UCLA athlete Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) begins playing with the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues. Major League Baseball has been segregated, forcing black players to play in their own leagues. As owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers though, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) is ready to make a major decision; he wants to sign Jackie with the organization, and hopefully he can one day make the big leagues, breaking the color barrier. Ready to step into a horrific racially-charged storm, Robinson spends a year with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' minor league affiliate, but he's on the fast track for the Majors. Rickey picked Robinson for a reason though, believing and hoping that Robinson can not only play baseball but handle the constant jeering and ridicule from not only fans, but others teams, players and coaches.

I love sports, but for me, baseball has always been the best. I don't know if there's a better story in baseball history than that of Jackie Robinson becoming the first African American player to play in the big leagues. Director/writer Brian Helgeland does a fine job avoiding the pratfalls of doing a bio-pic about such a famous person. You want to tell the honest truth, but at the same time you don't want to make a dull, whitewashed version of that person's life. In that sense, Helgeland is working with an advantage. As a person, as a character, however you interpret it, Jackie Robinson is a very likable, very sympathetic and very interesting man. If you didn't know any better, you would think this script exaggerates what he went through but....nope. This was the very realistic and scary truth. Robinson dealt with racial jeers on the field and in the dugout at times while also dealing with death threats against him and his family. It's hard to comprehend that one man was able to handle so much.

A relative unknown with more TV shows to his name than feature films, Boseman does a fine job in bringing Jackie to life on-screen. He shows that fire and pain within Robinson as he deals with such extreme pressures all around him but never overdoes it. In one uncomfortable scene, he unleashes his emotions in the hallway leading back to the Dodgers clubhouse. Other than that, Boseman does a lot without doing a lot at all. It's a physical performance, not a really talkative one. His Jackie is confident about his abilities but struggles to overcome more internally than externally. He has to keep so much frustration inside that it's hard to believe Robinson really did this in real-life. The story is at its best focusing on the baseball, the background with his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), the slower portions of the story. It helps add another layer to Jackie, humanize him on top of the baseball player, but the scenes aren't as interesting as the rest of the flick.

Another essential part for this story is casting Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, a real-life character if there ever was one. Harrison Ford absolutely nails the part. I don't know if he'll get an Oscar nomination or anything for his supporting part, but it's perfect. He's honest, admitting he wants to make money while also later revealing some of his real motivations for trying to integrate baseball. Christopher Meloni is solid as Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, with Toby Huss and Max Gail also playing assorted coaches in the Dodgers organization. John C. McGinley has a quick but effective part as Red Barber, the Dodgers radio play-by-play man, bringing that voice to life in his few scenes. As for the Dodgers, we get Lucas Black as Hall of Fame shortstop Pee Wee Reese, Hamish Linklater as All-Star pitcher Ralph Branca, Ryan Merriman as Dixie Walker, a teammate who resents having to play with a black player, and Jesse Luken as Eddie Stanky, a fiery player who comes around to having Jackie as a teammate. 

The movie overall has a lot going for it, some of it easily attributable to the look and feel of the movie. Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, Crosley Field and Forbes Field were all classic baseball stadiums recreated with CGI digital imagery for all the baseball scenes. The CGI use is seamless, a thing of beauty to watch. It's the look of the games and stadiums, the rabid crowds to the supportive fans, the bus trips to walking around town. All those little things come together nicely. Mark Isham's score is okay but nothing special, leaning more toward triumphant hero music than is necessary.

With an episodic story that covers two-plus years of Robinson's life -- and covering a whole lot of ground with a whole lot of characters -- there are certainly some moments that just resonate more than others. Much of that strength comes along in the second half of '42' when Jackie makes it to the Dodgers. We see the downright nastiness of a rival manager (Alan Tudyk) verbally abusing Jackie during a game. The counter is those who come to Jackie's defense. Luken's Eddie steps up for Jackie, knowing Jackie just can't respond. I loved Linklater's Branca approaching Robinson about why he doesn't shower with the team. I loved the relationship that develops between Jackie and Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), a black reporter dealing with the same things as Jackie, albeit on a much smaller scale. My favorite scene was when Black's Reese realizes the depths of what his teammate has gone through. He approaches him on the field, putting his arm around him to show all his friends and family back home that the color doesn't matter. They're teammates. He ends it nicely, stating 'Maybe tomorrow we'll all wear 42 so no one can tell the difference.'

It's a nice moment considering MLB now honors Robinson once a year by having players around the league to wear jerseys with the No. 42, Robinson's number and the only number retired across baseball. I think that's part of why this film works so well. Part of the charm of baseball is the history, the stars, the personalities, and Jackie Robinson is one of the best. The movie isn't perfect, but it gets better with each passing scene, ending on a great note. Sports fan or not, this one is highly recommended for everyone.

42 (2013): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Murder by Death

What's more fun than a murder mystery in film and on TV? The people who solve the murder mysteries!!! And no, I'm not talking about police procedurals where police officers follow the clues and catch the crooks. We're talking the out of this world observant and intelligent sleuths and detectives who follow all the minute, excruciating little details and pull theories out of thin air. They certainly get their due in a great spoof from 1976, Murder by Death.

Coming from all around the world, five world-class detectives have been brought together at an isolated country mansion by eccentric recluse Lionel Twain (writer Truman Capote). His goal? Present a murder with little evidence and let his five detectives piece things together. Whoever figures things out and fingers the murderer by dawn will receive a $1 million reward. Who are his contestants of sorts? They include Milo Perrier (James Coco), the whiny Belgian, Sam Diamond (Peter Falk), the tough guy detective, Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester), the very English middle-aged woman, Dick Charleston (David Niven), the gentlemanly, smooth aging detective, and Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers), the pronunciation challenged Chinese detective. Each detective has brought a partner/sidekick/spouse but can any of the manage to solve a seemingly impossible murder mystery?

From director Robert Moore and screenwriter Neil Simon, 'Murder' is a gem in the Whodunnit genre. Throw a bunch of characters together, add in a mystery/murder or something that needs to be solved, and let the fun begin. This is a spoof of the Whodunnit genre, but it's not a stupid spoof, far from it. While the humor is far from high brow laughs, it's snappy, smart and quick. This is a very talented cast assembled here, the actors and actresses playing off each with remarkable ease. It's a quick movie at just 94 minutes, but there are laughs throughout. It was filmed on a mansion set in Burbank Studios, a closed-in, claustrophobic feel to the ever twisting and turning story. Self-contained and the better for it.

You really just can't go wrong with the sick amount of talent brought together here in the cast. Each detective is based off a classic literature character (Perrior = Hercules Poirot, Diamond = Sam Spade, Marbles = Miss Marple, Charleston = Nick Charles/The Thin Man, and Wang = Charlie Chan), each given their quirky personality traits that bring it all together nicely. Coco's Perrier is dying of starvation -- or so he believes -- as the mystery develops, Diamond does his best Humphrey Bogart impression throughout, Marbles quirky, mousy and excited, Charleston the upper class, smooth-talking Englishman, and Wang the master of logic and observation (with a touch of political incorrectness thrown in for good measure). It would be easy to see any/all of these characters getting their own movie, but when assembled together, we're talking impeccable chemistry with some sublimely perfect laughs.

Improving on the talent brought together is that each character is given a sidekick of some sort, a spouse, child, whatever. More cast listing!!! The recently departed Eileen Brennan plays Tess Skeffington, Sam's secretary and mistress, Maggie Smith plays Nora Charleston, Dick's longtime and loving wife, Estelle Windood as Miss Marple's wheelchair bound and ancient nurse, James Cromwell as Marcel, Perrier's very French chauffeur and Richard Narita as Willy, Wang's adopted Japanese son.

Oh, there's more. One of the movie's most perfectly executed running bits has Alec Guinness as Bensonmum, Twain's personal assistant and butler.....who's blind. It's almost inappropriate, a little politically incorrect when you hear about it, but like so much else going on in Simon's script, it just works. He answers the door, never realizing if anyone entered but speaking as if they're standing in front of him. He serves dinner with poor results, guides the guests to their rooms, and has a great running gag with the new cook, Yetta (Nancy Walker), a Hungarian woman who's deaf, can't talk and doesn't understand English in any way, but Guinness' Bensonmum can't see that she's holding up notes explaining herself. It's stupid almost as an idea, almost infantile in its humor, but oh goodness, it works so well. Here's a montage of so many of those great lines, watch it HERE.

Director Moore's film runs just 94 minutes, flying by at a breakneck speed. The first 60 minutes are about as perfect as a comedy can be, smart and stupid but balanced out between the two. It's beyond funny on all levels. The last 30 minutes or so come up a little short, the goofiness becoming a little too much. Capote -- an obvious scene-stealer -- delivers a great monologue ripping all these great detectives apart. He criticizes their storytelling techniques, their introduction of characters out of nowhere, ridiculous twists that come out of nowhere, and basically making it impossible to solve the mystery, whatever it should be. The ending is flat out stupid, but it's supposed to be. If you can decipher it in any way, you let me know. The struggles of the last 30 minutes prevent it from being an all-time great comedy, but flaws and all, it is still a gem.

Murder by Death (1976): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Oz the Great and Powrful

A classic novel from author L. Frank Baum that was turned into a classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz is about as iconic as any film out there. No matter the age, it seems everyone's seen it at some point, and for a reason. It is iconic, classic, influential and most of all entertaining. Watching the story, it leaves a lot of ground for background information, how things came to be the way they are.....and you know what that means!!! Prequel!!! Away we go down the Yellow Brick Road with 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful.

It's 1905 Kansas and magician, con man and all around ladies man Oscar 'Oz' Diggs (James Franco) is working with a traveling carnival, typically staying one step ahead of his past troubles. His troubles have caught up to him this time, and he's forced to escape by the only means in front of him; a hot air balloon. Oz escapes, but he's swept up into a tornado and finds himself in a world unlike anything he's ever seen. Full of color, flowers and trees and creatures that just shouldn't be, Oz also meets Theodora (Mila Kunis), who reveals she's a witch along with her sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz). He's informed that he's the answer to a longtime prophecy, the man who will save the Emerald City.....if he can kill Glinda (Michelle Williams), an evil witch. Seeing the treasure that awaits if he can do it, Oz agrees, setting off to kill the evil witch, but everything isn't quite as it seems in the wonderful land of Oz.

The little touches here linking the 2013 film to the classic 1939 film are evident. The appeal is obvious, and judging by the box office of almost $500 million worldwide, audiences ate up that appeal. Director Sam Raimi does a fine job bringing to life an incredibly stylish world, full of adventure and fantasy. The movie begins in black and white, the frame small and focused. When Oz arrives in this new world, the frame expands to widescreen, colors literally bursting off the screen. It's a nice nod to the 1939 classic without being too obvious about it. Beyond that, it's cool to see the flying monkeys, the Emerald City, the poppy fields, the Oh-We-Oh palace guards, the munchkins, they Yellow Brick Road and so much more. On top of that, we see how Oz becomes the Wizard, how the Wicked Witch of the West becomes the Wicked Witch. Just a lot of little things and forebearers that any fan of the 1939 film should appreciate.

Now I write this next criticism admitting I didn't see 'Oz' in 3-D, IMAX, or 3-D IMAX, just a regular old flat-screen at home. The visuals are insanely good-looking here....but it went a long way for me. At a certain point, it became overkill. We see Oz exploring this world full of flowers, plants, trees, beautiful hills and mountains, caves and forests. Eventually, it felt like the story gets left by the wayside to focus far more on the stylish aspects of the movie. So as good as the visuals are, they come at the expense of the story, and it's the rare occasion that is a positive for me. As Oz assembles a motley crew of helpers and assistants, the story lags while the focus remains on the background visuals. It's pretty flawless, Franco, Kunis and Co. blending seamlessly into the computer-generated images. I just wish there could have been more of a balance between the two, a happy middle ground.

Where I can't really find a weakness is in the casting. Fresh off a really odd Franco flick -- Spring Breakers -- comes this far better part, far more suited to his strengths. His Oz is a smooth-talker, a pretty decent magician, and generally a troublemaker who always manages to get out of said trouble. Franco gives him the right dosage of roguish charm mixed with a guy who wants to do the right thing. As for the witches, these are three very talented actresses working together (and they're easy on the eyes so that doesn't hurt). Williams does a fine job as the calm, almost angelic Glinda, Weisz similarly very good as the manipulative Evanora, and Kunis gets the biggest transformation from lovelorn Theodora to lovestruck and angry Wicked Witch. My only real complaint is that when Kunis transforms her voice talents remind me far too much of her voice work as Meg Griffin on Family Guy. Regardless, it's a very solid quartet working together.

The rest of the cast includes Zach Braff providing his voice talents as Finley, a small flying monkey (a good one, not a bad one) dressed like a doorman who pledges a life debt to Oz for saving him from certain death at the hands of a lion. He also plays Frank, Oz's loyal assistant in Kansas. Bill Cobbs plays the Master Tinker, a handyman of sorts who helps Oz to victory while Tony Cox is Knuck, the herald of the Emerald City, always ready to sound off a welcoming hurrah. Also solid is Joey King as China Doll, a broken doll Oz fixes who tags along on the adventures. Even look for Bruce Campbell as an Emerald City guard.

While I didn't love 'Oz,' I did like it a lot. The positives mostly outweigh the negatives in a movie that's a tad long at 130 minutes. My favorite moments were the funny ones -- surprisingly funny -- as Oz, Finley and China Doll navigate the twists and turns of the Yellow Brick Road. It's a visual treat with solid characters, surprising action and some good laughs. Not a bad combination at all.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013): ***/****

Monday, September 23, 2013


Mostly a supporting player in countless film and TV westerns, Lee Van Cleef had a solid if unspectacular career as an on-screen tough guy through the 1950s and early 1960s. He was given rebirth though with the ever-increasing popularity of the spaghetti western genre, especially working with Italian director Sergio Leone in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was a rejuvenation of sorts with a long line of some classic and near-classic spagettis to the point he was given his own genre iconic character, 1969's Sabata.

A $100,000 Army payroll has been robbed from the bank in Daugherty City, but in the getaway outside of town, a mysterious gunman, Sabata (Van Cleef), guns down seven of the bandits, returning the money to the town and earning himself a $5,000 reward. There's a problem though. Three of the town's most prominent citizens, including local ranch and land owner, Stengel (Franco Ressel), was behind the robbery and are now worried if they can be implicated for the job. Sabata is able to put the pieces together of how the robbery is pulled off and quickly figures out who was behind it, seeing a chance for a huge payday. Stengel and his cohorts are less than convinced paying him off will accomplish anything, sending a litany of hired guns and killers after Sabata. With an unlikely duo backing him, Sabata readies for each and every attack, worrying all the time about a similarly talented hired gun, Banjo (William Berger), who hasn't made his allegiance known just yet.  

This would be the first of three Sabata movies, followed by Adios, Sabata and The Return of Sabata and both released in 1971, all of them directed by Gianfranco Parolini. Where the Sergio Leone westerns are classics above the genre and others are message-oriented with an action shell, the Sabata movies are about as good as they get in terms of pure entertainment. They even border on campy at times. We've got great characters -- good and bad -- with a fun story, a non-stop line of quickly-paced and choreographed gunfights and enough cool guns, gadgets and contraptions to keep everyone interested. It's not so much a story as a series of showdowns and gunfights followed by some negotiations that never amount to much and another series of showdowns and gunfights. If it sounds simple, it is, and it's a lot of fun for all 111 minutes.

Right up there on par with Colonel Douglas Mortimer as his coolest character, Van Cleef nails the part as the mysterious gunman, Sabata. It starts with the style, the gunman in black, his flat-brimmed hat, the impeccable suit, the flowing coat. It continues with his weaponry, Sabata a deadshot with just about anything that shoots. He doesn't wear a gunbelt, favoring an odd four-barrelled derringer and a rifle with an extended barrel. He's ready for anything thrown at him, almost like an other-worldly specter hovering over the town. As far as cool factor goes, Van Cleef has it in spades. It's that ever-present smirk, that quick mocking laugh. He speaks almost solely in one-liners, but it works without being too goofy. Van Cleef found a home in the genre and by 1969 he was a star (the Leone flicks, Day of Anger, Death Rides a Horse, The Big Gundown), but this is one of my favorites for him, and he's cooler than ever.

That's part of the beauty of the weirdness and eccentricity of the spaghetti westerns. We get these bizarre quirky characters that are so goofy it works. Start with Berger's Banjo, a gunman who's seemingly worked with Sabata in the past (in some capacity) and always totes a banjo...with a surprise inside. His long red hair hangs to his shoulder, he wears bells on his pants and around his neck, and he's always ready with a one-liner of his own. His scenes with Van Cleef are pretty perfect, two badass gunfighters going toe to toe. Sabata's crew are gems themselves including Carrincha (Ignazio Spalla), a drunken, knife-throwing Mexican veteran of the Civil War and Alley Cat (Aldo Canti), an athletic, acrobatic Indian. It's the weirdest crew of western characters, but it just works.

Also look for Ressel as the manipulatively evil and combover wearing Stenger, wielding a knife-shooting cane, with Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo as Ferguson and Judge O'Hara, his two partners in crime. Spaghetti western babe Linda Veras plays Jane, Banjo's dancehall girl with familiar faces Spartaco Conversi, Marco Zuanelli and Claudio Undari as Oswald, a Stengel henchman, rounding out the cast.  

With a character that's seemingly indestructible at the forefront, you'd think it might not be that interesting a flick to watch. You'd be wrong. It becomes a test of how he'll defeat his enemies, not a test of if. As my buddy Steve said as we watched Sabata at the Music Box Theatre, Sabata becomes the MacGyver of westerns. He shoots with a variety of trick shots, well-placed shots, and gimmicks galore. The shootouts are fun throughout, with the finale including Sabata, Carrincha and Alley Cat attacking Stengel's heavily fortified ranch with gunfire, gatling guns, dynamite, acrobatics and explosions galore. I loved the ending too, holding back on the meanness or cynical qualities of the other darker westerns, but still has some great twists.

Also worth mentioning is the score from Marcello Giombini. The main theme especially is a gem -- listen HERE -- but it works well throughout. Listen to more of the score HERE with some clips in the video. It incorporates everything from Banjo playing his banjo to some lighter touches, like recurring sound effects leading up to gunfights and even some uses of church organ. It all combines to give the movie that lighter touch, that fun touch. That's the movie. It's got can't miss gunmen, a banjo-wielding gunman, an acrobatic Indian who bounces through the movie and never slows down. A real gem of the spaghetti western genre.

Sabata (1969): *** 1/2 /****
Rewrite of October 2009 review

Friday, September 20, 2013

Small Soldiers

With 1995's Toy Story, the idea of toys coming to life....well...came to life. While there was some really dark moments in that Pixar classic -- Sid comes to mind torturing his toys -- it was mostly a really sweet, really funny story about the lives of toys when their masters/kids aren't around. At its very basic, ground level, that's an incredibly unique idea, one all kids have thought of at some point. But what if Toy Story didn't tap the brakes? I think it would be a movie a little closer to 1998's Small Soldiers.

Helping his father run his struggling toy store, teenager Alan Abernathy (Gregory Smith) accepts (read = bribes) a shipment of new action figures during the latest delivery. From GloboTech Industries comes the Commando Elite, a specialist group of commandos headed by Major Chip Hazard (voiced by Tommy Lee Jones), whose sole goal is to eliminate their enemies, creatures called the Gorgonites, headed by Archer (voiced by Frank Langella). The toys are a new design, able to speak and respond to voice commands. Alan is stunned though when Archer doesn't just talk to him, but respond with unique answers to questions he asks. These aren't just any action figures, but that's only the start. Alan takes Archer home with him overnight, but meanwhile at the store, the Commando Elite have come to life too. Their aim? Kill Archer and his fellow Gorgonites.

While I love Toy Story, I can also appreciate how cool the premise here sounds. I'd seen bits and pieces of this quasi-family oriented science fiction story from director Joe Dante, but I finally sat down and watched it straight through recently. I liked it but didn't love it. Complaints to come, but 'Soldiers' gets a lot of points for originality if nothing else. What if G.I. Joe and Cobra toys came to life? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles vs. Shredder and the Foot Clan? Stands to reason they might try and kill each other, right? Yeah, as a kid who grew up with action figures, that's pretty cool. The graphics here are spot-on as the toys come to life. It's not CGI -- always a good thing -- and while it looks realistic, the toys are still toys. They can break (damn plastic!) and their movements are pretty stilted. It goes a long way in making it seem even remotely believable.

The focus is not exclusively on the toys. Our main character, Alan, has quite the checkered past and has been kicked out of two schools, forcing his family, including Dad (Kevin Dunn) and Mom (Ann Magnuson) to move. He meets Christy (Kirsten Dunst), his neighbor, and quickly hits it off with her...even though she only "dates" older guys. So, yes, at times the story focuses too much on that after school special drama, how tough it is to be a teenager and all that garbage. Come on, parents, trust me...even though I've given you no reason to trust me! This is the movie at its slowest and most dull, but thankfully, the story moves along too fast to stay in one place for too long. And back to the killer toys!

One of the coolest things about 'Soldiers' as a movie fan is its knowledge of past movies. Case in point? The Commando Elite are voiced by four members of the cast of 1967's The Dirty Dozen, and it would have been five, but Richard Jaeckel died before filming. The Gorgonites are voiced by the cast of This Is Spinal Tap. Getting in line behind the perfect voice casting of Tommy Lee Jones is Ernest Borgnine as Kip Kallagin, Jim Brown as Butch Meathook, George Kennedy as Brick Bazooka, Clint Walker as Nick Nitro, and replacing Jaeckel, Bruce Dern as Link Static. Along with the calmly voiced Langella as Archer, the Gorgonites include Christopher Guest as Slamfist and Scratch-It, Michael McKean as Insaniac and Freakenstein, and Harry Shearer as Punch-It. It's just fun to hear that many talented actors working together, even if it's only their voices. Also listen for Sarah Michelle Gellar and Christina Ricci as two Gwendy (knockoff Barbie) dolls.

The funnest and also darkest part of 'Soldiers' comes when the Commandos get loose and go gunning for the Gorgonites. It sounds goofy enough, even a little innocent in the fun department. How could toys kill toys? Well, it gets pretty extreme at times. The Commandos have been built with government chips in them -- thanks Department of Defense -- that turn seemingly innocent toys into brutal killing machines. Yeah, seriously, killing machines. They want to kill their rival Gorgonites, but also the people protecting them, like Alan, Christy and their families, including Christy's goofy Dad (the always fun Phil Hartman). They build assault vehicles out of bikes and skateboards, make weapons out of chainsaws and toasters. There's a cool factor involved in seeing these toys go on the offensive, but it gets pretty dark too, many moviegoers complaining the movie was mismarketed upon its initial release.

Also joining the cast are GloboTech's money-minded, condescending CEO (Denis Leary) and the developers of the Commandos and Gorgonites, Jay Mohr and David Cross. It's a fun movie with some pretty big flaws, but it is entertaining with some nice touches in the cast.

Small Soldiers (1998): ** 1/2 /****   

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Actually seeing something in a film can be an emotional, moving, dramatic, heartbreaking thing. Heck, anything in terms of seeing something, real life or film. But what about pictures? In ways that moving images can't always express, sometimes a picture says it all. Photojournalists put themselves in harm's way over and over again covering and shooting some of the world's most dangerous places. How they do cope? That's 2009's Triage.

Having worked for 12-plus years in one hellish war zone after another, Mark Walsh (Colin Farrell) is a highly respected photojournalist who's willing to go anywhere for a picture. It's 1988 and Mark is heading to the Middle East to follow a group of Kurd rebels fighting Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi forces, his similarly experienced friend and fellow photojournalist, David (Jamie Sives), going with him. Following Kurd forces and spending a lot of time at a triage unit in the field, Mark and David are both pushed to their limits, David deciding he's seen enough and wanting to get back to his pregnant wife. Mark decides to stay is seriously hurt while shooting a Kurd attack on an Iraqi fort. He remembers nothing and heads home weeks later only to find that David never arrived. What happened exactly? Where is his friend and why can't he remember the details of how he got there?

A straight-to-DVD release here in the U.S., Triage never quite adds up. From director Danis Tanovic, it clocks in at 99 minutes and while it covers a lot of ground, it bounces around far too much. It knows the tone it's going for, but it drifts and meanders in getting there. It was filmed in Spain (standing in for a fictional territory with the Kurd/Iraqi fighting) and Ireland (after Mark returns) and for lack of a better description, feels like a straight-to-DVD flick. It doesn't need a huge scale with a cast of hundreds, instead focusing on a handful of characters, and it's a wise decision. On the other hand, at just over 90 minutes, the story never picked up any momentum, and I was less than intrigued as it developed. You stick with it to get an answer, to discover what happened, but getting there is far from fun to the point of being dull.

Sporting long hair and a variety of facial hair (my favorite was the quasi-Hitler mustache), Farrell is solid but maybe a little too underplayed here as Mark, the tortured photojournalist struggling to find the answers and cope with everything he's seen. It's a part without a whole lot of energy which reflects Mark's general state of mind, but a little energy, a little fire would have gone a long way. It isn't a bad performance, but Farrell has done better.Late in the flick as revelations come to light, Farrell is called on to emote some, but it feels funny, even forced.

The rest of the cast ranges from pretty good to pretty bad. Paz Vega is shrill as Elena, Mark's worrying girlfriend back in Ireland. Her part consists of her asking if he's all right, looking worried about his answer, and then ultimately finding a solution that in itself feels pretty odd. Sives as David is interesting but nothing comes of it. His whole purpose after introduction is to be homesick so pretty one-note, Kelly Reilly playing his very pregnant wife, Diane. Branko Djuric is the best thing going here by far as Dr. Talzani, a doctor working with the Kurds who is forced to make horrific decisions everyday about how to treat his patients. Through Mark and his pictures, we get to know Talzani better than any other character here. Rounding out the cast is Christopher Lee as Jose, Elena's grandfather, a doctor who has a history of working with former war criminals, getting them to admit to what they've done. It's a strategy he tries with Mark as well.

There are parts that work here. Following Mark embedded with the Kurd fighters, we get a real sense of what the fighting was like, the toll it would take on both the fighters and the photojournalists. You can only see so much before it completely rips away who you are. Seeing Dr. Talzani at work is unsettling and brutal, and his conversations with Mark provide some very good moments. The same for the later scenes with Mark and Jose, Mark finally realizing what happened to himself, David and what drove them there. The ending isn't nearly as shocking as it tries to be. Effective? Yes, but not an Earth-swelling finale, just a good one.

Triage (2009): **/****

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

As Good as It Gets

What do you think of when you hear the name James L. Brooks? I, for one, had to look the name up. I recognized it, but no one film instantly jumped out at me. Without the huge notoriety or name recognition, Brooks has a handful of classics and near-classics to his name whether it be directing or writing. How about one where he did both? That's 1997's As Good as It Gets

Living in a spacious NYC apartment, Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) is a famous author who churns out one classic love story and novel after another. His personality doesn't match the writing style though. Melvin is obsessive-compulsive, racist, a homophobe and basically hates everyone. He has no real friends, tolerating a semi-friendly waitress, Carol (Helen Hunt), at a restaurant he eats at everyday, and basically tries to avoid contact with everyone. His cozy little world riddled with OCD is thrown for a loop when his neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), a gay artist, is horrifically beaten, and Melvin is forced to care for his tiny little dog, Verdell. Melvin has had quite the past with both Simon and Verdell but can't get out of the arrangement and agrees to watch the dog until Simon recovers. It's one little thing that changes Melvin's ways as an odd three-way friendship is forged among the author, the waitress and the gay artist. It's three very different people, but they seem to have found a unifying bond among them.

A favorite among critics and audiences in 1997, 'Good' earned over $140 million in theaters and was an even bigger success at the Oscars with Nicholson winning Best Actor and Hunt winning Best Actress. Oh, and there were five other nominations including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Kinnear. My recent viewing was my first for this film, and I enjoyed it a lot. How come? I can't really describe it. None of the characters are all that likable, and in a meandering sort of way, I never really knew where it was going or what it was trying to say. What then is the answer? I think it resonated with audiences because it is about people, their lives, their struggles inside themselves and interacting with others. Can't everybody see the appeal in that in some way? It feels real. No explosions or shootouts, just some solid dramatic moments, one on top of the other.

An acting legend, Nicholson has won three separate Oscars and earned 12 nominations overall. I'm partial to his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as his best, but against a talented field in 1997 -- Matt Damon, Peter Fonda, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall -- Nicholson delivers a gem. The fact that we like this character even a smidge is a testament to Nicholson's ability. His Melvin Udall -- the perfect name for this character -- is a racist, prejudiced, obsessive-compulsive individual while also becoming a famous author. He has absolutely no filter in whatever he says and basically only thinks of himself at all times, how things affect him. Just about everyone who meets him is disgusted by him, and he welcomes it. That he finds some sort of odd companionship with a squirrelly little dog named Verdell is beyond perfect. I liked the movie throughout, but there's no doubt Nicholson is the best part of the movie.

While Nicholson's performance was the most noteworthy for me, all three lead performances are really worth mentioning. Mostly known from TV sitcom Mad About You and as the girl from Twister, Hunt shows what a talented actress she really is. A single mom with a son who has horrific asthma attacks almost at will, her Carol works as a waitress and has the unpleasant title of being Melvin's favorite waitress. She's trying to do what's best for her son and is put in an interesting predicament by Melvin even if his reasons for doing a very generous thing seem almost entirely intentional. In the smallest of the three parts, Kinnear is very good without being stereotypical as a struggling artist in NYC, a gay man who resents Melvin more and more for his brutally inappropriate comments about his sexuality.

Also look for Cuba Gooding Jr. in a solid part as Simon's agent who's trying to help him become a successful artist. Shirley Knight is very good as Beverly, Carol's very helpful mother and also watch for Yeardley Smith, Skeet Ulrich, Harold Ramis, and even future SNL star (and more) Maya Rudolph in supporting parts. Look quick for Rudolph or you'll miss her.

If I have one complaint with 'Good' it is that at 139 minutes it is a tad on the long side. There are some big, dramatic moments (but not overdone thankfully), but for the most part the story leans more toward the episodic. We meet the characters, see them interact in a variety of places and fashions. Late in the movie, Melvin, Carol and Simon go on a road trip with an odd purpose, an extended sequence that works well but I questioned where it was going. It does eventually get there, it just takes a little while with an effective ending. Funny, very dark, emotional, and based in some sort of personal reality, this is a good one.

As Good as It Gets (1997): ***/**** 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

In the Valley of Elah

Maybe 15 or 20 years down the road, there will be a wave of movies in theaters about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much the way movies about WWII and even Korea and Vietnam were released. I doubt it, but who knows. For now, the wounds may be too fresh so we get movies kinda about the war, related but not directly about the fighting, like 2007's In the Valley of Elah.

A former army veteran and military policeman, Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) lives in Tennessee with his wife, Joan (Susan Sarandon). He is more than surprised one day to get a call that his son, Mike, recently back from a tour in Iraq, has gone missing and is days away from being reported as going AWOL. Curious what's going on and sensing something suspicious, Hank drives to the army base in New Mexico to look into it himself, investigating what's happened to his son, if anything. He gets various responses, some more helpful than others. Hank is stonewalled by some, greeted by others, and gets some less than willing help from a local detective, Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron), who joins him in the investigation. It doesn't take long before clues mount up, but it might all be for naught. Mike's body has been found, dismembered and burned. What was Hank's son into?

Over the last ten-plus years, there hasn't been too many things more divisive than the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some support it wholeheartedly, others question why American forces are there at all. This film from director Paul Haggis goes down a different part -- mostly -- by having the fighting serve as a jumping off point for a police procedural. What happened in Iraq affects the police investigation. We follow Hank and Emily as they investigate Mike's disappearance, eventual murder and what led to it. The movie is at its strongest in those moments, a low-key but tense mystery that keeps us guessing. Hank, Emily, local police and army investigators all search and pursue each and every clue, anything that might lead to answers. Most lead to nothing, just dead ends, but all it takes is one clue to bring it all together.

What the movie is more focused on -- via the investigation -- is how the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has impacted the lives of the soldiers involved. A nasty little sub-genre of war movies dating back to The Best Years of Our Lives through Born on the Fourth of July and many more all deal with Post-traumatic stress disorder following their deployments. Through some videos and photos recovered from Mike's phone, Hank sees what his son and his fellow soldiers went through on a daily basis. Much like Vietnam was a new war, the Iraq war was unlike other conflicts. It becomes almost impossible to identify who your enemy is. Anyone and everyone could be trying to kill you. Thankfully the script and story from Haggis and Mark Boal doesn't hit us over the head with its message (for the most part). What the soldiers see, do and experience affects them in horrendous ways, ways that they can't just shake off because they're not overseas anymore.

Taking two familiar-ish characters and making them more than a cliched, cardboard cutout are Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. Who better to play a world-weary, semi-retired MP and army vet than TLJ? He's quiet and understated, knowing the answers he's looking for will almost certainly bring nothing positive. Just the same, he goes about his investigation so he knows what really happened to his son, and maybe more importantly, what drove him down that path. Theron's part is more familiar, a female detective who gets no respect from her colleagues, also a single mother with a son at home. She takes on this case for a couple reasons, to show she can, a little out of spite, and sometimes even against her better judgement. It's two really good performances, both with chances to show off dramatically, but neither actor overdoes it. Like their characters, they just go about their business.

Supporting Jones and Theron is an equally impressive supporting cast. Sarandon nails a smallish part as Jones' wife, waiting at home for a phone call she doesn't want to hear. Jason Patric is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Kirklander, an officer with Army intelligence trying to do his job as best he can while also seemingly trying to cover the Army's butt just in case. James Franco plays an Army officer who meets Hank early on while Josh Brolin plays the Chief of police, two small parts that didn't seem to justify the star power associated with them. Cool to see, just odd. Barry Corbin and Frances Fisher have quick appearances as people Hank meets/contacts during his questioning. Playing some of Mike's buddies from his squad are Wes Chatham, Jake McLaughlin, Mehcad Brooks and Roman Arabia with Jonathan Tucker playing Mike via flashback. 

It's funny how one scene can change your feelings about a movie, and how quickly it can happen. Obviously, this is an anti-war movie, but I thought for the most part, Haggis did a good job getting his message across without screaming "THIS WAR IS BAD!" at us as viewers. Then there's the final shot of the movie which came across as heavy-handed and awkward. It's too bad because the build-up got that message across. The war is bad, and the effect it is having on our soldiers is horrific. I thought he got that message across building up to the finale. Too bad because the final reveal about Mike is a whopper, shocking and uncomfortable to hear. Still a really good film, but the ending left me with a sour taste because of one single shot. Go figure.

In the Valley of Elah (2007): ***/****

Monday, September 16, 2013

Spring Breakers

There are movies so bad that it is hard to describe. Released in 2012, Spring Breakers is at the top of that list. What's the appeal? Even the premise that four attractive young actresses would prance around in bikinis for 90 minutes didn't seem enough. But watching with a friend -- thank you Redbox credit! -- I gave it a shot. It's beyond a guilty pleasure, it's just an awful movie. And away we go!

A freshman in college, Faith (Selena Gomez) is struggling to find herself, going back and forth between the life she thinks she should lead and then more embracing the crazy college life with friends from grammar school, Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Brit (Ashley Benson). Faith has agreed to go along with her friends, including a fourth girl, Cotty (Rachel Korine), to spring break somewhere in Florida. Candy, Brit and Cotty get the money they need by some interesting means and head out with Faith, embracing the partying, drinking and drugs associated with all that is spring break. The quartet enjoys spring break a little too much though, getting arrested at a party riddled with cocaine. Wasting away in a holding cell, they're released, an underground rapper and self-proclaimed hustler named Alien (James Franco) paying their bail. How crazy was their trip before? It's about to get a whole lot weirder.

Words don't describe the badness on display here. From director/writer Harmony Korine, 'Breakers' is bizarre in nature. Is it supposed to be some sort of dream-like nightmare, a spring break vacation on steroids? Is it supposed to be a spoof, an intended guilty pleasure that embraces how awful it is? Or, maybe worst of all, is it supposed to have some sort of messed-up message, an arthouse film trying to be profound and unique? The sad thing is, it doesn't achieve any or all of those objectives. It's trying to be profound on so many levels and fails on every single one. Story, acting, cinematography, editing, soundtrack, they're all duds to the point it actually becomes painful to watch.

Let's start with the visuals. 'Breakers' appears to have been filmed in a colorful, filtered fog. The colors are oddly appealing, the colors of the girls' bikinis coming to life and standing out from the rest. Each scene is full of color -- pink, teal, orange, yellow -- that eventually overcomes the story, making things look like a comic book. More than that, a 93-minute movie is shot like one extended music video. A non-linear story is fine, but 'Breakers' plays like one long montage with pretentious voice-overs laid in over the visual. We see the quartet ride scooters about 183 times, we see them drinking and doing drugs, we see them partying, all on one slow-motion loop. I lost count of how many montages we see -- in more slow-motion of course -- of random partygoers on beaches and sleazy motels drinking, drugging, doing beer bongs, grinding on each other, making out. It's tedious by the fourth time (that's an estimate) we see it, and things never recover.

Now for the acting. Where to begin? Where to start? We've got four teeny bopper-esque actresses in Gomez, Hudgens, Benson and Korine, all of them shaking off their pristine, cooky cutter reputations (especially Gomez and Hudgens, trying for years courtesy of some "leaked" nude pictures). Gomez comes out relatively unscathed, Korine gets to slut it up as the sluttiest of the four, and then there's Hudgens and Benson. Those two are on a whole other level. Bored to tears with their college lives -- poor babies -- they decide to embrace everything they want via spring break. How do they pay for the trip? They rob a restaurant, later showing Gomez's Faith how they did so. They swear up a storm, posture like they're gangsters from South Central, and basically act through some of the most cringe-inducing scenes I've ever seen.

Then there's Franco as hustler, drug dealer, rapper and all-around criminal, Alien. Wearing dreadlocks, gold grillz/teeth, sporting patchy facial hair and looking like a two-bit gangster, Franco is unreal, hamming it up in ways I never though possible. He dances, he mugs, he speaks in an undecipherable "accent" that I struggle to actually describe it without sounding like an idiot. My favorite though is his scene where he recites all his possessions, "I've got every color! I've got Calvin Klein Escape and Be...because I like to smell good! I've got dark tanning oil so I can tan with my dark tanning oil!" It goes on like that for far too long. Alien introduces the girls to the world they want -- or in some cases, thought they wanted -- of guns, violence, strip clubs, drugs and three-ways in pools. How can you lose?

Okay, moving on, lots to do (criticize) and so little time. How about the script? Was there one? In scenes where the characters aren't having sex, drinking, or brandishing heavy-duty guns, voice-overs pepper the 93-minute running time. It's like American Beauty meets The Thin Red Line but.....really not good. Gomez's Faith says countless times "People are so amazing. We have so many new friends. People are so nice." in her inane, painful monologues. Wow, that's profound! It doesn't get any better. It's one awkwardly delivered voice-over after another, all played with one obnoxious techno/dance song or psychedelic 1980s trance music ripped out of Risky Business. The script descends into some sort of drug-infused madness that gets worse and worse. Eventually, it has Alien and his Angels doing battle with a rival gangster, Big Archie (rapper Gucci Mane), an ending that defies logic and reality like everything else, but amplified.

This is a movie that derails quickly and never rights itself. I hated the characters, wanting them to meet some sort of horrific end, but even the ending is beyond idiotic. I can't even remotely recommend this one. As my friend said, "Maybe we should have done acid before we started." Would it have made it better, even slightly more tolerable? That's debatable. At one point, Alien actually serenades the girls (wearing pink stocking caps, black sweatpants and brandishing automatic rifles/pistols) with a Britney Spears song that he sings while playing piano on his ocean-front home. Awful, just awful. Give it a ridiculously wide berth.

Spring Breakers (2012): */****

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Rookie (2002)

It is a dream of countless kids growing up across the world, to make it in the big leagues whether it's football or soccer, basketball or hockey. While the numbers may be changing in the U.S. suggesting that football is the most popular sport, there's still something romantic about baseball, making it to the bigs. How about a true story then turned schmaltzy but entertaining sports movie, 2002's The Rookie?

Having grown up in Big Lake, Texas, Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid) has carved out a nice, little life for him, with his wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), three kids and solid job at the area high school as a chemistry teacher and head coach of the baseball team. Growing up, Jimmy showed a lot of potential for baseball, even getting drafted in 1983 only to blow his shoulder out. With his family and job, Jimmy has given up any hope of really truly playing baseball again, especially now that he's in his late 30s. Coaching his team though, he tries to motivate the group, but they end up doing just the same. Jimmy has been absolutely bringing it in batting practice so his team challenges him; if they win district and make the state playoffs, he has to attend a tryout for an MLB team. It's been a long, tough road to this point, but it's only just started for Jimmy, Lorri, his family, his team and the town of Big Lake.

From director John Lee Hancock, a native Texan himself, comes the story of one of the most unlikeliest of professional baseball players ever, Jim Morris. Over the 1999 and 2000 season, Morris pitched out of the bullpen for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, starting his major league career at the age of 35. Pretty crazy, huh? It's just the type of story you wouldn't believe unless you saw it happen. It's also the type of story that was tailor-made for a movie, especially one from Disney which can settle back and tell a good, old-fashioned, entertaining story focused on family, dreams and a community sticking together. Is it at different points cheesy, schmaltzy, obvious, and intentionally trying to tug at the old heart strings? Oh, yes, you bet, and it's the better for it. The underdog story in sports movies are a gimme -- a fastball down the middle if you will -- but this one is handled perfectly.

While this may not seem like a compliment, I do intend it that way. I think Dennis Quaid is one of the most likable, personable actors around these days. Then 45 years old -- playing a 35-year old -- Quaid is the heart of the movie and he succeeds on all levels. As a father, husband, teacher and coach, he's believable and sympathetic, a sort of everyman that most sports fans can get behind. Then, just as important, as a baseball player, he's just as believable. His throwing motion is a more than natural throw, giving some credence to Morris' status as a surprise fireballing lefty. Quaid nails the part, making the role very human as opposed to just a name and a dream. I especially loved the relationship Quaid's Jimmy has with his 8-year old son, Hunter (Angus T. Jones), his Dad's biggest supporter as he takes one last shot at achieving his dream.

Quaid is surrounded by a very capable cast, not a lot of A-list names but solid performances up and down the cast. Griffiths is very good as Lorri, Jimmy's wife who worries about her husband's health and well-being while also supporting him in chasing his dream. A part that would have been easy to make a dull stereotype is anything but, Griffiths giving it some depth. Brian Cox makes the most of a smallish part as Jim Sr., Jimmy's Dad who has a less than pleasant relationship with his son, Beth Grant playing Jimmy's far more sympathetic mother. Look for Jay Hernandez, Rick Gonzalez, Chad Lindberg and Angelo Spizzirri as some of the high school players on the baseball team. Also look for Royce D. Applegate as Henry, one of the town leaders in Big Lake who's always supported Jimmy and Russell Richardson as Brooks, another minor leaguer -- albeit a younger one -- working at getting to the majors with Jimmy.

Clocking in at 127 minutes, 'Rookie' does cover a lot of ground with a lot of characters drifting in and out of the story. It's not quite episodic in its storytelling technique, but it's getting there. Whether it's Jimmy growing up (played by Trevor Morgan) or his efforts as a high school teacher, the story flows well. It builds to the inevitable conclusion, Jimmy working his way up through the minors and then making his MLB debut as a reliever for the Devil Rays. Just a good story, one that kept me interested throughout.

There's some really great, really emotional moments throughout. I loved Jimmy telling Hunter from a phone booth that he made the Majors, his son beaming with pride as he asks questions. Then there's Jimmy's arrival at the big league club, walking around the clubhouse and seeing his name printed on a jersey hanging in his own locker. It's the little moments like that which help bring the movie together with Quaid its subtle, underplayed part. You can't go wrong with a good underdog story, especially when it's handled this well.

The Rookie (2002): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Anna Karenina

Thanks to high school and college honors classes in English and literature, certain names and genres scare me to death. Yeah, Shakespearean anything isn't my favorite, nor is Victorian literature. But anything Russian absolutely sends a shiver up my back, especially Leo Tolstoy. I've never had the guts to try one of his behemoth novels, but movies? Sure, why not?!? Let's give 2012's Anna Karenina a shot.

It is 1874 in imperialist Russia and Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) visits her brother's family in Moscow from St. Petersburg. Her brother, Stiva (Matthew Macfayden), has been kicked out of his home by his wife who caught him with a mistress. During her visit, Anna attends a ball, meeting Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young, handsome, glamorous cavalry officer with quite the reputation as a ladies man. She is immediately drawn to him, putting her in quite the morally questionable spot. Anna is married to Alexei Karenin (Jude Law) for years and very much loves him, her life and her young son. She can't help what she feels though, and her emotions for Vronsky seem very real. Pursuing anything with the young Count though could tear her life apart as well as the lives of her family.

A Tolstoy novel from the 1870s, 'Anna' is a classic novel that ranks with War and Peace as the Russian author's best. It has been adapted to film countless times (okay, 15 according to Wikipedia) and with director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice) at the helm of a very talented cast and crew, this 2012 version seemed like a gimme. I'm a huge fan of historical epics and periods pieces, and I was psyched to check this one out. Even Netflix thought I'd like it, recommending a 4.1 on a 5 scale. The movie is a stunner to watch -- kudos to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey -- and features great uses of wardrobe and period appropriate attire. Even the music from composer Dario Marianelli is solid, a good mix of stirring epic and soothing classical, stands out from the crowd.

Unfortunately, not much else stands out from the crowd. Stylistically, there are issues which I'll get to in a bit, but the biggest issue kneecapping the story is the casting and the script. I like Knightley a lot, but she keeps playing the same part over and over again, a strong historical woman who's forced to deal with some gutwrenchingly emotional issue. Much of the movie follows her relationship with Taylor-Johnson's Vronsky, maybe the dullest relationship I can think of in recent memory. They exchange glances at the ball and are instantly in love. For some reason, Anna falls madly in love with him -- obviously because of his stirring personality -- and ruins her life. I liked Taylor-Johnson in Savages, and by all accounts, he's good in Kick-Ass, but other than his good looks, I thought his Vronsky had the personality of cardboard. It's hard to see why they're drawn to each other. Is it just a physical connection? That's all I was seeing.

Some of the supporting performances stand out for the better, even if their purpose is distracting. I especially liked Jude Law as Alexei, Anna's husband who comes out smelling like roses here. With their marriage possibly crumbling, Alexei must decide what is most important to him. As a powerful government statesman, his name and reputation are on the line, but that doesn't seem to bother him in the least. A solid, understated and emotional performance from Law. Macfayden is good as Stiva with Kelly McDonald playing his wife, Dolly. Also worth mentioning is Domhnall Gleeson as Levin, a young man from a well-to do family who wants to create a life for himself with Kitty (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful young woman and Dolly's younger sister. At a certain point though, faces start to look alike, characters run together, and none make too much of an impression.

One major style choice ends up handcuffing the movie in a big way. Filming his movie, Wright actually shot much of it on an old stage in an abandoned theater. Scenes transition from one to another, the camera whirling around to follow the characters. The sets, designs and backgrounds change, but much of the movie quite literally takes place on a stage. Is he going for a truly artsy look? If so, it doesn't work. It took me completely out of the movie itself, making me question if I was watching a stage-based adaptation instead of a theatrical release. While the thought was there to try something new/unique, it came across as pretentious a little bit. "Oh, look at me, look what I can do!" Too bad, because the visuals are certainly there to make an above average period piece.

Most of all, it's just the characters. For lack of a more thought out, articulate description, they're annoying. Anna and Vronsky look adoringly into each others' eyes, each imploring the other to tell them how much they love the other one. Anna is beyond stupid, not seeing what consequences her actions are going to produce. It's just disappointing. You can have all the great sets and designs, all the impressive set pieces, but it comes down to this. If you're not interested in the characters, it's hard to be interested in the film.

Anna Karenina (2012): **/****

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Split

A stylish, dark heist flick from the 1960s with one of the all-time great tough guy casts. It's a winning formula for sure, especially for a sucker like me for heist movies. It took me years to track down 1968's The Split -- which I first reviewed in August 2009 -- and I was less than impressed with the film on my first viewing. When it popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule recently, I was going to give it another try. I mean....come on.....look at this cast!

A master thief who's gone off the grid seemingly for several years, a man named McClain (Jim Brown) is reunited with a former partner and an expert planner, Gladys (Julie Harris), when it comes to pulling off impossible jobs. They team up again, Gladys putting forth the plan; rob the L.A. Coliseum during an NFL playoff game that will net $500,000. McClain assembles a team of crooks who haven't worked together in the past, but he convinces them to put their differences aside with the thought of a very lucrative payday. The five-man team goes about planning the job with very little time to do so. The dangerous job is one thing though, but the fallout from the job may be even more dangerous, especially when an investigating detective, Lt. Brill (Gene Hackman), catches wind of them and is right behind them.

For years, this 1968 heist film from director Gordon Flemyng wasn't available in any form; DVD, VHS, nothing. Now, it's available on a burn-for-order DVD so if you've never seen it and are dying to catch up, there it is for you. First or second viewing though, I had the same issues. 'Split' has a lot of potential, much of it tied to the casting, but it never quite goes anywhere. It's got the style from its frame-in-frame credits sequence to its Quincy Jones soundtrack, the on-location shooting at the L.A. Coliseum to the dark nature of the team of crooks working together. All these disparate elements never manage to jell, ending up with a heist film that takes a really bizarre turn in the last third of the movie. A very disappointing end result because it did have so much potential.

How about that casting though? In assembling his team for the robbery, Brown's McClain brings together Bert Clinger (Ernest Borgnine), a gym owner and strong man, Harry Kifka (Jack Klugman), a down on his luck limo driver who will serve as the team's getaway driver, Marty Gough (Warren Oates), a temperamental safe cracker, and Dave Negli (Donald Sutherland), a smooth as ice hit man and hired killer. And NFL great turned action star Jim Brown for good measure?!? How can you lose??? Well, as dark and dirty as things get, something is missing from the group. The movie runs only 91 minutes and after McClain's recruiting, things move right along to the actual heist. The group is full of so many bad guys I never found myself rooting for them to pull the job off successfully. Still, it is an impressive grouping of star power, misutilized though they may be.

I think that's the problem for 'Split' in general. With so much going on, the right tone is never picked out. It bounces back and forth and among all these different things. Brown's McClain meets up with his jilted ex-wife, Ellie (Diahann Carroll), still holding a grudge, but darn it, she still likes him a lot as we see in a montage set to a Jones song as they walk along a beach. The actual recruiting of the team just feels a tad bit off, like certain things aren't fitting together well, but it's entertaining enough. The robbery at the Coliseum lacks a certain energy with no real catch of anything unique helping them pull the job off. But the biggest problem? That would be the final half hour.

One of the keys to a good heist film is oddly enough, not the heist. It's the fallout after the job when the cops close in, the team has to wait for things to cool down to get their money, and seemingly inevitably....turn on each other. That's fine and dandy, just about any good heist movie follows that formula. Ready for the derail? It comes in a really odd one-scene cameo from James Whitmore as Ellie's creepy landlord. Then, Gene Hackman doesn't even make his first appearance until 70 minutes into a 90-minute movie. From there on in, the story and twists and turns feel rushed. It's a pretty dark ending, but even that feels mishandled. The movie just sort of ends, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered. A truly disappointing movie, one that handled differently could have been a near-classic among the heist genre. Oh, and the above poster is bad, giving the impression the team is just a bunch of friends out to pull a job.

The Split (1968): **/****
Rewrite of August 2009 review

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

10 Years

I had a momentary freakout recently following my 28th birthday. It's 2013. I graduated from high school in 2003. By my count, that means I've been out of high school for 10 years. Oh, no! Ten year reunion! I can't be that old, can I? Thankfully no invite for said reunion has come in the mail so I can calm down a little for the time being. In the meantime, I can watch other people struggle through the same issues in 2012's 10 Years.

A moderately successful mortgage broker, late 20s Jake (Channing Tatum) is pleased with where his life is if not completely pleased. He's got a good if safe job and a smoking hot longtime girlfriend, Jess (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), so when his 10-year high school reunion pops up, Jake is both excited and nervous. His former classmates are similarly descending on the town back home, coming from all reaches of life, some more successful than others, but they seemingly all have a goal at the reunion. Just catching up with old friends, in some cases hooking up with former classmates, making apologies, or even bringing closure to certain things. The jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, the popular kids and the smart kids, they've all grown up to some point. For Jake though, he's most worried about seeing his ex-girlfriend, Mary (Rosario Dawson), and what she's up to after a tough breakup for the both of them. The reunion promises to be very interesting for all involved.

For starters, let me clear things up. I needed something remotely coherent for the plot description so I streamlined things...a lot. While dreamy Channing Tatum is in the movie a lot, he's merely a part of a very strong ensemble cast. So that's it. This isn't his movie on his own. Okay, now that we've got that out of the way, let's move on. 'Years' comes from first-time director Jamie Linden who has worked previously as both a writer and producer. It's a more than solid debut, showcasing an ease with the script and talent that should bode well for Linden's future films. Reunion movies can be pretty common from the lousy American Reunion to The Big Chill and plenty in between, but Linden's film has a nice, easygoing charm about it. The IMDB rating is currently at 6.0 (low if you ask me) so naturally I liked it and am now assuming I missed something about it.

Writing the script and directing his feature debut, Linden does a really solid job sticking with what works in the reunion genre but managing to keep it fresh. He throws a lot of characters together, some more familiar than others, and lets them do their thing. The beauty of having so many characters is that we get to run the gamut of high school all over again. We do see all those dreaded high school cliques from the jocks, bullies and nerds to the cheerleaders, hot chicks and loners and everything in between. The movie runs 100 minutes and is basically moving along non-stop, flitting around among all the characters and their issues. As is the case with any ensemble, some are more interesting than others, but most importantly, none of them are dull. From the reunion to the post-reunion booze fest at a local bar, it's a lot of fun to watch.

Again proving me wrong after years of doubting him, Tatum seems right at home as Jake, the former jock who's now in a good place but always worried what could have been with Dawson's Mary (now married to the older Ron Livingston). Dewan-Tatum, Mrs. Channing Tatum, is good too in a part that avoids cliches for the most part as the worrying girlfriend. My favorite parts were Justin Long and Max Minghella as Marty, a successful publisher in NYC, and A.J., his equally successful friend struggling with some issues. They have a believable friendship, one that goes through its ups and downs as A.J. tries to "wingman" it for single Marty. I also especially liked Chris Pratt as Cully, the former bully now trying to apologize to all the then-nerds he terrorized in high school (including a very good Aaron Yoo) with Ari Gaynor as his wife, Sam, who he has two kids with. Sam wants to enjoy herself too, not just watch over Cully embracing his high school craziness.  

Not enough young talent for you? There's plenty more. Oscar Isaac is Reeves, who's recently gained a lot of popularity across the country as a pop star musician, but he just wants to talk to Kate Mara's Elise. It's a decent subplot, but probably the weakest of all the stories. Isaac and Mara are good, it's just not as interesting. Scott Porter plays Scott, a globe-trotting happy-go-luck guy with his wife, Suki (Eiko Nijo), who he met in Japan. Anthony Mackie as Andre is just looking to have some fun, especially when he sees Garrity (Brian Geraghty), a white guy who thought he was black in high school, news to his wife (Aubrey Plaza). There's also Lynn Collins as Anna, the hottest girl in high school, Marty seeing if he can make up for lost time with her. 

No point in analyzing this one too much. A fun, cute reunion story with a good mix of laughs and comedy with some actual sympathetic human emotion. What a novel concept! I especially liked the cast and feel very comfortable recommending it.

10 Years (2012): ***/****