The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Despicable Me 2

Maybe I've written too many reviews lately about sequels, but here I sit. I caught up with 2010's Despicable Me late this summer in August and liked it a lot. Inevitable comes to mind when I think of the sequel that we all knew was coming, 2013's Despicable Me 2, another rousing success with theaters, earning over $900 million worldwide. Not bad, huh? That's the movie. Not bad, but missing something.

Having moved on from his career one of Earth's super villains, Gru (voice of Steve Carell) lives happily at home now with his three adopted daughters and his small army of Minions. Well, his peaceful little life is about to be thrown for a loop. Gru is approached by the Anti-Villain League (AVL) because an unknown super villain has stolen a substance capable of turning even the most peaceful creature into an unstoppable monsters. Their only clue? The villain has been tracked to a mall and owns a store somewhere in it. With the help of an AVL agent, Lucy (Kristen Wiig), Gru sets up shop in the mall -- with the help of the Minions -- as a bakery owner. Which one of the eccentric store owners could be this mysterious super villain? There's too many choices so where to even start?

The original Despicable Me was a very pleasant surprise for me as I enjoyed the voice casting, the visual look, the generally different tone of your typical animated movie, and of course....the Minions. Because I did enjoy the original, I was psyched to see this follow-up as well. My first reaction? It's good, but definitely missing something. Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud return to helm the sequel, still visually appealing with the same goofy, dark sense of humor. It's still a super villain with three adopted daughters, a cross-breed(ish) dog, hundreds of little minions, an assistant, Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand), and another goofy plot to control the world. It's not as good as the original -- more specifics later -- but there's still enough on display to see it. If you liked the original, you'll enjoy this sequel.

What isn't in question is the abundant voice talent assembled here. From Gru's distinct look -- bald head, thick trunk, chicken legs -- to his uniquely villainous voice (I'm thinking some sort of Eastern European), Carell does a great job again as the bad guy turned Dad good guy. It's weird to say there's character development in an animated series, but we see a highly protective Gru watching over his adopted daughters, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and the youngest and cutest, Agnes (Elsie Fisher). Still a pretty good part leading the way. We also see a budding relationship with Wiig's Lucy, basically the perfect foil to Gru. She's goofy, moves non-stop and her Olive Oyl  physique is certainly a good visual. Wiig provided her voice in the original, but is playing a different part here. Brand is underused as Dr. Nefarious, Gru's loyal and longtime assistant who's disappointed they're not up to any evil plots to rule the world.

Who else to look and listen for? Benjamin Bratt has a fun part as El Macho, the owner of a Mexican restaurant in the mall whose personality is as big as his rather rotund frame. Moises Arias plays Antonio, El Macho's son interested in Margo. Also returning from the original except with a new character is Ken Jeong as a wig salesman in the mall.  Steve Coogan does a good job too as Lucy's AVL boss, Silas Ramsbottom, or as Gru calls him, Sheepbutt (like it matters).

As for the Minions, they're better than ever. The short, stocky little yellow creatures decked out in overalls and goggles are good for a laugh -- at the minimum -- every time they're on the screen. Coffin and Renaud (also voicing the little guys) are no dummies. They know as good as Gru's story is with the kids, people want to see the Minions. So what's new to the cute little yellow guys? We get to meet more of them by name, get to see some more personality. The high points? The Minions dress up as the Village People and karaoke YMCA, host a rave-like ice cream party, show off their housekeeping, firefighting and para-sailing abilities. They're just fun, producing the movie's best laughs by far. As I mentioned in my first review, I'm psyched for a Minions spinoff, scheduled for a 2015 release.

It's by no means a bad movie, just not as good as the first one. '2' takes too long revealing the villain, and in the meantime is too schizophrenic for its own good. We deal with Minions being kidnapped, Nefario leaving for a new job, Gru and Lucy, the girls, especially Margo, and the whole point kinda gets lost in the shuffle. It isn't as adult-oriented as some animated movies try to be as well. Is it good? Yes, but I didn't love it. On the other hand, Gru's explanation of a rival villain's epic death -- jumping out of a plane and riding a shark into an erupting volcano, thousands of pounds of dynamite strapped to the villain -- was one of those perfectly goofy moments. I just wish there were more of those, more laughs in general.

Despicable Me 2 (2013): ** 1/2 /****  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I've said it before, and I'll probably say it again. Jason Statham is one of the best action stars around, but I can't help but think that he was born about 15, maybe 20 years too late. This is a guy meant for the 1980s and all its action excesses. He's one of the few legit action stars working today which can be a good and bad thing, depending on the movie. Typecast in a fair share of his movies, Statham gets a change of pace -- while still kicking some ass -- in this new release, 2013's Homefront.

A D.E.A. agent with a huge bust under his belt, Phil Broker (Statham) has retired of sorts, moving to a small town in Louisiana with his daughter, Maddy (Izabela Vidovic). His wife died in the past year, father and daughter trying to move on and handle the death together, supporting each other as much as they can. Their quiet, country/small town life is a refreshing change of pace for both, but Broker's past is going to come back to haunt him. A low-level meth dealer, Gator (James Franco), discovers Broker's true identity and background, realizing he stands to better himself in a big way if he can turn the DEA agent over to some willing enemies. Trying to adjust in the small, country town, Broker senses things going the wrong way, knowing his life, and more importantly, his daughter's life, is at risk. Can he get out in front of the new threat before it claims him?

You know what? Screw it. I'll say it. I liked this one. I liked it a lot. This Statham-fueled action story from director Gary Fleder was a lot of fun if not a particularly taxing or original flick. Above all else though, it was a lot of fun. 'Homefront' reminded me a lot of some pretty good 1970s crime thrillers meet kinda low-brow action flicks. I mean that in the nicest sense, I love those type of straightforward, entertaining B-movies. Statham is very good in the lead role, but you could easily see Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood playing the part. It's got touches of Southern Comfort, Deliverance, White Lightning, even some Smokey and the Bandit, and it's the better for it. Composer Mark Isham's score is solid too, a nice blend of some familiar action with a mood-setting, here comes trouble Cajun-themed softer portions. It won't rewrite the genre, and no doubt it's gonna take some hits from the critics, but I enjoyed it.

Watching this flick at an advanced screening with a pretty full house last week, there was an audible groan when the credits rolled by and it said 'Screenplay by Sylvester Stallone.' (based off a novel by author Chuck Logan). Was it a surprised 'Oh, I didn't know Stallone wrote this...." or was it 'Oh, Stallone wrote it....' sentiment? I think a little of both, but I like Stallone as a writer. It's nothing award-winning, but the man writes a good script from Rocky and its sequels to the more action-oriented Rambo and Expendables series. If it is written in broad strokes, so be it. Good guys = perfect good guys. Bad guys = stereotypically over the top, truly evil bad guys. Good is good and the bad are real bad. Basically, don't mess with a former D.E.A. agent's daughter or his daughter's cute cat. You...Will....Pay. Yes, the story depended a little too much on coincidence for my liking, a couple things happening because the story needs it to, not because those things actually make sense.

Blah blah blah at this point, I haven't talked yet about Jason Statham punching, kicking and generally beating the crap out of people. That's never really in question, even his bad movies entertaining to a point because Statham is just legit a really good action star. He more than handles his own here, dispatching nameless, brooding thugs as needed. For the most part, his Broker is trying to go straight, start a new life with his daughter in an isolated country town in backwoods Louisiana. Naturally because the movie has to have something going on, that new life ain't so smooth. The always capable Statham ends up fighting local thugs, Franco's Gator, and eventually, a drug-dealing, badass biker gang. The finale has Broker defending his house -- in the dead of night of course -- as the biker gang, headed by the always reliably creepy Frank Grillo (playing a biker hitman) tries to take him out before he can cause anymore trouble. Hand-to-hand, gunfights, improvised weaponry, it features a little bit of all of the above.

Beyond the typical shoot 'em up, punch 'em up, Stallone's script gives some familiar if pretty decent character development, Idovic doing a fine job as Broker's 10-year old daughter, Maddy. Their scenes together are pretty good, a single father and his daughter both coping with the recent death of his wife and her mother. Franco looks to be enjoying himself as the villainous Gator (no explanation provided), but thankfully doesn't ham it up too much -- cough Spring Breakers cough -- as the poop hits the fan. Winona Ryder grunges it up as a former biker groupie working with Gator, Kate Bosworth plays Gator's drug-addicted, trouble-seeking sister, and Rachelle Lefevre plays one of the teachers at Maddy's school who may/may not like Phil (SPOILERS ALERT she totally does). Also look for Clancy Brown as a possibly corrupt town mayor, Omar Benson Miller as Tito, Broker's construction friend in town, and Marcus Hester as Bosworth's much-abused husband.

No point in analyzing this one too much. At 100 minutes long, it isn't around long enough to overstay its welcome. Statham is as reliable as ever, Franco plays against type as an out-and-out villain, the supporting ast is good, and there's never too long in between some action, whether it be hand to hand or gunfights. Solid, entertaining flick.

Homefront (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Lost in Translation

They are the movies that everyone loves. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. Critics and fans alike drool over these flicks, especially during awards season. As I've written about before, cynic that I am, I immediately don't like those movies without having seen even a little of it. Call me naturally suspicious. Released in 2003, Lost in Translation was one of those movies, universally liked, and I had no dying to see it interest. Well, it's 10 years later. I'm safe, right? Might as well check it out.

An aging American movie star, Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is no longer a sure thing at the box office. He's taken a job as a whiskey spokesperson for a company in....Japan. It's a lucrative payday, netting the middle-aged movie star $2 million bucks. There's a catch though. He hates it, hates everything about it. He feels completely out of sorts in Japan as he films commercial after commercial, does photo shoot after photo shoot. At his hotel one night as Bob deals with his own insomnia, he meets Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), a young married woman struggling with where her life is currently at. She's in Tokyo with her photographer husband who's on assignment, leaving her a lot of time to do her own thing. She is of course...miserable. But in this case, the middle-aged actor and the young wife have found a similar soul.

From director/writer Sofia Coppola, 'Translation' cost just $4 million to make but earned over $120 million in its theatrical release. It won an Oscar for Best Screenplay (penned by Coppola), and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, none of them managing a win. I'm glad I caught up with it finally. No doubt about it, it's a good flick. That said, I didn't love it. 'Translation' wasn't a life-changing movie for me. It's a good, well-written story that features two great performances from Murray and Johansson. The performances are by far the best thing in Coppola's film.

With a story about people, 'Translation' makes a wise choice and decides to focus on....the people!!! What a great idea! I've always been a big fan of Murray dating back to his SNL/Caddyshack days, but that's how I typically think of him, a comedic actor. Along with his Wes Anderson ventures, he shows he is perfect at that underplayed, smart, a little sarcastic straight man. Just about everything here is underplayed, Murray making Bob this great lead character. His family/home life isn't ideal as we see through some phone calls back home to the wife. The same for Johansson as Charlotte, typically an actress who's thought of more as a pretty face than a good actress (and she is appropriately gorgeous here). Much like Murray, her part is quiet and real without being obvious and aggressively in your face.

It's that chemistry between the duo that carries the movie. And let it be said, it's a good thing because the movie barely has an energetic pulse to begin with. There aren't a lot of set pieces or BIG moments so the episodic story kinda drifts along at certain points. We see a couple chance encounters at the hotel bar, a couple quasi-dates as they explore Tokyo, but mostly it's a lot of talking as we get to know the two characters. We meet them and find out what drives them, how they got to that point, how their personal lives have driven them to become friends in a hotel bar in a foreign country. As for the rest of the cast, it's limited to Giovanni Ribisi as John, Charlotte's photographer husband (generally pretty clueless), Anna Faris as Kelly, an actress doing a publicity tour in Tokyo who knows John in some form from the past.

I'm struggling with much to write about this flick. I liked it but didn't love it. It's good but not even close to great. Coppola's style is subtle and artsy, much like the story itself. 'Translation' explores all sorts of topics from insomnia to feeling out of place to the feeling of being lost in one's life. The ending is mysteriously annoying, but I guess it's an ending that's called for. Nothing is tidy for anyone involved, just a real ending. Mildly disappointed I didn't like this more, and maybe down the road on a repeat viewing, I will. For's okay.

Lost in Translation (2003): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Desperados (1969)

Guerrilla warfare has been around....well, probably as long as war itself has. In American history, guerrilla warfare goes back into the French and Indian war, especially the American revolution, but in my goofy head, I always think of the Civil War as when the guerrilla fighting took a particularly nasty turn. Because it was so vicious -- Bleeding Kansas, Quantill's raiders -- not as many films explore the topic. Unfortunately, the ones that I've seen that do jump in...they're not very good. As for 1969's The Desperados, it isn't very good, but it is badly entertaining.

It's late in the Civil War, a group of Confederate guerrillas led by Josiah Galt (Jack Palance), a former parson, is doing its best to terrorize Union forces in the western theater. Among his men are three of his sons, including David (Vince Edwards), who's grown disgusted with their tactics. Following one attack on a peaceful town that degenerates into a massacre, David decides to leave his father's group. He's caught though and sentenced to death by his own father, only managing to escape at the last minute. David manages to start a new life, marrying his sweetheart, Laura (Sylvia Syms), and with the end of the Civil War thinks he may be safe. Years pass, but Josiah is still at the head of his gang of guerrillas turned bandits, terrorizing Texas and the southwest. David hopes he can steer clear, but the Galt gang may be heading his way.

I had never heard of this western -- at all -- before finding it on the Movie Channel (original name, huh?). I'm always curious to see little known westerns like this so I recorded it, and here we sit. From director Henry Levin (with backing from producer Irving Allen), 'Desperados' has the distinct feel of an American western posing as a spaghetti western. Maybe it was cheaper, but it was definitely filmed in Spain and not the American west. The look of the film -- in La Pedriza and Colmenar Viejo, Spain -- is definitely one of the most positive aspects of the game. The cynical/dark nature of the story with some Greek/Roman mythological undertones combined with some surprisingly bloody violence all leans toward the spaghetti western genre. It isn't though, just a decent American impression. 

The biggest part of the Greek tragedy from mythology comes in the story's focus on the Galt family. Who better to play a nutso family patriarch with some bizarre religious beliefs than Jack Palance? The answer you're looking for is No One. Given a second career in Europe with spaghetti westerns, Palance hams it up like only he could. He's big and loud and all over the place in a part that -- as usual -- borders on being too much. Edwards is okay as the do-good David, but he gets lost in the shuffle too much as the heroic brother who wants to do the right thing. He does rock some awesomely big hair so he's got that going for him. Also starring as the Galt brothers are George Maharis as Jacob, the loyal brother who sticks with his father through thick and thin, while Adam (Christian Roberts) is nuts, the youngest and possibly unhinged brother.

Having some fun in a key supporting part is Neville Brand as Marshal Kilpatrick, the peace officer who knows David's true identity and wants to help him lead his new life. Kate O'Mara plays Adah, a dance hall girl/prostitute who worries about David's well-being and that of his family. John Paul plays Sheriff Lacey, another peace officer who questions David's intentions.

Basically across the board, this is a pretty weird western. It is at its strongest early on when the Civil War is raging, the pace slowing down some once the war ends and David settles down to a new life. The finale makes up for some of the goofiness in the middle, including a final twist that definitely caught me by surprise. On top of the surprising violence -- lots of blood post-shooting -- is some really funny and bizarre nudity. At one point, a pimp/saloon owner stands over his girls who are topless wrestling (strategic places are covered up). All very tasteful. There's also some concealed nudity with Syms swimming, Edwards dangling her clothes just out of reach. It's just that kind of western. Pretty odd, at times really bad, but mostly entertaining. Where else can you see a preening Jack Palance screaming and taunting his grandson who he intends to kill? The answer is nowhere.

The Desperados (1969): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, November 22, 2013


How quick time flies. Fifty years ago today, November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas as he drove in a motorcade through the downtown area, sniper Lee Harvey Oswald doing the shooting. It was and still is a tragic moment in American history, one explored in pop culture with books like Stephen King's 11/22/63 and films like JFK and Executive Action. Add another flick to the list, 2013's Parkland.

To describe the plot here would more than defeat the purpose. With a little build-up to the actual assassination on that November morning, we're shown the actual shooting Dealey Plaza, mostly from the people that see it. We never see President Kennedy get shot, never see Lee Harvey Oswald shoot him. This isn't a movie about Kennedy, instead it is how the President's death sends ripples throughout Dallas, including the hospital, law enforcement, Kennedy's staff, the witnesses, the FBI, how they all responded to it and handled the assassination. The story follows the immediate aftermath and the subsequent days, mostly from the perspective of Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy died less than an hour after being shot. Plot? Not really, it's more a lot of characters in an episodic story that packs a whole lot of stuff into its 94-minute running time.

From director/writer Peter Landesman, 'Parkland' had a $10 million budget and was given little to no theatrical release, making about $600,000 in theaters. Why did it struggle so mightily? I'm not really sure. I liked it a lot. With a short running time, it is slightly schizophrenic in terms of storytelling. It is basically on the go non-stop. We meet countless individuals -- from known individuals like Oswald, Jackie Kennedy and LBJ -- to lesser known but very real people, the hospital staff, the FBI, the witnesses, all affected by the assassination that rocked the nation. I liked that Landesman's film gives an almost fly on the wall look at the history that we've all heard about, all knew it happened, but to actually see it, it's interesting, startling and unsettling, like we're a witness to history.

Maybe that's why it struggled getting much of a theatrical release, why it couldn't get much of a positive word of mouth. Beyond being a turning point, a defining moment in American history, the Kennedy assassination is one of the first spawns of a real conspiracy theory. Was Lee Harvey Oswald alone in his attempt? Were there other shooters? Was the government involved? Was there a massive cover-up in the wake of the assassination? So for all you conspiracy theorists out there....this may not be the movie for you. 'Parkland' isn't interested in a single tidbit of that 'what if?' aspect. In general, it doesn't take a stance about much. It shows rather than tells what happened. We see it as it happened, nothing else. If you're looking for a comprehensive, analytical investigation of the Kennedy assassination, this isn't it. Instead, it's a well-told, interesting, informative look at a part of history that we've never seen before as a viewer.

To tell the countless stories, Landesman assembles quite the cast to fill out the countless speaking parts here, all those involved and effected by Kennedy's death. The Parkland Hospital medical staff includes Marcia Gay Harden, Zac Efron , Colin Hanks, Rory Cochrane and Jackie Earle Haley appearing briefly as the hospital priest. James Badge Dale plays Oswald's brother, Robert, surprised as anyone at his brother's actions, Jacki Weaver playing their delusional mother, Marguerite, Jeremy Strong giving a strong portrayal of Lee. Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Welling play Secret Service agents pursuing all leads, especially the film of the assassination shot by Abe Zapruder (Paul Giamatti). Ron Livingston and David Harbour have good parts as the FBI field agents working in Dallas who make a startling revelation about Oswald. Not necessarily huge stars, but one really solid actor after another.

I liked this movie, simple as that. The style is simple and straightforward, blending archival footage from the Kennedy's trip through Texas that eventually ended in Dallas with footage shot for this film. It is eerie and uncomfortable watching the archived footage, knowing in the matter of an hour or two President Kennedy would be dead. The sense of doom hanging over that footage is unreal and beyond uncomfortable to watch. The whole movie is, and it'd be hard not to be difficult to watch. Exactly 50 years later, it's still hard to believe this tragic event actually happened. This film had little to no buzz upon its release, but Parkland is definitely worth catching up with.

Parkland (2013): ***/****

Thursday, November 21, 2013

World War Z

Thanks to AMC's The Walking Dead (among other things), the zombie genre has gotten an energy boost the last couple years from film to books to TV shows. I read Max Brooks' World War Z and loved it, an interesting twist on the zombie genre, most of all a smart, well-written book not interested in horror(ish) shock value. It was apparent the book just couldn't be adapted for one feature length film, making me suspicious of 2013's World War Z. Long story short? It has little to do with Brooks' novel, but it's pretty good just the same.

A former United Nations employee, Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Karin (Mireille Enos), and their two daughters. Caught up in traffic driving to work, Gerry and his family are caught up in mass chaos, seemingly deranged human beings attacking other ones at will. The Lanes manage to escape the city and all its death and violence, Gerry getting a call from his former boss with the U.N., Thierry (Fana Mokoena), asking him for help. The attacks are not an isolated events, something happening across the world, thousands and maybe millions of people dying. What's going on? The word 'zombie' is beginning to pop up, the undead attacking live human hosts, the victims then turning into zombies themselves. Working with survivors among the military and government, Gerry is tasked with finding a solution; a clue, a lead, something that will help the human race survive. The world is tearing itself apart. Can Gerry survive long enough to find those desperately needed answers?

The difficult part of Brooks' novel is that it isn't a novel, but an oral history. It is a series of interviews with people who survived World War Z -- the zombie takeover -- and what they saw. We meet common people, government officials, brilliant minds working to combat the zombies, military, medical staff and everything in between. We see nothing live, simply hearing about it later. There is a subtle brilliance to its storytelling device. The trick does any two-hour film somehow manage to pack all that detail on a worldwide level into such a short run-time? Basically, it doesn't. The film makes a valiant effort to do so -- Pitt's Lane globe-trotting to find a solution/cure -- but if you're looking for a literal, spot-on adaptation of Brooks' novel, you're going to be disappointed. Take solace in the fact that the movie is still really good.

What I liked about director Marc Forster's film is that it doesn't spell everything out for us in crystal clear fashion, just like the novel. We never find out exactly what caused the zombie takeover, whether it be a disease, a virus, Mother Nature rearing its ugly head. Early on, we don't see the zombies directly, just blurry motion as they race by the camera. It's only as Gerry learns what's going on that we start to see these undead attackers head-on. A doctor (Elyes Gabel) does a great job with a monologue that lays out what's going on, and maybe more scary, if there's anyway to stop it. Without explaining every little detail, we get a picture of what's going in the world as the epidemic takes over. We hear in the background that Washington DC is gone, that other cities aren't far behind. I thought that was a really smart movie. We get that big picture, but it doesn't lose the personal element we get from Gerry, his family and those he meets along the way.

As the only cast member who is in basically every scene, Pitt does a fine job carrying the movie. We learn tidbits about his past, but mostly we're in the here and now. With his past work as a respected, trusted United Nations employee on an international level, his Gerry knows how to handle himself in sticky situations. The rest of the cast is an ensemble (a nice nod/attempt to adapt the novel), the people Gerry meets in his investigation. We meet Segen (Daniella Kertesz), a young Israeli soldier, Capt. Speke (James Badge Dale), an Army officer with a small crew of surviving soldiers in Korea, Warmbrunn (Ludi Boeken), an intellectual helping Israel survive the epidemic, David Morse as an ex-CIA agent caught up in Korea, (Pierfranceso Favino), a World Health Organization doctor in Wales, and Tomas (Fabrizio Zacharee Guido), a young boy caught up in the chaos with the Lanes from Newark. Even Matthew Fox makes a blink and you'll miss it appearance as a parajumper who helps the Lanes. The variety of the people we meet does help give a touch of what Brooks' novel did so well.

The scale is pretty impressive, as it should be with a film featuring a $190 million budget. We go from Philly to Newark to following the U.S. Navy in the Bahamas to Korea, Israel and Wales. There are some pretty impressive set pieces, especially the initial takeover in Philadelphia and a surprising attack in a walled-in Jerusalem. A nighttime encounter with Speke's troops at an isolated base in Korea is the most action you'll see, small scale but unsettling and highly effective. The same goes for the finale in a half-infested W.H.O facility, Lane and several doctors trying to navigate their way through its sterile, fluorescent hallways. It's the finale that was supposedly re-shot by Forster and his crew (at quite the cost), replacing this finale with an epic zombie vs. human battle in Red Square in Moscow. I'd be curious to see that ending, but this one's pretty cool too on that smaller scale.

So there we are. I think this zombie flick is missing something from being a classic, but that didn't take away from a very entertaining, very tense movie. I really liked Brad Pitt leading the ensemble cast in a movie that does a good job balancing out the large scale with the personal. Also worth mentioning is Marco Beltrami's score (listen HERE) as well as dropping in some songs from one of my favorite musical groups, Muse, including Isolated System and Follow Me. Both provide some nice electronic touches to Beltrami's very solid score. Well worth checking out, whether you're a fan of the book or not.

World War Z (2013): ***/****

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Great Bank Robbery (1969)

From banks to trains, stagecoaches to payrolls and everything in between, wild west bandits, robbers and thieves had plenty of choices as to who and where to rob. But how about an impenetrable bank built specifically to hold back any would-be robbers? That's the basis for 1969's The Great Bank Robbery, a western spoof.

Having just pulled off a successful robbery of a government gold shipment, notorious outlaw Slade (Claude Akins) heads to the town of Friendly, Texas to stash his takings in a bank built by outlaws for outlaws. No one can rob it. Well, that perfect bank is about to be tested. A con man and robber posing as a priest, Rev. Pious Blue (Zero Mostel), with his assistants, including "Sister" Lyda (Kim Novak), to tunnel into the bank. At the same time, a Mexican bandit (Akim Tamiroff), and his gang are prepping for an attack on the town and bank. Also, a Texas Ranger, Ben Quick (Clint Walker), has been sent to Friendly to investigate and to see if he can get into the bank too. His plan? Hire a group of Chinese laundry workers to tunnel into the bank as well. Well, this should be interesting as all these different groups unknowingly working toward the same goal.

Western comedies usually aren't my at all. This one worried me some with its low IMDB rating and generally across the board negative reviews. Still, the cast sounded pretty appealing, and who am I kidding? I'll give any western -- even a spoof-life comedy -- a shot when it comes right down to it. Well, I'm really glad I did. Is it dumb, even too stupid for its own good? Oh, yes, very much. Director Hy Averback works on a straightforward, broad comedic strokes level. This is not any subtle English humor. This is stereotyped Mexican bandits and Chinamen, one goofier situation on top of each other, and a madcap finale that includes colliding horses and wagons, a getaway via a hot air balloon and a cannon cutting loose on a church steeple. Nothing academic, smart or subtle here. We're talking LAUGH! moments. That said, I cracked up and liked it a lot.

Committing to the goofiness is a very solid cast that embraces the stupid. Walker plays the straight man, Texas Ranger Ben Quicky who is a good trailsman, a fast draw with his pistol and a gentleman to the end. Mostel is a scene-stealer as Reverend Pious Blue, a con man with an eye on a pot of gold. He even gets a goofy musical number with a boys choir that comes out of nowhere. Novak gets to sex kitten it up as Sister Lyda, always with a couple strategic buttons undone here and there. Lyda ends up being a diversion for the questioning Ranger Quick. Their scene together when Lyda gives Ben some peyote candy is priceless (watch it HERE), the Ranger no idea he's hallucinating. As for Pious' "assistants," look for John Fiedler as Br. Dismas (explosives), Peter Whitney as Br. Jordan (tunneling/engineering), and Sam Jaffe as Br. Lilac (art forger). In addition to the stereotypical (if fun) Mexican bandit, Papa, played by Tamiroff, is Larry Storch as his dim-witted but well-meaning son, Juan.

My favorite part goes to western veteran/regular and character actor Claude Akins as the outlaw and man in black, Slade. His part is underplayed to perfection in putting a new spin on that familiar character of the western baddie. Akins as Slade is a philosophical wondering man, calling all those around him "Scum" and "Scum of the Earth." When he shoots people -- kinda a must in the business he's chosen -- he questions "Why do they always make me do that?" He's a brooding, almost depressed man, always keeping his right hand man, Jeb (Elisha Cook Jr.), down with a series of threats and putdowns. A great, scene-stealing part for the always reliable Claude Akins. Also look for John Anderson as Kincaid, the crooked mayor and bank owner, Mako as Secret Agent Fong, working with Quick to find out what's going on, and Ruth Warrick as Mrs. Applebee, a curvy townswoman who takes an interest in Reverend Pious.

I can appreciate this comedy isn't rewriting the genre, and maybe it isn't even that good. But I keep coming back to one of my old standbys. Was I entertained? Throughout, even if that madcap finale is a little much and the movie just sort of ends. The always reliable Clint Walker, sex kitten Novak with a quasi-nude scene, Akins in a memorable part, there's a lot going for this comedic western that isn't trying to rewrite the genre. It's supposed to be fun and goofy and stupid. I liked it throughout.

The Great Bank Robbery (1969): ***/****

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

21 Hours at Munich

It was an event in history that captivated the world in its truth. The Munich massacre in 1972 at the Summer Olympic Games was unbelievable in the sense that it really happened. It is an event that shows how far motivated people will go to accomplish what they want, the depths they'll go to. As far as film versions go, the story spawned Steven Spielberg's Munich, a story about the fallout after the massacre, but there is a version of the facts, a TV movie from 1976, 21 Hours at Munich.

It's early on September 5, 1972 and the summer Olympic games are in full swing in Munich, West Germany. In the predawn darkness, eight members of the terrorist group Black September headed by a man named Issa (Franco Nero) sneak into the Olympic Village where athletes from around the world bunk and take 11 Israeli athletes captive. German officials from both the police and the government descend on Olympic Village, including Dr. Manfred Schneider (William Holden), the Chief of Police, to negotiate with the terrorists and find out what they want in exchange for the Israeli hostages. The clock is ticking though, the demands more ludicrous than they could have ever imagined. With the lives of the hostages at stake, the German government and the Olympic committee work to resolve the situation knowing that Issa and his compatriots will kill their hostages if they feel their demands won't be met. What can be done either way?

Besides a lousy print on Netflix, I'd never been able to track this one down until I found it recently on MGM-HD on TV. Finally a good print for a pretty good movie. From director William A. Graham, 'Hours' was originally a TV movie that received a theatrical release in some countries overseas. While the scope isn't huge like a theatrical epic, it doesn't have that distinct feel of a TV movie. Shown on TV just four years after the real-life events that inspired it, it certainly seems like the wounds would have been too fresh for audiences. That's probably going to go a long way in determining if you will like or dislike this movie. It isn't supposed to be entertaining. Interesting? Yes, very much so, but if you're remotely aware of the incident, you know how it ends. It becomes more and more uncomfortable to watch, a painfully tense movie that builds to its inevitably dark, frustrating conclusion.

Sticking as close to the facts as possible, 'Hours' is particularly memorable because of the facts. The truth of the story leads to some incredible set pieces to watch. If you've seen Steven Spielberg's Munich, you've got an idea of what to expect. Sneaking into the Olympic Village and taking the Israeli hostages, the opening sequence is beyond tense. Done with almost no dialogue, it's like we're there with them as the athletes run, hide, fight back as they realize what's going on. The Israeli wrestling coach, Moshe Weinberg, fights back in an incredibly heroic way, as does Yossef Gutfreund (Paul L. Smith), an Israeli wrestling judge), who first discovers the Black September attackers and desperately tries to hold them back at the door. Knowing the truth, reading about it, it all adds up to that incredibly discomforting level that makes it incredibly tough to watch. But at the same time, seeing the harrowing truth of it all makes it real in a visceral, blood-curdling, shiver up your spine way.

The same qualifies for the finale as the hostages and their Arab captors have been transported to an airport/airfield outside Berlin. A plan has been devised to take out the Black September members, but it's come together quickly, not to mention it's pitch dark and far from an ideal situation of how to rescue the Israeli athletes. We see how the plan crumbles in execution, all the little things becoming big problems. Without giving anything away (for those that don't know the truth), it's an incredible ending, a moving, equally uncomfortable finale to a story that defies logic, in the sense that something this horrific could happen at all.

Taking a backseat to the story is a very capable cast. Nero ends up delivering the best performance as Issa, leader of the Black September terrorists. It's a great part because it is a villainous part -- a pretty obvious one -- but Nero makes Issa a human being, not some ridiculously cliched international villain. Sympathetic? Nope, not supposed to be. Fascinating? You bet. His cat and mouse negotiating game with the always solid William Holden becomes the most interesting part of the fast-developing story. Also look for Shirley Knight as an Olympic committee member tasked with being a go-between with Issa and those trying to stop him, Anthony Quayle as a veteran officer of the Israeli special forces/secret service, Richard Basehart as a member of the German government spearheading the rescue effort, and Noel Willman as another German official closely working with Holden's Schneider.

With the feel of a documentary, 'Hours' presents the facts and lets them be. It was filmed on the actual locations where the Munich incident took place in Olympic Village. The actual on-location sites provide an eerie, dream-like feel to the fast-developing story, knowing what actually happened there just a few years before. If you can track a copy down or stumble onto at MGM-HD, I highly recommend it. Well worth it.

21 Hours at Munich (1976): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Company Men

So the 1930s had the Great Depression. Now, our current recession has been dubbed the Great Recession since the global economy took a world-changing hit in 2007 and 2008. How about some movies about it?!? Not exactly a warm, uplifting story now, is it? Just like movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, these movies seem doomed. Maybe the wounds are too fresh, maybe in years to come they'll gain popularity. One that's good in the moment and will hopefully be remembered pretty well is 2010's The Company Men.

Like many international/worldwide companies, Global Transportation Systems (GTX) is hit very hard when the economy bottoms out in 2008, forcing the higher-ups to approve severe layoffs almost across the board. A 12-year veteran of the company, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is among the first wave fired, forcing the husband and father of two to desperately search for a new job. Not soon after when things don't go on the upswing, 30-year veteran Phil Woodward (Chris Cooper) is among the second wave of employees fired, one of thousands across the company. GTX offers a severance package on top of a company meant to help them find new jobs, but the dire situation is lousy just the same. All the while, one of GTX's most powerful employees, Gene McLary (Tommy Lee Jones), sees the writing on the wall but can do little about it. What does the economy hold for both the company and the individual?

I'm basically the most un-savvy business mind ever. While I tried to understand and grasp what the economic downturn, it basically flew right over my head. Thankfully this drama from director John Wells doesn't try to explain the recession, instead focusing on humanizing the recession. We don't see the bigger picture for the most part. There aren't any huge, emotional scenes showing how the recession came to be, how the world, the economy, businesses/corporations adjust to the problem, how it may ultimately be solved at all. We meet the people -- on both sides, being fired and doing the firing -- as they try to survive this downturn unlike anything else the economy and world has ever seen. In that sense, it's a good, old-fashioned drama that allows the cast to do their thing. No gimmicks or anything forced, just personal, human drama.

If there is an issue with that personal, human drama, it's that it can be difficult to fully get behind and support these characters. They're dropped from six-figure paying jobs to searching for jobs. We hear them -- especially Affleck's Bobby -- talk about not being able to afford his Patriots tickets, his country club membership, his family's vacations to Disney. Boo-hoo, I get paid $60 per story I write at work. The same for Tommy Lee Jones' Gene on a smaller level, one particular line hamstringing an otherwise very effective monologue. Cooper's Phil is the most sympathetic -- and similarly most underutilized character -- a factory worker turned office supervisor trying to pay for his daughter's college tuition. End of rant. Moral of the's hard to feel too bad about people complaining about losing the ultra-luxuries of being rich. Yeah, #FirstWorldProblems.

That minor rant out of the way, I thought the acting was uniformly solid across the board. Lack of sympathy aside, Affleck does a good job showing how low a man can get, how frustrating it can be when your world is completely pulled out from under you. Jones is his typical professional self, a solid role that shows not all big business is evil. He's worked his way up to the hierarchy and appreciates the work it's taken to get there. He also sees the hypocritical excesses all around him but knows there is little he can do at the same time. Cooper is underused as Phil, but his character is key to show a variation on how some people handle losing their job. Because it's a very real part, his scenes can be incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Also look for Kevin Costner as Jack, Bobby's blue collar brother-in-law who owns his own construction/contracting company, never missing a chance to dig Bobby for his evil ways with big business.

It was a wise choice to give all these individuals some personal flaws so we're not seeing "perfect" people thrown out on their backside. Affleck's rage comes out in one particular interview, Bobby making comments that are just wrong. Jones too has a personal secret that came as a surprise. We see all these little foibles, these little idiosyncrasies in all of the cast. Also joining the cast is Craig T. Nelson as GTX's ridiculously rich CEO, Maria Bello as GTX's battle axe, the woman placed in charge of organizing the mass firings, Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby's wife, and Eamonn Walker as Danny, a fellow victim of the mass firings who bonds with Bobby.

First-time director John Wells has a winner here. It's low-key in its message without beating us over the head with that message. Because of the subject, the story can be a tad bit uncomfortable to watch. We're seeing people at their lowest, their most desperate. 'Company' doesn't try to explain it all, to fix it all with a snap of the finger. The ending does provide some hope for the future, building up the tenacity and courage of the American worker. There is no easy answer to the current recession so why force one on the viewer? It's a good movie, a solid drama that capitalizes on a very strong cast. 

The Company Men (2010): ***/****

Friday, November 15, 2013

Hostile Guns

The name A.C. Lyles doesn't exactly ring a bell with famous western directors/producers. He's no John Ford, no Budd Boetticher, no Sergio Leone. Why no notoriety? Short answer? He didn't produce any classics, maybe not even any just old fashioned, good flicks. I caught 1967's Hostile Guns on a recent airing on a movie channel -- a Lyles production -- and let's just say it's.....well....not so good.

Readying to transport prisoners to the Huntsville Prison, Marshall Gid McCool (George Montgomery) is struggling to find a deputy willing to travel with him. No one is willing to take on the dangerous job -- even if it pays well -- until McCool meets Mike Reno (Tab Hunter), a young, fiery cowboy thrown into a jail cell for starting a fight in the town's saloon. With the promise of $50 for his services, Reno agrees, signing on as a deputy and immediately slugs it out with the prisoner they're transporting, a convicted murderer, Hank Pleasant (Leo Gordon), who intends to make the trip just as difficult as possible. With a specially outfitted wagon, McCool and Reno head out on the trail, picking up prisoners as they go at different stops on the way to Huntsville, including a female prisoner, Laura Mannon (Yvonne De Carlo), another convicted murderer. The new arrival may be the least of their concerns though, both McCool and Reno quickly realizing they're being followed. Who's trailing them?

I guess it should have clicked for me early on. I've been watching westerns since I was a little kid, and when this one popped up on the TV schedule, I should have put it together. At no point in my tries to watch as many westerns as I can had I ever come across this western from director R.G. Springsteen. No mention, N-O-N-E, for good or bad. Nonetheless, I plodded on. After all, it sounded promising with a more than respectable cast. Yeah, that's about all it's good. This is a western that at 91 minutes reeks of cheapness. I'm thinking total budget here couldn't have been more than a couple bucks here and there, and that money went to assembling the cast, the best thing going here by far. Where to start, where to start?

Made on a small budget doesn't/shouldn't be a deal breaker. On the contrary, it can be nothing but a positive. For 'Hostile' though, huge stretches of the already dull 91-minute flick is simply shots of McCool, Reno and the wagon riding through the rocky, desert mountains. Then, we get a follow-up shot of their pursuers. I swear the angles of the shot were tweaked because it felt like I saw the same rock formation one time after another. Same for the follow-up shot of those evil bad guys!!! My personal favorite in the Badness Department is the fight scenes. Usually a halfway decent movie does its best to delicately transition the shots of the stunt doubles fighting with those of the actors "fighting." This was almost amateurish in that department. Not only don't the stunt doubles resemble who they're posing as, the fight scenes are so poorly edited you clearly see the face of the doubles. Get a sample in the link below.

If there is anything to remotely recommend here, it's not surprisingly the cast. They're almost all stock characters you've seen before in any number of westerns, but they have their moments. A familiar face if not a star, Montgomery is solid as the stoic, very capable marshal who's working with a real bad hand. Hunter is actually pretty respectable for the most part, only going high up on the Annoying Meter late. Their veteran law officer, young punk cowboy dynamic is good. Gordon does what he does best, growls and looks menacing as the brutal killer while De Carlo makes the most of her part as the society woman who's guilt or innocence is debatable. Brian Donlevy makes what amounts to a cameo as another marshal, while Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez (as a goat thief) and Robert Emhardt (as a corrupt railroad official) play two other prisoners being transported. John Russell plays Pleasant's pursuing brother, Aaron, James Craig playing his cousin, both looking to spring Pleasant. 

Familiar situations, bad stunt work, recognizable characters, none of them are deal-breakers for me with a western. Just plain boredom and laziness? Now we're talking. A B-western that uses the same stock footage over and over is just bad. How many times can we see Russell and Craig ride down the same hill? How much was actually filmed outdoors? Not much, most of the trail scenes relegated to indoor studio work. Mostly, it's just boring. There's lot of talking, intense staring, all of it building up to some sort of showdown that never comes to fruition. The finale is disappointing, and then it ends. Not very good.

Hostile Guns (1967): */****

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Last Vegas

Everyone liked The Hangover, right? Yeah, we don't have to go into the entertaining, but completely unnecessary sequels, but that original was pretty good, huh?!? When I saw the trailer for this movie, my first thought was "Oh, that sounds cool, The Hangover for older people...and with an A-list cast!" How can you go wrong? I submit that you cannot. Here we go with 2013's Last Vegas.

In his late 60s and a successful businessman, Billy (Michael Douglas) is getting married for the first time, proposing to his 32-year old girlfriend (Bre Blair). To celebrate the upcoming wedding, Billy calls his childhood friends, Archie (Morgan Freeman) and Sam (Kevin Kline), who agree that they need to do a bachelor party Las Vegas. There's a problem though, the fourth member of the group of friends, Paddy (Robert De Niro), refuses to go, holding a grudge against Billy for an incident from the past. Archie and Sam manage to convince a less than excited Paddy to go with to the bachelor party and fly to Las Vegas to meet up with Billy. Each of the four friends is looking for something out of the weekend, and maybe they'll be able to mend the fences from all their past issues. Maybe, just maybe, they'll have some fun doing it too.

This drama-comedy from director Jon Turteltaub is an easy one to figure out if audiences will like it. Watch the trailer and you'll know immediately if this is the movie for you. It's The Hangover with less partying, drinking and drugs, replaced with jokes for an older audience about health problems, aging quicker than ever, and plenty of jokes about the prostate, having to pee a lot, and all your friends passing away or getting sick. I'm making it sound far more negative than it was -- I laughed a lot during the movie -- but come on. It's Douglas, De Niro, Freeman and Kline in a movie together, a story about rekindling old friendships. It's familiar, like home cooking, and funny throughout. This isn't a comedy that rewrites the genre or throws anything new your way. Sit back and watch some very talented actors have a lot of fun together. That's it.

Movies like this are supposed to be just that, a hell of a lot of fun. So what's a good recipe for making that happen? Put four actors together with the caliber of Michael Douglas, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline and Robert De Niro and.....nope, that's it. I would watch this quartet hang out at a bar shooting the breeze. That's it. These guys are four Hollywood legends and working off a script from Dan Fogelman, they are having a hell of a lot of fun. The four friends grew up together in New York City, dubbing themselves the Flatbush Four. They're grown up, started families, become grandparents, drifted apart some, but they keep in touch as much as possible. Given a chance to reunite, they're able to put past differences aside (mostly). This is a very talented quartet working together, all getting a chance to show off their comedic timing -- Freeman and Kline are especially funny -- as they have a hell of a weekend in Las Vegas.

Each is given a gimmick of sorts, a little thing needed to work out. Douglas' Billy is getting hitched but is concerned about seeing Paddy who is pissed at him for a recent event Billly was unable to attend. Their friendship is one that borders on rivalry, especially when they both meet and like Mary Steenburgen's sassy, smart-mouthed lounge singer. Freeman's Archie is coming off a mild stroke, his son (Michael Ealy) worried about his sick dad, placing limits on eating, drinking and just about everything while pushing pill after pill. Kline's Sam is recouping from hip surgery, hating his life in Retirement Village, USA. He's given permission by his wife (Joanna Gleason) to have sex -- no strings attached -- with any woman while in Vegas. For Archie and Sam, the weekend becomes about reuniting with friends but also reclaiming their wild oats. That becomes the funnest part of the 105-minute movie.

Also look for Entourage alum Jerry Ferrara as a Vegas partygoer who gets on the Flatbush Four's bad side and Romany Malco as Lonnie, the Four's personal assistant and tour guide of sorts at their swanky hotel villa. Even look for a quick and you'll miss it cameo from rapper 50 Cent.  

The story is focused on the four friends -- obviously -- as they explore Vegas, meet the dreamy lounge singer, work as judges on a bikini contest, get into a high-end nightclub with some pricey bottle service, gamble a little bit here and there, bust each others' balls but don't let outsiders do the same (only friends can do that), throw the biggest party Las Vegas has ever seen and maybe find out what brought them all together as friends and kept them as friends for over 60 years. It isn't a great movie because it isn't meant to be. More movies should be like this, funny, well-acted and entertaining throughout. Highly recommended if for nothing else than Morgan Freeman is a really good dancer. Age be damned.

Last Vegas (2013): ***/****

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Pain & Gain

There are stories you see on the news, in the newspapers, on the Internet, on the radio, and you just shake your head. There's no way it could possibly be true. It's just too ridiculous to be based in any sorts of reality. That's what I kept thinking while watching 2013's Pain & Gain, a mismarketed film that isn't what it is was made out to be. It's got its positives and negatives with an interesting cast and a generally schizophrenic tone. I think I liked it. Think.

Working as a personal trainer at a Miami gym and fitness club, fitness nut and budding bodybuilder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) wants more. He wants to be successful, to have some money, a house with a lawn. He wants the American dream, and he's willing to work for it. There's a problem though. There's just no easy way to do it....until now. One of Daniel's clients, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), is a self-made man and a bit of a condescending, arrogant idiot at that with lots of money. Lots of money. Daniel comes up with a plan to not only kidnap Kershaw for a ransom, but have the businessman sign over all of his empire; houses, businesses, money, offshore accounts. Daniel enlists the help of two fellow bodybuilders, Paul (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian (Anthony Mackie), to pull off the kidnapping/robbery. After several bumbled attempts, the trio does it, capturing Kershaw, but these amateur crooks don't know what they've gotten themselves into.

From director Michael Bay, this is a movie that defies any real description, a straightforward one at least. What defies logic the most is that this....actually....happened. Read more about it HERE with some obvious spoilers. In Miami in 1995, a gang of three bodybuilders actually kidnapped a businessman and held him captive for almost a full month. I don't want to give too much away, but the story takes some surprising twists following the kidnapping that I definitely didn't see coming. 'Gain' has everything including kidnapping, ransoms, blackmail, strippers, drugs, murder, extortion and probably a whole lot of other things I'm forgetting. If I didn't know better, I would have thought this was all made up, the twisted ideas of some warped screenwriters, but no, THIS HAPPENED. Keep that in mind as one bad plan turns into another one here in this bizarrely twisted true story.

Michael Bay has never struggled to cast his flicks, and it's no different here. It's not that the cast is assembled, it's that the script gives them a chance to flex their muscles (pun fully intended). Wahlberg's Daniel Lugo is a very interesting if not at all sympathetic lead character. It's not your typical Wahlberg. He's fiery and over the top and charismatic, desperately wanting something more out of life. It's almost unfathomable the depths of how far he'll go, but that's just another layer in the surreal quality of this flick. I was equally impressed with Johnson as Paul Doyle, an immensely large muscle-bound bodybuilder with quite the checkered past. He balances out his desire to do what God and Jesus wants him to do....with his love of fighting, punching, strippers and snorting cocaine. It's a darkly funny part, especially the surprising friendship he develops with Shalhoub's Kershaw. Mackie rounds out the crew, his Adrian searching and working for the perfect body, falling for a nurse (Rebel Wilson) who helps him with his steroid-induced erectile dysfunction. Quite the trio, ain't it?

Playing the equally shrill, annoying Kershaw to balance out our intrepid heroes, Shalhoub is perfectly whiny as the perpetually shrill, horny motormouth. You can't decide who's dumber as the story develops. Ed Harris plays Ed DuBois, a retired private investigator who gets caught up in the kidnapping, one seemingly decent person amidst all the shenanigans. Also look for Rob Corddry, Ken Jeong, Bar Paly and Michael Rispoli in key supporting parts. 

As a director, Bay has a reputation for flicks that are usually far more style than substance (the Transformers series, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon among others). This 2013 comedy-drama manages to find a balance between the two. There's some hyper-fast editing, a visual look full of color and flash, slow motion galore at times, on-screen messages popping up to introduce people, places and ideas, all that good stuff. Maybe it's because of the frenetic style, but all those different elements worked surprisingly well together. It's not overdone like so many previous Bay ventures. I thought the best stylized element was the narration, all the characters getting a shot at it at different points during the story. It gives the ensemble a good chance to step into the limelight, none of them disappointing.

You really need to know what you're getting into here. The truth behind the film is ridiculously stupid, sinister, idiotic and incredibly dark. Sometimes just within a scene we see all of those elements. It is darkly funny and takes an out of left field turn near the halfway point of the movie. It's easy to see this Michael Bay-directed movie offending a lot of viewers. I take pride in my really awful sense of humor so I was able to go along with things as they developed. I recommend it, but do your research and brace for a movie you really don't like.

Pain & Gain (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Back Door to Hell

Early in his career before he was a bankable star, Jack Nicholson was like a lot of young actors. He was just looking to make a name for himself. He even wrote a screenplay, 1963's Thunder Island, that impressed producers and studios, one giving him a $400,000 budget to film two (obviously pretty cheap) movies, filmed back-to-back in the Philippines. Let's start with 1964's Back Door to Hell.

It's just days away from the Allied invasion of the Philippines in 1944, and a three-man commando team headed by Lt. Craig (Jimmie Rodgers) slips onto the islands with a timely, dangerous mission. Along with radio man Burnett (Nicholson) and veteran sergeant Jersey (John Hackett), Craig must find the location of a key Japanese communications center and knock it out. The center though is far behind enemy lines inland, but the location is far from definite. With time working against them, the commandos seek the help of a local Filipino guerrilla unit led by an American-hating fighter, Paco (Conrad Maga), who resents the Americans for taking so long to return. Working together, the commandos and the guerrillas move away from the coast, but there's issues. The Japanese have discovered the commandos have landed and are on their trail. Can they get to the communications center before the Japanese catch them?

It's clear from the start this flick was made on a shoestring budget. The film quality is less than impressive, we never see more than a handful of Japanese soldiers, the already thin story is fleshed out with lots of "walking shots" as our commandos walk across the Philippines, so on and so forth. It only clocks in at a sparse 75 minutes, not wasting time with any real background or bigger picture. It's a thinly decorated men-on-a-mission movie with no spare parts. The music from composer Mike Velarde gets to be a little aggressive, heavy during the action scenes, little too Spanish/jazz guitar in the quieter moments.

Obviously almost 50 years later, there's got to be a reason this one is remembered at all. It isn't the straightforward story. It's the acting of a young Jack Nicholson -- just 27 years old at the time -- that makes it even slightly memorable. His Burnett, the team's expert radioman, is friends with Hackett's Jersey, the two regular army soldiers showing off a good chemistry. While the script does no favor to anyone involved, Nicholson is solid in a part that doesn't give him much to do. Hackett too is solid, the sergeant who knows Lt. Craig's real background. As for Craig, played by pop singer Jimmie Rogers, it just isn't good. Rogers looks like he's reading his lines, glances off screen as if he's forgetting, only then looking back to finish his thoughts/lines. It's just a bad part, one that's supposed to be charismatic and interesting.

Nicholson is by far the biggest name here, the rest of the cast filled out with relative to literal unknowns. I thought Maga was the movie's strongest part as Paco, leader of the Filipino guerrillas. His resentment toward the Americans taking their sweet time returning to the Philippines adds a solid, dark dimension to an otherwise pretty straightforward war story. Annabelle Huggins plays Maria, a female guerrilla fighter, who is the female equivalent of Rogers. The scene between Maria and Lt. Craig is mind-numbing in its badness. Also look for Johnny Monteiro as Ramundo, a bandit posing as a guerrilla fighter, and Joe Sison as the Japanese officer leading the hunt for the commandos.

An early effort from director Monte Hellman, 'Hell' isn't that bad or that good. It's generally pretty harmless. It does benefit from the on-location shooting in the Philippines, especially a small-scale battle between the commandos and their Japanese pursuers in a tiny Filipino village. The location shooting is authentic, it looks it, and it gives a nice touch of reality to a generally familiar war story. Not too much to analyze here, a B-movie that is decently entertaining enough, especially for Nicholson fans.

Back Door to Hell (1964): **/****

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby (2013)

One of the few books/novels I had to read for AP/Honors English in high school and college and actually enjoyed was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, a condemnation of the Jazz Age, rich folks, all sorts of waste, and all that good stuff. It's had several reincarnations since, including one film starring Robert Redford, and more than a few other film and stage productions. In the age of the remake/reboot, here we sit with 2013's big-budget The Great Gatsby, as lavish and over the top as the story condemns.

It's 1922 and Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) has moved east to pursue a job in business on the stock market, leaving his Midwestern roots and his dream of being a writer behind him. He rents a small cottage on Long Island and can't help but notice the lavish, ridiculously over the top parties on almost a nightly basis at his next door neighbor's mansion. His neighbor? The mysteriously rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man in his early 30s who no one knows much about. Specifically invited to one of Gatsby's parties, Nick shows up and is amazed at what he finds and sees, a party unlike any he's ever seen. He meets Gatsby, taking an instant like to this amiable, quirky man with all sorts of unanswered questions hanging over his head. Who is he really? How did he come to this spot? Nick will most certainly be surprised when he finds out, but will he care or will he just be worried about his new friend?

When I hear the name Baz Luhrmann, I think of one thing; one, big old extravagant director. With movies like Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge and Australia to his name, Luhrmann has a track record for hugely visual, highly stylized films that reek (in a good way) of extravagant sets, goofy style, color, movement and more color. He continues the tradition/trend here with one crazy visual movie. It's style, style and style. We're transported to 1920s NYC courtesy of some pretty obvious but pretty cool CGI. The modern soundtrack is a little much -- songs from Jay Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Jack White among others -- and calls too much attention to itself at times. It's not just that the movie is stylish. Luhrmann and his crew commit to bringing it to life. Even if the story sucked or wasn't interesting, you could just sit back and revel in the visual. Thankfully, it's not just style and no substance.

Early on though, I'll admit to being rather worried about what I'd gotten into. As the movie finds its tone and pace, the first 20-25 minutes were rough for me. Things are righted the minute DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby appears on-screen for the first time. Talk about ideal casting, DiCaprio is perfectly cast as the mysterious, charismatic, engaging Gatsby. Let's face it. DiCaprio is a good-looking guy and that certainly helps here. He brings a certain charming energy to the part. Reading the book in high school, I really liked the Gatsby character. He's rich beyond anyone's dreams, but he isn't some smarmy, condescending millionaire. His past is slowly filtered out as we learn about his love for Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan), Nick's cousin who also happens to be married to an equally rich man, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). We learn that Gatsby is like most people. He looks for happiness, for love, for someone to share his riches with. It's an excellent part for DiCaprio, again showing what a good actor he is.

The rest of the cast is uniformly solid behind him. I'm not a fan of Maguire going back to his Spiderman days, but he's pretty decent here. His Nick is our window into the story, Nick seeing and exploring as we do into this very rich world. His narration gets to be too much at times -- simply trying too hard -- but it's cool to see his friendship develop with Gatsby. Mulligan and Edgerton provide some interesting characters as Daisy and her husband, Tom, Daisy and Gatsby's love providing the spark for the second half of the story. We also get to meet Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a young, up and coming golfer who Nick meets soon after moving to NYC. Isla Fisher plays Myrtle, Tom's mistress, with Jason Clarke playing her husband, the owner of a gas station.

Having read the book (even if it was years ago), I had a certain worry heading into this flick. How close would the script stay to the novel? I worry about it with most books I've read that are turned into films. Thankfully, this adaptation sticks pretty close. While I liked the style and the visual appeal is obvious, I got more enjoyment out of the second half when Jay and Daisy's love steps to the forefront. The style is still there, but it's here we see more substance and get to know the characters far better. The sense of doom arises because we know everything can't end well for all those involved. Where will it head? Will it keep driving toward Fitzgerald's inevitable end? It's in the second half of the movie where 'Gatsby' finds that groove, that right mix of style, story, substance and characters. A pleasant surprise for sure.

The Great Gatsby (2013): ***/****

Friday, November 8, 2013

This Is the End

Apocalypse movies have been all the rage for a couple years now. Natural calamities, zombies, vampires, any and all. What else can movies throw at an audience? Well, there's 2013's This Is the End. It certainly goes down a fresh route, having celebrities star as themselves in an end of the world story. It could be self-indulgent, it could be really dumb, but it isn't. It's one of the funniest movies I've seen in years. Oh, and it is dumb.

Having not seen his friend in over a year, Jay Baruchel flies to Los Angeles to visit Seth Rogen, looking forward to catch up and just hang out. They do just that at first, hanging out, getting high and playing video games, but eventually they end up at James Franco's housewarming party that's packed to the gills with other celebrities. Jay is less than psyched, not liking most of Seth's other friends, but that's the least of his problems. An earthquake rips apart Los Angeles, a sinkhole tearing apart the Earth in front of Franco's house, more than a few of the celebrities falling to their deaths. Jay, Seth and James are among the few survivors, forting up in Franco's house until help comes in one form or another. What's going on outside? The L.A. hills are covered in fire, and there seems to be no other survivors. Is it the Rapture? The end of the world? A zombie apocalypse? Can the group survive, maybe just avoid killing each other?

I had two trains of thought when I read about this movie in pre-production. It was going to go one of two ways. One, a self-indulgent, really stupid comedy that would be almost painful to watch. Two, a self-indulgent, really stupid comedy that would be amazing to watch. Yeah, thankfully, it ends up being the second. Of course it's self indulgent. It's a bunch of celebrities playing themselves during the apocalypse for goodness sake! It isn't smarmy or condescending in its humor. The goal from directors/writers Rogen and Evan Goldberg (worked previously together on Superbad, The Green Hornet, Pineapple Express) is to have fun and produce a lot of laughs. Judge it, criticize it for any number of reasons, but 'End' is truly entertaining and genuinely hilarious, one laugh on top of another in a 106-minute movie.

Okay, so it's celebrities playing versions of themselves if not spot-on portrayals (I'm assuming). Rogen and Goldberg's script sees all the possibilities and potential and goes to town. Joining Baruchel, Rogen and Franco as the initial survivors are Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride.They all play up those notions we think we know as an audience. Rogen is the stoner slacker, Baruchel the quirky nerd, Franco a still in the closet gay guy, Hill the angelic do-gooder, Robinson the smooth, cool black guy, and McBride as....well, McBride, the asshole friend we all have and tolerate. Rogen, Franco, Robinson and McBride all worked together in Pineapple Express, and in one way or another (film and/or TV), they've all worked with each other. Friends on-screen or off, this is what comedic chemistry should be. It's effortless, six guys just shooting and spitballing and see what sticks. They make it look easy.

Yes, there's plenty of jokes about sex, bodily function in a movie where the tone is not surprisingly pretty goofy to dumb. But mixed in with all those jokes are some moments of brilliance, genuinely smart scenes that had tears rolling down my face. Of the filthier variety is a scene between Franco and McBride that has the duo (drifting apart as friends) screaming back and forth at each other about masturbation. A scene with Harry Potter's Emma Watson is sublime, the six screwballs discussing an issue they have while she can hear just feet away, the payoff an excellent capper with Watson wielding an axe at them. The group also decides to film a homemade sequel to Pineapple Express, much of the cast already there. It's ultra-low budget charm is evident. As well, Franco's penchant for keeping movie props pays off nicely, including his camcorder from 127 Hours and a revolver from Flyboys. That's just some of the more memorable moments from the episodic apocalypse story.

While this group of six dominates screentime, there's a ridiculous amount of other actors/actresses/comedians making appearances as themselves. Michael Cera gets the filthiest part, playing on his clean-cut image and turning himself into a coke-fiend looking to get some action. Also joining him is Superbad co-star Christopher Mintz-Plasse (McLovin) a funny scene with the duo and Hill too. Also look for Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr, David Krumholtz, singer Rihanna and Aziz Ansari. Oh, because that wasn't enough, Channing Tatum also makes a blink and you'll miss it appearance as himself. Like the rest of the movie, it's bizarre and comes out of left field, but like so much else, it just works. 

Here's where we sit with another comedy. I could list all the really funny scenes that cracked me up, but then you wouldn't have to see it yourself. I don't want to do that. It's a perfectly funny and smart movie with a ridiculous cast that's having a lot of fun doing what they're doing. It's on display from beginning to end, one of the best, most original comedies to hit theaters in years.

This Is the End (2013): ****/****