The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

So for anyone who lives under a rock, the sequel to 2004's Anchorman hit theaters recently, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, raking in some solid if not huge numbers. It's a daunting task making an unnecessary sequel that follows an original film that is considered by many -- myself as well -- to be a comedy classic. Oh, and it's been nine years since the original was released? This sequel isn't the most timely of follow-ups, but director Adam McKay and star and fellow writer Will Ferrell waited until they could devote the right amount of time to actually writing the follow-up. Is it worth seeking out? You bet.

Having left San Diego and Channel 4 behind him, legendary news anchor Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) is living the high life in New York City, co-anchoring the nightly news with his wife, Veronica Corningstone (Christine Applegate). Well, he was living the high life. Called in thinking he's getting a promotion to a national network, Ron finds himself out of a job when Veronica is promoted instead. He's in a bad place now only to receive another job offer, a new news station that will be on television 24 hours a day. Ron is able to assemble his old news team, Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner) and Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), and heads to New York City to rebuild his reputation. The news world has changed though, and Ron and Co. must adjust. Can they manage it?

There are certain movies where plot descriptions are beyond unnecessary. This is one of them. Do you like Ron Burgundy? Did you like Anchorman? If you said yes to either of those questions, you're going to head out and see this movie, story be damned. Though a sequel had been rumored for years, it finally came to fruition this past year when McKay and Ferrell revealed they had been working on a script, really devoting the time that script deserved to get it to theaters. Some nine years since the original was released, this isn't the most timely of sequels, but it's one that audiences have been looking forward to. We've been carpet-bombed for several months now with ads and appearances from Ferrell as Burgundy, the movie even under-performing some in theaters. If you read nothing else from this review, read this. If you liked the original, you'll like this one. Is it as good? No, but that would be almost impossible to do.

Instead, it uses the similar formula while adding some new wrinkles to keep things fresh and funny. How do they manage? Well, as dumb as the humor may be at times, it's also got some really smart (and funny) moments. Assigned to the graveyard shift on the new 24-hours news network, Ron and the team start to think out of the box. What do audiences want to see? Praise for America, sports highlights of home runs, big touchdowns and ferocious slam dunks, footage of cute animals doing goofy things and anything and everything sexy. Yes, Ron Burgundy can see into the future. Surprise, surprise, the ratings go through the roof, audiences eating up the new approach to the news. There is a subtle smartness here, Ron insisting on more graphics on-screen, showing a car chase live on-air and guessing who's driving and what's going on, even a countdown of the greatest vaginas of the 20th Century. Okay, maybe they're not all smart, but they're funny.

My worry was that the cast would turn their characters into caricatures of themselves, even more so than they already are, but thankfully we avoid that. It's fun to see Ron's development as he starts to realize maybe he's not the great newscaster he thought he was. The story gets pretty ridiculous in terms of a character arc -- really going off the beaten track in the final act -- but above all else, it's for laughs. Single Ron is separated from his wife, but still wants to be close to his son, Walter (Judah Nelson), deals with Veronica's new boyfriend, Gary (Greg Kinnear), a psychiatrist he believes can read his mind, gets semi-controversial with an interracial relationship with his new boss (Meagan Good), plays some jazz flute while ice skating, and eventually, even must fight back from being blind. Yes, you read that right. It's ridiculous. The entire movie is. It commits to being both equal parts really stupid and really smart. Leading that charge is Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy, again stealing the show.

The best moments have Ron and the reassembled news team up to their usual hijinks, providing the movie's funniest moments. Finding out what Brian, Champ and Brick have been up to is priceless, a recruiting montage providing some great laughs in a scene you'd expect out of a men on a mission movie, not a screwball comedy. The quartet just has impeccable chemistry, each of the three supporting players given their chance to shine. You like the characters, like their shenanigans and can't help but laughs. Also look for James Marsden as Jack Lime, an established star in the news world who goes up against Ron as a new co-worker, Kristen Wiig as Chani, a secretary at the new station who has a budding romance with the equally odd Brick, and even Harrison Ford (yes, Harrison Ford) as Mack Tannen, a legendary newscaster. It's a ridiculously talented comedic cast.

SPOILERS I'm going to mention a couple scenes here -- one more than the other -- that features some good surprises and twists as the movie develops. Stop reading if you don't want to know. SPOILERS Both scenes are updates of iconic scenes from the original, the first being Brian Fantana's epic collection of condoms, one explanation after another bringing the house down, a nice update on his Sex Panther scene. The highlight though is a ridiculously over the top update of the Newscaster Fight (watch it HERE). The star power is nuts, the ante upped in every way possible. Ron and his team must fight the BBC (Sacha Baron Cohen), entertainment reporters (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), ESPN (Will Smith), MTV (Kanye West), and the History Channel (Liam Neeson), accompanied by the ghost of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson (John C. Reilly). Oh, and Kirsten Dunst keys up the fight as the Maiden of the Clouds. And the Minotaur is fighting with the History Channel. It is truly nuts, completely ridiculous, and it works so, so well.

If there's a weakness here, it's that at 119 minutes, Anchorman 2 is a tad long. Some bits just work better than others. Ron and Co. driving in a Winnebago...well, cruise control driving, is inspired. A later montage of the team building up their new reputation is perfect, Ron and Brian at one point smoking crack on live TV. Other bits aren't as good. I'm looking at you Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig in some truly painful scenes. For the most part though, it works, one scene more nuts than the last. It's not on the level of the original, but it sure is funny. Enjoy it.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013): ***/****

Monday, December 30, 2013

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Oh, how time flies. I remember 2004 like it was yesterday, me a young college student enjoying everything about 2004's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. One of the most quotable movies ever and one of my all-time favorite comedies in general, it's hard to believe it has been almost 10 years since the comedy's initial release. Rewatching it recently in preparation for its sequel (review coming), I had to go back and revisit it, see if it still holds up. Short answer? Yes.

It's the mid 1970s and no one in San Diego is a bigger star than Channel 4 anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell). An icon in the city and must-watch every time he's on the news, Ron is riding high, his news team, sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), field reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) ever at his side. The television ratings are high, the city loves them, and it seems no one can take them down. Well, that could change. Channel 4 has hired a new field reporter, Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate), who would like nothing more than to become the first female news anchor. Ron and the News Team are going to do their best to make sure she doesn't get to achieve her dream, but there's a catch. Ron really likes Veronica and Veronica really likes Ron. Uh-oh, I sense some late 1970s hijinks on the way.

I saw Anchorman in theaters upon its initial release and loved it. L-O-V-E-D it. From director Adam McKay, co-writing the script with good friend Ferrell, Anchorman is either loved or hated among viewers. You don't hear a lot of folks who came away just liking the movie, mildly enjoying it. It's pretty obvious why. The humor -- to say the least -- is the definition of random, pretty off the wall and while not filthy, low-brow certainly comes to mind. I tend to think there's a brilliance to the randomness here (and in the sequel), the twisted minds of Ferrell and McKay finding that perfect outlet to let out that craziness. A review listing the countless memorable scenes would be incredibly easy because there is one laugh out loud scene after another. It deserves its status as one of the best comedies ever, not to mention a status as one of the most quotable movies ever from Brick's "I love lamp" to Ron's explanation of the origin of the name San Diego and a whole lot of other lines in between.

The movie's epic success (in my eyes) begins and ends with Mr. Ferrell as legendary newsman Ron Burgundy. Thanks to Elf and Old School, Ferrell was a rising star in the comedy world making the jump from SNL to movies, but for me, this was the movie that put him on the A-list map officially and for good. Maybe you love the character, maybe you hate him, but Ferrell makes Ron Burgundy a truly memorable character. He's uber self-confident, a ladies man, a master player of jazz flute, a hard-drinker who favors scotch, epically proud of his perfectly coiffed hair, loves his little dog, Baxter, and knows more than anything else that he was born to READ THE NEWS! There's a certain idiotic charm to Burgundy, a man who is all sorts of confident, but he's really dumb too. That's the beauty of the character, the biggest doofus of all to lead a cast full of doofus characters. A great, truly funny part for Will Ferrell.

There really isn't a weakness in the entire cast. Applegate holds her own in the Boys Club, her Veronica wanting to make a legitimate name for herself, not just because people like her. The Channel 4 News Team is perfect, especially Rudd as the epically smooth ladies man and field reporter Brian Fantana. Koechner and Carell too help hold the group together, four freakishly dissimilar folks who bond through their love of the news, partying and carousing. Also look for Fred Willard as Channel 4's producer, Chris Parnell as his nerdy assistant, Seth Rogen as a cameraman, and Danny Trejo as an angry bartender.

There are certain moments here that rise above that same old, same old comedy formula. On top of the countless lines worth quoting, there are certain set pieces that take this comedy to a special place. One of my favorites? Rudd's Fantana revealing his hidden musk/scent display to Ron, especially the illegal Sex Panther (it's got bits of real panther so you know it's good), is ridiculously funny. Ron trying to impress Veronica on their date is priceless, both sitting in his car overlooking San Diego, Ron citing all sorts of "history" about the city. How they finally got a take without laughing I'll never know. There is no doubt about the best scene though, Ron and the Channel 4 News Team engaging in a brutal street fight with rival news teams. The cameos are priceless including Vince Vaughn as hate-filled Wes Mantooth, second in the ratings, Luke Wilson (3rd ranked), Tim Robbins (PBS) and Ben Stiller (Spanish). Words don't describe how stupid this scene is, and that's why it works. It works because it's stupid, it knows it, and it embraces the stupidity. Also look for Jack Black in a quick cameo earlier.

Maybe more than any genre, comedies are subjective because senses of humor can be so all over the place. This is that special kind of bizarre humor, but it works. How could a movie narrated by legendary newscaster Bill Kurtis not be good at least a little bit? Enough talking, it's a classic. Brace yourself for the laughs and lots of them. Stay tuned tomorrow for a review of the Anchorman sequel.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004): ****/****

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Internship

With their 2005 hit Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson made one of the best comedies of the 2000s. They charged the comedic genre with an R-rating vein, made a boatload of money and put its two stars right on the map, making them more than bankable. The weird thing? Both actors have struggled to find the right roles in the years since. The solution? Pair them up again with 2013's The Internship.

Longtime salesmen with the ability to sell just about anything, Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) have been friends for years going back to high school. With the economy changing though, they find themselves without a job when the company they work for shuts its doors. Scrambling for what to do next, Billy finds a solution, enrolling them in the internship program at Google. What they find at the program is something they're just not used to, waves of 20-somethings who are wrapped up in themselves, technology and their phones. Can they adjust in time? All the interns are assigned to teams, Billy and Nick joining a team led by a fellow outcast, Lyle (Josh Brener), and three other nerd types. Only one team in the whole internship program can win in the end, the team being offered full-time positions with Google. Can the salesmen duo figure out what they're doing in time?

I'm a big fan of 2005's Wedding Crashers. Who isn't really? Communists I say!!! The formula here is simple for director Shawn Levy, reunite Vaughn and Wilson, give them a remotely interesting reason to be back together,, wait. That's it. 'Internship' is an excuse to pair these two pretty funny guys together and let the hijinks begin. It has its fair share of issues, but my biggest complaint was that it plays like a giant advertisement for Google. Oh, look how quirky and cool Google is! It has a nap/rest room! It's got bikes painted with Google's signature colors?!? We hear lots of conversations about Gmail, Google Maps, Google Wallet, Google Plus and on and on. The Google jumping off point is solid/interesting enough (who doesn't use the search engine in one way or another?), but it gets to be too much eventually.

Beyond the original idea of two smooth dudes crashing weddings, the popularity of 'Crashers' came from the perfect pairing of Vaughn and Wilson. Their chemistry was impeccable, perfect, and carried the movie. Does it translate to this PG-13 comedy eight years later? Yeah, most definitely. That kind of chemistry doesn't just go away. Vaughn co-wrote the script with Jared Stern, giving himself and Wilson plenty of chances to riff and improvise and do those crazy rants that work so well. Even when they push it a little too much -- LAUGH!!! THIS IS FUNNY!!! -- their chemistry in all their scenes carries the movie through a sometimes sluggish 119-minute running time. Also look for John Goodman as the duo's longtime boss, Will Ferrell as Nick's brother-in-law and possible boss at a mattress store, and Rob Riggle as a salesman at a retirement home. Both Goodman and Ferrell's parts were uncredited.

That chemistry only goes so far unfortunately. The script wants to say a lot, and in general, the messages are actually pretty spot-on. The differences in generations is obvious, the younger 20-somethings growing up with technology in every single aspect of their lives. The generation before them is aware of the technology but not ingrained with it. With the way the world's heading, it's clearly leaning toward the younger generation. Ha, didn't think you'd get this sort of analysis in a review of The Internship, did you?!? What the script is saying is that the answer is somewhere in the middle; the personal relationships, the talking/conversations of the 40-year olds mixed with the tech-savvy younger kids. Seems fair if you ask me, but getting that message across comes out a little heavy-handed.

How you ask? Billy and Nick have to teach them how to live! I actually like the message that our over-reliance on technology is slowly killing society, but do the 40-somethings have to actually teach us that? In their team, we meet Lyle, nerdy in every way, a Google employee who wants to date his dance teacher (Jessica Szohr, yes, Google has dance teachers), phone-obsessed Stuart (Dylan O'Brien), Neha (Tiya Sircar), wildly experimental but really a virgin, and home-schooled Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael). There's also Rose Byrne as Wilson's crush (yeah, didn't see that coming) and Google supervisor, Aasif Mandvi as Mr. Chetty, the internship program leader, Graham (Max Minghella), the brutal British intern, and Josh Gad as Headphones, an intern who wants to be left alone....seemingly.

I did like the movie a little more in the second half, the first half dragging. There are just too many instances where the movie is seemingly begging for the audience to laugh. The interview via webcam is painfully forced, a later sports montage at a Quidditch match just as forced, and some of the scenes where Vaughn and Wilson improvise are trying too hard. Disappointing because I liked parts of it, just not enough to fully recommend.

The Internship (2013): **/****

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Jingle All the Way

There are movies you watch as a kid and just eat it up. You love it for all its fun and goofiness, not needing to analyze it or think about it too much. That's a job years later for Older You. It's that dreaded movie phenomenon, revisiting a movie you loved as a kid and seeing it through adult eyes. This week's entry, 1996's Jingle All the Way.

It's just a few days until Christmas and Howard Langston (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is in trouble. Running his own business, his home and family life has suffered, his son, Jamie (Jake Lloyd), especially upset because his Dad missed his latest karate performance. How to make up for this slight? Why with toys of course! Jamie wants nothing more than a Turbo Man action figure, the hottest toy around for this Christmas season. Howard thinks nothing of it, telling his son that he'll have one Christmas morning except there's a problem. He was supposed to pick one up weeks ago, and now on Christmas Eve, Turbo Man is sold out....well, everywhere. What to do? Howard hits the streets with no time to spare, vowing to Jamie and himself that he'll get a Turbo Man no matter what it takes. Can he somehow, some way find one though? He's got his work cut out for him.

I must have been a weird kid or something. Yeah, I knew that, nothing new there. While I love Christmas -- still do -- I must have been the right age at different points growing up because I never begged my parents for Tickle Me Elmo, Power Rangers, Ferbies, assorted video game systems for Christmas presents. Every year though the news reports about that one toy that every kid WANTS, NEEDS and SHOULD have. These new reports are typically followed by video clips of parents beating each other, arguing and fighting, stomping over each other to get to that last toy on the shelf. That's clearly what this 1990s comedy is having some fun with, poking and jabbing at how ridiculous Christmas can be. It's become too commercialized, and it gets a little worse with each passing holiday season.

Enough of that, let's move on. All those things about greed and capitalism and the commercialization of the Christmas season are one thing, but this isn't that smart, that deep a movie. It cracks me up to read reviews that praise this X-Mas comedy as an ahead of its time satire that wants to deliver a message. Yeah, about that....just N-O. This is a fun, stupid and at times in pretty poor taste comedy. I still like/love it because of all that badness, because I still remember seeing it in theaters with my Dad and my sister growing up. Watching it through 28-year old eyes as opposed to 12-year old eyes, it didn't resonate as well, the bad qualities starting to reveal itself far more than I remembered. Is it still good? You bet, but it's most definitely a guilty pleasure. 'Jingle' benefits from some on-location shooting in Minneapolis and the Mall of America and a Christmas Eve story is still a good jumping off point. As well, a Christmas-themed soundtrack adds to the atmosphere.

Seriously though, I mean come on. Arnold Schwarzenegger!!! This is an amazing performance from one of Hollywood's greatest action heroes. And you know what Hollywood was screaming for? A screwball comedy about an overworked Dad (with a heavy, heavy accent) who's slowly losing his mind. I'll give him credit where it's due. Schwarzenegger freaking commits to this part. It's still really easy to have some fun with him and his overacting, but it would have been a truly bad movie if he half-assed it. There's too many quality moments here to mention from Arnie's Howard pretending to be a ninja with his son, fighting a bunch of con men Santas with an immense candy cane, chasing a young girl down because she has a bouncy ball that could be his key to winning a Turbo Man, basically one thing after another slowly chipping away at his mental state. Making it worse? He keeps running into, working with and working against a similarly pissed off mailman, Myron (Sinbad), similarly searching for a Turbo Man for his son.

The story focuses on Schwarzenegger's toy adventures, following him from stores and malls to black market warehouses, radio stations to back home and everywhere in between. It's a story that certainly covers a lot of ground in its 89-minute running time. Who else to look for in a smallish ensemble? Phil Hartman as Ted, the Langston's seemingly perfect neighbor and a single Dad, Rita Wilson as Howard's wife, Liz, Robert Conrad as a police officer who keeps running into Howard, Martin Mull as a radio DJ who gets the misfortune of meeting Howard and Myron, and even Jim Belushi as the leader of the group of Santa Clause con men with his black market elves.

Maybe what I took away from 'Jingle' this time around is why people think this is an ahead of its time satirical comedy. It's really surprisingly dark at times. It's hinted that Hartman's Ted is basically sleeping with all of the neighborhood wives, with Wilson's Liz hopefully next up on the list. At one point, Sinbad's Myron pretends a package he's carrying is a bomb....except it's actually a bomb. At one point, a little person (Verne Troyer I believe) gets punched across a warehouse like a rag doll. By the end when Howard is using a jet pack that actually works and fighting a now-deranged Myron, it becomes almost surreal. A different movie than the one I remember watching as a kid, but still a decent flick.

Jingle All the Way (1996): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Everyone has their favorite Christmas movies, the movies you have to watch ever holiday season. It seems most of them aren't that recent -- Holiday Inn to White Christmas, Christmas Story to It's a Wonderful Life and many more -- but there are some recent entries that will no doubt be on that must-see list for years to come. Maybe the best new Christmas movie of the last 15 years or so, 2003's Elf.

While delivering toys around the world one Christmas Eve, Santa Clause (Ed Asner) accidentally picks up a return gift to the North Pole....a baby from an adoption center. No one knows what to do, Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) choosing to care for the human baby as if it was his own. Years pass and the boy grows into a man, Buddy (Will Ferrell), who simply doesn't fit in with the rest of Santa's elves working at the North Pole. He doesn't quite realize it though that he's human, not an elf, and that's when Santa Clause and Papa Elf tell Buddy the truth about how he came to be one of Santa's Elves. Without a solution if he sticks around the North Pole, Buddy decides to travel to New York City where he can meet his real birth father, Walter Hobbs (James Caan) but there's a twist there too. Walter, a book publisher, is on the Naughty List!!! Can Buddy figure it all out though in the big, bad real world? He's going to have some fun either way.

I saw this Christmas flick soon after its release in 2003, only recently catching up with director Jon Favreau's flick recently as part of the holiday season. It is incredibly easy to see the appeal in this very sweet, very funny X-Mas comedy. 'Elf' treads that fine line between just plain dumb and dumb....but still really funny. Don't be confused, most if not all of the humor is pretty dumb, but everyone and everything commits to the goofiness, credit going to screenwriter David Berenbaum in that department. Smart or dumb, the message is the most important thing. This is a Christmas flick about just that, Christmas and the holiday spirit. Mixed in with Buddy's effort to find his family is Buddy's effort to help save Santa and Christmas during a New York City detour. It's the time of the season meant for family, fun, being together and believing. How can you go wrong with that sort of message no matter the package?

Now while I'm a big fan, I can appreciate that Will Ferrell's humor usually isn't for everyone. With movies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers to his name, I'll always be a fan. Not everyone likes his typically odd, off the wall and most importantly, random sense of humor. For those few folks who haven't seen Elf, it's without a doubt his most family friendly movie. His performance as Buddy takes the movie from really good and funny to really good, funny and near classic. It works because Ferrell absolutely and completely commits to the goofiness. Growing up in the North Pole, working with the Elves every year, Buddy doesn't have a mean bone in him. He's polite, ridiculously nice and naive to....well, everything. He looks at and experiences life in the most pleasant way possible, with pure, unadulterated GLEE. It's impossible not to like Ferrell's Buddy, a great lead character for this sweet story.

There's too many memorable, truly funny scenes to mention, but some definitely stand out from the rest. Buddy's arrival in New York City is priceless, the genuinely naive man-child no idea what he's stepped into. He hops across a Manhattan sidewalk like he's playing hopscotch. He eats gum hidden under rails like the used gum is hidden treasure. He spins in a door like it's a roller coaster, waving at a businessman hailing a cab because he thinks he's just waving, takes paper ads and handouts because it'd be rude not to, the list goes on. As I mentioned, Ferrell absolutely commits to the part. It never feels forced, just an actor going for the best laugh possible. There's plenty of other moments to mention -- Buddy unknowingly getting drunk and dancing in a mail room, realizing a department store Santa (Artie Lange) is an imposter -- and one funnier than the next. Up to you to pick your favorite.

Kudos to the entire cast for committing, especially James Caan as the curmudgeonly, greedy book publisher who doesn't quite believe Buddy could possible be his son. It's fun seeing Caan do a lighter role, and he plays an excellent straight man to Ferrell's Buddy and his antics. The same for Ed Asner and Bob Newhart as Santa and Papa Elf, Newhart especially standing out with his typically deadpan delivery with seemingly no emotion at all. Also look for Zooey Deschanel as Jovie, a woman Buddy meets at Gimbel's working as an elf and instantly likes, Mary Steenburgen as Walter's wife who wants her husband to not be such a Grinch, Daniel Tay as Michael, Walter's younger son and Buddy's half-brother, and Faizon Love as the Gimbel's manager who has to deal with Buddy and all his antics.

There's a certain style here that plays well in addition to the story. The North Pole looks animated, and when it is real, it's pretty clearly an indoor set with "snow" and everything. When Buddy leaves, he talks to cartoon whales, penguins, bears and an arctic puffin as well as a wise snowman who tells Buddy it will be okay. The visual look reminded me of the old Christmas TV specials like Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It all adds up to a gem of a Christmas flick, one that's definitely worth watching every December.

Elf (2003): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, December 23, 2013

Carter's Army

You can't help but shake your head sometimes. Fighting in World War II, hoping to stop Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany from worldwide domination, American fighting units were still segregated. It's weird. Something just doesn't add up in that equation. Several movies have addressed the subject, but more tend to tell the story of desegregation heading into the Korean War. Not all of them though, like a 1970 TV movie, Carter's Army, also known as Black Brigade in the dollar DVD bin.

It's July 1944 and Allied forces are fighting their way through France toward Germany. An experienced commando, Captain Beau Carter (Stephen Boyd) has been tasked with a dangerous behind the lines mission, but even he doesn't know how dangerous, and seemingly ill-advised. A dam some 40 miles behind German lines is a key point in the Allied plan of advance, but the only troops in the area who can assist are a unit of African-American soldiers who haven't seen combat and are used for burial and latrine detail. Carter can't believe his orders, but he parachutes into the area, meeting B Company's commander, Lt. Wallace (Robert Hooks), and finding the remnants of an army unit. Not sure if he'll be able to complete the mission with the men assigned, Carter and Wallace head out with six other men, hell bent on getting to the dam and taking it, time running out as the lines are constantly changing.

This 1970 made for TV movie was part of the Combat Classic 50 Movie Pack that I got as a birthday present last summer. I'd heard of it -- mostly because of the cast -- but had never found a watchable copy. This copy? Tolerable if not good, but that's what you get with public domain DVDs. The final verdict in this WWII flick from director George McGowan is a mixed bag. It's dealing with racism during World War II is a solid jumping off point -- a racist, redneck white officer commanding black troops -- but it is ultimately its undone by its TV roots. It clocks in at just 70 minutes (did it air in a 90-minute window or 2 hour time slot?) but still manages to be dull, not featuring enough action or any coherence to be any good. How many long shots can we have of Carter and his team walking through the woods? More than you'd think for a 70-minute movie.

As the already short movie developed, I thought there was the most potential with the dynamic between Boyd's racist white officer and Hooks' frustrated black officer. Given a nearly suicidal mission anyways, Carter is stunned to find a unit of black soldiers with no semblance of order or command at a filthy, broken-down camp. His counterpart, Wallace, is sick of his men being used in mop-up duty, digging latrines and burying dead soldiers rather than being used in the fighting. Carter thinks little of the men, Wallace wants the new officer to give them a chance. That racist element never plays out enough, never really gets any needed resolution. Some scenes crackle, like Wallace talking to a French woman in the resistance (Susan Oliver) only to have Carter interrupt, telling him he'd better never catch him talking to a white woman. Like so many scenes though, it's cut short before it can explore anything in actually interesting fashion.

I'm all sorts of talented when it comes to overanalyzing....well, everything, but the portrayal of the black troops seemed a little politically incorrect too. They're portrayed stealing, drinking, gambling, being delusional, cowardly and generally, pretty dumb. Now........that said, there's some good actors assembled, even if they're given little to do. Carter's crew includes Big Jim (Roosevelt Grier), a behemoth of a man, Hayes (Moses Gunn), a physics teacher, Crunk (Richard Pryor), a soldier scared of his fears overtaking him, Brightman (Glynn Turman), a soldier who makes things up and writes them in his journal, Lewis (Billy Dee Williams), a knife-throwing bully, and Fuzzy (Napoleon Whiting), a deaf soldier. There is potential in each of these characters for development, some interesting background, but there's absolutely no time for any of that in such a short movie. I'm curious what a 2-hour version of this movie would have played like.

What I thought might save 'Brigade' (or at least bring it up a notch) was the actual mission. Unfortunately....yeah, not really. This is where the budget concerns affect the story. This dam Carter and Co. are gunning for is essential to both sides, but it's guarded by seven, maybe eight soldiers? If it's so important, why were just eight soldiers sent to complete the mission? If you can parachute Carter in, can't you just parachute more commandos in? No. Why? Because then we couldn't have this movie. Paul Stewart makes an appearance as General Clark, the possibly racist officer who sends Carter on his mission.

The ending is disappointing as the mission unfolds, only about 10 actual minutes, small scale right to the very end. There is an attempt at a message that is actually pretty good, but by then, it was just too late. If you're curious, watch it at Youtube HERE. Certainly potential, but it never lives up to any of it.

Black Brigade (1970): * 1/2 /****

Friday, December 20, 2013

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Well, it's Christmas time again, putting parents in awkward spots since....well, forever. How do you handle the Santa Clause issue to kids? Tell them or let them find out themselves? It's a great jumping off point for one of the all-time classic Christmas movies, 1947's Miracle on 34th Street.

In charge of organizing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara) is thrown for a loop when her Santa Clause turns up drunk on the float. She finds quite the stand-in, her new choice delighting the kids and parents in the crowd. He looks like Santa, talks like him, and is far better than previous Macy's Santas to the point he's offered the job as Santa Clause in Macy's, little kids lining up to see him and tell them what they want. There is an issue though. Named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), Kris says he is the Santa Clause. Doris finds herself in another spot, Kris has inspired an unlikely Christmas promotion nationwide in department stores across the country. What to do? Can she fire Santa? There's bigger issues though, a Macy's employee is taking the issue to court. Is Kris really Santa? Well, now it's for the court to settle.

The plot description for this 1947 Christmas movie from director George Seaton is tough. It's not that this is a complicated story, just an episodic one that covers a lot of ground for a Christmas movie. Clocking in at 96 minutes, it accomplishes a lot in its relatively short running time. Let's start with the look of the movie, a gorgeous, old-fashioned black and white that has aged quite well over the years. Steer clear of the colorized version! Seaton filmed on location in New York City as much as possible, giving us a good time capsule look at post-WWII NYC. There's some great footage early as Kris walks through Manhattan, as well as some even better behind the scenes(ish) footage of the Macy's parade. From the outdoor shots to the indoors at Macy's and Gimbel's, the look of the movie is pretty perfect.

That's all well and good though, but the best thing here is Gwenn as Kris Kingle, an old man with a round stomach and a big, white beard who claims he is the real Santa Clause. Could he be? Gwenn was nominated and won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part, one of four nominations Seaton's film earned. It's easy to see why. First off, how do you play Santa Clause? Gwenn commits, and that's what is most key. The movie has its cynical moments -- about politics, Santa, belief/faith -- but the heart of the movie is Gwenn as Kris Kringle who convinces his employers at Macy's to help customers...wherever that may be, even if it's at another store! It's the spirit of Christmas, the time of the year for giving, for helping and for being thoughtful and generous. That's what Gwenn's Kris lives out and encourages.

In earning his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Gwenn does just that; supports. He's in most scenes, but not all of them, his Kris Kringle character providing a jumping off point for the rest of the story and characters. Not quite episodic, but certainly approaching that territory. The focus is mostly on O'Hara's Doris, a single mom (I know, I was surprised as anyone to find out divorce existed in the 1940s!!!) who is trying to raise her daughter, Susan (9-year old Natalie Wood), basically as an adult, question everything and don't believe in all sorts of fairy tales and whatnot...namely Santa. What about when young Susan takes a liking to Kris, even if she's been taught not to believe in him? There's also the Walker's neighbor across the hallway, Fred Gailey (John Payne), a talented lawyer looking to make a name for himself who also strikes up a fast friendship with Kris, who stands for everything he shouldn't believe in. A good ensemble for sure, but there's more.

Also look for Gene Lockhart as the judge who presides over the Kris Kringle case, William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy fame) as his political adviser (how do you rule against Santa?), Porter Hall as Macy's amateur psychologist who gets on Kris' bad side and starts off the Santa circus, Jerome Cowan as the D.A. working against Kris, Philip Tonge as a nervous Macy's employee, and Alvin Greeman as Alfred, a 17-year old kid who volunteers as a Santa at a local youth club and meets Kris in his travels.

It's hard not to like this movie. 'Miracle' has its fair share of iconic moments from Wood's Susan suspiciously interviewing Kris at Macy's, famously pulling his beard, to Kris taking the stand at his own trial/hearing, answering enthusiastically and honesty about what he believes/knows to be the truth. The most famous scene though is obvious, Payne's Fred coming up with an ingenious way to prove Kris' identity. It's a great ending, followed up in the subsequent scenes which some good semi-twists. A Christmas movie that's aged incredibly well. Gwenn is excellent, young Natalie Wood a scene-stealer, their scenes together providing most of the movie's best moments. An easy one to recommend, one definitely worth checking out this holiday season.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947): *** 1/2 /****

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Bank Shot

I discovered author Donald Westlake the way I do a lot of authors, via movie credits, finding out the movie I was watching was based on a novel/book/story from an author. I first heard his name watching 1972's The Hot Rock, based on his novel of the same name. I gave his books a try and liked them, including his 1972 novel Bank Shot. I wish I could say the same for the 1974 film adaptation, Bank Shot.

Wasting away a prison/rehab center run by Bulldog Streiger (Clifton James), accomplished crook and master planner Walter Ballentine (George C. Scott) is slowly losing his mind. He's allowed a visitor one day, his "lawyer" who's really his former partner in crime, Al G. Karp (Sorrell Brooke), and he's got a new plan for a very lucrative caper. Streiger is on the lookout, but even he can't keep Ballentine from escaping, his prisoner getting away in ridiculous fashion. What job awaits him with Karp? Not one he would have thought of. A new bank in Los Angeles is being built, a temporary bank in a trailer being used until the new one opens. Ballentine laughs at the plan given him and comes up with his own instead. Instead of robbing the bank in convoluted fashion, why not just steal the entire bank? With Karp's oddball crew of crooks, Ballentine goes about putting his own plan into operation.

Wow, this movie was just not good. Like at all. We're talking really bad. Eastlake's novel is pretty goofy, a little silly, but there's an underplayed sense of humor that works well. I could be wrong too, maybe that's just my interpretation. This comedy from director Gower Champion has no subtlety, no sense of underplaying anything, no real laughs at all. It is the broadest definition of broad humor. Oh, no! Ballentine is driving a huge Caterpillar into a barn! Oh, no! A trailer is driving out of control down a vacant road! Physical comedy is one thing, but this is so bad it never amounts to anything. John Morris' musical score is painfully obvious, almost begging, willing the audience to laugh. The opening prison break, Ballentine getting away on an excavator, Streiger on a souped-up golf cart, sets the tone for the painfully unfunny attempts at laughs to come.

What the hell is George C. Scott doing here? Scott had some odd acting choices in the 1970s, but this one is pretty bad. I say that having watched a movie with Scott where had to stop an assassination attempt on the President by....dolphins. Yeah, The Day of the Dolphin, check it out. It really exists. From the get-go here, Scott seems bored and uninterested in actually being a part of the ever-stupid story. As for the character that Eastlake wrote -- John Dortmunder in the books -- Scott isn't the best casting choice either, whether it be his physical appearance (rocking some amazingly LARGE eyebrows, we're talking REAL big) or his demeanor at basically all times. Was he blackmailed? Was he doing a favor for a friend? I don't know what was going on, what prompted him into doing this flick? I'm listening if there's a good theory out there.

So heist flick with a lousy premise that falls short on basically every level, surely the oddball crew of crooks can save this poop-fest, right?!? Yeah, that's what I was counting on, only to be disappointed there too. Beyond Brooke as Al G. Karp as Ballentine's goofy partner, there's also Eleonora (Joanna Cassidy), the sexy backer of the plan with all her cash (and an unexplained attraction to Ballentine, helping him "ease back" into society after so long away from women), Victor Karp (Bob Balaban), Al's nephew, the other planner and a former FBI agent, Muns Gornik (Bibi Osterwald) and her son, Stosh (Don Calfa), and Hermann X (Frank McRae), a pistol-wielding, demolition expert hoping to become a politician. There isn't an interesting character in the bunch, making it a tad difficult to actually support the crew. We learn little to nothing about them, just an introduction and right into the heist. The rest of the story in an 83-minute story is spent on hamming it up James and his L.A. cop partner (G. Wood) trying to track Ballentine down.

The premise of the heist is actually pretty original, and some of their plans are actually unique. But at any point is it interesting to watch? No. Everything just seems obvious from beginning to end. The heist and its fallout could have been decent if it wasn't handled in such spoof-like fashion, but the efforts to make it all hysterically, gut-busting funny fall short. Steer clear of this one, go read the Westlake novel instead.

Bank Shot (1974): */****   

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Welcome to the Punch

You would recognize the face if not the name. Mark Strong has been working in film and television since the late 1980s, early 1990s, but over the last four years he's become a far more recognizable face, a talented actor who's finally getting his due. This year, he even starred in an AMC cop drama, Low Winter Sun. I've become a big fan of Strong, and it's been more than cool to see him get some starring roles in film too, like 2013's Welcome to the Punch.

A young, motivated detective in London, Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) has been working a case for months, desperately trying to catch infamous bank robber and thief Jacob Sternwood (Strong). Following one successful robbery, Sternwood is even cornered by Lewinsky but shoots him in the leg and manages to escape, the police unable to find him. Three years pass, and a 20-something who turns out to be Sternwood's son is caught on a tarmac with a gunshot wound. How did he get there? Who did it to him? With one phone call, he calls his father, the police following the clues to his hideout in Iceland. Now, Sternwood's son is in intensive care, Lewinsky suggesting they make that fact known through the criminal underground. The bait has been laid out for Sternwood's return, Lewinsky waiting to strike. As things come together though, the rivals realize they may need to work together to take out a common enemy.

Ever hear of this one? Yeah, me neither. According to IMDB, 'Punch' was released in theaters in the U.S. on four screens over two weekends last spring. It grossed a whopping $6,787 over that two-week release. Not bad, huh? So yeah, that's why we've never heard of it. I only stumbled on it at Netflix, and I'm glad I did. From director/writer Eran Creevy, 'Punch' borrows from some previous crime thrillers (British and otherwise), sampling everything from Michael Mann to Guy Ritchie. It's only 99-minutes long, but covers a lot of ground in that short(ish) running time. Very stylish, much of the story taking place at night, filmed in the shadows, dark clubs, dank alleyways, with some cool characters (even if they're familiar, seen them in other movies), a twisting story and some ridiculously stylized, cool action scenes.

If there is a complaint, it's easy to peg. Creevy's script tries to accomplish a lot. Sampling from the crime thriller genre, there's a lot of familiar characters, lots of familiar situations and not enough time to deal with it all. We get police partner drama, Lewinsky working through some personal drama with his partner, Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough, of Oblivion). We get police corruption, Lewinsky having to decide who among the force (David Morrissey, Daniel Mays, Jason Flemyng, Daniel Kaluuya) who is clean and who is corrupt. Oh, there's also conspiracies involving an upcoming election, a social issue about police in England working unarmed, and a huge international corporation who may or may not be involved with the election. To say it is slightly convoluted would be slightly underselling the story, but it does all come together in the end. Just bear with it at times and go with it.

Not so surprising is that the best part is the focus on the rivalry between McAvoy's Lewinsky and Strong's Sternwood. The young, driven cop and the experienced, grizzled criminal are archetypal characters in the crime thriller genre, and more than that, those two different characters being forced to work together is a whole sub-genre from 48 Hours to Midnight Run and many others. They're familiar characters, but McAvoy and Strong breathe some life into them, giving the twisting and turning story some sort of base to come back to. McAvoy's Lewinsky has spent years brewing over the showdown that Sternwood that didn't go his way. Strong's Sternwood has left his past behind, only to be thrust back into it when his son gets involved in a crime where the details are more than fuzzy. I liked both characters -- and that goes a long way -- and liked it more when they're forced to put their differences aside and work together to take out a common enemy. Familiar but good.

Now onto something that may come out of left field. I like action scenes. I know...blew me away too. There's got to be something appealing about an action scene -- shootout, car chase, fist fight -- to make it memorable. The biggest thing going here? Composer Harry Escott's score is ridiculously appropriate for the action, the characters and the story. It's big...real BIG and not subtle at all. Listen to the entire soundtrack HERE. It makes the action -- more than solid in itself -- an experience to watch. There's some quick, hyper editing I typically don't go for, some epically slow motion sequences, all things we've seen before, but it Just Works here. The word that kept coming up was 'visceral.' These action scenes make you feel the action, a shiver up your spine, a goosebump on your arm. It's that cool factor that's just hard to explain, but hits you in the right way.

Without rewriting the genre, 'Punch' is able to be its own film. I liked it a lot, partially because I love police dramas and crime thrillers, but also because it is a genuinely good movie. Definitely worth checking out.

Welcome to the Punch (2013): ***/****

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Holiday Inn

It's that time of the year, the holiday season. Everyone has their favorite Christmas movies, right? I grew up in a house that always watched It's a Wonderful Life and White Christmas. Oh, and Jingle All the Way, Home Alone and many others are frequent watches come December. Then there's 1942's Holiday Inn, one my Dad and his siblings grew up on, one I hadn't seen all the way through since I was a kid. Thanks to a film series at Orland Marcus, I was able to watch it on the big screen.

A successful singer, songwriter and entertainer, Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) is ready to walk away from his busy entertainment lifestyle. He's bought a farm in the Connecticut countryside and is going to move there with Lila (Virginia Dale), his singing/dancing partner, after one last show. Well, that's the plan at least. Lila instead chooses to go with Jim's rival and quasi-partner, Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire), leaving Jim to move to his spacious farm and country inn by himself. The country life doesn't seem to agree with him, forcing the talented entertainer to come up with a new plan. Looking to provide a new sort of entertainment outlet, Jim decides to open the inn as Holiday Inn, a club/restaurant that's only open on the major holidays. With some help from a young, talented singer/dancer, Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds), he puts his plan into action that works immediately....until Ted shows up on his doorstep.

My parents have said over the years I was born in the wrong generation. Case in point? Old movies, almost all of my favorite movies released before 1970. So when chances come along to see some of these old classics in theaters, I've gotta jump at the chance. This musical comedy from director Mark Sandrich doesn't scream 'BIG SCREEN!' like say, Lawrence of Arabia, but in its original black and white format, it looks great 71 years since its original release. It isn't a prototypical Christmas movie -- covering a whole lot of holidays -- but there is a certain holiday charm to it, an old school charm that plays well now in 2013. It's funny with a talented cast, has some good musical numbers and deserves its place with the rest of the frequent watches come December and the holiday season.

For me, it's hard not to compare 'Holiday' to 1954's White Christmas, one of my all-time favorites. Both films rely on the chemistry (and quasi-rivalry) with its two male leads, Crosby and Astaire here, Crosby and Danny Kaye in 'White.' Here between Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, it ain't so much of a friendship, leaning far more to the rivalry-side. It plays like two high school students trying to one-up each other, Crosby's Jim falling for Reynolds' Linda, Astaire's Ted also falling for her as a dancer partner, wanting to take her to the big time as an entertainer. So friendship is out the window, but the rivalry does provide some fireworks, the rivalry nonetheless showing off that chemistry between the duo. It's always fun too when the two rivals get to fight over the ladies in their lives, notably the angelic Linda and the conniving, man-eating Lila. Also look for Walter Abel as Danny, Ted's conniving manager with dollar signs for eyes.

Enough with acting and story, onto the songs!!! Yeah, I know, pretty manly intro. When the music is from composer Irving Berlin, it doesn't matter the movie. I'm going to be on board. 'Holiday' is probably most famous for really putting one of the best Christmas songs ever, White Christmas, out there for audiences to appreciate. For the four people who haven't heard the song, listen to it HERE. With Bing Crosby singing, we're talking about one classic Christmas carol. 'Holiday' even won an Oscar for the song while picking up nominations for best writing and best original story. It deserves its status as a worthwhile, classic holiday movie for that song alone.

More than just one song though, 'Holiday' has 12 different songs written expressly for the script/screenplay. The story more than anything is simply an excuse to string the songs together into something coherent more than just a stage/entertainment show. That's where the style comes in, Jim's Holiday Inn only opening for the major holidays, stylish calendar inserts introducing one number after another. Without posting a boatload of links, check a series of them out HERE. There is most definitely a variety to choose from. Some give Bing a chance to sing, others a chance for Fred to dance and with crossovers featuring both, not to mention Linda and Lila getting into the action. Never a dull moment, and musical numbers that are entertaining without being awkwardly embarrassing and find new ways to get those numbers into a story.

There is one other thing worth mentioning. A musical number for Lincoln's birthday, Abraham, has Bing and Marjorie, the band and the waitstaff in blackface. All sorts of politically incorrect in this very politically correct era. Naturally, it doesn't age well to the point its laughable in its execution. Decent enough song, but it's hard not to chuckle at it now. Watch it HERE. I didn't find it particularly offensive, but be forewarned, some people are offended far easier than I am. Also in the cringe-worthy department is Jim's cook/maid/housekeeper, Mamie (Louise Beavers). Not bad stuff, just a little dated. Still, the movie itself is a gem, well worth checking out for the holiday seasons.

Holiday Inn (1942): ***/****

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Oh, how quick the time goes. It seems like the first The Hunger Games was hitting theaters way back in March 2013 and doing it well, earning over $400 million in the U.S. alone. Well, it is based off a trilogy by author Suzanne Collins and as good as the first entry was, the series certainly held a ton of promise going forward. The early returns for 2013's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were incredibly positive, earning over $300 million in just three weeks in theaters. Does it hold up to the pressure of the vaunted second movie in a trilogy sub-genre?

It's been several months since Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) survived and won the 74th Annual Hunger Games, both struggling to cope with what they were able to survive. Their victory in the Games wasn't so simple or straightforward though. The Panem government is struggling to hold the Districts together, the people seeing that the government isn't so perfect, all of it caused by seeing Katniss and Peeta's defiance in almost choosing suicide rather than one of them winning the previous Hunger Games. While struggling through their own issues, the Game's winners are required to go on a victory tour, taking a train across the 12 districts until they finally end up in the Capital. With each passing district though, the defiance and unrest grows bigger and bigger, leaving Panem President Snow (Donald Sutherland) little choice but to do something desperate in hopes of turning the tide in favor of the government.

SPOILERS STOP READING SPOILERS Because I'm not sure who's read the books, who's seen the trailers, who's looked for possible spoilers, it is rather difficult to write this review without giving away a pretty major spoilers about where the story goes in the second half. Watching previews, it's pretty obvious what's going on, but I don't want to be the one blowing the surprise so be forewarned as you continue reading. SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN

My personal favorite of the trilogy, I was very curious to see what director Francis Lawrence did with the series' second entry. The second film in a trilogy is pivotal, movies like Godfather 2 and Empire Strikes Back setting the bar pretty high. 'Fire' does a good job setting up where the series will go, the third book broken up into two separate features scheduled for 2014 and 2015. Almost across the board, we learn a lot more about all the characters, the disintegrating situation in Panem. If there's a weakness, it's that at 146 minutes, 'Fire' is a little long in the tooth. The first hour is a little slow-moving in setting everything up, laying everything out with the feel of duplication. It plays a lot like the first movie, scenes repeated, situations repeated almost word-for-word. Thankfully, that's not the entire movie. Things pick up near the hour-mark for the better, the momentum picking up and never slowing down until the final credits.

What is never in question -- and wasn't an issue in the first one -- is casting Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role here as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager living in Panem's District 12, the poorest of the districts. Coming off her Oscar-award winning performance from Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence adds to the development of Katniss, and for the better in a big way. She may be a teenager in years but in experience, she's a grown woman, questioning everything about what her life has become. Lawrence's Katniss still struggles with the spotlight, not understanding why she's being glorified for killing and surviving where so many others died. Her Katniss has become a hero, a beacon of the rebellion, a hope for something better, something she is quickly figuring out. Whether it be on-screen or just doing promotional interviews, Lawrence has a very natural, likable side, and she proves again why she was such an ideal casting choice to play Katniss.

All the other key players return as well, and with some new additions. I liked Peeta's development, Hutcherson capitalizing on a script that allows him something to do other than whine and look dreamily into Katniss' eyes. Sutherland too is spot-on, brimming with menacing intensity and trying to hold onto a tenuous grasp of his country. Also returning are Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the former District 12 winner and booze-addled mentor to Katniss and Peeta, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, the group's agent of sorts, promoting them while growing close to each, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, their stylist and Katniss' confidant, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the TV host of the televised Hunger Games, Toby Jones his partner. With so many characters, it'd be easy for some to get lost in the shuffle, but that's not the case here. Each supporting character gets his moment to shine, Harrelson and Banks taking Haymitch and Effie forward, Kravitz doing a fine job as Cinna, and Tucci is ever the scene-stealer as Caesar, able to produce a laugh or a harsher, more emotional moment almost at will.

Where 'Fire' hits its groove is near the hour-mark, and here come the SPOILERS. In hopes of squashing the symbol Katniss has become, President Snow has a twist in mind for the 75th Hunger Games, the Third Quarter Quell. The competitors will be two winners apiece from each District, Katniss and Peeta forced back into the arena, this time created by Game Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The setting looks like the South Pacific, a jungle-covered island with a lagoon in the middle, but there's countless twists and threats awaiting the competitors as they see who will be the last fighter standing. Much like the first movie, 'Fire' is at its strongest during the actual Hunger Games. There's something primal, exhilarating, profoundly dark and exciting about these sequences. As a bonus, we get to know more about the other Tributes -- far more than the original -- including Sam Claflin as Finnick, the ego-driven District 4 hero, Jena Malone as Johanna, the vicious, cynical fighter who isn't interested in public opinion, and Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, the squirrelly mechanical and engineering specialist.

Sure, there are weaknesses along the way, especially the sometimes sluggish first hour. Taken as a whole, it's a more than worthy follow-up in the series. If it's not the end-all, be-all second entry in the trilogy, it's still very good and more than lives up to the groundwork Collins set up with her second novel. The ending especially works, doing a great job ending on a cliffhanger that should propel the series right into the final two movies. What else to look for? Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss' quasi-boyfriend, and Willow Shields as Primrose, Katniss' younger sister, growing up at the most turbulent of times and maturing just as fast. And this time around, I noticed James Newton Howard's musical score far more, a worthy addition to the trilogy.

Where does this one stand? Fans of the series -- the books or the first film -- will no doubt enjoy this one. I liked it a lot, even loved the second half. I resent the three books being split into four movies, but like the rest of you jamokes, I'll be there when it hits theaters. 'Fire' does a very nice job setting things up, and I'm psyched for where things are going.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013): ***/****

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

How do you explain the Holocaust to a little kid? For that matter, how do you explain it to anyone? One of the most horrific, truly awful things in the history of mankind, the Holocaust claimed the lives of millions as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis tried to wipe out the Jewish race among several other ethnicities and entire cultures. As difficult as it can be to fathom now, in 2013, how would you explain it to a child growing up in the 1940s? How about an eight-year old boy growing up in 1940s Germany? That question provides the background for one of the best movies I've seen in quite awhile, 2008's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

It's Berlin in the 1940s, and a young boy named Bruno (Asa Butterfield) is more than upset when his father, a S.S. officer (David Thewlis) in the German army has received a promotion, one that requires the family to a new posting and home in the countryside. Removed from his friends and isolated in the country, Bruno hates the new home. One day, exploring in the woods beyond the house, young Bruno finds an expansive barbed-wire fence, a little boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), wearing pajamas sitting on the other side. The boy sees other people dressed just like Shmuel and assumes they're living on some sort of farm, but he can't tell for sure. From his tutor, from his sister, from his father's fellow officers, he hears about how the Germans are the master race, the Jewish people one step above scum. Bruno tries to get answers of what's going on, but nothing seems to click for him, his friendship with Shmuel seemingly one of the few positives he does have.

Semi-SPOILERS if you want to skip this paragraph, Semi-SPOILERS. Bruno's father is the new commandant of a concentration camp tasked with exterminating thousands of Jews and other ethnicities. His father -- unnamed -- keeps the secret from his family, especially Bruno, and it's only after living there for several months that Bruno's mother (Vera Farmiga) figures it out and is horrified at the truth. The camp is never identified by name and for the most part it isn't shown clearly. We get glimpses of what's going on, hear some conversations, see some paperwork about massive crematoriums, but nothing is ever aggressively shown to the audience....with one major exception. I think it's a great stylistic choice because we hear/see what Bruno hears and sees. We're left to draw our own conclusions without anything obvious. End of SPOILERS.

Based off a novel from author John Boyne and directed by Mark Herman, this is a beautifully told, unsettling, tragic film that I can't recommend enough. Will you like it? It's hard to say you "like" a Holocaust movie, but this was an excellent film from beginning to end. Movies about the Holocaust are typically seen from two perspectives; the prisoners and the Nazis/Germans in charge of the camps. How different is it then to tell this story through the eyes of a curious, friendly, lonely 8-year old boy? It's a perfect storytelling device. It is a World War 2 movie, a Holocaust movie, but because it isn't handled directly with the subject matter, there's a certain charm to it, both good and bad. There is a beauty to the film in its visual look and appearance. Filming out in the countryside goes a long way in its natural beauty, comparing it to the cold, sparsely decorated house that reflects the quickly-turning opinion on what's going on.

So go figure, a movie about the Holocaust is really more of a coming of age story. This is a movie about an eight-year old boy growing up, albeit in one of the world's most turbulent, violent periods in history. The recent star of Ender's Game, Butterfield delivers an amazingly real, personal and heartbreaking performance as young Bruno. He's proud of his Father because boys should be proud of their fathers, even if he questions exactly what his father's job is. He loves reading adventures, exploring the woods, all the things a little boy should do. Bruno is also looking for a friend and finds it across a barbed wire fence in Shmuel, a young Jewish boy who's always hungry but enjoys just sitting and talking to Bruno. Their unlikely friendship is perfectly handled, Bruno curious to what's going on, Shmuel not sure how to explain what is going on, only knowing whatever it is, it isn't right.

The performances across the board are pretty perfect, starting with Butterfield and Scanlon as the two boys. Farmiga does a fine job as Bruno's mother, supportive of her husband but not fully knowing what he's in charge of. I did question why/how she couldn't know what he has been assigned to do, but it provides an interesting character arc for her. Thewlis as the Father/commandant is a difficult character to wrap my head around, a loyal soldier, committed to his duty, blind to the horror he's been assigned to do. Amber Beattie is very good as Bruno's sister, Gretel while Richard Johnson is memorably obtuse as their grandfather, a loyal German. Also worth mentioning are Rupert Friend as Lieutenant Kotler, Father's right-hand man, Jim Norton as Herr Lizst, the children's tutor, and David Hayman as Pavel, a Jewish man who does odd jobs around the new house after they move in. Is it weird all these Germans have English accents? Sure, but reviews that point that out are simply missing the point.

This was a movie I couldn't quite figure out. I was never quite sure where it was going, knowing there an end game here, a message that would land heavy, hard and effective. I'm not going to reveal anything or give away any spoilers, but the ending here is beyond heartbreaking, composer James Horner's score bringing it to life (sounded a little like A Beautiful Mind and Enemy at the Gates). I was pretty much ruined for the day after seeing the finale. Unbelievably tragic, heartbreaking, incredibly moving, any and all, it's an amazingly emotional ending. Maybe this isn't a movie to truly enjoy, but to experience. A must-see.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): ****/****

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

I saw the trailer for 2013's Pacific Rim and didn't have any screaming interest to see it this past summer. While it looked cool, I thought it looked like a hybrid Godzilla-Cloverfield-Transformers movie. I liked all those movies in one way or another, but something just hit me funny. It earned decent reviews and made some solid cash, but it took a couple positive reviews from folks I usually agree with to sell me on it. The main reason they liked it? Just a good, old-fashioned movie intended to be eaten with a big tub of popcorn. The verdict? Read on.

In 2013, Earth is under attack, immense, truly enormous creatures called Kaijus from another dimension that travel to our planet from an interdimensional portal on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The creatures wreak havoc, mankind responding with Jaegers, equally huge humanoid war machines piloted by two human pilots. The Jaegers hold back the other dimensional creatures, but years pass and the Kaijus become bigger, faster and stronger to the point they're almost impossible to defeat. When the creatures start coming through the portal quicker and quicker, mankind becomes desperate, turning to an impenetrable sea wall to stop the creatures. While the wall is constructed, the Jaegers must mount one last stand, the unit's commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), limited to his last four war machines. He turns to a former pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), to pilot one of the machines, but is it too late to save Earth?

Director Guillermo del Toro has said in interviews that his intention here was to make a tribute-like movie to horror and sci-fi creature flicks from the past. It's supposed to be big, fun, action-packed and entertaining, the perfect summer movie. Unfortunately, I think del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham just try to do too much in a 132-minute long movie. 'Pacific' is fun and dumb and goofy and exciting, but there's pilots, commanders, rival pilots, pilots who have daddy issues, science issues, tech issues, a pilot who wants a woman as his co-pilot but she's got some traumatic issues from her past affecting her, a black market dealer with golden shoes, and scientists who are more obnoxious than as funny as I'm assuming they were intended. It tries to please everyone and got taken down a notch or two in the process.

What is no doubt the best thing going here is the CGI, the visual look of the movie. It's good and bad, but more on that reasoning later. The Kaijus are something to behold, each of them with a distinct visual look, like a crossbreed between Godzilla and the gnarliest reptilian monsters you've ever seen. Their background isn't explained much unfortunately, but we know with each passing attack, the interdimensional creatures seem to have evolved into one indestructible being after another. How to do battle with them? Machinery, technology and in some cases, pure guts. The Jaeger fighters look like Transformers meet the Iron Giant, but with human pilots directing them. Each of these immense humanoid creatures has a personality of their own, typically reflecting the personality of the pilots inside, but also their own unique visual appeal. The CGI is incredible to watch. It's seamless, pretty much flawless. It looks real, not like something created on a computer.

But here I sit, the same problem I had with the Transformers movies. The CGI and the technology are ridiculous to watch, truly ridiculous. The advances in technology are remarkable, especially considering where computer-generated special effects were just 10, 15 years ago. Is it actually too good? It gets to the point that the battles between the Kaijus and the Jaegers become too muddled, too busy, too detail-oriented. Most of the fights take place at night, either in water or in congested, poorly lit cities so the battles become incredibly difficult to watch. On a simpler level, they get repetitive. Yeah, I know the pilots are human. Yeah, I realize the Kaijus are trying to annihilate Earth, but seeing one fight after another between the warring sides gets old. Sure, a Jaeger picking up an immense freighter and trying to beat the crap out of a Kaiju with it is cool, but these epically staged battles lose some of their effectiveness when we see the battles over and over.

Where I was encouraged was del Toro's decision not to cast any huge stars in this all. No A-listers in sight here, not by a long shot. The always criminally cool Idris Elba is the best performance here (and the coolest character name) as Stacker Pentecost, the driven, nearly obsessed Jaeger commander attempting anything he can that would turn the tide, his "We're cancelling the Apocalypse" speech a highlight. Hunnam is more hit or miss with a cool idea for a character, but something's missing. I can't decide if it's bad acting or just a bad part, the subplot with hopeful co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) lacking any energy or originality at all. Always Sunny star Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are cast for some laughs as a scientist duo searching for clues to take down the Kaijus, but the attempts at laughs are pretty painful. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are a father-son duo piloting the most powerful Jaeger while Clifton Collins Jr. plays a control room tech. Ron Perlman hams it up as Hannibal Chau, the world's leading black market dealer in Kaiju parts.

I keep coming back to something, a thought I usually don't associate with fun summer blockbusters. I'll give this one a slightly positive review, but it could have been a movie of a really good to great to near classic movie. Directing the film, del Toro set out to make a fun movie. Is it weird then to say there was potential on display here for a possibly really smart, even intelligent film? Space portals open up all sorts of doors about the immensity of space. What could be out there? What could be trying to destroy us? Why are they doing so? How does mankind respond? Hunnam's Raleigh explains it all in an interesting, well-told monologue over the movie's first 15 minutes. There just could have been more, SO MUCH MORE. The same from the human perspective. We see the heroic Jaeger pilots become genuine celebrities. How about the Drift technique, linking 2 pilots together through their thoughts and past? It's a brilliant concept that isn't fully explored. I don't know if I've written a review for a movie wanting it to be smarter, to embrace its intelligence, but here it is. Pacific Rim is good but it could have been great, and that's the most disappointing thing.

Instead, the explanations and scene-to-scene transitions are rushed and muddled. The two comic relief scientists manage to mind-drift with the Kaijuis and somehow learn EVERYTHING about them in seconds. I'm not buying it. Things happen because the story requires it far more than I'd like. The Jaegers seem to have one weapon that handles the Kaijus effectively, but Raleigh completely forgets to use it in battle...until he needs to remember. If he remembered earlier, then there'd be no battle! The same goes for the finale, certain characters surviving because....well, because they survive. I liked this movie, but I wanted to love it. Too bad.

Pacific Rim (2013): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Bucket List

What do you want to do before you die? Things you want to see and do, people you want to meet, places you want to visit, that sort of thing. It's a simple thought, all the things the world has to offer before you....kick the bucket! Words are fun! That's the basic premise behind 2007's The Bucket List.

Sharing a hospital room, Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) and Edward Cole (Jack Nicholson) seemingly have very little in common. Carter is family fan with a wife, kids and grandchildren, working for years as a mechanic to support them all. Edward is rich beyond any needs -- he actually owns the hospital, a lot of hospitals -- without any family other than a quartet of ex-wives. The only thing they really have in common is their diagnosis, both men have been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and have been given anywhere from six months to a year to live. Bonding almost in spite of their differences, they decide to make the most of their last few months, doing all those things they wanted to do but never got around to. Leaving their hospital rooms behind, Carter and Edward intend to enjoy what little time they have.

From director Rob Reiner, this 2007 drama-comedy was mismarketed if you ask me. It was billed as a lighthearted comedy of sorts, goofy and dumb as two old guys make their way around the world doing all sorts of crazy stuff. 'List' does have those moments where the physical comedy is embraced, but thankfully not used too much and overdone. What is it then? It is a pretty good human drama with some touches of humor. 'List' embraces the inherent darkness of its premise, two senior citizens finding out their death is coming sooner than they expected, while still having those moments of humor. Just a fair warning, don't go in expecting 90-plus minutes of laugh out loud goofiness. There are some laughs, but it's far more of a drama than it was made out to be.

Now all that said, laughs in a comedy or some actual emotions in a drama, it's Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. This is quite the legendary one-two punch in terms of acting power, and we're the beneficiaries of the casting. Neither performance is of the award-winning variety, the script from Justin Zackham a solid job, but both actors play up their parts. Freeman is his typical reliable self as Carter, a family man who's started to struggle with his older years, especially now that he's more of a grandparent than a parent. He's not upset he had to care his family, but he does wish maybe he could have accomplished more. Nicholson seems to be playing a variation on...well, himself, but there's depth to his Edward Cole part. He's been married four times but he also loves being single which causes some problems. Very different individuals but very interesting characters.

So what are they up to? They intend to accomplish a lot, ranging from visiting the Great Pyramids in Cairo and the base of Mount Everest in the Himalayas in Nepal, from skydiving to driving classic Shelby Mustangs, doing a safari to visiting the Taj Mahal. The episodic storytelling is cool, covering a lot of ground, even if the CGI is especially bad in the skydiving sequence. The checking off of items on the bucket list becomes secondary though, the focus more on the odd couple-like friendship that develops between the two men. During their travels and adventures, they do get to know each other, know what drove them to this point, what their lives have been like. Their scenes in the hospital are just as good as they first get to know each other, both knowing the other is struggling but able to move on and just talk or play cards. There's an effortless charm to the friendship/relationship, a chemistry that pros like Freeman and Nicholson make look criminally easy.

The rest of the cast is limited to a couple key supporting parts. Sean Hayes is very good as Cole's much-maligned assistant, always ready to bust his boss if he's asking for it. Also look for Rob Morrow as Cole's doctor who must give him the tough news while Beverly Todd plays Carter's wife of 40-plus years. Freeman and Nicholson are in almost every single scene -- together or separately -- so much more of a supporting cast wouldn't have been needed.

I wasn't sure what to expect of the ending here. My doomsday scenario had some miracle cure being invented so that the characters we've come to like are somehow, some way saved from certain death. I won't give any spoilers away, but it is a very effective ending. There is a relative twist revealed in the last 20-25 minutes that caught me by surprise mostly because I thought I had it figured out long before the reveal. The finale itself works well, a fitting end about two different men with very different backgrounds who become friends through their similar, life-altering medical conditions. An enjoyable, low-key movie.

The Bucket List (2007): ***/****