The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Take a Hard Ride

Time for a little genre crossover today, one I love, one I'm fascinated by if I don't really like. The love genre? The spaghetti western. The disappointing fascination? Blaxploitation. Both genres were fan friendly flicks that weren't going to rewrite film, but dammit, they were going to be entertaining in a low budget fashion. Today's combo flick? That's 1975's Take a Hard Ride.

Having helped deliver a herd of cattle to market, a cowboy named Pike (Jim Brown) finds himself in a sticky spot. The rancher in charge of the herd dies soon after selling his cattle, begging Pike to return the money to his wife back at their ranch in northern Mexico. It's a hefty sum -- some $86,000 -- but Pike is a man of his word and intends to deliver the money. He begins to ride south toward Mexico, picking up some help in the form of shifty gambler, Tyree (Fred Williamson), and a mute tracker raised by Indians, Kashtok (Jim Kelly). The news of Pike's mission has spread like wildfire though, and anyone who can heft a gun is on their trail, all of them hoping to get their hands on that lucrative pile of money. One seems more dangerous than the others, a renegade bounty hunter named Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), and he's not going to make this easy for Pike. Can the cowboy keep his word and get to Mexico safely?

What an interesting premise. This 1975 western had American and Italian backing so it's not a straight spaghetti western, but the down and dirty feel is still there. Director Antonio Margheriti shot his movie in the Canary Islands, giving 'Ride' a very distinct, unique look. No familiar locations here from countless other spaghetti westerns! The score leans more toward the American side and feels out of place at times. As a whole, the idea is pretty cool. You don't see a lot of African American actors starring in a western, much less three of them with some solid star power and name recognition. Throw three black actors into a spaghetti western formula and let things fall where they may. Now all that said....the idea is pretty good. What about the execution?

It falls short, but I'm gonna cover some positives first. The biggest positive is pretty easy to spot, and that's the cast, especially the leads. In Brown, Williamson and martial artist turned star Kelly, 'Ride' offers three of the biggest stars of the blaxploitation, three stars who had worked together a year before in 1974's Three the Hard Way. The cowboy, the gambler and the tracker are three archetypal characters in the western genre, and the trio has some fun with the roles. Brown is solid and not flashy, the quiet cowboy who believes in doing the right thing, even if that decision could prove deadly. Williamson gets the showiest part as Tyree, the gambler, a well-dressed, back-stabbing dandy who has no qualms about killing to get his hands on some money. In the coolest part, Kelly is mostly presence, his mute tracker killing quickly, efficiently and in brutal fashion at times.

Some cool characters for sure, and they look to be having a lot of fun throughout. I especially liked the dynamic between Brown's Pike and Williamson's Tyree, the duo reminding me some of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in the very important 1954 western, Vera Cruz. These are two polar opposites, and that idea plays well. Pike wants to return the money no matter what, agreeing to let Tyree to tag along because an extra gun on the trail is never a bad thing. Oh, by the way, Tyree tells Pike he intends to kill him once they reach the end of the trail. Fun, huh? They have an excellent chemistry as two guys who aren't hiding anything. They're just waiting for their showdown somewhere down the trail. Also, that Lee Van Cleef guy is around too. He's awesome as always if underused. His presence is intimidating whether he's on-screen or not, a menacing gunman ready to dispatch whoever stands in his way.

Now, about that whole execution thing. I loved the premise of the movie, combining two hugely popular genres. The execution is a different story. It struggles to find a tone, juggling squib-heavy violence with buddy humor, and the blaxploitation's love of everything....well, how do I say this? Hatred of white people? The supporting characters are pretty cut and dry whether it's evil or stupid or both. Catherine Spaak plays Catherine, a widow on the trail with our heroes, prompting Tyree to say "Two black men, an Indian and a white woman." Laughs ensue! Barry Sullivan plays a law officer who puts away his badge to go after the money while Harry Carey Jr. and Robert Donner play two ignorant, bumbling cowboys doing the same. There's also some Johnny Rebs wanting to continue the Civil War, a greedy Mexican bandit, a cute Mexican boy, and two black guys on the trail who bitch and moan like a married couple. Talk about broad strokes.

With a 103-minute running time, things drifted too much for my liking. We get riding/talking scenes, brief shootout, campfire scene and then repeat. As well, the ending seems like one big old cop-out on numerous levels. Things build and build to a showdown, a proper shootout...and we don't get it. Now it may seem like I'm being overly critical, but I did enjoy this movie, just not as much as I would have liked. Still worth watching though, especially for western and blaxploitation fans alike. Even Dana Andrews makes a quick appearance early on!

Take a Hard Ride (1975): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Imitation Game

Ever heard of Alan Turing? Until about 24 hours ago, I hadn't although I unknowingly was quite aware of his ridiculously important historical contributions. How about something called Enigma? Yes? No? No matter how you answered, here's an easy recommendation as the movie awards season jumps into the full swing. History, World War II, just a film fan, check out 2014's The Imitation Game.

It's 1939 and World War II isn't going well for the Allied effort, especially in England as the German Luftwaffe wreaks havoc with its bombing all over the country. British intelligence is working hard behind the scenes, a huge effort meant to crack one of Germany's essentially unbreakable code, the Enigma. A brilliant mathematician and professor, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is working with British intelligence to break Enigma, but the effort seems impossible. There are literally millions and millions and millions of possibilities to break Enigma, and Alan and a small group of cryptanalysts have a limited window each day to break it before they have to start from scratch the next morning when the Enigma settings are changed. Turing especially is confident he can do it, but as the war rages on and the casualties pile up, even Turing's difficult personality may prove to be the biggest roadblock.

Here's another example of how powerful and interesting and truly, downright interesting history can be. Based on a true story -- with some artistic license taken here and there -- and from director Morten Tyldum tells a truly remarkable story, one that the British government kept under wraps for over 50 years after the end of WWII. The soldiers did the fighting, civilians back home built much of the materiel, the politicians fought and negotiated, all of it essential to the war effort. 'Imitation' does a great job of showing how Turing, a single man, drastically changed the course of the war for the Allies. It is a large-scale story in terms of content but small-scale in its focus. This is a movie about Turing and the men and women in intelligence who helped to break Germany's seemingly perfect code, saving millions of lives and cutting years off the war. Oscar bait? Sure, but it's a goodie.

That Benedict Cumberbatch fellow, he seems to be an actor with some potential (besides having a really cool name). Though he's been working in film and television since the early 2000s, he seems to have hit his groove as an actor, able to do fun blockbusters like the Star Trek sequels and as he shows here, act his freaking butt off. What a performance, one that will hopefully earn him an Oscar nomination, if not a win. It's always tough portraying a historical figure, even if it is one without a ton of name recognition. This is a brilliant, tortured man who was years ahead of his field, an individual who developed one of the first computers, one that helped Turing and Co. eventually break Enigma (relative spoiler I guess). The story also takes a personal detour in the second half of the movie, Cumberbatch truly bringing the individual to life.

It's the little nuances that Cumberbatch does so well, so effortlessly. His Turing is a socially awkward, brilliant individual with a troubled background. He commits himself to his work in almost dangerous fashion. It is an entire commitment. He hits people in the wrong way because his Alan is short, curt, abrupt and believes entirely in himself. All negative, right? He adds these little snippets as he tries to put his pride aside (although I wouldn't consider it pride in Alan's eyes, he just thinks he's right) that humanize him. We see that a lot in his scenes with Keira Knightley's Joan Clarke, a similarly brilliant young woman who doesn't get the respect she deserves because she's a woman and obviously can't be good at math. Kudos to Cumberbatch though, delivering a low-key performance that isn't necessarily a huge LOOK AT ME part that nonetheless steals the movie.

The 'Imitation' cast is uniformly solid. The queen of the period piece, Knightley is perfectly at home in the WWII story in providing an ideal counter to Cumberbatch's Alan. Their chemistry is smooth and easy, two individuals with different backgrounds but plenty of common ground. The other individuals working with Turing include an excellent Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard, Allen Leech, and James Northcote. Charles Dance and Mark Strong are very good too as intelligence officials, one more helpful than the other in assisting Turing's seemingly impossible plan to break the code. Rory Kinnear makes a quick appearance in a flash-forward of sorts as we see Turing living in England in the 1950s.

Let's say this. 'Imitation' tries to accomplish a lot. A LOT. The actual story is astounding that this happened. It wasn't a handful of people but thousands, but THIS HAPPENED. The story never feels disjointed which is a big compliment when you consider how much ground is covered, three-plus years is the crux of the story during the WWII portions. It's fascinating watching Turing's early-model computer come to fruition, the frustration when breaking the code doesn't happen both inward and outward, and eventually when it does happen the unintended consequences. Think of this. Okay, they've broken the code. They now CAN'T ADMIT they've both broken it because then the Germans would know they have broken it. What do you do now? How do you put the code to best use without revealing it has been broken? It is those moments where the movie is at its strongest.

So yeah, we've got some good, old-fashioned Oscar bait here. This is a good movie with a fascinating, always interesting story with some great performances. It isn't though, a great movie. When the story reveals a secret part of Alan's life, but it takes away from the power of the WWII/Enigma story. It is a tragic secret that alters Alan's life in a huge way but at times it feels tacked on like the story didn't exactly know how to handle it, especially in the finale. It is a complaint but nothing even remotely being close to a dealbreaker. Still a must-see movie.

The Imitation Game (2014): ***/****

Monday, December 29, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

With the comedy genre maybe more than any other successful genre, I think the sequel can be a dangerous thing. What was funny about the first one? Can that success and formula be duplicated? Are things tweaked too much or not enough? I'm looking at you Hangover trilogy. Would anyone be truly sad if that series had ended after the first flick? Nope, it's a classic. So what about this follow-up? Let's see where 2014's Horrible Bosses 2 stands.

After avoiding the debacle that was trying to kill their bosses at work, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have moved onto bigger and better things. In fact, the trio of friends have gone into business together, developing a shower product that seems ready to take off on the market. They just need a buyer, and they seem to have found one in Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz), a powerful executive with a catalog featuring an open spot for their product. Well, he did. He takes advantage of these business novices and leaves them high and dry, stealing their product right out from under them. They've invested all their money into the business, and now they are just days away from the company and their product being foreclosed on. What to do? The three wannabe crooks head back to a life of crime. No, it's not murder this time around. They're going to kidnap Hanson's son and get enough money to pay off their loan with the ransom. What could possibly go wrong?

Released back in 2011, Horrible Bosses was a solid, funny comedy with a cool premise and a fun cast. I gave it 3 stars but still can't quite put my finger on it. The first movie was really funny but missing that special something. I'll be giving this 2014 sequel the same rating -- 3 stars -- but it's better. From director Sean Anders, 'Bosses 2' feels more comfortable in its own skin. It's a funny premise again where just about everything that can go wrong will go wrong. But here's the guts of it. I laughed a lot at this one. I laughed out loud. I laughed a lot more than I did with the original. I still struggle to review comedies at times, but this one's easy. I was entertained throughout and a goofy premise and fun cast provides some great laughs. And in sequel mode, it tries something different, not necessarily going for status quo. Yes, kidnapping is different than murder, and that's what I'm counting as different. Deal with it.

This one's pretty simple. Do you like Bateman, Sudeikis and Day? Do you like them working together? If you answered 'Yes,' then you're safe. If you answered 'No,' then this might not be the movie for you. Their on-screen chemistry is easy and funny and does a good job showing three friends who have been friends forever. They've got a rhythm when they talk, inside jokes like Dale insisting he always sits in the middle of the backseat ("I always sit in the middle!") and a history that's far before anything we see in either movie. Bateman is the quiet, usually frustrated leader, Sudeikis the kinda off the wall sidekick, and Day (to quote It's Always Sunny) is the wildcard. You just have to go along with things. Forced to take drastic measures, this trio of friends decides kidnapping (or 'kidnaping' maybe) is their best option. Let's do this!

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, bringing back some familiar faces while introducing some fresh blood. Waltz is underused as the money-minded, calculating businessman so the best addition to the cast is his son, Rex, played to perfection by Chris Pine. One of the big rising stars in Hollywood, Pine just brings this crazy, frenetic energy to the part, especially when he takes the lead in his own kidnapping. His chemistry with the kidnapping trio is perfect throughout, especially their scene planning how to pull it off. Returning from the original are Jennifer Aniston as Dale's former boss, a sex addict who takes a keen interest in what Dale and Co. are up to, Jamie Foxx as "Motherf****r" Jones, the trio's criminal muse, and Kevin Spacey as Nick's former boss, now locked up but still offering advice to the bumbling crooks. Cool to see those three back for more shenanigans.

The humor at times is pretty dirty, and a handful of times the seeming improvisation tries too hard. They're going for a big laugh, and it just isn't there, especially when the three friends throw their voices to call with ransom demands. For the most part though, the dead on arrival laughs are over pretty quickly, getting back to the goofy fun. I liked the whole movie a lot, but felt like it really hit its stride in the last hour when Pine's Rex gets involved with the kidnapping plot. Their brainstorming session is a great montage, and when we see how their plan is supposed to work....well, we know it won't. The actual kidnapping and ransom drop is dumb and fun and goofy. Stay tuned through the early parts of the credits too for some good laughs as we see all the flubs during filming.

Definitely worth seeking out. Fun cast, very funny sequel.

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014): ***/****

Friday, December 26, 2014

How to Murder Your Wife

So there seems to be a go-to move when a comedy wants to delve into that whole marriage thing. What to do? Hen-pecked husbands, evil and manipulative wives. It paints quite a picture for marriage, don't it? Well, I caught one I'd never seen before courtesy of MGM-HD. I'd heard about it but was never able to track it down, 1965's How to Murder Your Wife. Yes, it is a comedy.

Living in an epic townhouse in New York City, Stanley Ford (Jack Lemmon) is a well to-do cartoonist without a care in the world. He tries to enact his own strip, Bash Brannigan, a James Bond-like secret agent, while living the ultimate bachelor's life. At his side is his butler and friend, Charles (Terry-Thomas), who helps him at every step. It's a perfect, unmarried, bachelor life...or at least it was. At a friend's bachelor party gone awry, Stanley drinks far too much and in an absolute state of feeling no pain, marries the dancer/stripper, (Virna Lisi). He of course doesn't remember any of this until the next morning when a hungover Stanley wakes up next to his new bride. His bachelor life is about to be thrown for a loop, especially when his wife absolutely refuses to get a divorce. Okay, so what now? Well, Stanley may only have one option left.

Well, this was an interesting one for both good and bad reasons. From director Richard Quine, it is a polished, funny, stylish comedy with an obviously pretty dark story basis. I think the biggest thing going for 'Murder' is that it is different. It tries to be different, and that's more than you can say for a lot of 1960s screwball comedies. Now that attempt at being unique does provide some uneven moments and some plot holes, but the end result is worth it. Quine films in New York City for some cool backdrop shots with Stanley's man cave of all man caves -- his posh NYC townhouse -- providing the main set. The camera zips in and around the maze-like rooms and floors, giving 'Murder' a unique visual look. This is no one camera set-up. The comedy is there, but that's not all. It's the rare comedy that's fun to actually just look at and watch.

Quine's dark comedy sets the tone early with a great opening sequence that keeps you guessing as to what exactly is going on. Thomas' Charles -- ever the English gentleman -- wakes up Stanley and they whisk off to another "crazy caper." What follows is Stanley enacting all the future adventures of Bash Brannigan with hired actors filling out all the parts from the damsel in distress to the dastardly villains, Stanley playing Bash with Charles taking pictures so Stanley can use them later for inspiration to draw the strips. It's a great opening sequence, one that is equal parts fun and mysterious while also showing off the close friendship Stanley and Charles have. Things are off and running from there with a story that covers a lot of ground, some sequences working better than others but always seemingly getting back on track.

With each passing movie, Jack Lemmon climbs higher and higher on my favorite actors list. Comedy, drama, he does it all. With parts that could easily be overdone, he finds ways to keep it funny without trying too hard. His Stanley (and his quasi-Bash alter-ego) finds himself in quite the predicament but because it's Lemmon you never completely turn on him. He has some great laughs with Thomas' Charles and his chemistry with the very beautiful Virna Lisi is spot-on too, especially as his unnamed wife -- only Mrs. Rogers -- reveals she only speaks Italian. Now that's a morning wake-up call! Also look for Eddie Mayehoff as Stanley's lawyer who's shrill wife, Edna (Claire Trevor), has quite the impact on the new to marriage Mrs. Ford in the manipulation department. Sidney Blackmer and Max Showalter also have key supporting parts.

If there is a weakness in the 1965 dark comedy, it's in the last 30 minutes (a 118-minute total running time). When Stanley finally brings up the idea that maybe murder is his best option, I thought things were heading in the right direction. There are some laughs as his plan is put into play, but we're never quite sure what he's up to. Does he really intend to kill Mrs. Rogers? Is it a plan for something else? It all plays out in a goofy, over the top courtroom sequence that feels forced and too gimmicky. Basically, all the things you'd expect out of lesser screwball comedies.

Still, as a whole, it's definitely worth a watch, especially for Jack Lemmon, Virna Lisi and Terry-Thomas.

How to Murder Your Wife (1965): ***/****

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Adventures of Robin Hood

Errol Flynn was a lot of things in a legendary career early in Hollywood's history. He was a swashbuckler, a boxer, a gunfighter, a rabble-rouser in his personal life, someone who lived life to the fullest. But what is that one role, that one part that is instantly recognized as his best? Well, that one's easy, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

It's 1191 A.D. and the English king, Richard the Lionheart, has been captured by the enemy while returning from the Crusades. In steps his greedy, manipulative brother, Prince John (Claude Rains), who takes over the crown and instantly starts to take advantage of his power. In a growing battle between the Normans and the Saxons, the put-upon people need help, someone to fight back. That man? A Saxon nobleman, Robin Hood (Flynn), who takes to Sherwood Forest with a gang of bandits to be a constant thorn in the side of Prince John and his enforcer, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone). They're not any bandits though. They aren't in for personal gain. Robin and his men become heroes as they give their spoils to the people from the money to the food they take. What's their end goal though? Can they somehow take down Prince John?

So everyone has heard of Robin Hood right? His historical reality has long been debated because...well, people just aren't sure he existed. So real or not, the character has become an instantly recognizable individual in literature and storytelling. From directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 'Adventures' was a profoundly important film in Hollywood history. It's the big, splashy, colorful adventure film that helped set the stage for action and adventure films for years to come. The action-packed story with romance and intrigue and all sorts of craziness picked up four Oscar nominations, winning three, and is a perennial entry on all sorts of 'Best' lists, including several AFI lists. Can't go wrong, right?

Start with Errol Flynn. He's one of my favorite movie stars ever, the type of star/actor I'll check out a movie solely because he's in it. There aren't a lot of those stars around then or now. But in a career of memorable parts, this is THE part. He was meant to play Robin Hood. Flynn brings the perfect energy to this folklore character. That infectious smile, that loving-life laugh, that physicality as he swings across the scene (quite literally), fights his way through one sword fight after another, and unleashes arrow after arrow at his pursuers. You can't help but like the character, Flynn bringing him to life and influencing every other Robin Hood portrayal to follow for years whether it be on film, on television and even literature. That Errol Flynn guy. He knew what he was doing.

'Adventures' boasts a solid all-around cast in support of Flynn. The villains are perfectly dastardly, doing all sorts of malicious evil. Rains is the smooth, suave Prince John (slightly effeminate) while Rathbone gets to play the far more sinister Sir Guy, progressively becoming more obsessed with capturing and hanging Robin. Frequent Flynn co-star Olivia De Havilland (they would work together in 8 films) is memorable as Maid Marian, promised to Sir Guy while falling for Robin when she's taken prisoner. Their chemistry is evident throughout just like it was in all their pairings together. As for Robin's Merry men, look for Patrick Knowles as Will Scarlett, Eugene Pallette as Friar Tuck, Alan Hale as Little John, and Herbert Mundin as Much, a mousey squirrel. There's also Melville Cooper as the semi-bumbling but amusing Sheriff of Nottingham and Ian Hunter as King Richard.

Here's my spot here. I appreciate what this movie meant in terms of Hollywood and historical significance, but I didn't love the movie. I liked it a lot, but a slower last 45 minutes left me disappointed.'s a really good movie. It's that perfect popcorn escapism, great good guys and black and white bad guys. The color scheme is a gem, one of the first Hollywood films to really embrace shooting in color. Robin and his Merry men in their Lincoln green uniforms, Prince John and Sir Guy in their bright red, the colors are rich and vivid throughout. As well, the Oscar-winning score from composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a gem, several instantly recognizable themes keeping the action flowing throughout (listen HERE). The action is fun and full of some great stunts, several large-scale battles and scuffles dotting the story. An easy movie to recommend.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): ***/****

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sands of Iwo Jima

You know what's crazy? In a career that spanned five decades with almost 200 roles to his name, John Wayne only picked up two Oscar nominations for acting. Yeah, a lot of his movies weren't going to win an Oscar to begin with. Yeah, many were 1930s serials barely clocking in at an hour. Others were more fan-friendly, not meant to create Oscar buzz. But in one of his best extended spans of pure acting power, the late 1940s, Wayne picked up his first nomination for 1949's Sands of Iwo Jima.

Following the horrific, costly fighting on Guadalcanal, Marine units all over the Pacific are being sent to the rear to rest up, recoup and get replacements as the war moves closer to Japan. One specific rifle squad, with just two surviving members and a wave of inexperienced replacements, is getting a new drill sergeant, Sergeant John Stryker (Wayne), a tough as nails instructor with plenty of combat under his belt. His methods for training are rough and to the point -- some would say brutal -- but he has one goal as the war continues. Stryker doesn't want to be friends with his men. He wants them to respect him if nothing else and mostly take his training to heart. If they hate him for be it, but he intends to get him through the war unscathed if possible. The island-hopping fighting all across the Pacific continues on, the U.S. Marines ready to get back to the action.

Recently released on Blu-Ray courtesy of Olive Films, 'Sands' is an above average if not great World War II film. From director Allan Dwan, it has a reputation as a bit of a flag-waving patriotic movie, but that's a description that's incredibly limiting. Considering it was released just four years since the end of the war, it's pretty spot-on. The actual war segments are rough and violent without being graphic. It can be startling at times as it follows a war movie formula that would become tried and true in the coming years. Filmed in black and white, 'Sands' benefits from a memorable score from composer Victor Young and is at its strongest when focusing on the Marines in combat, specifically the fighting at Tarawa and Iwo Jima.

Now that John Wayne guy. He's halfway decent. This isn't his best performance -- I say that's from a choice of The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or The Shootist -- but it certainly belongs in the conversation. His tough as nails drill sergeant helped inspire countless movie roles in the years to come, and the Duke dives into the part headfirst. Stryker pushes and pushes his men, knowing that no matter how tough training is, it won't be as tough, as terrifying as combat. The better his men are prepared, maybe the more likely they'll make it through unscathed. It is a man's man type of role (one he deserved a nomination for), but it isn't this cold facade. It isn't one big stereotype. In a couple conversations, a couple quick scenes, we get to learn something about Stryker and his personal life, his background.

That goes a long way with the character. He isn't a heartless, emotionless drill sergeant with ice water in his veins. He pushes his men because he knows what's best for them. It's a varied character. We learn Stryker's wife left him five years before, taking their five-year old son with her. He's left to wonder where they're at, what his son has grown up to. Later on Tarawa, he threatens to shoot one of his own men if they expose the unit's position to go rescue a wounded soldier who's crying out to Stryker for help. In one instant, he's a wall of discipline. In the next, you see the extreme pain in his eyes as one of his men cries out for help from him specifically. The same later as the Marines are called back, Stryker standing on the transport ship looking back at Tarawa with just palpable sorrow in his eyes. As well, there's some humor, including my favorite as Stryker helps a clumsy recruit (Hal Baylor) how to do bayonet dancing. It's played straight but is a great visual.

Just an excellent performance from the Duke. The rest of the cast relies on the unit picture formula, a bunch of disparate guys thrown together and forced to fight as a cohesive group. John Agar plays Conway, a Marine with the corps in his blood...and he hates it, especially Stryker and all he represents. Forrest Tucker is very good as Thomas, a Marine who's been in Stryker's unit before and holds some serious resentment toward his former sarge. The rest of the squad includes Wally Cassell (the joker), James Brown and Arthur Franz (the vets), Richard Webb (the lovable teddy bear), James Holden (the affable farmer), Peter Coe (the Greek), Richard Jaeckel and William Murphy (the bickering Philadelphia brothers), George Tyne (the married man always ready with a joke), and Martin Milner (the youngster). A solid group of supporting parts from some always reliable character actors.

'Sands' is at its most comfortable and strongest in the training sequences and montages and when Stryker's Marines hit the beaches at Tarawa and Iwo Jima. The hitting the beaches at Tarawa scene is especially effective, the Marines pinned down in a lagoon against a log embankment. Their only way out? Up and over the logs to take out a fortified Japanese pillbox built into a dune. The battle for Iwo Jima is equally effective as Japanese forces absolutely rain down hell on the Marines moving inland. The casualties come fast and furious as the squad is especially hit hard as they approach Mount Suribachi. It all builds to the squad taking part in the patrol that takes Suribachi's summit and ultimately raises the flag. It is a surprising, moving finale as we see the basis for one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable pictures in American history.

It ain't a perfect movie with some parts of the story not working as well. Agar's Conway (a very unlikable character) meets, falls for and gets married to Adele Mara's Allison in scenes that drag the pacing down to a snail-like quality. The Marines getting their leave too is meant to humanize them but the efforts fall short. We learn more in the training and combat sequences. Still, it's an excellent movie courtesy of Wayne's Academy Award-nominated performance and a story of the Marines that doesn't shy away from the nastiness of the fighting in the Pacific. That's not something you can say for a lot of World War II movies released in the late 1940s.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949): ***/**** 

Friday, December 19, 2014

In Enemy Hands

In the age of the large scale World War II movies in the 1950s and 1960s, some of the most popular war films with audiences were those set on submarines in both the Atlantic and the Pacific theaters of war. Like any genre though, that success died down eventually. So where's that leave us? With the throwback film! Here's 2004's In Enemy Hands.

It's late in 1943 and the tide of WWII has officially shifted to the Allies. In the Atlantic, the tide has turned as the powerful, dangerous U-boats are being summarily hunted down and sunk. One American submarine, the U.S.S. Swordfish, has a new commander, a young, inexperienced officer, Lt. Commander Sullivan (Scott Caan), with his experienced chief, Travers (William H. Macy), trying to ease the transition for his new commander. After months on patrol, the Swordfish finally sees some action, sinking a German ship, but gets hit in the process and sinks. The German U-boat, commanded by Captain Jonas Herdt (Til Schweiger), goes against regulations and picks up the survivors rather than let them drown in the middle of the Atlantic. One of the American survivors is holding onto a secret though, one that could kill everyone on board, both American and German unless they reach a port soon.

If this movie was released in theaters -- the Internet says it happened so it must be true -- I don't remember it. Apparently it was an ultra-small release, 'Enemy' earning about $64,000 in theaters. From director Tony Giglio, there is a distinct feel of a 1950s/1960s WWII submarine movie like Run Silent, Run Deep or The Enemy Below or countless others. It adds an extra layer by adding the German submariners into the story as well. It isn't a straight American or German story but a solid mix of the two sides. 'Enemy' definitely has the feel of a smaller budget movie that just barely avoided going straight to DVD and instead got a release in theaters for about 3 hours. That small scale isn't a deal-breaker. Almost the entire movie is set on two submarine sets so that's definitely a bonus.

There's a reason submarine movies do so well. There's a familiar formula that....well, was submarine warfare in WWII. These underwater merchants of death cruised through the ocean looking for targets whether it be other subs, merchant vessels transporting materiel, or any type of wartime vessels. What happened after the attacks? The subs were often chased back across the ocean, ships above dropping depth charges in the water that would literally rock and tear the sub to pieces if it exploded near enough. Those moments are always at the crux of submarine war movies. The crews wait in silence for an explosion to tear the ships apart as the depth charges fall through the water. The tension, the impending doom, even a small scale movie like 'Enemy' doesn't need a huge budget to get the job done.

No big stars here, but the cast is uniformly solid. William H. Macy is one of my favorites, and although he's an unlikely casting choice to play the Chief of boat, he does a good job with the part. His Travers must balance out his responsibilities to both the crew but also the captain. Caan is feisty, arrogant and trying to prove himself in an underused part. As for their German counterparts, Schweiger does an excellent job as the German U-boat captain. Seemingly always typecast as a dastardly villain, Schweiger doesn't disappoint with a chance to play a decent human being, an officer struggling with news from back home while trying to get through the war alive. His friendship with his executive officer, Ludwig Cremer (Thomas Kretschmann), provides the movie's strongest moments. It's actually the German half of the story that I found far more interesting in the vein of Das Boot. Go figure!

As for the supporting American parts, look for Clark Gregg, Jeremy Sisto, Ian Somerhalder, and Sam Huntington on board the Swordfish. On the German U-boat, there's Rene Heger and Connor Donne. Wrapping things up in some painfully awkward and truly forced scenes, Lauren Holly plays Travers' wife, worrying away at home about him coming back to her.

I'll give credit where it's due. 'Enemy' uses familiar territory but doesn't settle for the status quo. It features some genuinely surprising twists and a couple departures for characters you wouldn't expect. The American/German angle provides a fair share of those new moments with the ending building to another solid twist. It's only in the finale that 'Enemy' tries to deliver a message about war that I thought things fell short. Men in war are capable of good things -- and horrific things -- but the war movies that try to hit you over the head with that message are less than subtle. Still, it's an interesting movie with that enjoyable throwback feel. Not great, but worth a watch.

In Enemy Hands (2004): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tough Guys

Two of the biggest stars of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas were frequent collaborators during their distinguished careers, doing seven films together. The two best -- for me -- are Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Seven Days in May, but I've seen a couple others. Well, here's their last venture together, 1986's Tough Guys.

Having served 30 years in prison, Harry Doyle (Lancaster) and Archie Long (Douglas) have finally earned their parole. The veteran bank robbers are reintroduced to a world vastly different than the one they left. Now 72-year old Harry and 67-year old Archie have to figure things out if they hope to make it on the outside, starting with their new living arrangements. Because of his age, Harry is forced to live in a retirement home while Archie moves in at a small apartment and tries to hold down minimum wage jobs. Can they handle their new lives? Can 1980s Los Angeles possibly handle them? The two friends and ex-cons are going to try their hardest, but their checkered pasts may pop up to slow them down and make their readjustment that much harder...if they get through it at all.

As I watched this 1980s action-comedy from director Jeff Kanew, a thought crossed my mind. That can be pretty rare so I've gotta enjoy them when they make their appearances. You know that movie is? A forerunner for a whole sub-genre of flicks that seemed to pop up in the 1990s and still appear here and there. The OLD GUY movie! Since 1986, we've seen the Grumpy Old Men movies, My Fellow Americans, Last Vegas, and probably a bunch more I'm not thinking of. It isn't a good movie, but it is mildly entertaining, most of that because the talent involved is very impressive. It has some laughs but also tries really hard to get those laughs.

It's a premise that would be used in far better fashion some seven years later in The Shawshank Redemption when James Whitmore's Brooks is paroled and discovers a world nothing like the one he left. Here, the goal obviously isn't on the same dramatic level. It's laughs. So what do we get? Two old pros in Lancaster and Douglas wearing some impeccably stylish and impeccably dated hats and fedoras navigating Los Angeles. They're still tough guys, handling street toughs (typically with a swift kick to the crotch), dancing like a crazy person at a night club, and even stumbling into their old watering hole only to find that the bar is now...a gay bar! Oh, the hijinks people will get into, huh?!?

Still, it's Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Yeah, there are times where you feel like they're far, far better than the source material. Okay, basically the entire movie. These guys are Hollywood legends for a reason, and they don't disappoint. They commit to the script and the parts, breathing some energy into a movie that would have been dead on arrival without that energy. Setting the story in 1980s L.A. does add a fun flavor to the story, and the duo has a great chemistry throughout. Their dynamic reminded me of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as Butch and Sundance if they had made it out of Bolivia. Their dialogue just flows as smoothly as possible. They're got their routines, they've got their plans in a row, and at times, they bitch and moan at each other like an old married couple. About what you'd expect to see from two guys who spent 30 years in jail together. A movie worth watching because of Lancaster and Douglas.

Who else to look out for? Charles Durning as the cop who put Harry and Archie away some 30 years ago and is now suspicious of what they're up to, Alexis Smith as a former flame from Harry's past, a young Dana Carvey as the duo's adoring parole officer, Darlanne Fluegel as a much younger woman who's drawn to Archie's manliness, and Eli Wallach as a bespectacled killer looking to take the train-robbing duo out after years of waiting for a chance.

By the hour-mark, things get a little more predictable than they already were. They struggle to adjust? Ah what?!? Their solution makes perfect sense as they turn back to a life of crime. It gets goofy at times and downright dumb at others, especially the closing scene. But all that said, it's still Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

Tough Guys (1986): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So those Avengers movies...they seem to be kinda popular judging by the money they're raking in at the box office. I thought The Avengers was great. I loved the first Iron Man but thought the movies progressively went downhill with the sequels. As for the two Thor movies, I thought Thor was a great lead character, but the movies itself were disappointing. So what's that leave? That's right, my personal favorite, Steve Rogers himself. He returns by his better known name in 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

With the epic battle in New York in the rear view mirror, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) himself, is working for SHIELD. He takes on countless missions around the world, anything and everything that threatens national and international security, often with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) working with him. Captain America and the Black Widow pull off one dangerous mission in the Indian Ocean, but it has dangerous repercussions. It actually exposes a breach within Shield and now Captain America is made to look like a traitor to everything he has defended for all these years. With all of SHIELD's resources on his trail, he's now on his own as he tries to stop a diabolical plan that could kill millions while also proving his innocence. His biggest obstacle? A mysterious, seemingly in destructible assassin dubbed the Winter Soldier.

A plot description for an Avengers movie is pretty unnecessary. Without hearing a word about the story, you either know you will or won't be seeing this flick. From directors Anthony and Joe Russo, 'Soldier' is another gem, another worthy addition to the Avengers franchise. Apparently I'm not the only one who thought so as the most recent Captain America earned over $700 million internationally at the box office. All the ingredients are there -- great cast, epic action, well-written script, some well-placed humor -- but there's a reason the Captain movies are my favorite. They're big, giant blockbusters, but they're more than that. These are genuinely smart movies. I don't know if I can say the same for either Iron Man or Thor entries.

It all starts with Chris Evans reprising his role as Captain America. He's long been one of my favorite actors, and this is obviously his biggest and most recognizable role. I love how they've developed the Steve Rogers character. It's been a couple years since the Avengers, and Steve/Captain is still adjusting to the 21st Century after six-plus decades being frozen in a glacier. His chemistry with Johansson's Black Widow/Natasha is evident in all their scenes together, and it's definitely cool to see individuals among the Avengers get some time to themselves, not just as part of the group. Also cool? Like you needed to know, but Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury, SHIELD's tough, efficient leader. Throw these three epically cool characters together, and you've got quite a lot of heroes to lead the way.

Also returning with varying amounts of screentime are Cobie Smulders as SHIELD agent Hill, Toby Jones, and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Steve's possible love interest from the 1940s, now a grandma struggling with health issues. 

How about some fresh blood too?!? When I saw that Robert Redford was part of the cast, I almost lost my mind. Robert REDFORD?!? Here he plays Alexander Pierce, a powerful senator backing the defensive efforts of SHIELD who has a long history working with Fury. It's a cool part, one that adds another dimension to the already enjoyable story. Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition to as Sam Wilson, a para-rescue vet who forms a quick friendship with Steve when things hit the fan. Frank Grillo and Callan Mulvey play members of a strike force working with SHIELD while Emily VanCamp plays Steve's neighbor holding a key secret. Some cool parts to add to an already very talented cast.

So go figure, but this Captain America movie has some pretty cool action sequences. Crazy, right? I don't want to give away too much because the various twists and turns should come as a surprise and not be spoiled in a review. The action though is pretty solid, from a smaller scale scene early on where Captain, Widow and a Strike force team take out a group of commandos holding hostages to chases sprinkled throughout the story. I thought the coolest was Jackson's Fury trying to evade an ambush on the streets of Washington D.C., just an effortlessly smooth extended sequence that some cool tricks up its sleeve. And the finale? Yeah, pretty nuts, a gigantic battle in scale and size in the skies in and around Washington. The finale in The Avengers set the bar pretty high in that department, and 'Soldier' does its best to reach those heights.

Just a good movie with a lot to recommend. This is a blockbuster -- $700 million!!! -- that's got a brain. Even the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) isn't an out-and-out villain, but a tortured baddie forced into something he had no control over. There's a pretty major twist near the halfway point that I didn't love, but it does work when all things are considered, both for this movie and the Captain America and Avengers franchise going forward. Highly recommended, an easy flick to sit back, watch and appreciate.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Expendables 3

I've enjoyed both the previous Expendable movies, The Expendables and The Expendables 2, knowing full well they're not particularly good movies. It's the rare franchise where things get better with each progressing flick. Then came the third entry...pretty much panned by critics and not embraced by audiences as much. Well, most of the audience. I happened to love it for all its insane goofiness and over the top everything. Here's 2014's The Expendables 3.

Having rescued a former member of the team from a heavily guarded train, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) and the Expendables move onto their next mission, but there is far more awaiting them than they expected. Sent to knock off an international arms dealer, Barney is stunned to find out who the dealer actually is. His name is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), a former member of the Expendables and a co-founder of the group with Barney who's long been believed dead after going rogue from the group. The team is all shot up and not in a good place to go after Stonebanks, but Barney wants nothing more than revenge on his former partner turned lunatic enemy. He sees the writing on the wall though and doesn't want to see his fellow mercenaries get killed in the process. Instead of going forward, Barney disbands the group and assembles a younger group of fiery mercenaries looking to prove themselves. Can they get the job done and not get killed in the process?

The first two Expendables movies are far from perfect, but the second one was definitely better than the first. Things were allowed to breathe a little bit and some fun characters were added to the mix. This third entry struggled at the box office, some attributing that to a PG-13 rating instead of an R-rating while others pointed to a bootleg getting a release weeks before the wide release. You know what? WHO CARES?!? These are movies meant for action-hungry fans who love over the top shootouts, a ridiculously cool cast, one-liner one after another, and villains you just love to hate. Nothing groundbreaking for director Patrick Hughes' film, but it is most assuredly not trying to break any new ground. Having written the screenplay for the first two, Stallone again handles that department and doesn't disappoint.

Stallone will never be accused of writing anything Shakespearean or all-time classic, but who the f*** cares? The man knows how to write a good, old-fashioned shoot 'em up, dammit! He tried to accomplish a lot with the first two flicks, but here? Here?!? It's like he challenged himself to amp things up to even more ridiculous levels. Much of the cast returns with quite a few BIG names joining the mix. It's a longer movie than its predecessors (126 minutes) and features a ton of action from the word 'Go.' It isn't a great movie, but 'Expendables' is damn entertaining. I watched it with a smile on my face and thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end. All Stallone wants to do is to put something out there that audiences WANT to see, and I love him for it. About as good as a movie like this can get.

The ensemble and action out of this world star power is at an all-time action high, but the guts of the movie remains that men on a mission, mercenary tough guy mindset. It starts of course with Stallone's Barney and Statham's Lee, bitching and moaning at each other like an old married couple. Those scenes provide some good laughs while also offering some background about the history of the Expendables. Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture are back too with Jet Li only appearing in the final 20 minutes in nothing more than an extended cameo. I still feel like people were surprised by how well the Expendables movies did in theaters. For years before the movies there were rumors of all the 1980s/1990s action stars who were interested in starring only to drop out. Since then, a long list of stars have made appearances leaving Lundgren, Crews, Couture and Li with little to nothing to do. Oh, that Arnold Schwarzenegger fella is around too, chomping on cigars and even yelling "Get to the chopper!" How can you lose with that happening?

So Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme weren't enough, huh? The casting gets taken to crazy levels here. Gibson is a great addition to the series, his Stonebanks a perfectly evil, sinister, growling villain, injecting a ton of energy. I need more! Replacing Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford is an easy cool as Drummer, the team's CIA holder of sorts. Wesley Snipes and Antonio Banderas join the Expendables too because...well, why the hell not?  Both look to be having a lot of fun in parts that let them ham it up some (or for Banderas, A LOT). As for the new, fresh Expendables, there's Kellan Lutz (former Marine, favors a motorcycle), Ronda Rousey (hand-to-hand specialist), Glen Powell (tech) and Victor Ortiz (weapons). The younger group isn't as interesting, but their inclusion to the story is more of a means to an end. Kelsey Grammer plays Bonaparte, Barney's mercenary recruiter, the recruiting scene something right out of The Magnificent Seven or countless other men on a mission movies.   

Look, there's no point in analyzing the action. It's good, but obviously not as bloody or as graphic as an R-rated version would have been. Blood or not, the body count that piles up is downright gratuitous. The finale alone is ridiculous with every action cliche ever invented seemingly on display. Stallone vs. Gibson, thousands of bullets flying, Lutz doing his best Steve McQueen/Great Escape impression, Ford flying overhead in a helicopter with Schwarzenegger as his machine gunner, and that's just the start. As an action fan, it's almost too, not really. It's awesome and just a blast to watch. From the action to the cast, the mercenaries busting each other and seeing who's the best, the old vs. new school, the great villain, it is a hell of a lot of fun. An easy-going mess of a movie that I loved throughout. Here's a closing thought to process.

Late in the movie, a helicopter is loaded with some of the most iconic action heroes ever. We're talking Rambo/Rocky, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, the Terminator, Blade, the Transporter, Ivan Drago, and Desperado all flying along. Oh, and Braveheart is below chasing after them. It's just too much to take in! Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!

The Expendables 3 (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

How about some unlikely pairings for today's review? Director/producer extraordinaire Roger Corman is the master of the B-movie across countless genres. What author/writer do you think he used as sources for eight of his movies? It's a name I would have never thought of if you gave me a week to think about it. That writer? A mildly well-known 19th century writer by the name of Edgar Allan Poe. His short story was the inspiration for 1960's The Fall of the House of Usher.

Riding out to a worn-down mansion on desolate land in New England, Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) is trying to find his fiance. When he arrives at the mansion, Winthrop is met by his fiance's menacing older brother, Roderick Usher (Vincent Price), who insists that Philip should just ride away and forget anything and everything about his fiance. He is dumbfounded at the thought and especially confused at Roderick's continuing insistence that he leave and have nothing to do with his younger sister, Madeline (Myrna Fahey), who similarly hasn't told Philip anything about her background or what Roderick is trying to hide. After almost non-stop badgering to find out exactly what's going on, Philip finally gets the truth. The house of Usher is cursed, and it's only a matter of time before Madeline finally cracks.

I read my fair share of Edgar Allan Poe in high school in English classes, but this short story -- originally published in 1939 -- was not one of them. 'Usher' comes from American International Pictures which had previously been known for cheap, black and white flicks made for double-bills and drive-in theaters. Not anymore with some money pumped into things courtesy of change of pace movies like this. I watched it on the MGM HD channel, and my goodness, it was a good-looking movie. Filmed completely on an indoor set with a small cast, 'Usher' is a small-scale, impending doom type of story. It's all about mood and that building sense of the twist to come. So...

Yeah, it never really clicks, not for me at least. I was expecting more from a Corman film working off a screenplay from Richard Matheson with Vincent Price in the lead. It's a short movie at just 79 minutes long (some versions are slightly longer), but it feels much, much longer. Not having read Poe's short story, I can't criticize what did or didn't make the jump but for all the mood and tension building, 'Usher' is surprisingly dull. How many times can Damon's Philip ask the same questions without getting any real answers about the supposedly cursed Usher family? Maybe I was expecting a bigger, better twist when it is revealed, but nearing the hour-mark I had pretty much checked out. Winthrop arrives at the house, talks to Roderick, hangs out, has some mysterious conversations about the Usher family and its background and just persistently sticks around. Meh, I'll pass as it never really comes together.

So there is some recognizable names here with a cast that totals just four speaking parts. Vincent Price is one of the masters of the horror genre and is always a welcome addition to a cast. Here, his Roderick Usher -- rocking a platinum blonde haircut -- is far from his best work. He chews the scenery like his paycheck depended on it as his different ailments wear him down from his sensitive hearing and sense of smell to his intense dislike of being touched. It's an oddball part for sure, one I didn't quite know what to make of. A rising star who never quite became a star, Damon is more on edge here in an uncomfortable, awkward part. Maybe because we're dropped into the story with no real background, but his love for Madeline seems a little much, especially when Roderick starts spouting off about the Usher curse and all that fun stuff. You know, if curses on your wife bother you.

As the seemingly cursed Madeline, Fahey is all right but underused as a key character who just isn't on-screen enough to leave much of an impression. And because every possibly haunted mansion in the country needs a doorman and butler, Harry Ellerbe plays Bristol, the oft-maligned houseman for the Usher home, always looking worried and always trying Philip to bail.

It isn't the big twist or revelation that works in the final act here in 'Usher.' It's more of a surprise that Price's Roderick has for Philip. The reveal of that surprise does work, but it gets lost late as some supernatural family hijinks take over. A disappointment overall. I'm not a huge horror fan, but this one sure sounded like it had some potential only to fall short in the end.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1960): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, December 11, 2014


You know what was so great about the 1960s and much of the 1970s? B-movies just didn't at all. Politically incorrect, racist, needlessly violent, in poor taste, random bits of nudity, drugs and rock and roll. They had them all! Sure, these weren't major studio releases that were too worried about public outcry -- audiences wanted all those things -- but still, there's a charm to the "We don't give a F***!" mentality. Today's entry? A prison flick, 1969's Riot.

Serving a five-year sentence for an unnamed crime, Cully Briston (Jim Brown) goes about his business as best he can, trying not to cause any issues at all. Well, that's about to change. Sent to see a deputy warden by a guard, Cully is in the wrong place at the wrong time in the administration building. A group of prisoners in isolation cells, led by Red Fraker (Gene Hackman), has managed to escape and take a handful of guards and officials hostage. They hope to buy some time and pull off an escape, but their plan is thrown awry when someone is able to signal the guards. Now, the group is forced to improvise as guards line the walls with every weapon they have. Forced to work with Red and his fellow prisoners, Cully has to tread a fine line. He's right in the thick of it but has to decide what's the best plan of attack for himself. He's gotta decide quick with time running out.

What an interesting movie. Based on a non-fiction novel from author Frank Elli, 'Riot' tells the true story of a riot in a prison with at least a couple possible influences. Now all that said, I can't find the real-life incident it's based on so go figure. 'Riot' has all sorts of positives that just wouldn't seem to work in a 2014 flick. For starters, it was filmed on location at the Arizona State Prison with the real-life warden playing himself. Actual inmates played many of the background and supporting parts. What?!? Brown and Hackman have one scene after another with real inmates. Now who knows, maybe these were inmates in prison for robbing a pack of gum, but they're in prison just the same. The locations, the prison inmate casting, it adds a real cool touch to the movie, a sense of authenticity in this gritty prison B-movie.

Now if you're going to have real-life prison inmates starring in your B-movie, you'd better have a couple actors/stars who can hold their own. Yeah, I guess Jim Brown and Gene Hackman qualify in that scenario, huh? Sorta I guess. Right in his heyday, Brown's Cully is the perfect anti-hero, calm, cool and collected as a prisoner thrust into an unlikely leadership role. He's trying to keep about 100 different plates spinning, all with an end game in sight. Hackman has a fun part too, avoiding anything too hammy as the confident, plan-wielding Red who sees that plan fall apart pretty quickly. Having worked together a year earlier in 1968's The Split, it's cool to see these two tough guy actors working together again. They're the two biggest names by far, and their scenes together were the movie's high point for me.

Who else to look for? Some recognizable names and faces if not big stars. Mike Kellin plays Bugsy, the antsy right hand man to Red who seems to buckle under the slightest push, while Ben Carruthers (who was one of The Dirty Dozen with Brown) plays Surefoot, a wild-eyed Indian hoping to put a knife right in Cully's gut. Gerald S. O'Loughlin plays Grossman, a tough-talking guard who freaks out when the tables are turned.

There are certain things that scream 1960s B-movie though, that lack of interest in doing anything mainstream or familiar. Where to start? It doesn't shy away from the brutality of prison life. We meet a gay prisoner/hospital attendant named Mary (Clifford David), not to mention two other prisoners dubbed 'Queens' in the cast listing. They dress up as women with skirts, underwear, wigs and makeup, and dance for the pleasure of the other prisoners. At one point, Brown's Cully has a great dream sequence where he escapes and is dropped off -- via helicopter -- at a pool surrounded by bikini-clad women. It's so cheesy it works. There's plenty of moments like that sprinkled throughout director Buzz Kulik's 96-minute prison movie. A little overdone but who cares? You get the sense Kulik stood there and just said 'Here's my movie. Hate it if you want.'

If there is anything misleading about the movie's title, well, there isn't much of a riot. The movie is far more of a hostage situation with some prisoners living it up detours. The build-up is interesting throughout as we wait to see which side will blink first, the guards or the prisoners, but it never quite builds to what you think it will be. The finale does offer a couple twists amidst some graphic violence, but 'Riot' wasn't exactly the movie you'd think it would be. Still highly entertaining and a very passable way to spend an hour and a half in the guilty pleasure department. In the anti-hero folk character department, Brown even gets a theme song, 100 Years, that you can listen to HERE.

Riot (1969): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


So there's the United States, but if you ask some people from Texas, there's a different way of looking at it. There's 49 states that make up the U.S., and then there's TEXAS!!! A giant state with some giant personality, it needs a movie just as big as the idea of the state to really get the message across. Here's an epic that certainly tries, 1956's Giant.

It's the early 1910s and young, powerful Texas rancher Jordan 'Bick' Benedict (Rock Hudson) travels to a farm in Maryland to buy a strong, beautiful young horse. There, he finds what he's looking for and much, much more. Instantly struck, Bick marries the seller's daughter, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), who's as equally moved by the big, strong Texan. Leslie travels back to Texas with Bick where she's stunned by the immensity of the Benedict ranch, hundreds of thousands of acres with cattle numbering in the thousands. The life is hard but worthwhile...for those accustomed to it. Leslie is used to a certain openness about living and prejudices and beliefs, none of which she finds in Texas. The marriage is just weeks old, but Bick and Leslie begin to butt heads almost immediately. The young couple with everything at their disposal, right at their fingertips, is heading into a turbulent time, both for themselves but also for Texas.

Some movies just scream EPIC, and in the age of the monster budget, historical epics, this 1956 Texas family drama from director George Stevens certainly qualifies. Based off a novel from author Edna Ferber, this is a big old movie. At the time, it was the most expensive film ever made. The scope and scale is gigantic. Stevens took advantage of the widescreen filming techniques, filling the screen with the wide expanses of the Texas plains in all its sunny and sandy glory. Visually, 'Giant' is a stunner. Dimitri Tiomkin's score is solid but more subdued than most of his more well-known scores and with an obvious reliance on some patriotic Texas songs. A must in an epic -- seemingly -- is to get a message across though, to say something. That's where 'Giant' seems to stumble in a big way. I don't know if it's trying to say much of anything. That's for a little later. For now, here's some positives to take away.

So big story, big setting....yeah, we need a big cast. Two rising stars who were definitely on the way to bigger and better things in Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. I was interested in these characters which is a credit to Hudson and Taylor because let's be honest. These aren't especially likable characters. They bicker, fight and argue about anything and everything. Love at first sight....until real life settles in. So they're not especially likable, but they do a fine job bringing these characters to life. It feels like real life, two madly in love individuals figuring out marriage and love isn't so easy. Neither is a truly great performance, but they're very solid performances just the same. 

Unfortunately, 'Giant' was remembered both then and now for the sudden, tragic death of one of its cast members. That actor? The iconic James Dean, star of just three movies before his sudden passing in 1955 before the film was completely finished, just 24 years old when he died. Here, he plays Jett Rink, a lower class cowboy working on the Benedict Ranch, a thorn in Bick's side but liked by everyone else. Jett was my favorite character, a remotely sympathetic anti-hero just trying to make his way, to carve out a niche for himself. A late monologue had to be re-recorded because the dubbing hadn't been completed before his surprising death during post-production. It's a quiet, understated part with some great moments (early on at least), especially when Jett's land proves to be far more valuable than originally thought. An obvious influence on many actors who would rise to stardom in the coming years, Dean is a gem.

Okay, enough with the relative positives. I love epics, especially those from the 1950s and early 1960s. This one pushed even me to the limits to the point I struggled to get through the last hour-plus in a movie that already runs 201 minutes. The first 90-120 minutes are pretty good if nothing classic in my mind. Then from there on in, the story jumps to when Bick and Leslie are far older, their empire grown, their family established and all grown up. At this point, all the issues introduced early are basically brushed aside. The story -- not exactly fast-moving up to this point -- grinds to a complete halt. Characters are introduced and dispatched with little fanfare. It drifts aimlessly until an ending that to put it lightly is disappointing. Was there an ending in mind that actually accomplished something? 'Giant' limps to the finish line after a painfully slow 3-hour road trip.

That's the biggest issue. What -- if anything -- is it trying to say? It's obviously a story focused on family and Texas and all their drama. Let's say this though. There is A LOT of drama. It's everything from marital strife to racism, sexism to political corruption, old school versus new school, parenting methods to manipulation of all sorts and on countless different levels, cattle ranching to becoming an oil baron. Pick one, or even two or three, and run with it. Instead, Giant just barrels ahead with all of the above and lets things fall where they may.

Now back to the casting. The characters may not always be very good, but the star power is impressive. Mercedes McCambridge does what she does best as Luz, Bick's sister who's a tomboy, a bit of a spinster, and if this movie was in 2014...a tough as nails lesbian. Chill Wills is solid in a more subdued part as Bick's very Texas uncle. As for the younger generation that pops up in the last third of the movie, look for Carroll Baker, Sal Mineo, Earl Holliman, and Dennis Hopper. Oh, and for good measure, Paul Fix and Rod Taylor have underused supporting parts so there's that. A big disappointment for me though, one I really, REALLY wanted to love. I came away barely tolerating it. A major disappointment.

Giant (1956): **/**** 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Desperate Trail

So relying on a worthy movie review intro....Sam Elliott is cooler than you. Like...a lot. In the age of big, Hollywood stars, Elliott has become a dying breed in movies. He's a character actor, an actor content to play his part and typically absolutely KILL that part. That deep, gravelly voice, that epic mustache, Elliott was right at home within the western genre, like 1995's The Desperate Trail.

Traveling by stagecoach, Marshal Bill Speakes (Elliott) is transporting a prisoner convicted of murder to be hung. That prisoner....well, it's not your typical prisoner. Her name is Sarah O'Rourke (Linda Fiorentino), and she's been convicted of murdering her husband. The stagecoach is attacked though in a robbery attempt, and Sarah is able to get her hand on a pistol and take control of the situation, even finding $5,000 in a Wells Fargo lockbox. Well, she was in control of the situation. Another passenger, a seemingly harmless Easterner, Jack Cooper (Craig Sheffer), is able to get the jump on both Speakes and Sarah, riding off with all the money in his saddlebags. He's got to put some miles behind him though because Sarah isn't far behind and Marshal Speakes isn't too far behind her.

Now don't hold it against me, but I can't remember for sure. I believe 'Desperate' was a made-for-TV western that aired on TNT in 1995. I've reviewed a handful of these efforts over the last few years, but this is one of the few I had no experience with. From director P.J. Pesce (who co-wrote the script with Tom Abrams), 'Desperate' is certainly different from just about any other TNT western I can think of. Even Dollar for the Dead in all its spaghetti western tribute goofiness was just that; goofiness. This one is different. It's obviously influenced by countless westerns before it but has some fun being quite different from the norm. A female convict? An Eastern thief not used to the ways of the west? Unheard of!

Don't expect a ton of huge names in the cast if you're looking. It was especially cool to see Sam Elliott play a darker role if not necessarily a villainous role. There's more to his hunt for Sarah than just a law officer doing his job as that hunt becomes almost obsessive. He's going to get this woman and he's going to watch her hang. Rounding out the lead trio is Fiorentino and Sheffer, two actors who seemed destined for bigger and better during the 1990s but never took that big step to stardom. Fiorentino is all right but not especially memorable as Sarah, looking almost bored in some scenes. I thought Sheffer was the best thing going here as Cooper, the Bostonian traveling west to pull off a robbery he's been planning. With his manicured mustache, his nice suit, his derby hat, he looks out of place but Cooper is more capable than he's letting on. It's that likable anti-hero you can't help but be interested in. Two-for-three ain't too bad.

So do you like a good western? Awesome! Great to hear! I don't know any other way to say this other than....this is a genuinely kinda odd western. It's weird. The violence is surprisingly graphic for a TV movie, and there's even some surprising nudity. The rhythm is pretty straightforward, a chase from town to town, and the angle between Sarah and Cooper doesn't exactly come out of left field. Okay, here goes. 'Desperate' has that feeling of "I don't care what you think. Here's our movie. Deal with it." Not quite a revisionist western, I think it is just content to be itself, to be weird, to be excessively violent and quirky. At one point, Elliott's Speakes guns down a member of his own posse and threatens to do it to several others. It isn't going for laughs, but the genuine quirkiness provides some laughs. I don't know. Just weird, mostly in a good way.

Clocking in at 93 minutes, 'Desperate' isn't around too long to overstay its welcome. Here's the movie. Enjoy it. There's action sprinkled throughout, all of it building up to a bullet-riddled finale at an isolated desert ranch and barn. The slow motion, squib-heavy violence can be pretty rough at times, but it's an exciting ending for sure. Now as for the open-ended final scene? Eh, gag me. I'll pass. As for the rest of the cast, look for Frank Whaley as Cooper's astronomy-loving brother, John Furlong as an unlikely, abusive posse member and Bradley Whitford as a hard-drinking Irishman. An interesting movie in the end if not a good one. Definitely interesting though and probably worth a watch.

The Desperate Trail (1995): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, December 5, 2014


Name the best actors currently working in Hollywood. You know what name doesn't always come up but definitely should? For me, Jake Gyllenhaal's name certainly belongs on that list with movies like Prisoners, Zodiac, Jarhead, End of Watch and Brokeback Mountain to his name. There's a new movie at the top of the list, 2014's Nightcrawler.

Living in Los Angeles in a small, sparsely furnished apartment with no job, a crappy car and no real prospects, Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is looking for a career. He just doesn't know what. One night as he's driving on the expressway, he drives past a flaming wreck as two police officers pull an unconscious woman from the car. Two cameramen rush past him to get footage of the incident, footage they intend to sell to local news stations. The better the footage? The better the money. With that, Louis sees a new possible career. Through some dubious means, he gets a used video camera and even hires an assistant -- an intern really -- to help him navigate Los Angeles in the dead of night in search of the best, the juiciest (read = bloodiest, most graphic, most grizzly), and most salacious footage. How far is Louis willing to go to create this new niche for himself? Is there even a limit?

Yikes. What a movie, a movie I didn't expect when I headed into it. The plot description mentioned a driven man in L.A. muscling into the world of crime journalism. That is an apt description, an accurate one but one that only gives a sense of what's coming. There's so much more happening here. Reading more into the film, I was a little worried when I saw Dan Gilroy had both written and directed 'Nightcrawler.' Not a hugely recognizable name but one who's worked pretty regularly in Hollywood. My problem was that he'd written Real Steel, Two for the Money and The Bourne Legacy, two films I really didn't like and one I was disappointed in. Making his directorial debut, Gilroy doesn't disappoint, shaking off those disappointments (for me at least, and THAT'S what matters) for an incredible movie to watch, both uncomfortable and entertaining.

There's no place to start here other than Gyllenhaal. When I say I didn't know what to expect of the movie heading into it, it's because of Gyllenhaal. This isn't a movie about L.A. crime journalism. This is a character study of a man in L.A. crime journalism. It isn't an action movie as some previews and trailers might have you think. This is Jake Gyllenhaal's movie, and my goodness, he delivers a captivating performance. You meet his Lou early on and think "Okay, nerdy, quirky dude with no real skillset who's still trying to make something of himself." Yeah, that's what you think. There's so, SO much more to this performance. There is little to nothing in the way of background about Lou got to this point, but as you see the movie develop, you just know that backstory is not a pleasant one. The details? They would be as uncomfortable -- if not more -- if we learned more about Lou.

So how do you describe this character? Hmm, well....Lou is insane. He's a lunatic. He's a sociopath, and Gyllenhaal brings him to life with each passing scene that gets more and more uncomfortable, unsettling and downright scary at times. You laugh at times because what he says is so profoundly wrong. Lou Bloom isn't well-educated or come from an upper class background. He learns. He teaches himself, and he plans. His life is cold, calculating and bottom line with everything. Can you help him? Yes? You're okay. Are you expendable? Watch out. Gyllenhaal commits to the part from his simple wardrobe to his slicked back hair, his lifeless eyes transitioning immediately to rage-filled eyes ready to explode. This is an incredible acting job. It's early for movie awards season, but Gyllenhaal definitely deserves Best Actor consideration.

Three other key parts dot the movie, starting with Rene Russo as Nina Romina, a news director at an L.A. news station looking for some ratings. She sees the talent in Lou but doesn't realize the depths he'll go to for a story or footage. Riz Ahmed is excellent as Rick, Lou's poorly paid intern who is desperate and needs work, dealing with all of Lou's drama and outbursts. Last but not least, look for Bill Paxton as Joe Loder, another nighttime crime journalist who butts heads with Lou and his general aggressiveness.

What Gilroy does so well is build up and create this world. The glimpses of daylight in a 117-minute movie are rare. This is a nighttime movie for the nigthcrawling world. This is a story on the streets of Los Angeles, the fluorescent and neon lights paving the way. It's a dark, grimy, gritty and incredibly violent world. The business is cutthroat if you want to make a name for yourself. You have to push the limits, and in Lou's case, slam through those limits and make up your own. The ending is about as close as you get to a more mainstream action movie, a chase through the open, empty streets of Los Angeles as Lou and Rick push those limits. It builds to an ending I found disappointing, but one that works as you think about the reality of the world we live in right now. Sadly enough, people are incredibly interested in the gory, graphic, bloody and horrifically violent. That's it. That's all.

Oh, and Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent. If you like that sort of thing.

Nightcrawler (2014): *** 1/2 /****