The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, July 31, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire

Should there be a limit on when sequels can be released following the original? You'd think studios would want to strike while the iron is hot in most cases. Well, most cases, not all. Released in 2006, 300 was a huge success, earning almost $500 at the worldwide box office. I was a little surprised then last year to read a sequel was in the works. To be fair, it's not exactly a sequel in the most literal sense. Still, I'm a huge fan of the original 300 so I had to at least check out the follow-up, 2014's 300: Rise of an Empire.

As an immense Persian army totaling in the hundreds of thousands descends on Greece, Persian God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) prepares for a complete and utter takeover. While Leonidas, the King of Sparta, and his personal guard of 300 Spartans look to bottle up the Persian forces at Thermopylae, an Athenian general, Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), is desperately trying to unite the Greek city states in hopes of mounting a defensive effort. His plan is to take on the gigantic Persian navy with a limited navy supplied by the city states, but even the thought of victory will require a creative defensive plan, relying on guts and some luck too. Themistocles' hopeful victory seems desperate at best, especially when the Persian navy is commanded by a powerful female warrior, Artemisia (Eva Green), with Greek blood who wants nothing more than to lead her forces to a decisive victory.

So yeah, I loved 2006's 300. I loved the graphic novel-like look, loved the characters, the over-the-top, bloody action, and I've always been a sucker for sword and sandal epics. It is and was an all-around winner. Naturally, I had to give this follow-up from director Noam Murro a shot, with 300 director Zack Snyder co-writing the script with Kurt Johnstad based on a still to be released graphic novel from Frank Miller. So why isn't it a sequel? The story in 'Empire' is actually going on as the events with Leonidas and the 300 Spartans are transpiring. 'Empire' is based off the real-life historical battle of Salamis (<----obvious p="" spoilers="">
When '300' was first released, it's visual look resembling a graphic novel adaptation was completely new. It tweaked a familiar formula with some incredibly graphic -- if cartoonish -- violence shown in stylish, slow motion battle scenes. Now eight years later, it doesn't play like it is so original. The story is never dull, but it also never managed to pull me in like its predecessor. Buff, bearded hero to lead the way? Check. Some hard-edged, angry motivational speeches about loyalty and fighting and patriotism? Double and triple check. There's a pretty graphic sex scene -- Stapleton and Green absolutely going at it -- in the vein of the first movie, and a character subplot of a Greek warrior worrying about his hopeful warrior son is plucked right from the original. It's not bad. It's just not that good either. Too familiar, doesn't create enough of its own identity.

It's weird to think of it now, but back in 2006, Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender (making his film debut) were far from big stars. 'Empire' tries that route again, going down the route of casting relatively unknown actors to fill the major roles. Stepping into the main heroic warrior role is Stapleton (Gangster Squad, Animal Kingdom) as real-life Athenian general Themistocles. It's a part not quite as good as what Butler did in bringing Spartan leader Leonidas to life, but it's still pretty good. He delivers an impassioned, fiery pre-battle speech pretty well too, a requirement for the part because there's at least three or four of them. The problem becomes the rest of the Greeks. They just aren't especially memorable beyond Themistocles. There's also Callan Mulvey as Scyllias, Themistocles' right-hand man, a capable warrior and even a spy, who's also worrying about his son, Callisto (Jack O'Connell), who so desperately wants to be a famed Greek warrior. Also watch for Hans Matheson as Aeskylos, a warrior who looks worried a lot.

By far the best thing about 'Empire' is Eva Green as the badass, ass-kicking Greek woman turned Persian naval commander Artemisia. As she's shown in Casino Royale and looks like she'll show again later this summer in the Sin City sequel, Green is one tough actress who can hold her own with the guys. That's on display anytime she's on-screen here. This is one nasty character, cold-blooded and full of hate and vengeance. Too often female characters are thrown into action movies....well, just because, but Green is a scene-stealer each and every time she is on-screen. An excellent part.

Beyond Green's performance, the best thing about 'Empire' unfortunately is mostly the nods to its predecessor. We get snippets here, a brief scene here of Leonidas and his last stand at Thermopylae. We learn how Santoro's Xerxes become a god-king in a cool flashback narrated by Leonidas' wife and queen of Sparta, Gorgo (played by Lena Headey). Along with Santoro and Headey, also look for returning stars David Wenham as wounded Spartan warrior Dilios, Andrew Tiernan as treacherous hunchback Ephialtes and Peter Mensah -- last seen being kicked into the Hole of Death -- as a key person from Atermisia's past. Fans of the original 300 will get a kick out of these touches, but when a movie is struggling to forge its own identity, these touches prove distracting. You're thinking about the other film, not the one you're watching.

Yes, the naval battles are pretty cool as Themistocles unleashes his outnumbered strategy on the attacking Persian forces. The action scenes were never in question, full of slashing swords, thrown spears and lots and lots of flying blood filling the screen. These scenes lack that emotion, that effectiveness that '300' had in abundance. Cool to watch, but there's not that special quality. Professionally done, but unfortunately 'Empire' is lacking that one special thing, that feeling that permeates throughout the entire movie. A disappointing end result.

300: Rise of an Empire (2014): **/****

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


I've been in Spartacus mode for about six months now. This spring I watched the entire run of Starz's Spartacus, I caught up with Howard Fast's novel Spartacus, found a couple non-fiction books about the famous slave turned gladiator at the library and then bought the TV miniseries that aired about 10 years ago. So what is there left? Naturally I tried to save the best for last, catching up recently with one of Hollywood's great historical epics, 1960's Spartacus.

It's the 70s B.C. in Rome when a Thracian slave named Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is bought from a Libyan mine and sold to a gladiator school in Capua, Italy, several days ride from the city of Rome.  The popularity of gladiators is growing ever stronger, Spartacus thrust into training to become hopefully one of the best. He shows promise but also resents the life, the hatred beginning to grow at Rome's brutal, cruel insistence on slaves and slavery itself. Months into his training, Spartacus incites a brutal takeover, his fellow gladiators joining him in a bloody attack that gives them power and allows them to escape. At first content to be a roving band of marauding bandits, Spartacus organizes his fellow escaped gladiators into an army. They can be more than bandits. They can be an army. An army that with growth and training could challenge Rome itself. His name grows, his army increases with each passing day. In Rome, a powerful Senator and businessman, Marcus Crassus (Laurence Olivier), watches the effect the gladiator slave general has and braces for a reply...if it's not too late.

Wowza, what a good movie, the definition of a historical epic that dominated Hollywood through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. A somewhat checkered production had some issues, a 30-year old Stanley Kubrick replacing Anthony Mann just a week or so into filming. Oddly enough, it is a movie that Kubrick doesn't consider one of his own, not including it in the canon of his films. It is an epic, a smart, well-written, beautifully shot movie with an impressive cast. Composer Alex North turns in a perfect score, large in scale but also very emotional in the quieter moments. I was always a fan of the score, but it really resonated with me on the most recent viewing. There isn't a weakness here, author Howard Fast's novel come to life in truly epic form.

One of the biggest stars working in Hollywood at the time, Kirk Douglas was firmly behind this movie, helping ramrod it right into production and is listed as executive producer. I've always thought this is one of his strongest, if underappreciated, performances. As slave turned gladiator turned general, Douglas is Spartacus. He has several effective so-called "bigger scenes" but the more effective moments are the quiet ones. When he touches the hand of the woman he loves, the rage in his eyes as he's addressed by his superiors, the pride when his army stands up for him, this is an actor doing his absolute best. He brings a real-life character to life, and it's easy to see why so many followed him against Rome. Douglas is charismatic and welcoming from beginning to end. He's furious and full of hate at the Roman system that enlists hundreds of thousands of slaves. Ultimately, he's pushed too far, and his response is something that shakes the world. Just a great performance from a Hollywood legend.

What this flick is able to do so well is to blend so many different moving pieces together. It is an epic with a true ensemble cast, all of the assembled talent given a chance to shine. In one of the best love stories I can think of, Douglas has a great chemistry with Jean Simmons, playing Varinia, a slave from Brittania who becomes Spartacus' wife, friend and confidant. They just work. They're perfect together. There's one of the great actors of all-time, Laurence Olivier, relishing the part of Crassus, a criminally smooth, brilliant manipulator who yearns for power in all forms. There's Tony Curtis in one of his best roles, here as Antoninus, an educated slave who escapes from Olivier's Crassus and joins Spartacus' army. Opposites in most ways, the uneducated leader and the younger, educated fighter become very close, a father-son, brotherly relationship. There's Charles Laughton as Gracchus, the Roman senator with a long, distinguished career behind him, now opposing Crassus, and John Gavin as Caesar, the young and upcoming senator, both giving Rome's perspective as Spartacus' revolt grows and grows. Oh, and there's a scene-stealing Peter Ustinov as Batiatus, the owner of the gladiatoral school that Spartacus escapes from, an Oscar-winning part for Ustinov.

Oh, but there's more. Herbert Lom plays Tigranes, an oily pirate negotiating with Spartacus to get his army out of Italy. As for the gladiators turned army command, look for an underused John Ireland as Crixus with Harold J. Stone and Nick Dennis also standing out from the crowd with smaller supporting parts. One of three performances in 1960 that helped make him more than a physical presence, Woody Strode plays Draba, an experienced gladiator worn down by the constant killing in the arena. A small part but a key one to propel the story forward. And last but not least, gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw as Marcellus, the brutal gladiator instructor, a man tasked with turning slaves into killing machines intended for the gladiator ring. Strength from top to bottom, not a weak link in one of the great casts ever put together.

This is a thinking man's epic, not a true sword and sandal epic. The script from blacklisted author/writer Dalton Trumbo is a gem, giving a window into the politics of the time. The story moves amongst the ensemble from the gladiator school in Capua, to the streets and halls of the Roman Senate, to Spartacus' base at Mount Vesuvius to his camps moving across Italy. Trumbo's script is an idea-script, one about freedom and corruption, living life to its fullest even if the means seem impossible. We see the inner-workings of the Roman senate, of Spartacus' inner circle. You get a feeling of what the times were like in ancient Rome. Just a beautifully written script, Douglas saying "Screw it" to the blacklist that prevented Trumbo from writing for years.

'Spartacus' has moments both big and small here, both working seamlessly. The arena fight between Spartacus and Draba is a gem. Not drawn out but incredibly intense, including a great twist near its conclusion. The revolt in the school is quick and hard-hitting, the tension finally boiling to an unbearable point. As the rebellion grows -- the real-life history was called the Third Servile War -- Spartacus realizes the fight can be as big as his army wants it to be. The entire movie is a treat to watch, but I've always found the second half the film's strongest, especially when the tide turns against the slave army. Maybe the most iconic scene, "I'm Spartacus!," has become a punchline in pop culture, but in context, it is one of the most beautifully constructed, emotionally perfect scenes ever, the camera lingering on Douglas as an ideal conclusion. Watch it HERE with obvious spoilers. The same for a late scene between Spartacus and Antoninus discussing the impact of what they've done, Spartacus willing to Crassus "He'll come back and he'll be millions." Too many great moments to mention.

This isn't an action-heavy movie so beware going in if you're expecting 3 hours of battle scenes. Supposedly more battle scenes were filmed but never used, all in hopes of making the one major battle late in the film far more effective. It is, but this is not a movie interested in the scope and scale of battle. This is a story about the people. We see scenes with literally thousands of extras, but the camera zooms in on the faces, people we see popping up throughout the second half of the movie. Old and young, mothers and fathers, teenagers, kids, thin and fat. The moment where Spartacus walks through his camp on the eve of battle is perfect, the former slave truly realizing the scope of what his army has accomplished. The post-battle scene is that much more gut-wrenching as is the finale itself.

Just a classic. Enjoy it.

Spartacus (1960): ****/****

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing

If I know a movie is based off a book, I typically try to find that book before jumping into a viewing. Some are easier than others -- in terms of film and literature -- to track down so you take them when you can. I stumbled across The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing several years ago at a local library knowing it was also a feature length film. I didn't especially care for the book, but there was some potential. Now as for the movie....that proved difficult tracking it down. That is until TCM aired it recently. Here we are with the film adaptation, 1973's The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing.

Having pulled off a successful train robbery at an isolated part of the desert, outlaw Jay Grobart (Burt Reynolds) and his gang ready themselves to ride off with thousands of dollars in their saddlebags. The gang is in for a surprise though. A woman, Catherine Crocker (Sarah Miles), has accidentally ridden up and witnessed the entire robbery. With no alternative, the gang brings her along as a hostage of sorts, knowing a posse will be along soon enough. Jay and Co. put some miles between them, but they're right. A posse is following their trail, a Wells Fargo agent, Lapchance (Lee J. Cobb), and Catherine's worrying husband (George Hamilton), leading the way. With Catherine in tow, Jay continues on the getaway as planned. That route takes them right into Indian territory where Jay has a to this point unspoken plan he intends to bring about.

I can't say I went into this flick with high expectations with a pretty decent memory of the novel from author Marilyn Durham. Still, I'm having more and more trouble tracking down westerns from major studios I haven't seen before so I wanted to give it a fair shot. The cast was impressive enough. The story had potential, even if I felt like the novel wasted much of that potential. So clean slate going in, 'Man' still didn't do it for me. It isn't quite the ultra-dark vision of so many other revisionist westerns of the 1970s, but it does try for some sort of reality. The west as presented is violent, unpleasant, gritty and dirty where survival is as much about luck as anything else. What is this western from director Richard C. Sarafian missing then? While there are performances that are worth mentioning, the movie itself simply isn't interesting.

One of my pet peeves in westerns is unnecessarily jamming a love story into an otherwise good story that doesn't NEED a love story. Well, sticking to the Durham novel, 'Man' rides along with the love story that develops between Jay and Catherine. The odd thing isn't that the love story there. It's how it develops. Catherine is actually running away from her husband, and we find out she is a lady at basically all times. How's that? Yeah, she doesn't like sex to the point she's embarrassed by it. Does her husband abuse her? Could be although it's never spelled out. Naturally, Catherine gets some Stockholm Syndrome for Jay who is rough with her and doesn't baby her. She falls madly in love with him even when we find out about Jay's rather checkered past, especially with his dead wife, an Indian woman named Cat Dancing. It plays out in odd fashion and seems like an odd fantasy to have, like something you'd see in a schmaltzy romance novel.

So beyond that, the performances are pretty decent. It's cool to see Reynolds sink his teeth into a meatier performance, a heavy dramatic part. He's always good in lighter comedy roles, but give the guy credit. Reynolds was a solid dramatic actor when he wanted to be, and the anti-hero good guy turned bad guy in a western with a checkered past is a familiar western archetype. Miles does her best with what I found to be a poorly written character. Her chemistry is good with Reynolds, and she has a memorable moment here and there, but the character's intentions and motivations float all over the place. Lee J. Cobb is underused as the Wells Fargo agent while Hamilton is kept in the dark with another poorly defined character. He's shown as a bit of a dandy, a gentleman more interested in what people think of him than actually getting his wife back, but like so many characters we don't find out enough about him. As for Jay's gang look for Bo Hopkins and Jack Warden as despicably bad outlaws with Jay Varela playing Charlie, the one decent member of the crew. Also look for Robert Donner and Jay Silverheels in supporting parts.

A disappointing end result. At 123 minutes, it is far too long, possibly in an effort to be dreamlike and.....nah, just slow-moving. The soundtrack isn't memorable in the least, and while there is some beautiful on-location shooting, the movie just dreary-looking from beginning to end. The finale could have saved the movie some, but even there the brakes are tapped in a big way to make things a happy Hollywood ending. A meh movie in the end.

The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973): **/****

Monday, July 28, 2014


Some movies just defy description. They're just that bad. Now, you know what movie is pretty great? 1975's Jaws, the first true summer blockbuster. You know what isn't so good about it? The seemingly countless sequels, ripoffs and countless quasi-remakes. Some of them are pretty awful but pretty entertaining if you're looking for a laugh. Then there's 1977's Tentacles. It isn't entertaining. It. Is. Just. Bad.

At Ocean Beach, a quiet seaside resort, not much in terms of danger ever goes on....until now. Several people have gone missing in the water, including one diver who went looking for the missing persons. Their bodies have been discovered, their skeletons stripped almost entirely of skin and the marrow sucked out of their bones. What could possibly doing this? A veteran newspaper reporter, Ned Turner (John Huston), is on the prowl, suspecting a huge corporation drilling in the ocean may be at fault. Keeping on the trail, Turner continues to look for an explanation, even turning to a famed animal trainer and experienced diver, Will Gleason (Bo Hopkins), for help. Looking at those who've been attacked and the mounting piles of evidence, Gleason suspects the attacks could have come from a giant octopus, a creature not known for attacking humans. Could Turner be onto something, linking the attacks to the corporation? Lives depend on them finding the answer.

Wow, what a bad, just plain awful, lousy movie. I like some of the Jaws ripoffs from Orca to Grizzly, both lousy movies, but my goodness, are they entertaining in their lousiness. This U.S./Italian co-production from director Ovidio G. Assonitis doesn't even qualify in the lousiness department. You know what the best thing going for this movie is? The music, composer Stelvio Cipriani turning in a memorable, foreboding score. Listen HERE for an extended sample. In a disaster-themed, killer animal on the loose movie, when the music is the biggest positive, you know you're in trouble. It just isn't good to the point it is painfully boring. 'Tentacles' follows the Jaws formula to a T, duplicating entire scenes, characters and story development. At no point is it ever scary or foreboding so go watch Jaws or even Jaws 2, Orca, or Grizzly for a far better time.

I'll give disaster movies credit where it's due. You get to see a lot of movie stars in one place at the same time. Now.....the performances aren't going to be very good, but it's an abundance of movie stars!!! How can you lose?!? Well, we do so there's that. No one seems particularly interested, but there is name recognition. Huston is a good choice to play a crotchety, grizzled reporter with Shelley Winters starring as his sister, a single mom who's always looking to seduce a younger man. Give him credit, Bo Hopkins commits to the material, even if his part is a pretty odd one. He's at one with animals, especially when his wife (Delia Boccardo) comes into danger. Also starring is Claude Akins as the overworked, overstressed town sheriff trying to save his townspeople. Cesare Danova plays the maligned corporation representative who must answer all the questions, knowing his company could be held responsible for the attacks. The rest of the speaking parts are badly dubbed English from Italian-speaking actors.

A master of the 1970s disaster movie cameo, Henry Fonda also makes a quick appearance as Mr. Whitehead, the President of Trojan Construction who's looking to make a buck. If some people get killed in the process....meh, whatever happens.

I don't know what to say here. It's not that the movie is bad because it is more than that. A bad movie can be entertaining, but this disaster knockoff is pure and simple boring as watching paint dry on a wall, as watching grass grow. The octopus attacks are laughable, seemingly also making an octopus a killing creature that sprints across the top of the ocean. Oh, no! It's shooting ink at me!!! The reasoning seems far-fetched even for a poorly written script, construction vibrations deep on the ocean floor infuriating the creature to the point it feels the need to kill and to kill often. A seemingly unstoppable killing machine in nature is a cool premise and a great jumping off point, but this one never does anything with it.

Then there's the end. Hopkins' animal trainer who's coming off an extreme incident with the bends unleashes his two killer whales to take out the octopus. I can't say I've seen too many movies where animals become hired killers, but this one counts. When things should be raring to go in the finale, it just doesn't. The underwater scenes go on and on without a sense of urgency. That's the entire movie, long stretches of boredom broken up by slightly less boring animal attacks. Some cool names in the cast, but even that is wasted. Steer clear or the tentacles may get you!

Tentacles (1977): */****

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Missouri Breaks

By the late 1960s, the idea of the good guys vs. bad guys westerns were a definite thing of the past. Spaghetti westerns helped blow the genre up, but back in the states, the concept of a revisionist western started to pop up more and more. Some are excellent -- Ulzana's Raid, The Hired Hand, The Culpepper Cattle Co. among others -- but for the most part, I've always felt they tried too hard to tear down the myths and legends, kneecapping themselves in the process. Somewhere in between is 1976's The Missouri Breaks, a truly odd film with some great moments canceled out by a fair share of bizarre moments.

On the wild frontiers of Montana, a horse rustler, Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson), and his gang have run into some trouble. One of their own has been captured and hung by a local land and cattle baron, Braxton (John McLiam), who took the law into his own hands. With his options somewhat limited, Logan puts a risky plan into action. He buys a small ranch near Braxton's home and poses as a farmer and horse trader, basically stealing from him from right under his nose. The plan seems just crazy enough to work, Logan's "farm" posing as a stop along the trail for stolen horses being transported. Sick of seeing his stock continually stolen, Braxton goes one step further to stop the unknown rustlers. He hires a regulator, a hired gun and killer, Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), to finish off the rustlers. The rancher might not know the extent of what he's gotten himself into, Logan and his gang in an identical spot. What does Clayton's arrival hold for all of them?

I like the idea behind most of the revisionist westerns. The American west in the 19th Century was a horrifically violent, tough place to start a life. In other words, the west wasn't the ideal, idyllic world many westerns show. From director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), 'Missouri' is dark, gritty, violent, brutal and truly, truly bizarre. It is a little too long at 125 minutes -- aimlessly drifting a little much for my liking -- and definitely tries too accomplish a lot, maybe too much. The production was more than a touch checkered with difficulties, both Brando and Nicholson demanding massive rewrites for their characters. Somewhere in this movie is a genuinely good movie, but it gets lost in a maze of misguided attempts at humor, some physical and raunchy, and moments of heavy drama. It all tries to be too quirky and off-the-wall. If you're going to be different with story and characters, so be it. Just do it. Don't aggressively call attention to it at all times.

Massive rewrites aside, I did like Jack Nicholson as the leader of a gang of horse rustlers, Tom Logan. One of the biggest stars of the 1970s, Nicholson embraces the character, the anti-hero who as presented, isn't such a bad guy. It isn't exactly a sympathetic character, but it is certainly an interesting one. We're not given much background -- just a blink and you'll miss it description about his past -- but then again, a tough as nails anti-hero doesn't need a whole lot of background. There's that Nicholson energy in patches, those outbursts, that nasty grin where you just know he's up to something. He's aided by his gang, especially Cal (Harry Dean Stanton), his right-hand man and an underplayed psycho of sorts. Nicholson and Stanton have a couple very strong scenes together, quiet scenes as the duo talks. The gang also includes Little Tod (Randy Quaid), Cary (Frederic Forrest), and Si (John P. Ryan).

As good as Nicholson is though, what most viewers will take away from 'Missouri' is Marlon Brando. The definition of a method actor, Brando takes this part to places I've never seen before in a western. There have been psychos, there have been unhinged killers, even deranged lunatics, but nothing like this. Brando's Clayton favors flowery perfumes, rocks an Irish brogue that drifts in and out, uses a high-powered sniper rifle, a dainty Mexican pistol with flowers on the handle and a knife-like throwing object that looks like a crucifix. He also quotes literature, is profoundly uncomfortable in his interactions, poses as a priest and a woman and becomes obsessed with completing the job. He's going up against someone in Nicholson who could similarly chew some scenery, but this performance from Brando is both profoundly good and profoundly bad. It's just unreal. It is a part that has to be seen to be believed.

An interesting movie if not a particularly good one. It's all over the place in the end. Too much time is spent with Nicholson's Logan and Braxton's daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), and their budding relationship. At different points, Clayton and Braxton both from a distance watch Logan and Jane engage in some sex on the prairie. Who could pass that up? The last 30/40 minutes are the movie at its best -- Clayton officially going rogue -- but even then, the ending taps the brakes some when it could have gone for a great finale. The big picture is this, I think 'Missouri' simply tackles too much. At different points, it is equal parts weird, funny, dramatic, comedy falling short, oddly sexual, and quirky for the sake of being quirky.

A missed opportunity with just enough -- just -- to give it a very mild recommendation. Definitely know what you're getting into though, especially with the Godfather himself, Marlon Brando.

The Missouri Breaks (1976): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

100 Rifles

Almost but not quite. At the peak of their popularity in the late 1960s, the spaghetti westerns found their footing in theaters all over the world. Studios from a long list of different countries did their best to release their own imitations. They were filmed in spaghetti western locations, used spaghetti-sounding scores, and often featured familiar faces from the genre. One of the better examples of those imitations? That's 1969's 100 Rifles.

It's 1912 somewhere south of the Rio Grande in Mexico, and an Arizona lawman, Lyedecker (Jim Brown), has no idea what he's ridden into. Looking to keep his sheriff position on a permanent basis, Lyedecker has been tasked with arresting and bringing back an outlaw who stole some $6,000 from an Arizona bank. He actually finds the outlaw, a Mexican-half breed, Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), in a small town but quickly finds out that Joe is wanted by the Mexican army as well. Now, Lyedecker finds himself working with the man he's supposed to arrest, but desperate times call for desperate measures. With an ethnic-cleansing minded general, Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), on their trail, Lyedecker and Joe race across the frontier. The key to them getting away? It may be a fiery Mexican girl, Sarita (Raquel Welch), fighting with the revolutionaries against Verdugo's forces.

Okay, let's get this out of the way. This is an entertaining, always interesting quasi-spaghetti western, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good. The story drifts along with a series of episodic showdowns and some cool characters over a 110-minute running time. Any criticisms aside though, this is an excellent, action-packed shoot 'em up that western and action fans will certainly enjoy. Filming on location in Almeria, spaghetti western fans will no doubt recognize some of the on-location shooting. Maybe the best thing you can take away from '100' is the score from composer Jerry Goldsmith. Listen to an extended sample HERE, the best part of the theme kicking in about 40 seconds in and then again at 1:55. It's an underrated score, one of my favorites, a great whistle-worthy theme. The score was recycled seven years later in the 1976 western The Last Hard Men.

Nothing flashy but always enjoyable, '100' is a good example of a Zapata western, westerns with similar themes and stories involving the Mexican Revolution. We get all the familiar faces, genre archetypes you get used to seeing with enough viewing. The Mexican bandit/fighter is Yaqui Joe, the outsider, usually an American thrust into the fighting, Lyedecker, the fiery revolutionary, Sarita, the evil general, Verdugo, the German military adviser, Lt. Franz Von Klemme (Eric Braeden), and the American businessman working with the developing railroad, Grimes (Dan O'Herlihy). Like the better Zapata westerns, '100' covers a lot of ground with plenty of interesting characters. They're drawn in broad strokes, the good if flawed (Lyedecker, Joe, Sarita), the bad (Verdugo) and the messy gray middle ground (Von Klemme, Grimes). It is all familiar, but it is fun.

What ends up being the best part of '100' is the buddy dynamic between Jim Brown's stubborn sheriff and Burt Reynolds' fun-loving, live on the edge bandito. They don't like each other in the least, but their constant arguing, the never-ending bitching and moaning is pitch perfect, especially when they're thrown right in the mix of all the fighting. Yaqui Joe (half-American, half-Indian) actually used his stolen $6,000 to buy 100 rifles for the revolution, but Lydecker still intends to bring him back for trial. The only way to do it? Help Joe escape from the Mexican army. The rest of the cast is okay to bad. The worst? Welch, sporting a stereotypically heavy Mexican accent as Sarita. She's given any number of chances to undress or wear little -- including one shower scene while wearing clothes -- but this wasn't her best work. Lamas evils it up in impeccable fashion, thick mustache, constant sneer and pearl-handled pistols completing the look. 

Who else to look for? Braeden is underused as Lt. Von Klemme, a military adviser who sees the mistakes Verdugo is making with each passing day. O'Herlihy is solid too as the greedy American businessman, interested in making the railroad money and keeping his locomotive intact. Also look for Michael Forest as Humara, Sarita's muscle-bound enforcer who doesn't speak a word, and spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Sgt. Paletes, Verdugo's trustworthy non-commissioned officer.

Onto the action! And let me tell you, there's plenty of it. The story drifts along at times, a series of quick dialogue scenes broken up by said action scenes. Lots of gunplay, some good chases, all of it handled well with only an occasional slow-motion death here and there. We get the small-scale like Brown and Reynolds having a good knock-down fight about halfway through. On the far bigger scale, we see an ambush of a heavily guarded train in a seemingly empty desert, all of it leading to the epic final showdown in another well-guarded town. Is this a great movie? Far from it, but I'm always entertained, and Reynolds especially makes it worthwhile. He commits himself to the fun, and it always looks like he's actually having fun. A good, solid almost spaghetti western.

100 Rifles (1969): ***/****

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Say the name John Carpenter, and I think of a few different movies. My favorite has always been The Thing, but he also directed Halloween, Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China among others. He had to start somewhere though, including one of his more notable and controversial movies, 1976's Assault on Precinct 13.

Having just received a promotion within the California Highway Patrol, Lt. Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) receives his orders for his upcoming shift. He's supposed to head over to a precinct that's in its final hours, the station closing the next morning. What's the point? Eh, he goes along with it. At the same time, a Death Row prisoner, Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston), is being transported to a new facility, but another prisoner on the bus is having some medical issues, forcing the bus to stop at the soon-to-be closed precinct. Lastly, a mysterious, quiet, almost in-shock man named Lawson (Martin West) stumbles into the police station. He's being chased by members of a street gang who are close behind and start to shoot up the station. Now, Bishop, Wilson, Lawson and the skeleton crew working during the precinct's last shift are in a fight for their lives. Unable to communicate with the outside world and isolated from the city, their hopes for survival seem slim at best. 

John Carpenter is a talented director who also writes screenplays and has done his own soundtracks, as he does here with a synth-sounding, electronica score. But you know what else he is? Above all else, he's a big fan of movies and films in general. I've seen him pop up in countless DVD special features and tribute interviews. He knows where films have come from and what audiences like while still making his own films....well, his own. I think this qualifies in a big way, touches of the western genre (Rio Bravo's prison under siege scenario, Once Upon a Time in the West providing several word-for-word lines) with an influx of all the violent craziness the 1970s had to offer. It was remade in 2005 (an entertaining, more star-driven action flick), but this 1976 original has a lot going for it. Does that make it a good movie though?

I think the more appropriate description is that 'Assault' is more an interesting movie than a good one. Made on the cheap with a budget of about $100,000, it has that low budget charm. It has the look of a renegade filmmaker trying something different. The violence is surprising and at times, shocking, including one infamous scene with a girl (Kim Richards) at an ice cream truck. It isn't interested in genre conventions either. Anyone and everyone is bait for the bad guys so don't blink. Just because you think you're safe, that means nothing. The cast has some recognizable faces but definitely no stars. It's all these little things that add up, but I came away kinda 'blah' to the whole thing. I liked it, didn't love it.

So who to look out for? As mentioned, not a ton of star power. Some recognizable faces but no stars. Stoker is the hero, the police officer seemingly on his own to survive and lead. The most interesting character was Joston's Wilson, a Death Row inmate who steps up to the plate with his life on the line. Not much development there, but it's an interesting persona. They perform a Hell of an Odd Couple. There's also Leigh (Laurie Zimmer), a pretty, tough police secretary, Wells (Tony Burton, of Rocky fame), as a fellow prisoner being transported, Starker (Charles Cyphers), the higher-ranking police officer in charge of the transport, Julie (Nancy Kyes), another secretary, Chaney (Henry Brandon), the crotchety, cantankerous officer, and the precinct captain (James Jeter). Some cool characters, but much of the focus is on Stoker, Joston, Zimmer and Burton.

I guess I was just looking for something else, something more. The street gang is never really explained, just that they've come into possession of a huge shipment of heavy and automatic weapons. They've taken an oath among the group, ready to die....because they're a really loyal street gang? I guess? They decide their efforts are best used shooting up an isolated precinct because someone inside has seriously wronged them. Wave after wave of attacks provide some cool, chaotic action scenes, but they get tedious quickly. Carpenter shoots these scenes in interesting fashion, seemingly unending gangsters with a death wish revealing themselves in the darkness, behind cars, moving in and around parked cars. There's some cool little moments that wouldn't be out of place in a horror movie.

But as a whole? It's okay. Nothing more, nothing less. I came away disappointed. It isn't a bad movie, but I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I hoped I would. A disappointing end result.

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976): **/****

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rio Bravo

Do you have a favorite western? No? What's wrong with you?!? Do a search for top 10 lists, of fans and critics alike pointing out their favorite westerns, and you'll see countless picks. One that pops up often that I'm not a huge fan of is 1952's High Noon. You know who else isn't a big fan? The Duke himself, John Wayne. Working with a deep cast, a talented director and a great script, here's Wayne's response to High Noon, 1959's Rio Bravo.

In the Texas border town of Rio Bravo, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne) finds himself in a bit of a spot. A man named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) callously shot down an unarmed man in a bar argument and is now sitting in Chance's jail. A murderer in itself isn't big news, but when Joe's brother is one of the richest men in Texas -- and with a small army of gunmen at his side -- that provides some problems for Chance. Burdette has bottled up the town so Chance can't transport his prisoner and he can't bring help in either. All the sheriff is left with is two deputies, Dude (Dean Martin), a drunkard, and Stumpy (Walter Brennan), an aging crippled man, to help do the job. With the town waiting to see what happens, Burdette's gunmen similarly waiting on the streets, Chance goes about putting a plan into action to get out alive and bring Joe Burdette to justice.

Wowza, what a good movie, a western that deserves its classic status. I grew up watching this Howard Hawks-directed western a lot as a kid and recently revisited it for the first time in years. The plot description proved a little rough because....well, the script is excellent, but the story isn't the most well-connected, concise of stories. If there's a complaint, it's that at 141 minutes and with an episodic story, things can be a tad slow at times, but you never really notice it (or I didn't at least). It isn't a comedy western, and it isn't a cynical, ultra-dark western, but somewhere in between as it mixes comedy (the script again), the drama and the action. Old Tucson is a great location spot for the town of Rio Bravo, that archetypal winding, dusty western town. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in a great subtle score -- very whistle-worthy -- and even test runs part of the score he'd use a year later in The Alamo. All key contributions to a winning formula.   

Of all his movies, John Wayne is most associated with the western genre. Many consider his western roles -- The Searchers, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Shootist -- to be among his strongest. Maybe not the showiest part, but Wayne's leading role here as Rio Bravo sheriff John T. Chance is Wayne at his tough, likable, easy-going best. If not his best acting performance, it's one of his most visually iconic, the vest over the red or blue shirt, the bent-up hat brim, the ever-present Winchester rifle in his hand. In the acting department, this is one of my favorites of the Duke's. He makes it look criminally easy what he's doing. He lets those around him show off more with "bigger" performances, content to do his thing. In the process, you can't help but watch him. He's the tough lead, the lead with some great comedic timing, and has one of his all-time best love interests in the form of Angie Dickinson as Feathers, a young woman with some troubles behind her. That chemistry is perfect, Wayne's Chance more and more exasperated with each passing scene. Just a great underplayed performance.

As a director, one of Hawks' specialties was the bonds and friendships formed among men in serious situations, a life and death drama. I don't know if that dynamic was ever better than it was here. There isn't a weak spot in the bunch with Wayne as Chance and Martin and Brennan as his maligned deputies. Even teen idol Ricky Nelson manages to find a good spot as Colorado Ryan, a young gunslinger looking to mind his first. Facing seemingly insurmountable odds, they bond, put their differences aside and become stronger as a collective group. Their chemistry is evident throughout, their dialogue crackling with each passing scene. Sure, they sing a couple songs together (My Rifle, My Pony and Me, Cindy, listen HERE) but it's Dean Martin! You're rooting for these guys, each of the quartet bringing something different to the table. Just hard to beat, one of the best, underrated casts in a western.

That's where the script steps to the plate. We don't get much in the way of backstory about most of the characters. In a line here and there, we pick up more than you'd think. We learn what drove Dude to drink, why cackling, ranting Stumpy has a limp, why Chance carries a rifle. Good, interesting characters we get to know quickly, and from there, the cast does the rest. Also look for Ward Bond (in his last film role) as Pat Wheeler, a freight owner who offers to help Chance, an underused, sneering Akins at his best, John Russell as his intimidating older brother, Nathan, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Carlos, the hotel owner, and Estelita Rodriguez as his wife, Consuela. 

So there isn't the most pointed story here. So be it, Hawks was never interested in the most linear, fast-paced stories. The pacing works here, too many episodic moments to mention. The opener is several minutes of silence as we're introduced to Chance and Dude, ultimately seeing Joe gun an unarmed man down. My personal favorite is a set piece with Chance and Dude following a wounded hired killer with muddy boots into a saloon...only they can't find him. It's a great little scene with an excellent payoff. The movie is full of such great moments, including the finale as Chance and Co. go toe-to-toe with the Burdettes during a prisoner exchange with Old Tucson again providing a pitch perfect backdrop to the western action.

Is it a perfect movie? No, but as far as entertaining movies goes, this one is hard to beat whether it is a western or not. The cast is perfectly used, showing off a chemistry that makes it fun to watch. Some truly funny laughs (Chance calling Stumpy "a treasure" and kissing him on his bald head), some great dialogue and one-liners, and a script that provides some great quotables. Hard to beat, and one of my favorite movies. If you're a fan, check out both El Dorado and Rio Lobo, Hawks basically remaking his own movie twice more.

Rio Bravo (1959): ****/****

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Losers (1970)

Well, at the rate I'm going, I'll watch a new biker movie every year or so. It's not that I don't like them, far from it. It's that at times, it can be difficult to find good ones, even viewable ones. So following up 1968's The Savage Seven (a very pleasant surprise) and 1969's Hell's Angels '69 (liked it a lot, heist movie meets biker movie), here's 1970's The Losers.

At a a remote Army outpost deep in Vietnam, a heavily armed patrol cuts through several Viet Cong ambushes to deliver a special team being used for an almost suicidal mission. Who steps out of the Army truck? Five Hells Angels bikers led by Link Thomas (William Smith), a tough as nails biker recruited by his brother, an Army major (Dan Kemp), who's limited by international law as to what he can do. Just across the border a few miles into Cambodia, an American diplomat/CIA agent is a prisoner of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, but American forces aren't allowed to cross the border to rescue him. On the other hand, there's nothing stopping five rogue Hells Angels from hopping on their bikes and riding into Cambodia. With Army backing as long as they're in Vietnam, Link and his men armor their motorcycles with armor-plating, heavy machine guns and grenades, all the while preparing to go in and rescue the captured American.

There are certain low budget genres you just know aren't going to be truly quality moments, many of them from the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Think of the lousier spaghetti westerns, gory, schlocky horror flicks, and in this case, biker flicks. Put a bunch of tough-looking, grizzled bikers on some motorcycles and let the craziness ensue, low budget be damned! If you can embrace that cheap quality, you're in for a treat. Sometimes, it's just too much. I wanted to like this biker action movie from director Jack Starrett (also starring as the paranoid, ranting CIA agent). At its heart, it is a men-on-a-mission movie, a bunch of oddballs working together to pull off a suicide mission. Even the bad ones can be good with that formula, but this one just isn't good enough to recommend. It has a moment here and there, but in between can be rough-going.

For openers, the casting felt like a good jumping off point. A physical bear of a man, Smith is Link, a Vietnam vet turned biker who assembles a team of bikers to pull off a rescue at his brother's behest. He's the leader, but an anti-hero through and through, troubled at what the war has become. He has a soft spot for some of the people he runs into, all the while trying to hold his crew together. That group includes biker regular Adam Roarke as Duke, a fellow vet looking to find a past love in the Vietnamese boonies,  Paul Koslo as Limpy, similarly finding love in a rundown old house, Houston Savage as Dirty Denny, the pot-smoking, booze-swilling, three-way having biker, and Eugene Cornelius as Speed, the goofy, long-haired hippie with an odd sense of humor. There's also Bernie Hamilton as Capt. Jackson, the regular army officer tasked with keeping the Losers in line, and John Garwood playing his right-hand man, Sgt. Winston.

Some cool potential there, right? That's what I figured, but that's what it remains with little else, potential. I expected a hard-edged men on a mission movie with said men fighting impossible odds. Instead, it's a half-boiled love story. We get Roarke's Duke reuniting with his lost love, walking through the fields dreamily, wondering about the future. Koslo's Limpy falls for a Vietnamese girl with a baby and steps in as a surrogate father. What the hell happened?!? Sure, there's some biker shenanigans, Dirty Denny (of course) having a three-way and then getting in a fight with some locals. There's no story, no sense of urgency, and no rhythm in the least. The bikers party and bitch and fight and screw around, outfit their cycles, and then oh yeah, they head into Cambodia. By that point, I'd been fast-forwarding through huge stretches of so-called 'story.'

If there's a remotely positive saving grace, it is the biker attack on the Red Chinese camp in Cambodia. All sorts of crazy bike stunts, gunfire and explosions throughout make it an exciting, adrenaline-pumping shootout. That isn't the end though, some preachiness saved for the last 15 minutes as a movie about bikers on a suicide mission decides it needs to deliver a message to its viewers. Seems logical, right? The ending is not surprisingly pretty downbeat, but it was yet another case of too little, too late. A pretty bad movie, aided by two folk songs in the soundtrack that try to again, add depth to a story that simply doesn't require it.

Make a movie about Hells Angels rampaging through Vietnam and Cambodia and be content with it. Don't try and make it something more. A disappointment.

The Losers (1970): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Last Voyage

I don't like ships. I don't like boats. I'm not a big fan of big, wide-open water so yeah....the ocean, bigger lakes, they freak me out. Yeah, psychiatric session instead of a movie review! I digress though as an introduction only. Movies about ships sinking creep me out in a big way. I saw Titanic in theaters twice, but yowza, that scared me. How about an earlier, far less known film about a ship sinking? Enter 1960's The Last Voyage.

The S.S. Claridon is making its way across the Pacific Ocean, sailing from California to Japan. An ocean liner that's been sailing for 38 years, the Claridon is well past its prime and long overdue for a major overhaul. Its captain, Robert Adams (George Sanders), is aware of all of this but isn't concerned when a fire breaks out below deck. His crew is able to stop the fire, but it is only the start, a problem born from a faulty boiler....a boiler that explodes soon after. The crew desperately tries to stop the fire as water flows into a breach in the hull. Can the aging Claridon be saved or is it a doomed ship destined to sink? Among the passengers is the Henderson family, husband Cliff (Robert Stack) trying to save his wife, Laurie (Dorothy Malone), who is pinned under an immense piece of metal wreckage in their berth. Time is slipping away at an alarming rate, the water levels rising ever quicker.

I've seen bits and pieces of this 1960 disaster flick several times, but it was only on my last viewing where I was able to watch the entire film. From director and screenplay writer Andrew L. Stone, 'Voyage' is an excellent early example of a disaster film, a genre that would rise to new heights in the late 1960s, especially in the 1970s. It has a lot of touches that would become all too familiar in the coming years, but none of it feels overdone...thankfully. This is a well-told, well-acted and well-executed disaster film that focuses on a desperate fight for survival, an aging ship groaning as it sinks. The only question becomes how quick will it sink? I liked that 'Voyage' is content to just be an exciting, sometimes uncomfortable story. The 1970s disaster flicks were big, bigger and biggest, one topping the other with a ridiculous premise and an all-star cast. This flick, just a really good movie.

So what makes it that good, that enjoyable? Well, I liked Titanic a lot for all its excesses and spectacle, but at 220 minutes, it is a lllllong movie. That is not a concern here, 'Voyage' clocking in at just 91 minutes. There's no wasted time, no fluff here. As viewers, we're thrust into the fire on Claridon as the credits roll. We don't see how it started, who anyone is, just that there's a fire on-board and it needs to be dealt with NOW. The same for once the boiler goes. This is the situation. Let's deal with it. Even when we meet the characters -- Capt. Adams, the Hendersons, the crew -- they are as we meet them. We get a brief explanation of why the Hendersons are on-board the Claridon, but that's all. This is a movie in the moment about a ship sinking where backstories and motivations and who these people's all extra and unnecessary. A survival disaster movie at its most simple and straightforward.

Who will live? Who will die?!? The true star power isn't there, but we get a handful or so of familiar faces. The Hendersons are more interesting once the ship gets into trouble, Stack, Malone and their daughter, Jill (Tammy Marihugh), the picture of the American family up until that point, all lovey-dovey. But a ship sinking? Let the drama begin! Sanders gets to be the stubborn ship captain, trying to bring the ship into port without any loss of life, in the process putting his passengers, his crew and his ship in danger. I thought the best parts go to Woody Strode and Edmond O'Brien though, Strode as Hank Lawson, a crewman, and O'Brien as Walsh, the second engineer, both men trying to save the ship while the passengers scramble to safety. It was a hell of a year for Strode who turned in scene-stealing memorable parts here, in Spartacus and Sergeant Rutledge. He's an imposing physical presence here, shirtless with a bandana around his neck, sprinting around the ship to help Stack's Cliff. O'Brien too stands out from the sinking ship chaos, balancing saving his crew with those passengers in danger. Also look for Jack Kruschen as the chief engineer.

There's nothing too fancy here from acting to story to effects. 'Voyage' was filmed in very 1960s stylish sets, sets that add a nice throwback feel to the film now as we watch it 50-plus years later. Titanic obviously set the bar ridiculously high, but what's accomplished here without any computer-generated effects is impressive in itself. Stone and his crew used the famous French liner, the SS Ile de France, for the actual scenes showing the water washing over the fast-sinking Claridon, giving a nice sense of what the hellish experience would certainly be like. All of the sinking scenes feel real, that lack of CGI effects actually aiding the cause. None of it feels forced, and it is interesting throughout. An easy movie to recommend, especially for all you diehard Titanic fans out there.

The Last Voyage (1960): ***/****

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Okay, I'll admit. I am a diehard Planet of the Apes fan. I's a complete shocker for anyone who follows the site. The original series -- 5 movies -- is fun to watch from beginning to end, even if by the fifth film, things were running on empty. Then there's that Tim Burton remake/reboot version that....I don't know, was just awful. And then there was 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, one of the most pleasant surprises in years for me in big-budget theatrical releases. Which naturally leads up to 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, currently raking in piles of money and critical acclaim.

It has been 10 years since a virus has torn the world apart, wiping out a majority of mankind across the planet. Little pockets of humanity have managed to survive, working together to do so. But north of San Francisco, the intelligent, genetically-evolved ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), is leading a community of apes that has moved on with no interference from humanity. It's been so long since the apes have even seen a human they begin to wonder if any have even survived. That wonder is answered when a small group of humans, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), walks into the woods in hopes of reaching a nearby dam, a dam that if restarted up could power the life of their colony of survivors waiting in fortified San Francisco. Caesar must now decide what to do. Allow the humans to repair the broken-down dam and refuel their colony? Don't allow them to pass and risk a violent response from the humans who have become increasingly desperate? The ape community hangs in the balance.

Revisiting 'Rise' before jumping into 'Dawn' this weekend, I came away impressed again with where the series/franchise has gone. I can't say enough how surprised I was, how genuinely good 'Rise' was. Naturally, I was psyched for the sequel, to see what was done with the follow-up (Yes, I support sequels as it suits me). Director Matt Reeves takes the helm and does it well. It isn't necessarily what you'd expect from a summer blockbuster. It isn't mindless, stupid action on a grand scale. Yeah, it has action, but the focus and grand scale is more interested in the story and the characters, developing it all so the action actually means something. It's not just random explosions. The action and the story work together seamlessly. This isn't a mindless blockbuster. This is a good movie, and it is most definitely the better for it. 'Dawn' takes the baton and keeps on running, a worthy sequel, one that lays things out nicely for another sequel should they so choose.

What helps set this sequel apart from most inferior sequels is that rehashed idea from the original series that started way back in 1968 with The Planet of the Apes. 'Dawn' creates a story in a new world, a world that has gone most of 10 years without much in the way of human involvement. The roads have been claimed back by nature. The towns -- we see San Francisco as the main human backdrop -- are falling apart, nature, plants, weeds and greenery growing as far as the eye can see. Amongst this world without too much human interference, the Earth is getting back to the basics. In this world, little communities have popped up, including Caesar's ape village up in the Muir Woods National Monument, and the Colony in San Francisco, human survivors banding together. It seems simple to commend a movie for creating a world -- that's what they're supposed to do -- but 'Dawn' works. We're thrust into a dark, gloomy, dreary world where survival comes above all else. Simple as that.

Picking up right where he left off, Andy Serkis again steals the show as Caesar, the highly intelligent ape leader who has even learned to speak (the other apes coming along nicely in that department). At no point watching the apes do you ever really consider you're watching computer-generated images. It just looks real. It looks natural. The visual is key because if it didn't work, you're taken completely out of the movie and that can be impossible to recover from. Beyond the visual though, the best part of the movie is the development of the Caesar character. The revolution of the 1st movie is gone so the apes settle into a new life, Caesar as their leader. We see him struggling with decisions, struggling with leadership, struggling with what to do. He's now got a family to consider too, his wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer), and his son, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston). The performance is the heart of the movie, Serkis carrying the movie from beginning to end.

So go figure, but there is far more interest here in the apes story than the humans. That's not to say the humans aren't interesting, just not as interesting as the apes. Along with Caesar and his family, we also see Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar's fiery friend, a rescue from a science lab, Maurice (Karin Konoval), an already intelligent former circus ape and Caesar's closest friend, and Rocket (Terry Notary), another friend from the ape habitat. As for the humans and along with Clarke, look for Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), the leader of the San Francisco colony, Ellie (Keri Russell), Malcolm's girlfriend, a doctor, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Malcolm's son, with Kirk Acevedo, Jon Eyez, and Enrique Murciano as assorted other humans we meet.

The coolest dynamic that develops in 'Dawn' is between Caesar and Malcolm. They're both working to accomplish something, both working against incredibly tough odds to get that done. Their scenes together are pretty perfect, both men/fathers realizing how tough their situations are. They don't complain or pout, instead continuing to chip away and work at getting where they need to be. The ape-human dynamic there gives a different dimension to the already interesting story. And yes, the finale packs in the action, a violent night battle in the abandoned streets of San Francisco. It's got a lot going for it, drama, action, some surprising laughs, a little bit of everything. There's also some nice touches for series fans, including the soundtrack using quick samples of composer Jerry Goldsmith's score from the original 'Planet.'

A more than worthy sequel, one that hopefully propels the series forward into another entry!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014): ***/****

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Lonely Man

One of those great Hollywood tough guys, Jack Palance was without a doubt, one of the best heavies around in film. He was great in those tough, can't keep down parts that ranged from heroes to dastardly villains, especially in 1953's Shane where he played one of the western genre's all-time great villains. So in the 1950s as he played a lot of anti-heroes, a lot of out-and-out bad guys, it's cool to see him in a well-told, somber western from 1957, The Lonely Man.

In a quiet, dusty western town, a man with quite the reputation, Jacob Wade (Palance), rides up the street looking to find someone. His reputation leans heavily toward the wrong side of the law, Wade gaining notoriety as a gunfighter, a killer, a bandit, and wherever he goes, that name precedes him. He finds the man he's looking for, Riley (Anthony Perkins), a young man, a bit of a loafer around town who goes about his own business quietly. Who is he? He's Wade's son, the son he hasn't seen in over 15 years since leaving him and the boy's mother, hitting the outlaw trail of sorts. After all those years apart though, Wade wants to do right by his son, setting him up with a ranch, some cattle. It will be small at first, but with some hard work, it can flourish....if Riley wants anything to do with his long-lost father's help. It's more than that though. Men from Wade's past are on his trail, men looking to exact revenge on the infamous gunslinger.

Well, here we sit. It is movies like this that make me such a huge fan of the western. There's nothing particularly out of this world unique, nothing you probably haven't seen in other, more well-known westerns over the years. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that. From director Henry Levin, 'Lonely' is a well-told, old-fashioned story that I liked from the beginning. It gets to the core of what can be so right about westerns. Ultimately, it's about doing what's right, even if it'd be easier to turn and ride out. It's about living up to your word, standing by a friend when he's in trouble, and doing your damnedest to live up to what you should be whether it's loyal, honest or hard-working. As Davy Crockett said, 'Know you're right and go ahead.' In story terms, it doesn't get more straightforward than that.

We get that perspective that would be dealt with years later in movies like Ride the High Country, The Magnificent Seven and The Wild Bunch through the eyes of Palance's Jacob Wade (apparently not related to THIS Jake Wade). His outlaw is trying to put that outlaw past behind him, but that past may not allow it. He regrets the things he's done, the men he's killed, those he's put at risk. It may be too late to save himself, but in his son, there remains some sort of hope for a better future. Palance could be a gem at chewing the scenery, but he was at his best here when he underplays everything. He keeps it inside, the emotions brewing and waiting for an outburst. It is a part that brims with intensity, but it never comes over the top. The chemistry between Palance and Perkins is excellent, a father who wants to help the son he abandoned (supposedly), a son who wants nothing to do with the offer of help. The father-son dynamic works across most genres, and that's no different in the western.

Now that supporting cast. Yikes, just yikes. Some of those familiar faces would go onto bigger and better in the coming years, but that's our benefit. There's a very deep cast that western fans will definitely appreciate from top to bottom. Neville Brand gets the lead villain part as King Fisher, a former saloon owner who has a bullet he carries with Wade's name on it, some of the lead still in his leg. His gang includes Lee Van Cleef, Elisha Cook Jr., and Adam Williams. Robert Middleton has a strong, key supporting part as Ben Ryerson, a former member of Wade's gang, now riding with him trying to put the boy on the right track.  There's also a quick part for Claude Akins, a former gang member looking for some "help" with John Doucette riding by his side. Even look for Denver Pyle in an early appearance as a sheriff who knows Wade's reputation.

There's some issues here, but nothing huge. The story is a tad slow, even at 88 minutes dragging in bits and pieces. The subplot with Elaine Aiken's Ada, a saloon girl who rode with Wade and wanted to settle down with him, doesn't develop as much as it could have. When Perkins' Riley shows some interest, I'd had about enough with that part of the story. For the most part though, things work and they work well. A somber, soft score permeates the emotionally-charged family story, and the locations in the Alabama Hills in California are a gorgeous backdrop to the developments across the board. It isn't a perfect western, but it is a really good one that genre fans will definitely enjoy. You pretty much know where it's building early on, but getting to the finale was part of the fun. An easy western to recommend.

The Lonely Man (1957): ***/****

Thursday, July 10, 2014

3 Days to Kill

I don't know what's gotten into Kevin Costner, but I'm not complaining. A huge star in the 1980s, he didn't have the same success in the 1990s, a couple big box office bombs to his name. He kept acting throughout, but there....just....weren' roles. Then 2014 came along, and Costner WAS EVERYWHERE with movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Draft Day, and for today's review, 3 Days to Kill.

An experienced CIA assassin with plenty of years of experience under his belt, Ethan Renner (Costner) has been tasked with another dangerous mission, capturing two terrorists in Belgrade suspected of selling a dirty bomb. Nothing goes right though, Ethan wounding one and unintentionally spotting the other, previously unknown to security forces. He's wounded in the process, only learning after that he has brain cancer that's spread to his lungs. The prognosis for survival? Three-to-five months at best. With his time running out, Ethan leaves the CIA behind and heads to Paris to try and make up for lost time with his ex-wife and teenage daughter, Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld). His plan is thrown for a loop though when a fellow CIA assassin, Vivi (Amber Heard), approaches him with an offer. She can give him an experimental drug that could significantly prolong his life, but she'll only give him the drug if he agrees to finish the job, killing the two dangerous terrorists, sited again in Paris.

So that Kevin Costner guy, he's pretty cool. The star of Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, No Way Out, he's a movie star that can act and as a movie fan, it is definitely cool to see him in more theatrical releases. In the Liam Neeson vein, Costner isn't necessarily a romantic lead anymore. Yeah, at 59 years old, he's just too old. I'm kidding of course. My girlfriend would certainly disagree. But like Neeson, there's potential for him to be that gruff, grizzled action star, and this seemed like a good jumping off point. As a tough guy, as an action star, Costner is the best thing going in this pretty bizarre 2014 action flick. The script has some fun with Ethan's portrayal as a modern-day American cowboy in Europe, and it works at times, even if it is overused. So Costner is an ideal action hero, more than capable of handling himself in said action scenes. How then does the rest of the movie hold up? Not nearly so well.

Dying secret agent, nuclear bomb potentially being sold to terrorists, the future of mankind on the line. A cool formula, don't you think? I do. It may be familiar for spy/espionage/thriller fans, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. So what did director McG and screenwriter Luc Besson (of Taken, Transporter fame) do with that movie? They make it a story about a family torn apart by the father's job -- expert CIA assassin -- trying to reunite because said father is months away from a tragically young death. Wow, I wasn't expecting an after school special when I sought out a movie about Kevin Costner saving the world all across stylish Europe. Costner is excellent at that gravelly, chiseled way and Steinfeld has shown with her limited roles that she could an actress to watch out for in the coming years. They do have some chemistry together, two talented actors working together, but when the script does them absolutely no favors? Well, this movie got bad, and it did so quickly.

I think that becomes the biggest issue. What kind of movie is this? Is is a stylish action movie with Belgrade and Paris serving as the film's backdrop? Or is more a family drama with some action thrown in. Unfortunately, it's both. There are some very cool moments, and wouldn't you know it? They're the action scenes! Renner's mission to catch The Wolf (Richard Sammel) and his malicious assistant, the Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) -- yes, there is a villain named the Albino, so you know he's a villain -- is especially cool as a gunfight goes pretty wrong pretty quickly. The same for a car chase through the streets of Paris, two cars slamming into each other, managing to not kill hundreds of folks, avoiding obstacles left and right, it's all those things that Besson can be so good at...when it works. Simply put, there aren't enough moments like this because....someone decided no one likes action movies? Your guess is as good as mine.

It becomes laughable, even painful. Tasked with finding that terrorist duo, Renner is also trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter. At different points, he menacingly looks at her very French boyfriend, teaches her how to dance, teaches her how to ride a bike (are you kidding me?!?), all these cutesy little things that scream 'Lifetime Movie gone wrong!' more than action-packed thriller. For goodness sake, he teaches his teenage daughter to ride her bike!!! It's awful, all the attempts at humor falling short basically across the board. By the time the Wolf shows up at the most ridiculously convenient place to set up the finale, wow, I was just done. Renner also yells at a snitch tied up in his trunk "Shut up! I'm trying to have a conversation with my daughter!" and later asks a kidnapped, about to be tortured Italian (appropriately named Guido) what his family recipe is for making pasta sauce is because.....Renner's daughter needs advice. Eek, just eek. That's not good.

Who else to look for in this pile? Heard goes from button-downed, plain-looking CIA agent to puppet master and CIA assassin expert specialist in the matter of like 4 days, bringing countless cool outfits and wigs with her. Connie Nielsen plays Renner's wife, tasked with gasping and covering up tears every time she sees her ex-husband bonding with her angry daughter. Oh, and the daughter sets her Dad's ringtone as I Love It by Icona Pop, an annoying shrill song you can listen to here. Don't say I didn't warn you though.

So yeah, this movie was rough to get through. Almost two hours long, it drags anytime action gets left in the background. Costner is exceptionally cool, but even that cool factor couldn't save this one. Steer clear in a big way.

3 Days to Kill (2014): */****

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Farewell to the King

John Milius is tough. There, I said it. A director and writer who became fairly well known in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Milius doesn't have a long, sprawling filmography. He's directed a little more than a handful of movies with almost 30 writing credits to his names as well. I've enjoyed the Milius entries -- directing and/or writing -- I've seen and can now check another one off the list, one of his lesser known efforts (and maybe for a reason), 1989's Farewell to the King.

It's early in World War II, and an American deserter, Learoyd (Nick Nolte), manages to escape Bataan and Corregidor with several other deserters. They land on Borneo, Learoyd again managing to survive while the other deserters are caught and executed by the Japanese. Learoyd retreats into the jungle, trying to survive. Some three years later, WWII's tide has turned and the Japanese are holding onto their last footholds across the Pacific. A special forces officer, Captain Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), is being dropped into Borneo to unite the native tribes on the island in an effort to lead a guerrilla movement against the retreating Japanese forces. Who does he find in charge of the natives, including a headhunting tribe, but Learoyd himself, looked at as a god by the natives. Can Fairbourne manage to convince the eccentric American deserter turned king to fight with the Allies with the war seemingly in grasp?

Well, this was certainly an interesting movie, if not necessarily a good one. A bomb at the box office in 1989, 'Farewell' was only called to my attention by a fellow blogger and all-around good guy Chris at Nothing Is Written. You can read his review HERE. I liked it more than him, but the flaws are evident all over the place in this Milius film. It is safe to say I liked the idea, premise and potential of the movie here more than the actual execution which ends up being all over the place in a movie that runs about 115 minutes. Milius has said in interviews that 'Farewell' was taken away from in post-production and hacked to pieces by the studio. It certainly seems like it could be true. The story is rushed at times, whole explanatory scenes seemingly hacked away, and in general, my thought was that the idea of a good movie is there. In the end, simply too much is on the plate, Milius trying to accomplish too much.

Let's start with the King himself, Nick Nolte. I can't make up my mind about this titular performance for good or bad. The biggest thing is that Nolte may not have been the right choice for the part. It is a character that demands a lot, but at no point did I really get a sense of why these tribes in Borneo are drawn to Learoyd. Yes, we're told his blue eyes, blonde hair and dragon tattoo on his chest are all reasons, but there's got to be something more than that, right? Nolte's Learoyd spouts a lot of mumbo-jumbo about nature and its power, of living life the right way. The goal seems to be to say something profound and deep, but it comes across as heavy-handed and aggressively dumb. He tries to be too Father Earthy, and it falls short. Much of the time, Nolte's gruff, gravelly-voiced demeanor works in tough guy parts but here I felt like something more was needed that simply isn't.

The parts that do work feature Learoyd and Captain Fairbourne, the special forces officer sent to assemble a native insurrection. The acting isn't great, but the idea of the Fairbourne character is certainly interesting, a variation on the naive, innocent Joyce character from Bridge on the River Kwai. He's been through all the training, knows how to kill most effectively...but he's never had to do it and now he's thrust into a bloody, gruesome guerrilla warfare. Also look for Frank McCrae as Tenga, Fairbourne's Australian radioman, with Marius Weyers, William Wise, Wayne Pygram and Richard Morgan rounding out the specialist team sent to train the natives, a wasted opportunity for some cool supporting characters. Gerry Lopez plays Gwai, Learoyd's right-hand man, Marilyn Tokuda playing Learoyd's wife.

'Farewell' does have plenty to offer. Composer Basil Poledouris turns in a memorable, sweeping score that becomes a key ingredient in the story. Milius and cinematographer Dean Semler helm a visually stunning movie, the locations in Borneo looking almost like a classic painting. The scene-to-scene transitions are as good if not better than the actual story. Some visuals especially stand out, including the build-up to an ambush of a Japanese column and the fallout as weather rolls in. There is about 45 minutes near the second half of the movie where 'Farewell' really hits its stride but it has bookends that aren't on the same level. As Learoyd, Fairbourne, the specialists and the natives join the war, that is the movie at its strongest.

Chris' review accurately pointed out how much 'Farewell' seems to borrow from other movies, and again, he's dead-on. The message and idea is there, but actually getting it across is a different thing. Milius never truly gets that message across. The finale feels downright rushed, the corrupt British (including very British James Fox) turning on the natives. If there is a director's cut out there, I'd be curious to see it. There is the potential for a good, even really good movie, among the pieces but as is, it is an interesting if heavily flawed final product.

Farewell to the King (1989): **/****