The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Herbie: Fully Loaded

What's your dream car from film and television? I've got a bunch. The 1960s Batmobile, Steve McQueen's Mustang from 1968's Bullitt, and a bunch more I'm forgetting in the moment. There's one though that rises above the rest. I'd love to own Herbie the Love Bug, the Volkswagen Bug who has starred in five theatrical flicks and one TV movie. I grew up watching Herbie movies and recently caught up with the only entry I'd never seen before, 2005's Herbie: Fully Loaded.

With a college degree under her arm and a job as an assistant producer at ESPN waiting for her in a few weeks, Maggie Peyton (Lindsay Lohan) gets a graduation present from her Dad, Ray (Michael Keaton). The Peytons are a third generation racing family with Ray working as team owner and crew chief, his son the team's lead driver. Maggie has always wanted to get into racing but a past street racing incident ended that dream. Now, she'll have to settle for this present from her Dad, a beat-up looking 1963 Volkswagen Bug named Herbie that certainly looks well past its prime. This is not any old VW Bug though, something Maggie figures out immediately. Herbie has a mind of his own and Maggie and her mechanic friend, Kevin (Justin Long), think they can rehab the car and build it back up into a worthy racing car. They could be in for some trouble when cocky Nascar champ Trip Murphy (Matt Dillon) gets on their bad side and he wants nothing more than to take Herbie apart.

I love Herbie. I loved the original The Love Bug growing up, and I still love it now. I really like the second sequel Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and.....yes, I can sit through the generally pretty bad Herbie Rides Again and Herbie Goes Bananas. I never intentionally avoided this 2005 quasi-reboot, but I never actively sought it out. From director Angela Robinson, 'Loaded' isn't great and it isn't awful.  The story is a bit of a rework of The Love Bug (how Herbie gets into racing) and Monte Carlo (Herbie in love) with an occasional tweak here and there. It made a ton of money -- $140-plus million -- in theaters and is innocent enough fun. If it isn't necessarily good, it does the Herbie character and franchise right.

Remember back in 2005 when Lindsay Lohan was a sure-fire star? She seemed destined to be a legit huge star following 2004's massively successful Mean Girls before some personal problems ranging from addiction to plastic surgery and assorted other things did their best to derail her career. You can't call her a great actress, but she is a good actress, natural and likable here. The rumor mill says that Disney Studios digitally reduced Lohan's breasts on-screen so that's pretty crazy if you think about it. Now all that said...the story does seem to be an excuse to doll Lohan up and put her in all sorts of tight, low-cut and mini-skirt options. Not a complaint, just an observation.

There is a decent cast on hand here so that definitely helps. Along with Michael Keaton as Maggie's Dad, there's Breckin Meyers as her race car driving brother and Cheryl Hines as one of the few remaining sponsors for the Peyton racing team. Justin Long gets romance duty, the shaggy haired mechanic working with Maggie who maybe...just maybe may end up with her. Tough part, huh? Backing up the geared-up Dillon as our evil villain, Trip, there's Jimmi Simpson as his goofy assistant, Crash, and Thomas Lennon (who also helped write the story and screenplay) as his manager/brother. Also look for Scoot McNairy briefly as a member of the pit crew. Some familiar parts from an after school special, but there's some talent on display.

Enough with all that garbage though. What about Herbie? Through the wonders of computer-generated images, Herbie is a little more anthropomorphic as we meet him. The former racing champion, Herbie the VW Bug has fallen on hard times and is rescued from the junk heap by Maggie. Can he reacquire his magic? The iconic visual is there, the white Bug with the red and blue stripe up his middle with the soft-cover top and the instantly recognizable '53' painted on his hood and side. His headlights are his eyes, his front hood his mouth, that sort of thing. We do get some crazy CGI moments that are a tad bit on the goofy side, but that's part of the Disney charm (albeit with better graphics). There is a fun scene late where Herbie gets "analyzed" by Nascar champions and fan favorites Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson so stick with it through that. Also look for Tony Stewart, and Dale Jarrett.

Now I do have one kinda major complaint? If you ask me at least. The opening credits show a montage of Herbie racing clips from the previous movies. Yes, he's fallen on hard times and basically abandoned as a parts car. As he makes his triumphant return, NO ONE remembers him. NO ONE. How forgetful can people be? Yes, I know I'm overanalyzing a movie that's intended to be entertaining and fun with some cool racing scenes. But come on now, how can no one recognize this car?!? It's a VW Bug who can hold his own with Nascar cars and souped-up street racers. WHY DOES NO ONE QUESTION THIS? WHY DOES NO ONE REMEMBER THIS LITTLE CAR? Okay, breathe...breathe, I got that out of my system. Herbie fans should like it. I certainly did in a dumbed down revisit sort of way.

Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, September 25, 2014


So when did it all hit the fan for Nicolas Cage? I'm thinking it was somewhere around 2006 with the all-time classic remake The Wicker Man. He went from an actor who could play quirky roles to a quirky actor who just made (mostly) bad movies. There's been some good ones mixed in but not too many. Here's one of those quasi-duds, 2007's Next.

Working as a mildly successful performer in Las Vegas under the stage name Frank Cadillac, Cris Johnson (Cage) goes about his job and life as quietly as possible. Why exactly? Cris has a special power, one he's trying to keep under wraps. Cris can see two minutes into his own future, knowing exactly what awaits him around every corner and turn. His small-time gambling tendencies have caught the attention of the FBI, including Agent Callie Ferris (Julianne Moore), who wants to use Cris to help stop a terrorist attack. A nuclear bomb is believed to be transported into the U.S. and hopefully Cris can find out where and when it will be used. On the run for a run-in with the FBI in a casino, Cris is trying to figure it all, trying to piece it all together. It may all be connected to a mysterious woman (Jessica Biel) he can see far further into the future than his usual two-minute limit. Can he do it in time with millions of lives at stake?

When this science fiction-ish thriller was released in 2007, my brother-in-law saw the movie and said he liked it. How did he think I'd feel about it? Well, to put it lightly, I wouldn't like it....AT ALL. That recommendation -- or lack of -- helped me steer clear of 'Next' but I guess seven years or so was a long enough wait. This thriller from director Lee Tamahori is loosely based on a short story, The Golden Man, by Philip K. Dick. Is it good? Well, I'm curious to read Dick's short story because as I feel like I write far too often....a whole lot of potential that never really adds up. It's not a long movie, wrapping up nicely in a little under 90 minutes if you take away the closing credits. The biggest flaws come from an overuse of the gimmick, Cris' ability to see into the future. The idea is cool but it adds up the most crippling flaw of all in the finale.

It's Sixth Sense Syndrome again. Movies aren't content anymore to just have a regular old twist ending. It has to be a twist ending that completely comes out of left field with no warning. It doesn't have to make sense. It doesn't have to fit within the rules of what we've been told to this point. If you're going to have a character that can see into the future in a tight time window, so be it. Run with it. Don't adjust on the fly, and if I've got this twisting, steaming pile of an ending remotely figured out, that's exactly what happens here. A cop-out ending, and that is about the worst thing you can do as a writer/producer/director. Grow a pair and stick with an ending. The point here seems to be to completely confuse the viewer and manipulate them into thinking one thing only to have the carpet pulled out from under you. Now that's a way to create favor with your audience! Just an awful ending.

What I brought up earlier in the introduction is that Nicolas Cage has started to play a caricature of himself over recent years. Quirky overall, stilted acting, even more stilted line deliveries, violent, arm-throwing reactions. Maybe the oddest thing about Next? Cage is the least of the movie's concerns. His voiceover narration is a little overdone at times, and his hair looks pretty hair implant(y) but it's an interesting character. I would have loved some more background other than a few passing lines about his growing up, but the Cris character is certainly interesting from the get-go. Now that said, the script does provide Cage countless opportunities to run. Run away, run to someone, run down a mountain. There's just something truly hilarious about Cage running, trying to sprint at least, because he could be the slowest running actor in Hollywood history. He's pumping and pushing...and looks like he's running in quicksand.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare so well. Julianne Moore feels out of place and forced, her FBI agent whiny and worn down. Jessica Biel tries her best with a poorly written character but there just isn't any interest there. Her mystery woman supposedly holds the key to it all, but it amounts to nothing more than a damsel in distress though. Well, that's not completely fair. There's also her in various stages of undress, under a bed sheet, sporting a post-shower towel. That kind of PG-13 rated "nudity." Also look for Thomas Kretschmann as Mr. Smith, the uniquely named and very dull bad guy, Tory Kittles as Moore's FBI agent assistant, Jose Zuniga as a Vegas security chief, and screen/TV legend Peter Falk making an appearance as a friend of Cris. Except he's on-screen for about 85 seconds and then shuffles off. What's the point?

It is a movie that is missing something. We get little to no background for anything from Cris' history or even a remote explanation of his power to the complete lack of reasoning behind this upcoming terrorist attack. MacGuffins are one thing as Alfred Hitchcock proved time and time again, but you've got to draw a line somewhere, don't you? At no point does 'Next' find a rhythm or pacing, and it feels rushed from start to poorly executed finish. Meh, not good, just not good with wasted potential. Steer clear.

Next (2007): * 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Though he has worked regularly since 2001, Tom Hardy really seemed to hit his stride in 2011, starring in a string of movies that include Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior, This Means War, The Dark Knight Rises and Lawless. Next May, Hardy will even star in a Mad Max reboot. An actor and a movie star, a rare breed. Let's watch him do that dramatic thing, a movie equivalent of a one-man show, 2013's Locke.

It's quitting time at a construction site in Birmingham, England, and construction foreman and site manager Ivan Locke (Hardy) has a difficult night ahead of him. The next morning construction is scheduled to begin on one of the largest skyscrapers in the country, Locke having ramrodded the process the entire way. He has received a phone call though that could drastically change his job, his family and his life as a whole. Now as he drives from Birmingham to London to hopefully resolve the situation, everything Locke knows is now thrown for a loop. It's not a long ride in terms of distance, but for Locke? This is one ride that could take its toll on him.

Okay, let's get this out of the way. I liked this movie, liked it a lot from beginning to end. All that said, it is definitely a film that deserves some warning. 'Locke' is described as a drama (most appropriate) and a thriller (less appropriate) depending on the review you're reading. I'm going to do my best to offer no real spoilers because the development of the story is best served when you discover it as Locke does. But enough with that. What is this movie? This is a movie about a man driving on the expressway talking on his synced-up phone. That is it. That is all. He doesn't talk face-to-face with a single person. He doesn't get in a traffic accident/incident. For 84 minutes, Tom Hardy talks on the phone with a variety of people with a variety of issues. Just know that going in, and don't say you weren't forewarned.

Tom Hardy is one talented mother...well, you know what. I've written more than a few reviews of movies based on plays that remotely feel like those plays they're based on. This is about as close to a one-man play as we're going to get in a modern feature film. This is Hardy's movie from beginning to end -- a fast-moving, fast-paced 85 minutes -- as he makes the drive from Birmingham to London. There's the potential for it to derail quickly, but Hardy keeps it going at all times. You see the inner struggles, the personal demons tearing him apart as he processes a decision that he wasn't quite ready to make. The voice inflection changes as we hear calm and cool, calculated and thoughtful, upsetting and frustrated, and it can change from one to the other with a snap of his finger. At no point does it ever feel forced, the rhythm and pacing flowing smoothly from one phone call conversation to another. Wow. Just wow for Mr. Hardy, already one of my favorites and here cementing that status.

Hardy's movie, no doubt about it. He's the only person you actually see, but we do hear the conversations he's having. Listen for Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland and Bill Milner as the key voices at the other end of the line on the phone. Again, no spoilers, but it is definitely interesting to see the variety of responses and answers this small group of individuals responds to quite a trying situation. Nice voice work all around.

Replacing the stage is Hardy's Locke's car, our setting for almost the entire movie. We see Locke leave the work site and enter the car and from there, this is one car-bound movie. Director/screenplay writer Steven Knight keeps it visually interesting at all times. Told entirely at night, 'Locke' succeeds in the darkness. It's a movie that would not work in the daylight. The lights and traffic and lens flares add a nice visual dimension to the story. The camera is almost always moving, focusing on Hardy straight-on, from the side, as a peripheral almost. It may sound stupid to go into this much detail, but it is a smart, smooth style that isn't overpowering. It is a style that is content to be a quiet part of the story. Don't expect a crazy twist ending. Instead, 'Locke' has an ending that simply put, is human. It's real

Definitely not an easy movie to like. It's not your everyday thriller or drama. Something better, something entertaining and a film that deserves some buzz.

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

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Viva Max

From the time I watched Disney's Davy Crockett episodes, I was hooked to the story of the battle of the Alamo. I read all I could about one of Texas history's most infamous events. I watched every movie I could from John Wayne's The Alamo to 1955's The Last Command and everything in between. But 20-some years, one movie managed to steer clear of my grasp...until now that is. It took me years, but I finally tracked down 1969's Viva Max.

Along the U.S./Mexico border, a company of Mexican infantry from the Rio Nuevo garrison crosses the Rio Grande river, throwing the border patrol for a loop. Their commander, Lt. General Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos (Peter Ustinov), has told his men very little about what they're actually doing, instead keeping his plans close to his vest. What exactly is he up to? In 1960s Texas over 130 years since the actual battle, General Max intends to retake the Alamo mission, now an instantly recognizable landmark sought out by millions of tourists each year. What are his motives? Well, that's for Max to reveal at his choosing. Before Max and his small army are done, the San Antonio police (including Sheriff Harry Morgan), the National Guard (including General Jonathan Winters) and the Army (including General Keenan Wynn) are all going to get involved. How can they solve this ridiculous situation peaceably?

I visited San Antonio for the first time with my Dad when I was 10 years old where I bought one of my favorite books, Frank Thompson's Alamo Movies. I've done my best to track down and catch up with all of the listed movies, but this 1969 flick managed to avoid me. The catch? This movie from director Jerry Paris is a comedy, a screwball, physical comedy at that. Yes, you read it right. A movie about a horrific, bloody massacre is a comedy. A comedy!!! That was my biggest worry heading into a flick I've long wanted to see. It wasn't that it was going to be in poor taste. I assumed on that much. But how badly in poor taste was it going to be? I hold the Alamo story above almost all else and even have a distant relative/ancestor who fought and died there in 1836. Heroic efforts on both sides ending in costly casualties. Should you even remotely touch that in the comedy department?

Just know going in that you probably will be offended at some point during this film because of that subject matter. Now all that said, I enjoyed this 1969 comedy a whole lot. Yeah, it is dumb, even stupid at times. Some efforts at physical, goofy humor fall short but as a whole? It's funny as the more subtle gags and lines work because of a talented cast stepping to the plate. This ain't rocket science but 'Max' is funny. As an Alamo buff, one thing stands out above all else. San Antonio and the Alamo allowed 'Max' to film on the mission grounds in downtown San Antonio. To film A LOT. All the footage works as a behind the scenes look at the Alamo a lot. What's left of the mission is almost miniscule compared to what the Alamo looked like in 1836 (check it out HERE), but it works as a backdrop where a Hollywood backlot wouldn't have. Issues with the humor/story aside, the visual works in effortless fashion.

Playing our title character, Ustinov throws himself into the part as Max, a Mexican general who inspires....well, no faith in his men, and that becomes his motivation. I won't give it away completely, but his motives for retaking the Alamo are far from historical reasons, revenge reasons or basically anything you'd think. His motives? Far more personal. Ustinov -- heavily tanned -- has a lot of fun with the part with his Max, a generally quiet guy who's a bit of a dandy, a bit of a doof and pretty oblivious to just about everything around him. He gets some especially funny scenes with a beautiful young woman (Pamela Tiffin) who has an odd request of the Mexican general as she's captured inside the Alamo. His right-hand man, Sergeant Valdez (scene-stealing John Astin), tries to keep his men in line and his general at the front...something that proves harder than you'd think. A very funny performance for Ustinov.

The whole cast doesn't disappoint. We're not talking subtle, smart laughs, but usually big goofy laughs and moments. Morgan, Winters and Wynn split time in the clueless command spots, Winters especially getting some laughs as the politically correct, generally inept National Guard general. I loved Astin's part, the underplayed performance as Valdez, Max's loyal, capable sergeant. Also look for Alice Ghostley as a paranoid prisoner convinced Max and his men are Chinese Communists, Kenneth Mars as her ultra-patriotic nephew with a para-military group, and Ann Morgan Guilbert (Paris' co-star and on-screen wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Bill McCutcheon as a married couple who Max's infantry comes across. Also look for Gino Conforti and Larry Hankin as two of the more visible/vocal troops in Max's makeshift army.

I probably shouldn't have liked this movie, but I did. It cracked me up in all its badness. An early on-screen message says 'No one mentioned in this movie is real except for Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, John Wayne and Richard Widmark.' John Wayne's Alamo becomes a running gag at times, him and Widmark's name becoming passwords and countersigns as the "battle" develops. It's those smaller, quieter and smarter moments that work, especially Max's version of Travis' line in the sand moment. Still, I liked it throughout, a mindless but very entertaining way to spend 90-plus minutes. Worth tracking down if you can.

Viva Max (1969): ***/****

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Shepherd of the Hills

With 1939's Stagecoach, John Wayne put himself on the map, shaking off almost a decade of B-westerns and serials that seemed to be at the time, his future. So what to do next? You've gotta find that next successful part. Wayne struggled for a stretch. He was in some pretty good movies but not necessarily great roles for him. One of those in-between flicks? That's 1941's The Shepherd of the Hills.

In a tight-knit mountain community in the Ozarks, families on their farms and their businesses go about their lives as normal. Well, almost normal. High up in the mountains, the Matthews family, including matriarch, Aunt Mollie (Beulah Bondi), and hen-pecked Uncle Matt (James Barton), has quite the reputation over the years, full of hate and anger as they sell their moonshine. A young woman, Sally Lane (Betty Field), living with her father has always been on good terms with the Matthews, especially their nephew, Matt (Wayne), but the delicate balance with the community and the moonshining Matthews could change when a stranger (Harry Carey) arrives in town. The man, Daniel Howitt, wants to buy a piece of land that has the legend of being cursed. Who doesn't want him to buy that land? That would be young Matt Matthews with his own reasons for revenge.

Based on a bestselling novel from author Harold Bell Wright of the same name, 'Shepherd' was aired on Turner Classic Movies in....April as part of a John Wayne tribute. Yeah, it took me a little while to get around to it, but here we are just the same. Reading into comparisons between the film and the novel, it sounds like the only thing in common is the title and setting itself. Director Henry Hathaway's film is content to march to its own tune. Is that a good thing? Eh, we'll get to that (read: No, not especially). What is positive? This is a beautiful film, just drop dead gorgeous. 'Shepherd' was filmed on location in Big Bear Valley, California filling in quite nicely for the Ozarks. Filmed in Technicolor, it is a doozy of a visual film, the colorful, natural landscapes absolutely filling the screen. What a movie to watch, appreciate and enjoy.

Now jumping off from the stunning visual look....well, it doesn't. In an effort to bring the mountain life into 3-D real life, I felt like 'Shepherd' simply tries too hard to make the story, setting and characters authentic. You want to get that backwoods, homespun feel across, but as several other movies have shown, it's tough. Think of Tobacco Road or God's Little Acre, movies that end up making stereotypes of its characters and settings. Yeah, that's pretty much the case here. All the people living in this mountain community are too folksy. They believe in voodoo, crazy grudges and are just too 'Gee golly' for their own good. Stretched out over a 98-minute movie, it all gets to be a little much for my liking. Just present the story and characters and see what happens. When their backwoods folksiness is shoved down our throats, the end result is highly disappointing.

So that John Wayne fella? In an ensemble cast, Wayne ends up being more of a supporting player. His Young Matt Matthews is a key character who simply isn't in the movie much. His reasons for revenge provide the jumping off point that takes quite awhile to get going. Instead, the story focuses on countless different characters, Carey's Daniel at the front of that list as he affects the lives of so many. Carey (Harry Carey Jr.'s father) delivers a solid performance, pleasant and easygoing, trying to buy land in this mountain valley where no one else will. Field is pretty good too as the innocent Sally, trying to introduce Daniel to the community. Bondi is pretty evil as Mollie and she's good at it. Also look for Ward Bond, Marc Lawrence, John Qualen and Tom Fadden in supporting parts.

This is one of the few John Wayne movies I hadn't seen a single second of. From the early 1940s, it's one of his flicks that isn't particularly good or particularly bad. Not especially memorable, 'Shepherd' is okay at best, rough at others and with some wasted potential in others. You especially see the potential in Wayne, still figuring himself as an actor but clearly on the right track. As a movie on the whole, it struggles to find a rhythm, a tone, a pace. A disappointing end result, probably still worthwhile for John Wayne fans to see an early post-Stagecoach entry that doesn't receive much buzz.

The Shepherd of the Hills (1941): **/****

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Muppets Most Wanted

I grew up watching The Muppets, loved them and always have loved them. The Muppet Movie was a childhood favorite and still is, and their TV show that ran for five seasons remains a gem. So naturally I was pretty disappointed when I came away incredibly disappointed with the 2011 franchise reboot, The Muppets. I gave it 2.5 stars but I came away less than pleased. I'm quick to forgive though and here we are with 2014's Muppets Most Wanted.

Having put themselves back on the map.....well, sort of, the Muppets must decide what to do now with their rediscovered fame. Kermit the Frog wants to take it slow, letting the group find their rhythm before jumping back into the limelight. The rest of the Muppets? Miss Piggy, Fozzie the Bear, Gonzo, Rowlf the Dog and the whole crew want to embrace the spotlight. Kermit goes along with it somewhat unwillingly, the Muppets hiring a manager, Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who unfortunately has some other plans. Badguy is partners with Constantine, the world's most dangerous frog and recently escaped from a Siberian gulag. Their evil, crazy, ridiculous plan? Constantine kidnaps Kermit -- a spot-on lookalike -- and sends him back to the gulag while he takes over the Muppets. Can the gang figure out what's going on or is Kermit doomed to waste away in Siberia?

It wasn't just that 2011's The Muppets wasn't good. It had its moments, and let's be honest. As long as the actual Muppets characters are around, a movie has to be halfway decent, right? Whatever the reasons -- and I'm still processing those reasons -- I liked this version far more. The reviews were about the same, and this follow-up actually made far less money (about $75 million) so go figure. I can't explain it everyone else. For me, I liked the cameos more. The story was goofy but funny. And no disrespect to Jason Segel and Amy Adams and Walter (who's still around), but I never found myself truly interested in their story. Here, I went along for the ride a little bit more. Sure, there are still some flaws that I don't know if any new Muppets movie can fix/solve but those flaws are minimized.

What did director/co-writer James Bobin and writer Nicholas Stoller get right this time around? For starters, more of a focus on the actual Muppets, those created by their founder and brilliant mind Jim Henson. We see Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Rowlf, Animal and the whole crew. The voices behind the familiar faces are different, but it's a seamless transition. Walter returns but he's just one of the gang now, not a major focus and that's a good thing. It's fun watching these characters you grew up watching. Their running bits, their sight gags, their subtle one-liners, it's all there. Could there be more focus on our favorite Muppets? Sure, but what's there is getting back to basics.  

If there's an issue, it's the over-reliance on the cameos, the surprise appearances from the Hollywood masses. The key characters include Gervais, nicely cast as the evil sidekick to Constantine, Tina Fey as Nadya, the musically-minded commander of the Siberian gulag, and Modern Family's Ty Burrell as an Interpol agent tracking down Constantine, Sam the Eagle making a memorable appearance as his C.I.A. agent counterpart. They're all solid, all bringing the laughs...but that's just a start. Also look out for -- and take a deep breath --  Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett, Hugh Bonneville, Jemaine Clement, P. Diddy, Rob Corddry, Celine Dion, Zach Galifianakis, Josh Groban, Salma Hayek, Tom Hiddleston, Toby Jones, Frank Langella, Ray Liotta, James McAvoy, Usher, Stanley Tucci, Danny Trejo, Christoph Waltz and probably a bunch others I'm forgetting. Most are a quick scene, a blink and you'll miss it appearance.

And there's the bigger issue. The movie becomes more about the goofiness, kookiness and I hate to say it, the gimmick. It doesn't feel like a movie, just a series of running gags. With this much talent assembled, some of them are going to work. The Muppets' complete acceptance of Constantine as Kermit is pretty hilarious. Animal's immediate awareness of what's going on is perfect. The musical numbers are excellent and far better than the original, especially 'We're Doing a Sequel' and 'I'm Number Two.' It is a movie missing that special something, those magic Muppet moments. It's really good but just not a classic.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014): ***/****

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Buffalo Soldiers

One of the most interesting stories to come out of the settling of the American west is that of the Buffalo Soldiers, two cavalry and two infantry regiments that served as an integral part of the Indian Wars. The regiments of African-American soldiers don't always get their due in American history. Where 1989's Glory told the story of the 54th Massachusetts in the Civil War, here we are with a story about the 10th Cavalry, 1997's TV movie Buffalo Soldiers.

It's 1880 in the Arizona territory with the 10th Cavalry, a regiment of black soldiers, stationed at Fort Clark. Among the cavalry regiment is H Troop with First Sergeant Washington Wyatt (Danny Glover) in command after the company commander is killed. Longtime veterans who have served in the American southwest for years, H Troop is full of capable soldiers who have battled Sioux to Comanches to now, the Apaches. Signs point to two warring Apache tribes joining up to wreak havoc across the territory, killing, pillaging and burning everything in their path. Tasked with preventing the link-up, Wyatt, H Troop and the 10th as a whole find themselves in a stickier situation when a new officer, General Pike (Tom Bower), arrives at Fort Clark, readily admitting he questions the abilities of these Buffalo soldiers. 

Way back in the 1990s, the cable channel TNT wasn't just about regurgitating major network TV shows and Hollywood blockbusters 24-7. One of the best parts of the network was their creation of a variety of made-for-TV movies, many of them focusing on the American west and biblical quasi-epics. I grew up watching them so it's cool now most of 15-20 years later to catch up with them. Check out many of them HERE. The scale is limited, but the quality from the acting and cast to the action is story is almost there...just don't expect $100 million gargantuan epics. This historically based western from director Charles Haid certainly qualifies, telling a relatively little-known story about the American west.

If you've seen 1989's Glory, a classic about the formation of the first all-black regiment in the Civil War, you have an idea of what you're getting into here. Even though the U.S. government backed the formation of black regiments -- both cavalry and infantry -- they weren't always supported whether it be from the government that formed them, the high-ranking army officers who commanded them, or the settlers and townspeople that depended on their protection. We see that in the new commanding officer, the doubting General Pike, his right-hand, prejudiced/racist Major Carr (Timothy Busfield), but also the other side, the supportive side in the 10th's commander, Colonel Grierson (Bob Gunton), and one of his company commanders, Captain Calhoun (Matt Ross). The conversations can be tough at times -- a multitude of uses of the 'N-word' -- but the reality of the history is there all over.

Our focus mostly is on Glover's Sergeant Washington Wyatt, a former slave from Mississippi who joined the army, has been there for years and climbed through the ranks. Now as a first sergeant in the 10th, he's respected by his men and for the most part, his superiors. Glover does a fine job with his performance, an incredibly capable soldier who is nonetheless limited by perceptions, regulations and in some cases, ignorance from those in command. We see those struggles, Wyatt instead trying to focus on doing his job and getting his men through as many scrapes as they can untouched. There's a cool dynamic with Pike's scout, John Horse (Carl Lumbly), a half-Seminole, half-black man who's also an expert scout. John questions what drives Wyatt, what pushes him to do what he does, and maybe most importantly, to tolerate what he does from those around him, including his superiors. The heart of the movie, and an excellent performance from Glover.

The rest of the Buffalo soldiers include a focus on Corporal Christy (Mykelti Williamson), Wyatt's close friend who always seems to be getting himself into trouble, and Sergeant Joyu Ruth (Glynn Turman), a grizzled veteran and another friend of Wyatt's. Also look for Lamont Bentley, Michael Warren, David Jean Thomas, Gabriel Casseus, and Clifton Powell as H Troop soldiers. I would have liked some more background on all these men, from Wyatt through the company, but some of the movie's strongest moments are those when we see the bond of friendship among the troop. Riding in formation on the trail, sitting around a campfire with a cup of coffee, doing upkeep on the fort, those are the moments that ring most true.  

The visual is there -- a cavalry company outlined against the setting sun on the horizon -- and the action is excellent, if not there in abundance. It can vicious and startling, but that's how it was in the fighting between the cavalry and the Apaches. It is only in the final act that things fall apart a touch. In hopes of doing what is right and just, Wyatt and H Troop do something that while noble could potentially cost the lives of countless others down the trail someplace. The story becomes a little too much in looking at the history with idolizing eyes, especially the final scene. It's a good movie, a pretty good TV movie, but brace yourself a little for the finale.

Buffalo Soldiers (1997): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Force of Arms

Yuck, here we are again. War movies that aren't content to just be war movies. What else gets added to the formula? A love story, two tortured souls brought together because, God bless it, the universe just wants it to happen! Those crazy kids, they just belong together even if the war will do its best to keep them apart. Today's entry is 1951's Force of Arms.

It's 1943 and the fighting in Italy is intensifying all along the front. After weeks and months on the line, an infantry platoon commanded by Sgt. Joe Peterson (William Holden) is tasked with one more objective. Though it costs heavy casualties, the platoon retakes an important position from the Germans. The entire unit is awarded five days of leave far removed from the muddy, cold front lines, Peterson meets a WAC, Lt. Eleanor MacKay (Nancy Olson), who he starts off on a rocky path almost immediately. Still, as they argue and test each other back and forth, both Joe and Eleanor can't deny their attraction to each other. The clock is ticking though as the soldier and the WAC must decide where to go next before Joe returns to the front line fighting. Can they come to terms with how they feel about each other in time?

Gag me, I hate when I have to write plot descriptions like this. Don't get me wrong. If there's a good romance war story out there, I'll give it a fair shot. Also, I don't really count Casablanca. I'm talking war stories, men on the front lines when the story takes a detour for some loving away from the front. Director Michael Curtiz's flick has a ton of potential because the portions focusing on the fighting, on Peterson taking a leadership role, of the platoon both in action and resting, that is 'Force' at its strongest. Too much time is spent on the budding relationship between Holden and Olson in the process. 'Force' is filmed in black and white with some cool location shooting, California filling in surprisingly well for Italy. It has a gritty, worn look, but dang, enough with the love story.

Holden is one of my favorites, and Olson has more than held her own in Sunset Blvd., Battle Cry and several other flicks. They have some decent chemistry together, but this script does them absolutely no favors. They meet in a military cemetery in the dead of the night and at no point does Holden's Peterson ever think "Hmm, I wonder what she's doing here? Maybe someone she knew...died?" From there, we get to know two folks working through some stuff -- Peterson the war wearing him down day to day, Eleanor trying to overcome a lost love -- with death hanging in the air. They wonder aloud what love really is, question if they truly can love, take dreamy walks on the Italian countryside, and share tons of scandalous hugs where they rub faces. A love story is one thing. One that moves this sluggishly with not enough of a payoff? Yeah, not good.

At times, 'Force' reminded me of 1959's Never so Few, a WWII story that is at its strongest when it focuses on the war, on the soldiers, on the combat. That's 'Force' in a nutshell. The story starts at its strongest as Peterson's platoon is tasked with retaking a German-held position on a rocky hill. This isn't large scale warfare but a small unit of soldiers going toe to toe against another small unit of soldiers. The violence isn't graphic, but it's startling and quick just the same. That's most of the action/combat scenes, including the platoon moving into position under heavy German guns and later navigating an Italian town with winding streets and German shells and mortars raining down on them. As quick as these segments are over, the script jumps right back to the love story. Oh, joy.

Beyond Holden in the soldier department, look for Frank Lovejoy as Major Bradford, the unit's commanding officer and an old friend of Peterson's from back home. Commanding officer and one of his trusted officers but also friends with a past. In Peterson's platoon, look for Gene Evans as McFee, worried what his wife is up to back home, Dick Wesson as Kleiner, a capable soldier and a capable smartass, Paul Picerni as Sheridan, the smooth Italian (similar to the part he played in To Hell and Back), Ross Ford as Hooker, the southern farmer, Ron Hagerthy as Minto, Peterson's runner, and a young Don Gordon in one of his first speaking parts as Sgt. Webber. I like the group dynamic, their friendships, their arguments. It feels natural, and I just wish there was more of it.

A mixed bag unfortunately. When it's good, it's pretty good. When it's bad, love is pretty rough to watch.

Force of Arms (1951): **/****

Thursday, September 11, 2014


I can think of exactly one movie made about the Spanish-American War. Okay, there I go again lying. It's actually a miniseries, 1997's Rough Riders, that's pretty good if not so well known. Well, I can kinda add a second movie to the list although it involves the years leading up to the war before the U.S. officially got involved. Here we go with 1956's Santiago.

Riding through the swamps of Florida, Cash Adams (Alan Ladd) arrives in Tampa with wagons loaded with guns, ammunition and dynamite ready to close a deal and make some money for himself and his men. Not so fast though, Mr. Adams. The deal he cut with Cuban revolutionaries fighting the Spanish is okay, but now he has to get all his materiel to Cuba himself. Adams finds an old steamboat captain and Civil War veteran, Sidewheel Jones (Chill Wills), to transport his supplies but it's not that simple. On board the boat is another gunrunner, Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan), who has cut a similar deal with the Cubans. Adams has a rivalry with Pike dating back 10-plus years and the voyage across the Gulf of Mexico will be anything but easy. Spanish ships are waiting to stop them, if the ship can even get there before Adams and Pike tear each other apart.

Airing recently on Turner Classic Movies, 'Santiago' is from director Gordon Douglas. Not necessarily a well-known name, Douglas still has quite a few really solid movies to his name including Rio Conchos, Chuka, In Like Flint, Up Periscope and Golf of the Seven Saints among others. He specialized in tough movies, action and western and war flicks full of tough guy actors doing tough guy stuff. Douglas didn't have a huge visual style or anything that truly set him apart from the rest, but he was a solid, workmanlike director, and I have very much enjoyed a lot of his movies. This one? It's pretty decent, ahead of its time in certain moments with its use of on-screen violence and unfortunately too familiar in other scenes. It doesn't rewrite the genre, but I enjoyed it, 94 minutes of exciting action with a pretty cool cast and a different background, the Cuban War of Independence. Spanish-American War still to come!

The best comparison I can make is the similarities here with Robert Aldrich's 1954 classic western Vera Cruz, one of the most influential westerns of all-time. Here with 'Santiago,' Alan Ladd and Lloyd Nolan channel Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, two rivals who are forced to work together to battle a common enemy. All the while, they know a showdown is looming. Ladd is pretty decent as Cash Adams, his backstory providing most of the interest. A cavalry officer fighting the Apaches, he was dishonorably discharged when a captive Apache chief escaped because one of his men got drunk on guard duty. And who was providing those Apaches with repeating rifles? Why Nolan's Clay Pike of course! The rivalry is a little tame, little lacking in energy, but it seems Adams and Pike are never too far away from throwing down and having it out. 

I wish there was more of that darker story material, and that becomes the issue. Yeah, it's a rivalry....but not really. Ladd's Adams is a good gunrunner (if there is such a thing), supplying materiel for the right side. Nolan's Pike doesn't care who gets the guns as long as he gets paid. And because that wasn't enough, we get a love interest with Rossana Podesta playing Dona Isabella, a beautiful Cuban revolutionary who works as the middleman for shipment of the guns. Who do you think she'll end up with?!? You won't need two guesses. There's also an adorable little Cuban boy who bonds with Adams, but you just know things aren't going to end well for the little stinker. At times, things are a tad too clean, a little slow-moving, but for the most part I was entertained throughout. Also, kudos to Ladd who in muggy Florida and Cuba manages to keep his tailored white shirts immaculate no matter what's going on. Now, THAT is talent.

Who else to look for? Wills is excellent, toning down his over the top act that could be a little hammy when overdone, Don Blackman playing Sam, his former slave and current right-hand man. Paul Fix is similarly very good as Trasker, Adams' loyal right-hand man with an interesting background that explain his loyalty. Some of the other tough guys on hand include Royal Dano, L.Q. Jones, and Frank DeKova. The movie is at its strongest when it leans on Ladd, Nolan and the familiar faces all around them. Romance? Motivations for independence? Meh, no thanks. The action and violence can be pretty startling -- even bloody -- and the finale especially is memorable. It even reminded me of the final battle in Major Dundee, a chaotic, quick-cut bloody mess where characters are dispatched without warning.

A decent movie that could have been better, but still worth a watch.

Santiago (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Detective Story

The police procedural in 2014 is a tried and true formula. It's gotten a genre reboot of sorts thanks to HBO's highly successful True Detective, but there's also been Law and Order, Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco and countless others. As familiar as the genre can be, it can be fun to go back and see where things started...all the way back in the 1950s!!! Here's 1951's Detective Story.

It's a warm summer day in New York City and things are going about as normal at the 21st Precinct with its crew of detectives and seemingly never-ending stream of criminals, some petty crooks and others looking at a stiff prison sentence. Among the officers on duty is Detective Jim McCleod (Kirk Douglas), a hard-boiled officer who always gets his man, albeit with some less than legal methods. Now he has to deal with a case from his past, a doctor, Schneider (George Macready), who has built a reputation for all the wrong reasons. In previous run-ins, McCleod has never been able to close the case on the doctor through a variety of coincidences that certainly smell fishy. He's become almost obsessed with sending Schneider to jail no matter the case, no matter by what means he can do it. Will McCleod go too far this time around?

From director William Wyler, 'Detective' is based off a play by Sidney Kingsley. Wyler's film picked up four Oscar nominations but ultimately winning none. I've long tried to track it down, Netflix taunting me with the DVD that never seemed to be available. Well, I win Netflix! I found it on Turner Classic Movie's schedule! And in the end, it was well worth the wait. The stage-based roots pay huge dividends, almost the entire 103-minute running time spent in the 21st Precinct's bullpen and offices. It's busy, claustrophobic and a great backdrop to the ensemble story and long list of characters. It is a simple, straightforward technique that works in pretty effortless fashion. There isn't anything particularly flashy about Wyler's film, but it's realistic, tough and often enough ahead of its time mentality, 'Detective' is an easy recommend.

Just 35 years old at the time, it's crazy to think what Douglas accomplished in his first five years in Hollywood. Talk about a guy who hit the ground running, Douglas having Champion, Out of the Past and Ace in the Hole to his name. Add his performance here as Detective Jim McCleod to an impressive list for a young actor. There are times late where things get a little over-dramatic, but Douglas knows just where to stop where things could be considered a little hammy. McCleod is absolutely dripping with rage and fury, his job tearing him apart, not to mention some inner demons coursing through him. We see he's a good cop, pushing and pushing to catch the crooks, knowing all their tricks, but it's also a job that's pushed him to a state where he is hanging on the verge of absolutely losing his mind. Brimming with intensity, this is quite a performance for Douglas. Surprisingly enough, he wasn't nominated for an Oscar here, two other performances picking up nods.

Rounding out the cast is a solid ensemble starting with Eleanor Parker (picking up a Best Actress nomination) as Mary, McCleod's wife. She's a cop's wife, knowing her husband pushes himself while trying not to involve her too much in the horrors of what he sees. As for the other 21st Precinct detectives, look for William Bendix as McCleod's partner, Lou Brody, with Horace McMahon as Lt. Monahan, and Frank Faylen, Bert Freed, Grandon Rhodes and William Phillips rounding out the crew. Other folks to watch out for, Lee Grant as a first-time pickpocket, observing all that goes on in prison (and picking up an Oscar nomination?!?), a young man (Craig Hill) who robbed $400-plus from his boss but his girlfriend's sister (Cathy O'Donnell) wants to help him, and two crooks (Joseph Wiseman in just his second film, Michael Strong) trying not to turn on each other for their long list of burglaries. It's a cool ensemble, all the different responses from both sides of the law as the day develops.

There are weaknesses, but none are deal-breakers. Wiseman hams it up like his life depended on it. Grant's cute pickpocket comes across as more annoying than anything. It is a tad slow-moving at times. That said? It's a gem of a movie. Ahead of its time in dealing with an abortion doctor (in a 1950s film at that!), the story gets uncomfortable and very real as certain elements of the script come to life. The ending is not so surprisingly downbeat. Pay attention with some quick cues within several other scenes, and you should see where it's going. Well worth a watch. Highly recommended.

Detective Story (1951): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, September 8, 2014

Oklahoma Crude

When I hear the name Stanley Kramer, I think of any number of movies. The 1960s were quite the decade for this director with movies like Judgment at Nuremberg, Mad, Mad World, Inherit the Wind and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to his name. Oh, and that 1950s decade? The Defiant Ones and On the Beach. Quite a list, huh? And that's only listing some. I'm familiar with most of Kramer's movies as a director, have seen many of them and was at least aware of some others. One that qualifies as...well, none of those is and was 1973's Oklahoma Crude, a quasi-western with little reputation.

It's the 1910s and feisty Lena Doyle (Faye Dunaway) owns a chunk of land smack dab in the middle of the Oklahoma oil fields. She has put the time into the land, building a shack and a derrick and intends to tap the crude oil she believes is in the ground below her. There's a problem of course. A powerful oil magnate is scooping up land left and right, purchasing all the small-time owners. Well, most of them. Lena refuses to sell, claiming (rightfully so) that the land is hers. In hopes of protecting her investment, Lena gets some help from some unlikely places, including her estranged father, Cleon (John Mills) and a hired gun he hired, Mason (George C. Scott). Mason isn't quite sure what to make of the job, looking to make some quick and easy cash, but the little group is in for more than they planned on when the oil company sends out an enforcer, Hellman (Jack Palance), to make sure Lena sells.

Well, this was certainly an interesting movie if a heavily flawed one. I struggled through it at times and was rewarded with a far stronger second half of a 108-minute movie. Getting there can be a trial at times though, and even the last hour isn't as good as it could have been. Still, Kramer chooses an interesting story to tell and picks the right time to release it, the 1970s when audiences would have been all sorts of stirred up about a huge company strong-arming small businesses (I guess that'd land pretty well now in 2014 too). The development of the oil fields in Oklahoma in the early 1900s is an interesting enough historical period -- one that hasn't gotten its due in films, TV and books -- with plenty of dark, nasty material to dive into, but...

Kramer doesn't seem to be able to pick a tone, a voice and stick with it. Is it supposed to be truly dramatic and dark and unsettling? Or is it supposed to be goofy and fun and the kinda oddball romance story I typically hate? And that's where the problem is. It's both. The song that plays over the opening credits, Send a Little Love My Way, had me worried I was jumping into a folksy, disgustingly pleasant western that I do love so much. It wasn't, but it's a good forebearer of what's to come. The score from Henry Mancini is simply put, very obvious, big and loud and not appropriate for what the dark and depths of the story could have been. Instead, we get the Dunaway/Scott rivalry, the Dunaway/Mills fighting, Palance vs. the world, and all mixed in with some "I hate you until I love you" story and some all too painful comic relief. Oh, look, that naked guy got shot in the butt with buckshot!!! Yeah, it's too schizophrenic for its own good.

There is a saving grace, one that quickly popped up as the pleasant song mentioned above plays over the credits. Yeah, it's that cast thing. Dunaway, Scott, Mills and Palance?!? Yes, I will invest some time to see how this develops. The script doesn't always do this quartet a ton of favors, but there is a ton of talent here that manages to bring these characters to life. Dunaway's Lena is tough as nails, never been handed anything in her life, ready to fight for what's hers and screw anyone who gets in her way. Scott's Mason -- or Mase, his full name revealed late -- is harder to read, a worker and quasi-hired gun looking for a payday but just as interesting to see develop. I loved the energy Mills as Cleon brought to his part, a father who wasn't there for his daughter as she grew up. Now that he can help? He's going to do everything he can, even when that daughter tells him to screw off. And then there's Palance, doing what he does best, playing that near lunatic but very obsessed bad guy that you're never quite sure what he's capable of.

The human moments are not surprisingly, those that work best in Kramer's film. I especially liked the dynamic between Dunaway's Lena and Scott's Mase. It develops nicely -- but takes quite awhile getting there -- and for the most part manages to avoid all the pratfalls of a sappy story of two opposites who aren't so opposite. Mills is a scene-stealer and Palance is solid. The darkness of the second half is what the entire movie should have been. Filming out on the desolate, stark prairies, you get a sense of what these small-time drillers went through. Isolated and alone with no help in sight should it be needed. I simply wish Kramer would have committed, not trying to mix the light-hearted with the dark. At least if he kept it light, so be it. It's there. That's it. That's all. Enjoyable enough to recommend but far from a classic.

Oklahoma Crude (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, September 4, 2014


Wanna feel old? Just look back at movies that were released the year you were born. Last week I went and saw Guardians of the Galaxy only to find a poster advertising the coming 30th anniversary of 1984's Ghostbusters hitting theaters. My first thought was something along the lines of "Haha what an old movie. That's crazy." Well....I'm 29 so that makes me....oh, God, I'm gonna be 30 next summer!!! Okay, calm down, calm down. Yeah, anyways, Ghostbusters is really good. Definitely couldn't pass up that re-release in theaters.

When their grant with Columbia University runs out, doctors/screwballs/misfits/friends Pete Veckman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis) find themselves in quite the sticky situation. Experts of sorts in paranormal activity, the trio decide to go into business for themselves, dubbing the little group 'Ghostbusters.' Their start-up business struggles at first but quickly hits a groove to the point they become celebrities, popping up in newspapers, magazines and TV news all over the country. Their reputation spreads and they keep on scooping up and observing all sorts of paranormal activity across New York City. Then, they take a job that may be too big even for them. A woman, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), claims some inexplicable things have been happening in her apartment. What's going on exactly? The Ghostbusters are on the case.

How crazy is it that Ghostbusters is 30 years old? Seriously. It's 30 years old. Let that sink in for a little bit. Process it. I hadn't watched this sci-fi, horror comedy in years (like....lots of years) but the girlfriend is a big fan so it was hard to pass up the opportunity to see it remastered on a big screen. It's easy to forget the impact the film has had in those 30 years, spawning a sequel (and possibly a third upcoming one), two cartoon series -- I loved The Real Ghostbusters growing up -- and too many iconic things to mention. Okay, let's try. There's the instantly recognizable theme from Ray Parker Jr. (listen HERE), the great throwback beige jumpsuits, the Ghostbusters warehouse, and of course, the NYC firehouse turned Ghostbusters office. Oh, and Slimer too. You can't forget Slimer.

As far as comedy writers go, there's a certain mad genius quality to Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. Together or working separately, they've helped write The Blues Brothers, Coneheads, Dragnet, Spies Like Us, Caddyshack, Meatballs, Stripes and Animal House. Oh, and this one, Ghostbusters. You combine those two mad geniuses and let them do their thing. The script is a gem, funny without ever trying too hard. It lays things out, assembles a ton of talent and gives each of them a chance to shine. Murray gets the most laughs, but it is a smart-ass, underplayed, dripping with sarcasm part as he unleashes one memorable one-liner after another. Aykroyd is just manic energy, Ramis is the straight man who's always ready with a scientific response, and joining the crew late is Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore because a job is a job.

What a cast though. It's 107 minutes and the cast and story never feels rushed. Murray, Ramis and Aykroyd are pretty perfect together, giving the impression of three friends just hanging out and shooting the breeze. Throw in the very sexy Sigourney Weaver who gets to deal with her nerdy neighbor played to perfection by Rick Moranis, and you've got quite the group of talented actors assembled here. Also look for Annie Potts as the Ghostbusters' secretary, Janine, and familiar 1980s snooty bad guy William Atherton as an EPA agent more than a little interested in what the Ghostbusters are actually doing.

No point in any overanalysis here. Director Ivan Reitman has a gem here, one I very much enjoyed catching up with how many years later. The entire movie is strong, but it is at its best in the final act as the Ghostbusters must tangle with an ancient spirit and demigod, Zuul, and a Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction, Gozer. It produces probably the movie's most memorable scene, a gigantic 100-feet tall Stay Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizing New York City. Hard not to like this one. Well worth revisiting....even if it does mean I'm almost 30 years old.

Ghostbusters (1984): ***/****

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

I don't know if I can truly express how much I like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, how big a fan I was growing up and now as a grown-up kid of sorts. The animated series that ran for 10 seasons and 193 episodes was a staple in my childhood, as was the film trilogy that hit theaters between 1990 and 1993. Those four famous turtles never really left the public eye with a variety of action figures, cartoon series and even a couple reboot attempts on the franchise. Our latest entry? 2014's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Crime is running rampant across New York City as the police are seemingly baffled by the appearance of a new gang of street thugs called the Foot Clan. No one seems to be able to stop this new powerful gang led by the mysterious Shredder (Tohoru Masamune), but an intrepid young TV news reporter, April O'Neill (Megan Fox), is looking to get into the guts of the story. She stumbles into something, a vigilante fighting back against the Foot Clan...or so she thinks. It's not a vigilante, but four vigilantes but even April is in for a surprise. These four vigilantes are anthropomorphic turtles who are expert ninjas and named after Renaissance painters, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael and Michelangelo. They live in the sewers, only revealing themselves as needed to help fight crime while keeping their identities hidden. Heavily outnumbered, can these four teenage turtles slow down and ultimately stop Shredder and the Foot Clan?

Seriously, I loved the Turtles growing up. Yeah, we're on a first name basis. They're the Turtles. I had the action figures, the Turtle van, the baseball cards, the clothes, the weapons, and I watched that show and the movies religiously. I've grown up since (some I guess, probably not a lot), but the TMNT are still epic, still awesome. I missed out on the 2007 animated version, but just the same I was a tad curious, a bit worried when I heard another reboot was coming along. That worried feeling got worse when I read the master of explosions and flashy style Michael Bay was involved -- as a producer -- and that Megan Fox was cast as April O'Neil, the best TV news, ever. I didn't head into this 2014 reboot with high expectations but still came away disappointed.

I don't know exactly why I didn't care for this flick from director Jonathan Liebesman. It's not one big reason, but a lot of little reasons. Let's start with the Turtles themselves. This may sound like sour grapes because the ones I grew up with are my favorites, but the Turtles...they just don't look right. They look right when it's actually something on-screen, not the CGI turtles on display here. They look like they've been hitting the gym pretty good -- cough steroids cough -- under the tutelage of their ninja master, Splinter (voice of Tony Shalhoub, motion capture of Danny Woodburn). All the familiar touches are there from their catch phrases to their rivalry (Leo and Raphael are still in a power struggle) to their love of pizza. Even their back story sticks with the known stuff but for lack of a better description, it comes down to this. Those Turtles, they're cutouts of their characters. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let's start with the voices and the characterization we do get. Jackass star Johnny Knoxville voices Leonardo, the Turtles' strong-willed leader. Yeah, Jackass star. I like Knoxville, but his voice wasn't a great match for the character. That's the most recognizable name among our quartet, Alan Ritchson (Raphael), Noel Fisher (Michelangelo) and Jeremy Howard (Donatello) rounding out the group. As we see here, Raphael is more intense and moody than ever, Donatello is more of a science/tech nerd than ever, and Michelangelo simply wants to bang Fox's April. It gets weird, the most lovable of the Turtles, Mikey himself, constantly hitting on April. I can't pinpoint it, but something was missing among the group whether it be the visual, the voices or just a poor script. Disappointed across the board.

Unfortunately, the Turtles' human counterparts don't fare much better. Yes, Megan Fox is incredibly easy on the eyes. One of the stars of the first two Transformers movies before having a falling out with Bay, Fox will never be called a great actress. She's miscast as April O'Neil, simple as that. Will Arnett is a funny guy in most things he does, but his Vernon Fenwick, April's cameraman, doesn't have much chemistry and the attempts at laughs didn't do much for me. William Fichtner is okay as Eric Sacks, a scientist and humanitarian involved with the creation of the Turtles who has some ulterior motives. In the odd 'What the heck?' casting department, Whoopi Goldberg appears in a couple scenes as April's boss at the news station. Minae Noji is underused as Shredder's enforcer, Karai.

There is some cool action in the last third of the movie as the Turtles do battle with Shredder and the Foot Clan, the battle starting on a mountaintop mansion and making its way to the streets of New York, ultimately wrapping up at the top of a skyscraper. It's pretty decent stuff, Bay's typically schizophrenic style kept relatively low-key while still packing an adrenaline punch. My biggest issue though? I was bored. I love these characters, love their story, love their camaraderie, and I was downright bored for almost the entire movie. I seem to be in the minority, 'Turtles' raking in the dough to the tune of almost $300 million internationally as I write this review. A sequel has already been announced so there's that too. An unfortunate negative review, a childhood favorite not living up to expectations that weren't that high to begin with.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014): * 1/2 /****

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

The summer of 2014 hasn’t exactly been a stellar one for big, huge, gigantic, popcorn-guzzling blockbuster flicks. Yeah, I liked 22 Jump Street, Edge of Tomorrow, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but for the most part, there hasn’t been a Batman, a Superman, an Avengers, a HUGE summer movie. What’s been the flick that made the most money? One that deserves its distinction as the summer’s highest-grossing flick, 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s 1988 and young Peter Quill runs from a hospital room where his mom just died. As he sits in an open field, a spaceship flies over him, a huge light shining on him. Some 20 years later and now all grown up, Peter (Chris Pratt) has become an outlaw, dubbing himself Star Lord, with a growing reputation (so he thinks) in a far-off universe made up of countless planets and species. He’s managed to steal a seemingly normal orb for a buyer, but he’s stumbled into something bigger than he knows. The orb is incredibly powerful and whoever possesses it could control the universe. With some unwilling allies, including Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an experienced assassin, Drax (Dave Bautista), an enormous warrior, Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a genetically-mutated, talking raccoon who’s become a bounty hunter, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a humanoid tree capable of regenerating), Peter must prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands…if this crew can pull it together.

If there’s a such thing as a “risky” flick in the Marvel Universe, this one was it. No huge stars, no Iron Man or Captain America or Thor or Hulk, and a story in a far-off universe where many to most viewers have no history…yeah, I guess that is a little risky. Now all that said, $500 million at the international box office seems to indicate that movie-going audiences don’t really give a crap. If it looks good, we’ll give it a shot. Director James Gunn turns in a gem, a movie that shrugs off all those concerns to tell a story in a far-off universe with all sorts of weird characters and species that’s a heck of a lot of fun. Dramatic, funny, entertaining, well-written, action-packed, unique and transporting viewers to a really cool universe. An easy one to recommend.

This is a movie that knows where it comes from in terms of the science fiction genre. It has touches of everything from Star Wars and Star Trek and The Avengers. On another level, it eats up a chance to add a new layer to the men-on-a-mission concept with films like The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen. Touches, yes, but this is its own movie. It seeks out its own identity. This is a popcorn movie, a true blockbuster that is well-acted, well-told, but mostly? ‘Guardians’ just wants to have some fun. It is stylistically aware of itself without being overbearing. The soundtrack with a lot of 1970s/1980s pop could be aggressively over the top, but the script finds a way to blend it seamlessly into the story. A big, colorful movie that embraces all the good – and very little – of the blockbuster concept. Yeah, the story can be confusing at times with so many characters and planets and situations and history, but it finds a groove pretty quickly.

What’s the best thing going here? The aforementioned men-on-a-mission angle similar to The Avengers and countless other movies. The concept is simple. You put a disparate group of individuals together, some specialists, mostly outcasts in one way or another, and give them some impossible mission to achieve. Here, it works effortlessly, a tribute to the talented cast. Pratt is a huge rising star, the roguish Peter Quill who desperately wants to be an infamous outlaw who’s name precedes him. Saldana is sexy and smooth, Cooper is at his scene-stealing best as the fiery, feisty Rocket (yes, Bradley Cooper provides his voice to play a raccoon), Bautista – an MMA fighter/WWE wrestler – an underplayed laugh machine, and Diesel having some fun as the one-liner repeating Groot. Yes, Vin Diesel plays a tree who has one repeated line, albeit with some different inflections.

More than the action, more than the other-worldly exploration, more than all that flashy stuff, I found the script to be the best thing going here. Working with Nicole Perlman and based off a series of graphic novels, Gunn brings these people to life. That's the men-on-a-mission angle; five disparate, different individuals forced to put their differences aside to get the job done. So many scenes are memorable, most of them worthwhile because of a sight gag among the group or a quick, witty one-liner. They may not always get along, but our Guardians are gonna keep at it. My favorite scene comes late, a staple of the specialist idea. Faced with impossible odds, they have to decide if they should go on, knowing full well many may not make it back. The build-up is hysterical as they talk it out (some would say criticize each other), and the pay-off is sublime, Cooper's Rocket absolutely killing a quick monologue. It is those moments that stick with me days after seeing the movie.

Also look for Glenn Close and John C. Reilly as high-ranking officials and staff on Xandar, the universe's capital. If there's a relative weakness, it's the villains, including power-seeking Ronan (Lee Pace) and his fiery daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Michael Rooker has a lot of fun as Yondu, leader of the Ravagers who kinda sorta likes Peter but also knows he can't fully trust him. Last seen in Thor 2, Benicio Del Toro makes a quick appearance as The Collector while Djimon Hounsou is wasted as a tough guard who is on Peter's trail. 

No point overanalyzing this one. Risky though it may have seemed, it is a gem, ranking up there with The Avengers as one of my favorite flicks from the Marvel Universe. Yeah, the story can be tough to follow early on. Yeah, the villains could use some pumping up, but these complaints are almost wasted. This is a FUNNY movie. I laughed here more than I did in intended comedies. For goodness sake, Bradley Cooper lends his voice to play a wisecracking, weapons slinging raccoon. Vin Diesel plays a tree. A TREE. 'Guardians' is everything that's right about summer blockbusters. Can't recommend this one enough. The easiest of recommendations.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, September 1, 2014

Good Will Hunting

Just a few weeks ago, I reviewed 1989’s Dead Poets Society, a film featuring one of Robin Williams’ best dramatic roles. It even picked him up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance. For me, it’s a push though when you stop and consider Williams’ overall acting parts. That conversation includes both Dead Poets and 1997’s Good Will Hunting.

Working as a janitor at M.I.T., Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a pretty simple life. He works, reads, and enjoys hanging out with his friends in south Boston. There’s something special about Will though, something he only lets out in small doses. Will is an absolute genius, able to understand complex mathematical equations at will, an almost photographic memory aiding the cause. It’s more than that though. He gets in trouble with the law though, but when a professor (Stellan Skarsgard) at M.I.T. finds out what this janitor is capable of, he cuts a deal with the court to earn Will’s release. One of the requirements of the release is simple; Will must go to a psychiatrist and talk about his past, his anger, his life. He chases one away after another until he finally meets Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a psychiatrist who finally challenges him.

Like ‘Dead Poets,’ I sought out ‘Hunting’ after the tragic passing of Robin Williams a few weeks ago. His death is still settling in weeks later, the tributes still revealing themselves as fans continue to realize what a true talent he was. Both for William’s performance and the entire cast, ‘Hunting is a gem, director Gus Van Sant helming a film that picked up nine Oscar nominations, ultimately winning two; Best Supporting Actor for Williams, Best Original Screenplay for Damon and Ben Affleck. It is the best kind of drama, a story interested in the people, the relationships, the real life drama. There are some true BIG dramatic moments, but they never feel forced. They feel very real. This was the movie that put Matt Damon and Ben Affleck on the map in a big way, a huge window into the talents they were and would become. The reason for revisiting the movie was unfortunate, but the movie itself is a gem.

The script from Damon and Affleck is a pretty perfect jumping off point. It paints a great picture of the characters and a true variety of characters. We’re talking full-fledged, red-blooded, 3-D characters that act and talk like real people. That starts with Damon’s Will Hunting. We learn as the story develops what makes Will the way he is, his checkered past littered with violence, his life growing up in foster homes. Rocking an epic Boston accent, Damon kills the part. Will isn’t an easy character to like because he does such a good job pushing people away, but you’re rooting for him just the same. You want him to figure things out, to open up, to trust some. Damon is one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood, a true talent, and this is definitely one of his best.

Damon’s performance is uniformly strong, but the scenes that resonate the most are those in which he interacts with Williams’ Sean. These scenes take place in Sean’s cluttered, homey office, a lived-in feel for sure as Sean, a psychiatrist and professor at a junior college, gets to know the troubled Will. These scenes develop like a chess match, two professionals duking it out, looking for strengths and weaknesses. Why does it work? It plays effortlessly. This isn’t acting but two guys having a conversation. It isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s always fascinating. Will’s early “analysis” of Sean, Sean’s shot back at his brilliant mind, Sean’s explaining about his own past, including a great scene about the 1975 World Series and Carlton Fisk’s famous home run, they all ring true. A true talent in Robin Williams, bringing out the best in all his scenes.

Who else to look for? This isn’t a huge cast, but what’s there is prime. Helping give a window into Will, again, is the script as we see his day-to-day life, meeting his friends as they go bar-hopping, hang out on the weekends. Affleck is a scene-stealer as Chuckie, Will’s longtime best friend, loyal to a fault but also wanting his friend to reach out and take what he can with his gift, his mind. Also look for Casey Affleck and Cole Hauser as two other close friends. Minnie Driver is a gem too as Skylar, an incredibly smart med student who clicks instantly with Will but struggles to get to know him as he puts his walls up. As well, Skarsgard is excellent as a professor with a similarly brilliant mind but not one on the same level as Will. An incredibly talented cast, not a weakness in the bunch.

As I mentioned, this is a movie about the personal drama. If I delve into the story anymore, it’s going to involve giving away some great scenes that should come naturally in the process of watching the film. Me talking about it would be one spoiler after another. Great story, great characters, cool locations in and around Boston, and a pretty cool ending on so many levels. Well worth catching up with. Highly recommended, and again, R.I.P. Robin Williams.

Good Will Hunting (1997): *** ½ /****