The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Gone Girl

Read the book or watch the movie first? Book or movie, movie or book?!? My typical rule of thumb is try the book first and see if it pulls me in. So a couple months ago when I first saw the trailers for an upcoming movie, I sought out the book for Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. I found a rhythm pretty quick and enjoyed the book a lot. Does the movie live up to its book roots? Here's 2014's Gone Girl.

Living in a small Missouri town, the Dunnes, Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike), have fallen on some rough times. They both lost their jobs and had to move from New York City to Missouri to help care for Nick's dying mother. They're struggling along, Nick opening up a bar in hopes of bringing in some cash. One day at the bar, Nick gets a phone call from his neighbor who says the front door is wide open at his house. Nick returns home and finds evidence of a fight all over the house...and Amy is gone. What happened? Where did she go? Was it a kidnapping, or maybe worse? Nick calls the police who immediately go to work trying to find out what exactly happened in the house. Nick maintains his innocence as the investigation builds, stating he had nothing to do with his wife's disappearance. The evidence certainly seems to indicate otherwise. What did happen to Amy?

The trailer immediately caught my attention for this mystery when I stumbled across it in theaters. I remember Flynn's book climbing up the bestsellers list a few years back but had no dying need to read the book. I heard generally good reviews, but the trailer sold it. Here's a mini book review for those curious. Flynn's story is excellent. Once you pick up the style, it's a great read, flying by as the clues reveal themselves and the mystery builds as we figure out what's going on. If you're a fan of the book, you'll like the movie. If you haven't read the book, the movie does an admirable job bringing the story to life.

So the movie? Excellent, director David Fincher doing another gem, directing a daunting story considering its unique style. 'Girl' is 149 minutes long and covers a ton of ground, but it never feels long, slow or even remotely dull. The storytelling technique is interesting, adapting Flynn's technique well. We see the developing story from Nick's perspective while getting some seamlessly transitioned flashbacks as Amy writes in her diary of how she and Nick met and how their relationship developed from dating to their marriage. With Flynn doing the screen adaptation, the story is well-written, well-executed and keeps the mystery building. Is it worth it in the end? It's tough to say without giving too much away. There are several twists dotting the story, one excellent one and some moments meant to confuse and keep you guessing.

Talk about some good casting, but as I read the book, the only people I was aware of what characters they played where Affleck as Nick and Pike as Amy. Affleck is nicely cast as Nick, the smart, funny husband, and Pike is similarly excellent as Amy, basically the perfect wife. Their chemistry is pretty excellent, and the biggest reveals do just that, reveal some truths about their marriage. Also look for Carrie Coon as Go, Nick's twin sister, Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit as the police officers leading the disappearance investigation, David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy's parents, Neil Patrick Harris, Emily Ratajkowski and Scoot McNairy as three folks involved in the investigation. Go figure, but the best supporting part -- along with Coon and Dickens -- is Grandma Madea herself, Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt, a high-profile lawyer brought in as the disappearance develops. Funny, smart, an excellent supporting part for Perry. 

If there's a weakness, it comes in the final act. Reading Flynn's book, I felt like she struggled to come up with a fitting finale. That concern carries over to the film, the story keeping the same conclusion. It isn't a tidy ending -- far from it -- in an open-ended, frustrating quasi-resolution. Still, getting there is highly enjoyable. The look of the movie is stylized but never too much, the cast is excellent across the boards, the tension and mystery works perfectly, and the score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is creepy, understated and ethereal in helping to build the tension. Sorry if this is a short(ish) review. I really don't want to give too much away but know that this is an excellent mystery. Well worth checking out. Sit back and appreciate it, however dark and uncomfortable it gets.

Gone Girl (2014): ***/****

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Omen III: The Final Conflict

Well, evil has grown up. After reviewing the Omen remake from 2006 and the first sequel from the original, it's time to wrap things up with one last review. The original Omen movies were a trilogy and one failed TV movie. I watched part of this one years ago, especially remembering the finale, so here we go with 1981's Omen III: The Final Conflict.

The world has fallen into a costly recession, one that has some calling the current international crisis the 'end of days.' People are looking for answers, for a solution. Waiting to give them that answer and leadership is the C.E.O. of an aid company, a huge corporation with footholds all over the world, one Damien Thorn (Sam Neill), now 32 years old and fully embracing his Satanic makeup. When a grisly suicide leaves the position open, Damien is appointed the U.S. ambassador to England, the same position his father held years before. He has plans for his power position but he has fears, signs pointing to the Second Coming of Christ, that could cripple his plans. The timing is essential for those battling on both sides, both good and bad, as a small order of monks from Italy know Damien's true identity and are doing everything in their power to stop him. Who or what will prevail in the end? Good or evil?

Of the trilogy, only the first one is an above average horror flick to the point I'd say it is a classic. Where do the second and third ones fall? They're pretty good...just not as good. From director Graham Baker, 'Final' wraps things up in pretty cool fashion. It switches up the formula some and doesn't depend on gruesome deaths like Omen II did (even though I enjoyed that flick a lot). Again, these aren't the most plot-driven flicks, but I didn't get caught up in that stuff. It's all building, all developing a character, and this time we get a showdown in the finale between good and evil. 'Final' isn't as good as either of its predecessors, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It wraps things up nicely and even left an opening for the series to continue that never developed. 

If you believe Wikipedia and its countless information -- and I tend to -- the casting for 32-year old Damien was pretty interesting. How about Jack Nicholson? Gene Hackman? Even Marlon Brando? All three were considered for the part before producers decided to go with a lesser known actor. Enter Sam Neill, 34 years old at the time. This is the natural progression for Damien. Having realized who he truly is in 'Damien II,' he's now actively working toward taking what is his. He's embraced his identity. He is the Antichrist, and he intends to rule the world. We get to see his political pull in a startlingly easy encounter with the President (Mason Adams), his pull on his political staff, and in most frightening fashion, his growing number of apostles and disciples. As I've mentioned before, evil...true, pure evil, can be scarier than any serial killer, murder mystery.

And that's an interesting angle of this sequel. Now, I'm not religious much, but this story fascinated me. Again, it's that BIG concept of good and evil. Add in the Antichrist, the believed Second Coming of Christ, and we've got some interesting stuff going on. Neill's Damien gets to chew the scenery several times as he addresses an immense crucifix (Jesus nailed to the cross backwards) about how he will ultimately defeat him. He calls him the Nazarene as if they were on a first-name basis, his cold, icy and calculating stare -- and what looks like some guy-liner -- adding that sinister edge to the story. This isn't a James Bond villain trying to conquer the world. This is the Prince of Darkness, the Devil, Satan himself. Not too many bigger stakes than that. Oh, and those dagger-wielding monks led by Father DeCarlo (Rossano Brazzi)? Nice touch, another enemy for Damien to deal with, even if they are sort of a bumbling bunch.

The cast is pretty small here for this horror sequel. Along with Neill, look for Don Gordon as Harvey Dean, Damien's personal assistant, fully aware of what his boss is and what he aspires to do in the old evil department. Lisa Harrow plays Kate Reynolds, a respected TV journalist trying to get down to the truth of Damien's background, Barnaby Holm playing her son, Peter, possibly a disciple for Damien.

There's some pretty cool moments along the way. I loved the credits sequence as we discover how the daggers that were supposedly lost in Damien II are discovered and end up where they need to be. The monks' attempts on Damien are tense, and Damien's ultimate plan to stop the second coming is particularly gruesome and more than a little unsettling. And then there's the ending, a great final scene that brings everything full circle. Yeah, there's some giant plot holes, but I liked the execution from beginning to end.

Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981): ***/****

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Damien: Omen II

So I love the original The Omen. Everybody cool with that? Yeah, I'm not a horror fan, but there's a sick, disturbing appeal -- for me at least -- for movies dealing with Satan, pure evil, and in this case, the Antichrist. A big success in 1976, The Omen spawned two sequels, a TV movie, and a remake that I just reviewed recently. I've seen the sequels, but it's been years so thanks to an AMC mini-marathon, here we are with 1978's Damien: Omen II.

It's been seven years since young Damien Thorn barely survived an attack from his father who was trying to murder the five-year old boy. Now, Damien (Jonathan Scott-Taylor) is 12 years old and living in the Chicago suburbs with his uncle, Richard (William Holden), and aunt, Ann (Lee Grant). Richard is the C.E.O. of Thorn Industries, a company on the verge of some major, lucrative developments. Damien is heading to military school with his cousin, Mark (Lucas Donat), as he heads into his teenage years. His past is his past though, and he's moved on, but now he's starting to have odd feelings, weird sensations (and it ain't puberty!). What is going on? What's behind it all? Certain people keep telling Damien that big changes are coming and that he should fully embrace it. Others are willing to risk their lives to stop him from embracing his future.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I can be wishy-washy when it comes to sequels. I typically think sequels are pretty dumb...until I like them. That's the beauty of it all here. If you look at the original The Omen, it's a perfect self-contained movie. The ending is slightly open-ended, but there is a creepy resolution including that great creepy final shot. But what happens to Damien? Where does he go from there? And that's where the sequels enter, letting Damien grow up. Director Don Taylor does a solid job developing the story of Damien and letting it breathe. The jump in time forward seven years was a cool choice -- the Antichrist as a teenager, gasp!?! -- and it keeps that incredibly creepy, underplayed vibe. Even composer Jerry Goldsmith tweaks his musical score, not the same score as the original but still perfectly sinister.

This isn't necessarily a smart horror movie, but it is a really good one. Creepy kids are a fixture in the genre, and Damien (here and in the original) is near or at the top of that list. But what about a creepy kid coming of age story? As cheesy and after-school special as that sounds, that's what this movie is. What Damien did in the original flick was never purely evil. Here....yeah, he's starting to realize who he is, what he's capable of, and what he can aspire to. When that aspiration is potentially ruling the world through evil? Sorta terrifying. Scott-Taylor does an excellent job playing Damien, a charming, smart young man. He's got that icy, steely look in his eyes and it is a terrifying premise as we see what is capable in this young man, especially when certain people around him are doing their best to protect him. A solid performance, a solid and interesting character.

As for the rest of the cast, there isn't a ton of star power. William Holden is obviously the biggest name here, and he does a solid, workmanlike job as Richard Thorn, a businessman who knows at least part of his family's past but maybe not the whole thing. His chemistry with Grant is believable, and just by being here, he legitimizes the whole proceedings. Also look for Lew Ayres (in his last role), Robert Foxworth and Nicholas Pryor as Thorn co-workers, all around for different reasons. Lance Henriksen is nicely cast as Sergeant Neff, Damien's platoon leader at military school while Sylvia Sidney and Elizabeth Shepherd play two women who may know the truth about Damien's background and possible future. In a cool connection to the original Omen, Leo McKern returns in a startling open scene as Bugenhagen, an exorcist and archeologist who knows the truth, with Ian Hendry as a friend and possible believer.

I read a topic at the IMDB message board for 'Damien' that cracked me up. It complained about a lack of plot with a reliance of "Hey, Damien is evil!....Ah, I'm dead" scenes. It's actually pretty spot-on. This isn't a plot-driven movie with more of a focus on the character. Now that said, the deaths are pretty gruesome -- if not graphic -- as some sort of evil power seemingly protects Damien wherever and whenever needed. There's some memorable deaths, the scenes full of impending doom and danger with Goldsmith's score doing its thing. Also worth mentioning, 'Damien' was partially filmed on-location in Chicago with some shots on LaSalle Street and some key scenes at the Field Museum including a great surprise ending.

A very solid sequel, one I was glad I could catch up with, especially during the Halloween season. Worth checking out for sure, especially for original Omen fans and horror fans in general.

Damien: Omen II (1978): ***/****

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Omen (2006)

It's that time of the year again. Time for candy, costumes, Halloween and horror movies. I've never been a fan of horror movies -- it's easy enough to scare me -- but there are exceptions. One of my favorites is one of the creepiest, scariest flicks ever, 1976's The Omen. I love it, love all of it. But 1976 is almost 40 years old, right? Let's pointlessly remake it!!! Here's 2006's The Omen.

A rising star in politics, Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) and his wife, Kate (Julia Stiles), are expecting a child but there are complications during the birth and the baby dies. A priest at the hospital tells Robert something though. A mother died giving birth the same night, but her infant son survived. With Kate having experienced some serious medical issues in getting pregnant, Robert agrees to take the child as their own...without telling Kate. Robert continues to rise through the political ranks -- even becoming the United States ambassador to England -- as their son, Damien, grows up. As the boy gets older though, Kate begins to notice a string of odd incidents plaguing the boy from a shocking death of his nanny to other extremely difficult things to explain. Robert is stunned when a panicked priest hits him with a revelation. He believes Damien is the son of the Devil, the Antichrist. There's no way it could be true, right?

So why remake the original The Omen? Well, other than the money. As near as I can find out through some Internet digging, it was for a gimmick. The 2006 Omen was released on June 6, 2006 at 6:06.06 in the morning. In other words? lots of 666, the number of the beast. Yeah, yeah, it is a cool gimmick but seriously? Making a movie so it could be released on the sixth day of the sixth month of the sixth year? Come on now. You've gotta come up with something better than that. It did okay in theaters, getting mostly negative reviews but still making $120 million at the box office. If you are going to make a remake of a classic, you should try something new. Do something different.

And that's where we sit. Director John Moore is at the lead of a horror flick that doesn't do much at all to differentiate from the 1976 original. There are a couple changes -- some nightmares for Kate, a reliance on bright, vivid colors to foreshadow impending doom -- but as a whole, this is an almost scene-for-scene remake of the original. The story is virtually identical, whole scenes of dialogue are repeated, and the biggest difference ends up being how certain characters are dispatched (in Final Destination mode). It's creepy, unsettling and legitimately scary at different points with several very good jump out of your seat moments. But...if you've seen the original, you've seen this movie. Some minor differences overall, but mostly, this is the same film.

How about some casting? Liev Schreiber is one of my favorite actors around, and he's got some big shoes to fill here playing the Gregory Peck part. He's got the best performance in this horror remake, an underplayed part focused on the extreme disbelief of the news he receives about his son. No father wants to believe his son/daughter is evil or bad, much less the Antichrist himself. Stiles doesn't come off as well, a performance that is missing something. It feels forced and overdone. Young Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick is very creepy as the possibly evil Damien, his cold, icy stares putting him firmly in the 'Creepy Kids in Movies' department. Also look for David Thewlis as Jennings, a photographer who may know the truth about Damien, Mia Farrow as Miss Baylock, Damien's sinister nanny, Pete Postlethwaite as Father Brennan, a possibly unhinged priest, and Michael Gambon as Bugenhagen, an archaeologist and exorcist.

Look, as I mentioned, this isn't a bad movie. Far from it. It's professionally done, creepy, unsettling and genuinely scary. The score isn't as good, not quite as memorable as Jerry Goldsmith's original score, but the look of the movie is solid. Dark, gloomy, rainy and foreboding, it does add a dimension to the Satanic story. There was no reason to remake it though, especially if the new version is going to stick so close to its predecessor. Maybe viewers unfamiliar with the 1976 original will enjoy it more. I didn't dislike it, but it's okay at best and not much more.

The Omen (2006): **/****

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Truth About Charlie

Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, a very cool supporting cast, Paris locations and a mysterious story that keeps you guess throughout. The movie...1963's Charade. Nothing is sacred though in Hollywood so while I'm not exactly timely with this criticism, here's an unnecessary remake that is basically really bad on all accounts, 2002's The Truth About Charlie.

Returning home a vacation on a tropical island, Regina Lambert (Thandie Newton) walks into her Paris apartment stunned at what she finds. The whole place has been ransacked and little remains but two detectives have been waiting for her. Why? Her husband of just a few months, Charles (Stephen Dillane), has been found dead, apparently murdered. The husband she thought she knew apparently was holding onto some deep, dark secrets, and that past is coming after Regina now. She begins to see people following her and has no idea what they're after. There seems to be one person on her side, a mysterious stranger, Josh Peters (Mark Wahlberg), who appears to be trying to help her. What was her husband actually into? Can Regina figure it out before she gets pulled in too deep? Time is quickly running out as her husband's enemies close in.

It's been several years since I saw Charade for the first time. Is it an all-time classic? No, but looking back on it, I know I liked it for all the right reasons. It's goofy at times, dark at others, and entertaining throughout. But almost 40 years later? Eh, no one really has a memory for anything older than a couple days so we might as well remake all those classics, near-classics and just really good movies from Hollywood's past. So yeah, Charade isn't perfect, but it wasn't missing that special something that screamed out "REMAKE ME!" So why remake it? Words fail me at this point. Director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) helms a movie that was critically panned and made barely $7 million in theaters. Let's jump in!

The reasons for struggles are pretty much across the board. A refusal to pick a tone, all style and no substance, the waste of a decent script, and some really interesting but mostly bad cases of casting. Mark Wahlberg is one of my favorite actors, but this was not a part that was cut out for him. He's playing the Cary Grant part. That's all I'm going to say about that. Mostly, the character's main goal seems to make Wahlberg look goofy. He wears a turtleneck almost the entire movie and also favors either a fedora or a very masculine beret. Yeah, that's self-explanatory in its badness. Thankfully he has decent chemistry with the very talented, very beautiful Thandie Newton. The duo makes the most of their time together on-screen, but neither delivers an especially good performance. Their fault? Director? Script? Probably a mix of all three.

The characters are just too stupid for their own good. Once Newton's Regina finds out she's in deeper than she thought, she never really questions what the mysterious Peters is up to. How does he always end up in the right place at the right time? Who's with her? Who's against her? She's perpetually frantic but never puts it all together. So who else to look for? The always sinister (when he wants to be) Tim Robbins plays Bartholamew, an American government agent/official offering his help to Regina. Ted Levine, LisaGay Hamilton and Joong-Hoon Park are three mysterious strangers tailing Regina, apparently from her dead husband's checkered and secret past. Also worth mentioning is Christine Boisson and Simon Abkarian as two Parisian detectives investigating the case.

The biggest handicapper for me was the choice of style over substance. 'Truth' never picks a tone or finds a rhythm and sticks with it. Demme's style is aggressive and unnecessary, the camera always off center and slightly ajar, characters directly addressing the camera. The mystery of what's going on should be better than it is, but that mystery gets lost in a maze of double-crosses and surprises and twists that don't work. Bad is one thing -- to be fair -- but surreal in its badness is another thing. French singer Charles Aznavour makes two appearances as himself, simply appearing and singing as if he was part of the action. The cast looks at him adoringly, the extras look on in confused fashion. Weird is fine. Weird for weirdness' sake is another not so fine reason.

My favorite stylistic choice is a tango scene. Regina dances with...well, everyone, all of the suspects and strangers passing her around a dance floor. At no point does she question why all these people are together. It's a choice that I'm assuming is meant to stylistically WOW but it goes the opposite way to the point I was groaning, even laughing at the scene. That's the entire movie. Give this one a wide berth and go revisit the original Charade instead.

The Truth About Charlie (2002): */****

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pilot #5

Oh, propaganda flicks, you're so underplayed and subtle. Well, the better ones try at least to not hit you over the head with a message. Subtle and low-key is the way! I stumbled across 1943's Pilot #5 on Turner Classic Movies with no background or knowledge of it, but a WWII flick released right in the middle of the war? I'll give it a try if nothing else.

On the island of Java, an Allied air base has been under almost constant attack and heavy bombardment from the Japanese Navy. The attacks have wreaked havoc though where the new commander has an uncomfortable situation to resolve. The fighter squadron is down to one plane that's flyable with five pilots available. The lucky one that's chosen? George Collins (Franchot Tone), winning out over his compatriots. His mission is basically suicide though, one plane trying to run the gauntlet through Japanese forces to knock out a key Japanese carrier. As the men left behind tell their commander about the man he's chosen, George takes off in a beat-up fighter with a rigged bomb rack to do what he can. Could he somehow get through unscathed?

This World War II movie from director George Sidney popped up on Turner Classic Movie's schedule this week so I thought I'd give it a try. It clocked in at a brisk-sounding 71 minutes and featured a pretty decent cast so I figured there was little harm in giving it a shot. Even if it was lousy, it's only 71 minutes, right? Right?!? Well, it's a good thing it wasn't any longer because I probably would have bailed. 'Pilot' uses the tried and true storytelling device of...the flashback. When used properly, it can be a gem, helping add layers and background to the story. When not used properly, well, that's the case here. It derails a story I thought had some pretty decent potential.

While the cast is pretty good, no one really stood out from the rest in the end. Franchot Tone as the tortured, redemption-seeking George Collins leaves something to be desired in the old "interesting character" department. The character is just too flat for the movie's sake. We're intrigued with how he ended up in this spot but even when we find out, the payoff isn't worth it. The other pilots include Gene Kelly as the fiery, angry Vito Alessandro, Van Johnson as the jokey Everett Arnold, Alan Baxter as the all-business Winston Davis, and Dick Simmons as Henry Claven, a childhood friend of George's. These characters end up being a means to an end, a way of jumping into the flashbacks and little else. Kelly gets the most screen-time and does pretty well while Van Johnson unfortunately is completely wasted. Also look for a very young Peter Lawford as a British soldier at the base.    

Of the 71 minutes, I'd say about 50 were more concerned with the George Collins flashback...unfortunately. We see George growing up, heading off to law school, and trying to make something of his name and with a big old chip on his shoulder. He gets involved with Kelly's Vito --  a fellow lawyer and jack of all trades -- and ultimately a corrupt governor (Howard Freeman) that seems more fitting in All the King's Men than in a WWII propaganda flick. Throw in a love story lacking basically all chemistry with George's girlfriend, Freddie (Marsha Hunt), and you've got those middle flashback portions absolutely dragging along. Not a positive when you find yourself looking at the clock a whole lot in a 71-minute movie.

The beginning and ending portions are pretty decent. Dark, claustrophobic and uncomfortable as George flies into impossible odds while his fellow pilots wait back at base and listen over the radio to the developing mission. The new Dutch commander (Steven Geray) is a little much in the propaganda part, encouraging the audience to fight back against Fascism and wanting to really know the man he's sending on a suicide mission. A disappointing end result, a war movie with some potential that never really adds up.

Pilot #5 (1943): **/****

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Nevada Smith

Just a few weeks ago, I watched and reviewed 1964's The Carpetbaggers, the story of a business mogul expanding his empire in the 1920s and 1930s. A minor character in the story? An aging cowboy turned western movie star, Nevada Smith. His backstory is explained but not shown. That's for a prequel made two years later, 1966's Nevada Smith.

Working at his father's played-out mine that has recently produced some gold deposits, a young half-breed Max Sand (Steve McQueen) is away from the house when three outlaws (Karl Malden, Arthur Kennedy, Martin Landau) ride up looking for that gold. Max is too late to help though, arriving at the house to find the tortured, mutilated corpses of his parents. The outlaws are nowhere to be found, but their trail is easy enough to follow. Max's biggest problem though? He's capable of caring for himself on the trail, but he has little money and no real experience with guns, especially when it comes to actually using a pistol or rifle on a human being. Desperate and with no supplies left, Max tries to rob a man on the trail. Instead, the man, Jonas Cord (Brian Keith), an experienced trailsman and capable shot, teaches Max all he can in his quest for revenge. His biggest advice though? Abandon his quest for revenge and move on with his life, but Max isn't hearing it.

It had been years since I watched this 1966 western from director Henry Hathaway (a solid western director, True Grit, Sons of Katie Elder). My biggest takeaway? It isn't as good as I remembered. Still good, still enjoyable, but not as good. There's still positives to take away though. 'Nevada' was filmed on-location in Inyo National Forest and the Owens Valley in the Sierra Mountains. Visually, it is a stunningly good-looking film with the mountains as a backdrop to the revenge story. The score from composer Alfred Newman is solid -- especially the main theme -- but isn't necessarily used enough. The best thing going is the revenge motive, a pretty gruesome story at times. Not graphic, just really violent because we know what's happening. Stabbings, drownings, choking, beating, systematic shooting of an unarmed man. It can be pretty rough at times.

So if you watch this 1966 western and come away a little confused, there's a good reason. The Max Sand character is young, really young. I'm assuming a teenager, maybe approaching 20. When the movie was made in 1965, McQueen was...35. And he's a half-breed with a white father and Kiowa mother. So yeah, he doesn't really look like a teenage half-breed (with his blonde hair too) in a pretty obvious case of miscasting. Still, McQueen makes the most of it. With the revenge motive, it is a fascinating character. Max -- later dubbing himself Nevada Smith -- becomes obsessed with killing his parents' murderers no matter what the cost on those who are helping him. McQueen does a good job in a physically demanding part, doing his own stunts while also adding a dimension of pure physicality to the performance. It's not often spoken words, just a sad look here, a drop of his shoulders there. Not ideal casting, but McQueen makes the most of it.

But the rest of the cast? The rest of the cast?!? It's pretty great. Brian Keith has always been one of my favorites, but I think this is one of his bests. His Jonas Cord is only in the movie for about 20-25 minutes but steals every scene he's in. His chemistry with McQueen is pretty perfect, and their scenes together crackle, an experienced hand with a gun trying to teach the younger Max all he can through good and bad. The Jonas/Max dynamic has always been my favorite, the movie's strongest point. With the episodic story, Malden, Kennedy and Landau make the most of their screentime, three particularly nasty villains you can't wait to see get their due. Raf Vallone is good too as Father Zaacardi, a priest who comes across Max and helps him in a time of need. Also look for familiar western faces Gene Evans, Paul Fix, Pat Hingle, John Doucette, Lyle Bettger, Howard Da Silva and Strother Martin in supporting parts.

Where does 'Nevada' go a little off the tracks then? At 130 minutes, it drifts too much with some extremely slow portions involving the episodic story. There just isn't a ton of energy at times. Two semi-love interests are added, Janet Margolin as an Indian dance hall girl and Suzanne Pleshette as a Cajun girl, are meant to show Max's obsession over a possible future with either, but they become repetitive and tedious. Just not a ton happens. The performances are good, the locations cool, but it's missing that special something. Good but not great.

Also worth mentioning is a western nerd moment. Any western fan who's seen any number of 1960s westerns will recognize Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward and Jerry Gatlin as background players and supporting parts. 'Nevada' takes that to new levels. Watch closely and you see them all playing multiple parts. In one scene, Roberson is part of Malden's gang, and the next he's Paul Fix's deputy. It's a little much and a little lazy, something Hathaway also did in Sons of Katie Elder. Thus ends this rant.

Nevada Smith (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rough Riders

Okay, history nerd alert. Who's your favorite United States president? Mine's easy to peg; Theodore Roosevelt, a President who did a little bit of everything. Beyond his two-term presidency though, what is he most known for? His involvement in the Spanish American War, told quite well in a 1997 TV miniseries, Rough Riders.

It's 1898 and the American government is in a bit of a spot. News of Spanish atrocities and cruel leadership in Cuba are making international news to the point American intervention seems like a sure thing. Who's at the forefront of that movement? Assistant secretary of the Navy Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (Tom Berenger). He's been given approval to assemble a volunteer regiment of cavalry that will be sent to Cuba with American forces to stop the Spanish. Who is he looking to volunteer? Cowboys, mountain men, trailsmen, and anyone who can handle themselves when the bullets start to fly. He gets that and more as the volunteers assemble in Texas for training. What awaits the regiment of rough-hewn volunteers? Only the fighting in Cuba will tell.

Over the last month or so, this becomes the third TNT TV movie I've reviewed with 2001's Crossfire Trail and 1997's Buffalo Soldiers. I wish TNT still made historically-based movies like this! This 1997 miniseries is probably the network's biggest venture, a movie with impressive scale, a deep cast and a 187-minute running time. It comes from director John Milius (who also wrote the script with Hugh Wilson), a good, underrated tough guy director to helm a good tough guy flick like this. 'Riders' doesn't rewrite the historical epic/action genre, just content to tell a historical story that is known if not widely known. Elmer Bernstein turns in a fine throwback(ish) musical score, the cast looks to be having a lot of fun, and seeing a story that sticks pretty close to the historical truth? How can you lose?

The historical truth is pretty daunting for a filmmaker to take on. 'Riders' does a good job portraying not just Roosevelt and his famous cavalry volunteers, but many involved in the war from a variety of perspectives. We see the government, including President William McKinley (Brian Keith, a Milius favorite) and his secretary of state (R. Lee Ermey). We see the journalists/writers from William Randolph Hearst (George Hamilton) to Stephen Crane (Adam Storke), Frederick Remington (Nick Chinlund) to Edward Marshall (Williamt Katt). From the military perspective, we see Gary Busey and Dale Dye (a Marine Corps veteran) in power positions trying to lead the Cuban expedition. 'Riders' more than justice to the times, tackling a lot but doing a good job across the board in setting the stage for our historical story. It could have been easy for it to all slip away, but Milius helms it all nicely.

This is an ensemble cast -- a pretty strong one at that -- but I thought Tom Berenger stood out from the rest as future President Teddy Roosevelt. You read about Roosevelt, and it sounds like a caricature but no. This was one fiery, lively, opinionated, fun-loving man with some wide-ranging interests. Berenger brings him to life from his unique speech patterns to his very physical movements and non-stop energy. He makes Roosevelt more though, a human being, not just a caricature. We see Teddy with his wife (Illeana Douglas) who he misses to an extreme level, how he bonds with his men around a campfire during training, how he's emotionally distraught at seeing his men killed in battle, the exhaustion that sets in after a costly battle. Big and boisterous but never overdone, Berenger does an excellent, scene-stealing job as Roosevelt. I also learned something from the film, finding out Roosevelt wasn't always the commander of the Rough Riders. He became the commander but no spoilers.

Okay, a movie about the Rough Riders so let's talk about Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. Milius uses a familiar, well-worn and effective formula here; the unit picture. Assemble a group of men from different backgrounds, put them together, let them train and bond and then throw them into battle. There's a lot of characters so there's not always a ton of development but who stands out from the rest? Brad Johnson plays Nash, an outlaw (with partner Buck Taylor) who joins the outfit to escape a posse. Sam Elliott brings his tough guy swagger to play Capt. Bucky O'Neill, an Arizona lawman turned drill sergeant. And also, Chris Noth plays Craig Wadsworth, an upper class New Yorker looking to prove himself in battle. It's a very solid cast, and that's just the start. The rest of the group isn't necessarily big names, but there's familiar faces playing some cool characters.

Who else to look for? Joining Noth as the upper-class NYC gentlemen are Holt McCallany, Mark Moses, Titus Welliver and James Parks. As for the less-gentlemanly among the Rough Riders, watch for Geoffrey Lewis, Francesco Quinn, Eric Allan Kramer, Bob Primeaux, and in an excellent supporting part, Marshall R. Teague as a young Black Jack Pershing, commander of a regiment of Buffalo Soldiers fighting alongside the Rough Riders.     

Nothing too fancy here, just a good, entertaining movie with a throwback kind of feel. The first 90 minutes sets up the background, assembling the regiment and introducing the characters, and then throwing them into training. By the end of the first half, we're thrust into the fighting in Cuba. The centerpiece of the second half of 'Riders' is not surprisingly the attack on San Juan Hill, the battle that made the Rough Riders an instantly recognizable name and regiment. There are some slow moments building up to the battle, but the actual assault on the heavily fortified hill is a gem of an extended sequence. An excellent flick on all accounts. History buffs will especially enjoy it so it gets an easy recommendation from this guy.

Rough Riders (1997): ***/****

Friday, October 17, 2014

Eagle's Wing

Keep on looking, and eventually you'll continue to find movies you've absolutely heard nothing about that still appeal to you. Now if I could just win that dang lotto, I could spend all my time looking for hidden gems like that. Here's a good example. Cool cast, genre I love, interesting premise. What's the final verdict on 1979's Eagle's Wing?

It's in the 1830s in the wild expanses of the New Mexico desert. An inexperienced frontiersman and former soldier, Pike (Martin Sheen), is on his own after his partner is killed during a run-in with an Indian war party. Riding across the desert looking for what's next, Pike stumbles across a Comanche burial, a beautiful white stallion picketed nearby. Pike manages to escape with the horse, but he's not the only one interested in the horse. A Kiowa warrior, White Bull (Sam Waterston), has also seen the horse and wants it more than anything else, a run-in on the trail more than likely with such a prize on the line. That's not all though. A stagecoach and burial hearse loaded with gold and jewelry, not to mention a small group of beautiful women, is traveling across the desert at the same time. What will happen when these disparate individuals all meet up?

So ever heard of this one? Yeah, me neither. From director Anthony Harvey, 'Wing' is considered a Euro-western (I guess) as it was backed by an English studio and filmed on-location in Durango, Mexico. It received decent film reviews back in 1979 but struggled to find a footing in theaters. And wow, what a mixed bag in the end. Purely on a visual level, this flick is a stunner. You get a sense of how big the desert is, how immense the wilderness truly was when Indian tribes ruled the west and a few brave mountain men, traders and trappers navigated the country. A gorgeous film to watch, but does it rise to something else? Something more?

My biggest criticism is that 'Wing' isn't content to just be a western story with some interesting characters in an interesting historical time that doesn't always get its due in film. It has to be something more, like an allegory about human wants, needs and what drives them. Yes, it is an immaculate white stallion with impeccable speed on the line. It becomes more though. How far will these individuals go? Waterston's White Bull begins to abandon everything else he owns to keep the horse. Sheen's Pike risks bleeding to death with a wound rather than risk losing the horse. Members of a posse trailing them all turn to greed, murder and backstabbing. Maybe the premise would work better if handled a little differently, but the story never quite develops how I'd like. The second half of the movie (I saw a version about 105 minutes) is significantly better, but the finale disappoints too, open-ended without any real closure. So it's got that going for it!

And then there's the casting, some interesting, some good, and some just odd. First of all, Sam Waterston as an Indian warrior? It's not that this is a bad performance -- he doesn't speak much -- but seriously....Law and Order's resident district attorney Mr. McCoy as an 1830s Kiowa warrior? Tsk tsk, that's not ideal casting. For such a wily trailsman, White Bull also seems to make some insanely dumb decisions along the way. Sheen escapes with less damage, at times channeling his dream-like voiceover from Apocalypse Now, as the frontiersman quickly learning how to survive. Also worth mentioning? Harvey Keitel is around for about 30 minutes as Henry, a far-more experienced trader and frontiersman trying to teach Pike the ways of the wilderness.

Other characters include Judith (Caroline Langrishe), an Irish woman kidnapped by White Bull, a widowed woman (Stephane Audran) with the desert hearse, the two most persistent members of the pursuing posse (Jorge Russek and Manuel Ojeda), and Judith's brother, the Priest (John Castle). 

An interesting movie for sure. As I mentioned, the second half is significantly better with the pace quickening and the chase coming to its sorta conclusion. The premise is excellent, a handful of individuals with limited weapons and fewer supplies all pursuing each other, all for different reasons. I wish I liked it more, but as is, it's a decent western with some big positives and hard to avoid negatives.

Eagle's Wing (1979): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


So can we all agree on this next statement? Strange, odd and as downright creepy as he can be at times, Tim Burton is one talented, eccentric filmmaker. Following the success of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in 1985, Burton was looking for a script for his next film. He struggled to find the right vehicle, ultimately settling on 1988's Beetlejuice. Though I grew up watching the Beetlejuice cartoon on Saturday mornings, I never saw the movie....until now!!!

With a two-week vacation ahead of them, husband, Adam (Alec Baldwin), and wife, Barbara (Geena Davis), have decided to sit around on the house and relax doing odds and ends. Well, that's their plan at least. Picking up some odds and ends, the couple is killed in a car crash, and now they're trapped in some sort of after-life their own home. Is it heaven? Is it hell? Is it neither? Adam and Barbara find a "Guide to the Recently Undead" book in their attic but don't know what to make of it. They're trapped in their house and don't know how to get out. It's a minor problem until a new family moves in, an uppity family from New York City, wanting to make lots of changes that the recently dead couple is really in trouble. Maybe their only option? A live-wire, bio-exorcist ghost named Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), who may have some ulterior motives.

Look at the films a director makes -- the good directors at least -- and you can get a good glimpse into their beliefs, their backgrounds, their childhoods. What about Burton? He is a nut. A talented, crazy, chaotic nut with a beautifully insane outlook on life. From Pee-Wee to Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands to writing Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton isn't afraid to make movies that he likes. They're weird (sometimes gloriously weird), and he's okay with that. Watching these movies is a trip so you've gotta know that going in. Watching a Burton flick is like being transported into an alternate world with crazy visuals, crazier characters, and a dark, cynical sense of humor. Sound good? I'm not a huge, diehard fan of Burton, but I can definitely appreciate a talented director like he is.

So what's an unlikely source for some laughs? Dying, death and whatever twisted vision of the afterlife that Tim Burton has. It's wickedly colorful, always slightly ajar and off-center, and though it produces laughs, it's always played straight. At no point does it feel forced. The laughs are bizarre, but they work because Burton and the cast simply lay things out for you. Here's the joke. Laugh if you want. If you don't, no skin off my back. Case in point? When Adam and Barbara visit the afterlife offices, we meet Juno (Sylvia Sidney), their afterlife case worker who fills them in on their new situation. While smoking and explaining, smoke filters out through her throat. Was her throat slit? Did she have cancer? Just go with it. There's a whole office of stuff like that, a desk clerk who hung himself and now moves around the office by noose. The football team that died in a bus wreck. The shrunken-head victim of a witch doctor...and the dead voodoo doctor. The magician's assistant sitting next to her severed lower half. Incredibly dark but oh so funny.

Enough with all that mumbo-jumbo. Let's talk Beetlejuice! Having worked for most of the 1980s in a variety of films, this was the movie that made Michael Keaton a star, albeit a star that shined brightly but quickly. Wearing heavy makeup and some kooky outfits, Keaton throws himself completely into the part as our big-exorcist ghost looking to have some fun...a lot of fun actually. He's actually not in the movie a ton but makes the most of every minute he's on-screen. He falls for the Deetzes' daughter, Lydia (Winona Ryder), who embraces all sorts of weird, producing some great moments as he tries to escape the afterlife (sort of). It's goofy, often dumb, mostly smart, and Keaton is a scene-stealer. His character theme song is a gem too, kicking in HERE about 30 seconds in.

There isn't a weak spot in the entire cast. Baldwin and Davis get laughs because they play it straight, especially when they realize that as dead people they can do all sorts of horrifying, manipulative things to their bodies. As well, they're dead, but they're not quite Beetlejuice dead, establishing a sort of afterlife hierarchy. Catherine O'Hara and Jeffrey Jones are perfect together as Delia and Charles Deetz, the wife looking to gut the house while the husband wants to relax and live a country life...until there's money on the line. Ryder too is especially good as the quirky Lydia who can see the ghosts/dead. Glenn Shadix has some great moments too as Otho, Delia's interior decorator with a wicked sense of everything.

Just a funny movie from beginning to end. Too many good moments to mention, and what's the fun in me giving them all away? Check it out, an excellent Halloween-themed flick for October!

Beetlejuice (1988): ***/****

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Great Sioux Massacre

I caught part of They Died With Their Boots On recently on a cable movie channel. It got me thinking. There just isn't many movies made about George Armstrong Custer, and then I quickly corrected myself. There aren't many good movies about Custer. Yeah, Boots is good if dated, and the TV miniseries Son of the Morning Star is an exception. Well, here we sit with another entry. Where does 1965's The Great Sioux Massacre end up?

Having received new orders, Lt. William Benton (Darren McGavin) rides west to the fort where the Seventh Cavalry is stationed. He's looking forward to meeting his new commander, Colonel George Armstrong Custer (Philip Carey), a renowned Indian fighter who's reputation precedes him. Tensions with the Plains Indians are rising with each passing month, but that's just part of the problem for Benton. A woman from his past, Caroline Reno (Julie Sommars), is stationed at the post with her angry, alcoholic father, one of Custer's officers, Major Marcus Reno (Joseph Cotten). Benton immediately requests a transfer to avoid the drama, but Colonel Custer convinces him to stick it out. A fight with the Indians is coming, and Custer has some master plans for his cavalry regiment and for his future beyond.

One of the most fascinating personalities in American history, George Armstrong Custer is a divisive individual. Was he a hero, a brilliant military strategist and Indian fighter? Was he a bumbling officer, a gloryhound seeking his own fame? It's some of both most likely, but the moral of the story is pretty simple. This isn't a good movie. From director Sidney Salkow, 'Sioux' takes the history of the late 1860s and into the 1870s, throws it into a blender and pours what's left into this 102-minute B-western. He rewrites the history that is really interesting in itself and makes it....well, not interesting. That takes some doing when you consider the background.

So where to start? It's based on Custer, the Seventh Cavalry and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but there are tweaks at basically all turns. Everyone else is named after the historical individuals they're based on, except for McGavin's Lt. Benton, supposedly based on Lt. William Benteen. The actual Benteen isn't interesting though so let's switch things up!!! In the facts, Benteen and Major Reno were both born in 1834, but here Benteen (um, Benton) has dated Reno's daughter. Yeah, personal drama! Reno is also apparently an angry Southerner who still holds a grudge against the North. Benton is also a Southerner with McGavin sporting a painfully awkward southern accent. Seriously, folks? Are we really doing this? We're degenerating a really fascinating historical story into a really forced, not worthwhile love story.

But somehow and some way Colonel Custer will save us. Right? Right?!? No, not especially. Carey doesn't have the star power or charisma to bring Colonel Custer to life. There is so much potential for character development and really delving into the guts of a military leader with an instantly recognizable name. Some of the actual history is explored, especially Custer's efforts to expose government corruption surrounding the Indian agencies. Before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, the actual Custer was actually removed from command and potentially facing some serious threats from President Grant. The story and facts are interesting, but the actual execution is not unfortunately in the film. Also look for Nancy Kovack as Libby, Custer's supportive wife.

Much of the screentime is focused on Custer, Benton and Reno, wasting some potentially cool supporting parts. I thought the most interesting character was the cavalry scout, Dakota (John Matthews), a white man who saw his family wiped out by Indians. Also look for Michael Pate as Sitting Bull and Iron Eyes Cody as Crazy Horse, underutilized as warrior counterparts to our bumbling cavalry officers. There's also House Peters Jr. appearing late as Cambridge, a reporter tasked with building up Custer's heroic actions.

So Custer couldn't save things. Could the actual battle scene, the infamous Custer's last stand? Um, no. Throughout the movie in hopes of hiding the film's small budget, footage is liberally borrowed from a 1954 western, Sitting Bull, also directed by Salkow. Small world, huh?!? Basically any shot of cavalry leaving the fort or riding across the plains or heading into battle is from the 1954 movie, not the 1965 one. The filming locations are vastly different so this footage stands out like a sore thumb. Just not good. Oh, so not good.

The Great Sioux Massacre (1965): * 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Draft Day

So the National Football League has been getting a lot of negative press lately if you haven't heard. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, commissioner Roger Goodell, and that's just the start. A series of domestic violence involving wives and children, a major sports commissioner lying and those are just the ones dominating the headlines. So how about some good timing? It didn't exactly tear up the box office -- making just $29 million -- but can you imagine if 2014's Draft Day had been released this fall as opposed to this past spring? We're talking bad timing of mammoth proportions.

 The 2014 NFL Draft is just hours away and teams around the league are scrambling to make the right move, to make a big move, to make a splash. High on that list? The Cleveland Browns, slotted in at No. 7 and with a lot of tough decisions ahead of the franchise, especially general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner). The morning of the draft, Browns owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) all but threatens Sonny to hit a home run with the coming draft or get fired. What to do? Sonny has options, especially with the Seattle Seahawks call him offering the No. 1 draft pick. The asking price is pretty hefty -- three first-round draft picks -- but Sonny feels backed up against a wall. It's a tough call, but he pulls the trigger. The Browns have the No. 1 pick in the draft, now less than 12 hours away. With his job hanging in the balance, what will Sonny do? Who will he pick?

So why exactly did this sports flick flop at the box office last spring? Well, it reeks of being backed by the NFL and all its support. There are times it feels shoved down our throats about getting an inside look at the inner-workings of an NFL front office. From director Ivan Reitman, 'Draft' is a movie shot in swanky offices, conference rooms with dry-erase boards and lots of scouts, and one team office after another. It's dumbed down for even the most casual football fans -- "Seattle.....Home of the Seahawks" -- and never feels forced. It clocks in at 110 minutes and is enjoyable throughout. Just beware of all those real NFL cameos from Goodell to Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr. Potentially nauseating? Yes, basically at all times, but I liked it a lot just the same.

It's not the spectacle that works though. It's the smaller moments. Those windows where you feel you're actually getting an insight into an NFL team prepping for a draft. Sonny and the Browns are focusing on three players, the can't miss QB from Wisconsin, Bo Callahan (Josh Pence), the freakishly athletic LB from Ohio State, Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman), and the dual-threat RB from Florida State with some law issues, Ray Jennings (Houston Texans RB Arian Foster), who's got ties to the Browns via his father (Terry Crews), a former Browns superstar. Why does a team ultimately decide on their player? What detective work goes into it? Is it talent, character or drive? There are a couple great scenes where you feel you're getting some inside info, especially one trick several teams use concerning their playbook with potential rookie QBs.

Who better to lead an NFL franchise from the general manager spot than Kevin Costner? Trick question. No one. No one is better than Costner. It's been cool to see Costner jump back into regular acting roles from Jack Ryan to 3 Days to Kill to Man of Steel. He seems at ease in everything he does, bringing that cool, calculating charm to the screen with each role. Yeah, the personal drama with his salary cap analyst/girlfriend (Jennifer Garner) and his angry mom (Ellen Burstyn) and ex-wife (Rosanna Arquette) don't work as well as the football drama but that's to be expected. Costner is cool even if he's dealing with some hammy, forced personal and family issues. He's a G.M. trying to piece it all together with about a thousand different options at his disposal. Welcome back, Kevin Costner. We're glad to have you!

Also look for Denis Leary as the a-hole new head coach, Tom Welling as the Browns' incumbent quarterback, Sam Elliott as Callahn's college coach at Wisconsin, Patrick St. Espirit and Chi McBride as the Seahawks' GM and President, Kevin Dunn as a Browns official, Sean Combs as Callahan's all-powerful agent, and NFL/Cleveland legends Jim Brown and Bernie Kosar appearing briefly as themselves.

Things get a little goofy at times once the draft comes around in the final act. There's an epic case of luck as Weaver makes a decision that should have doomed his career as a G.M. and possibly the Browns as a franchise too in terms of player personnel. Is it a cool ending? Sure, Costner gets to flex his muscles with one twist after another. A little too tidy? Oh, yes, very much, but it works. Oddly's not too far from what the Browns actually did in the 2014 draft. Did this movie see into the future?!? Meh, that's too much thinking involved. It's a good, not great movie, that's an enjoyable way to pass two hours. An easy flick to watch and be entertained with.

Draft Day (2014): ***/****

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Carpetbaggers

One of my favorite movies growing up -- and still is -- is the 1966 western Nevada Smith starring Steve McQueen. Wouldn't you know it? It's a prequel to a novel by Harold Robbins called The Carpetbaggers. How's that work? Well, it does and it doesn't. I'm still looking for the book, but I can check the film adaptation off the list. That's 1964's The Carpetbaggers.

It's the early 1920s and Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard) is a young man without a care in the world. Any problems he has, his rich father will solve or give him money or turn a blind eye to his antics. When Jonas' father suddenly dies from an aneurysm, a whole business empire is thrust upon Jonas. Will it crumble with the irresponsible Jonas at its helm? Far from it if he has anything to do with it. Young Cord wants to expand and grow and dominate the world. He starts the steady climb up, parlaying one factory into another and there's no market anywhere that Jonas doesn't want his hand in. He wants the power, the money, the prestige and nothing is going to stop him. But in the 1920s and 1930s, can anything actually slow Jonas down? Maybe only himself.

This was a movie I've long been aware of, one that I was vaguely familiar with because of 1966's Nevada Smith. For quite awhile it lingered on my Netflix Saved queue and lingered and lingered. people just hold onto the movies for months at a time?!? 'Carpetbaggers' finally popped up on the Retro Movie Channel, and I had to jump. I'm glad I did. From director Edward Dmytryk, it is a well-told story about business, ego, power, corruption and all that good, dark, sexy stuff that audiences can't turn away from. It clocks in at 150 minutes which might seem long, but the story moves at a lightning pace throughout. The timeline covers around 20 years but never feels rushed. We see the important moments from the good to the mostly bad to the really bad and often painful.

There's something simple and appealing about rise to power stories. How do they climb up? How do they stay there? What, if anything, will ultimately prove to be their downfall? This is a dark movie. There aren't good guys, just less bad guys. Everyone is out for themselves and willing to screw anyone over to get what they want with Peppard's Jonas leading the way. 'Carpetbaggers' takes place in posh hotel suites, busy movie sets, on new-model airplanes, in factories and follows Jonas with every decision he makes. It's nothing crazy original -- sure seems like a Howard Hughes-esque main character -- but there's something enjoyable, entertaining and appealing about this flick. I especially liked composer Elmer Bernstein's musical score with some familiar touches from other scores but forming its own identity. Listen HERE to the main theme.

Look at George Peppard's 1960s filmography, and you only see a couple classic movies, Breakfast at Tiffany's and How the West Was Won. But there's more there to appreciate, but he's got a handful or two of really solid movies worth seeking out. This film definitely counts. Peppard specialized in playing the anti-hero, that a-hole lead you just hate but can't look away from.This is a character who's icy, calculating, brutally efficient and with some deep-seeded personal issues. Obviously this isn't a character you're rooting for, but he's perfectly fascinating. We want to see what makes him tick. We want to see his next brutal takeover, whether it's on a personal basis or putting together a corporate buyout. An excellent performance from one of my favorites, Mr. Peppard. Nice work all around.

Peppard's Cord is the lightning rod for the story, but we meet a whole lot of other folks, most of them just as egotistical, greedy and downright lousy. Some good performances in a deep cast, starting with Alan Ladd in one of his all-time best parts as aging cowboy Nevada Smith. A checkered past to his name, Nevada tries to help Jonas knowing it can never really work. There's also Carroll Baker as Rina, Jonas' stepmother who's the same age as him and looking to make a name for herself. Slinking it up and quite sexy, Baker delivers an excellent part. There's also key supporting parts for Elizabeth Ashley (Jonas' wife), Robert Cummings (an agent turned producer), Martha Hyer (another femme fatale), Lew Ayres (Jonas' much-maligned yet capable accountant), Martin Balsam (a rival movie studio owner), Ralph Taeger (a pilot and business part of Jonas'), Archie Moore (the house servant who knows all) and Leif Erickson (Jonas' tough-love father).

If there's a weak point, it comes in the ending. I was looking for something better, something more appropriate and something DARKER. This is a tidy ending. An easy ending. The build-up makes up for it though to the point the last five minutes can't and won't ruin things. As for the connection to 1966's prequel, Nevada Smith, I think it is best to consider it two unrelated movies. Things don't jive just right, especially Brian Keith's Jonas turning into manipulative, evil Leif Erickson. One produced the other so that's cool, but that's about it. Both excellent movies, and let's leave it at that.

The Carpetbaggers (1964): ***/****

Monday, October 6, 2014


The amount of information, facts and tidbits I don't know about Russian history could full volumes. I love history -- ALL of it -- but something about the immensity of Russia and its history has proved rather intimidating to me. Where to even start? Well, movies seem to agree with me. I liked but didn't love 1965's Doctor Zhivago, but there's another Russian epic that's long been recommend to me. Let's get going with 1981's Reds.

Living in Portland, Oregon in 1915, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) has a relatively safe if dull life. She's married, does art and is a hopeful writer. Then, she meets John Reed (Warren Beatty), a highly respected if somewhat controversial writer with an impressive following. She is immediately drawn to him and ends up following him to New York City to be with him while also hopefully pursuing a career as a writer and a journalist. There's a relative catch though. John is a staunch supporter of the socialist movement, a movement that threatens to tear World War I apart as workers around the world, especially in Russia, begin to push for more rights, more privileges. In the midst of World War I (and with the Russian Revolution looming), Louise has entered into one of history's most tumultuous times. She loves John and he loves her, but the world seems on the brink of blowing itself up. What will happen next?

For years, my Mom has recommended this movie to me. It's one of her all-time favorites, and she knows far more about the time and backstory than I do. For some background reading, read about the Russian Revolution HERE at Wikipedia. It's not even fair to say this is a Russian Revolution movie. This is a story about two people's lives amidst that turbulent time in world history with a heavy socialist focus. For more reading, read about John Reed and Louise Bryant, two incredibly interesting individuals. It is a big, epic movie, clocking in at equally intimidating 194 minutes, and took Beatty (who starred, directed, produced and wrote) and his cast and crew a full year to film. That's before you consider a lengthy editing process. Beatty is no dummy, taking on films that mean something to him, and this is the definition of that. This is a message movie, an intellectual, thought-out, impressive film. Is it good though?

I will say it is more interesting than it is good, if that makes sense. 'Reds' picked up 12 Oscar nominations, ultimately winning three, including Beatty as Best Director. For a movie that clocks in at almost three and a half hours, it did well at the box office and resonated with critics and has developed quite a following among fans. It was filmed in New York City, Finland, England, Sweden and Spain. So....yeah, what else? 'Reds' is an epic. The scale and immensity is impressive. This is an epic about an idea though, the idea of socialism. This is 194 minutes of almost entirely talking. This is talking about a principle, about government, about corruption, about history, about the system. 'Reds' isn't Lawrence of Arabia or The Godfather or Gone With the Wind. It is its own epic, and with Beatty backing it all the way, it is quite okay with being its own film. I struggled at times because it is such a smart, well-written movie. Is that enough to hamstring a film? I don't know, but definitely know what you're getting into here.

Picking up two of the film's four Oscar acting nominations, Beatty and Keaton carry the film. Either one or the other is in almost every scene, and apparently the filming was so strenuous on their off-screen relationship they ultimately broke up. I didn't necessarily buy their doomed love, their unexplained chemistry. What did I buy? Their performances themselves are excellent. These are two extremely intelligent individuals, drawn to each other but who's personalities butt heads because they're both so strong-willed. Based on historical figures, both characters are 3-D, blood and guts people, not cardboard cutouts. Kudos to both actors who again make their characters interesting/fascinating if not necessarily likable.

Up until 2012's Silver Linings Playbook, 'Reds' was the last film to receive Oscar nominations for all four acting categories. The culprits? Jack Nicholson as playwright/writer Eugene O'Neill and Maureen Stapleton as famed anarchist Emma Goldman. These aren't huge supporting parts, but what's there is choice, two actors making the most of their relatively small screentime. Also look for Edward Herrmann, Jerzy Kosinski, M. Emmet Walsh, Paul Sorvino, William Daniels, Gene Hackman, and R.G. Armstrong in supporting parts. Some of them are pretty quick, none of them truly developed, and a couple are nothing more than a single scene. Of the smaller parts, Kosinski is memorable as a socialist leader working with Reed and Hackman as a booze-loving, honest newspaper editor.

One of the best choices Beatty makes as a director was a wise style choice. Along with the actual story, interviews with those who knew Reed and Bryant during the 1910s and 1920s are interspersed throughout the movie. These people -- now in their 70s and 80s -- reminiscing about John and Louise, about the times, about how things have changed, these are the moments that proved most memorable for me. Check out the list of witnesses HERE. So as I mentioned before, this is an excellent movie. One you appreciate and admire and respect. I felt like I learned some things as the story develops, but did I love the movie like I hoped I would? Nope. Still very much worth checking out, but not quite the movie I was expecting.

Reds (1981): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Village

What is director-writer-producer M. Night Shyamalan associated with? The twist ending. The BIG twist ending. From The Sixth Sense to Signs, Unbreakable to The Happening, Shyamalan has made a career out of that pull the rug out from under you feeling. I've seen most of them, and now I can check off 2004's The Village, another Shyamalan vehicle with a twist in the end.

In a small, isolated village in the Pennsylvania countryside in the late 1890s, life goes on pretty much as normal on a day-to-day basis. Well....pretty much. The close-knit community is isolated from the rest of the world, all the townspeople unable to leave a perimeter surrounding the village. Why? The town has a delicate truce with something living in the woods, creatures dubbed "Those We Don't Speak Of." One of the townspeople, Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix), a young man, is sure the creatures will let them pass if approached in non-aggressive fashion. He is close to Ivy (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young woman who lost her vision as a child, who also believes Lucius' plan. It is a pleasant if limited life, but Lucius wants to explore, to question. Can he convince the village elders to give him the chance? Will Those We Don't Speak Of stop him before he can do anything?

Here we sit. Though his films have struggled some at the box office and especially critically, Shyamalan is a talented director. He is. He has few rivals when it comes to building tension, to setting the mood, creating that unbearable sense of doom looming just over the horizon. What's coming next? What's gonna happen?!? Sometimes though, it feels like the films get so wrapped up in building up to the twist that the movie suffers. The focus becomes all about that twist. 'Village' suffers from that issue to a point. At different points, there is A TON of potential that seems to be building to something really crazy, interesting and entertaining. The gloomy setting -- it's seemingly always cloudy -- sets the mood in ideal fashion, and composer James Newton Howard picked up an Oscar nomination for his haunting, eerily beautiful score. So where does it go....

Semi-SPOILERS for this paragraph. I won't give anything specific away, but I've got to at least address it. There's actually two different reveals, one revealed about the hour-mark of the 109-minute movie, the other popping up about the 90-minute checkpoint. They're not bad. The big twist doesn't feel so forced, so out of left field that you question why the script (Shyamalan doing the honors) even went there. It's original. It's unique. It's just not necessarily....well, good. There are some hints dropped along the way, but it did catch me by surprise. If there is a goof, it's in the reveal of the first twist. It comes along too early, taking away from a later scene that would have been dripping with tension and terror if we didn't know what we do (if that makes sense). The biggest issue is that the ending feels rushed without letting things breathe a little bit. Too bad because as far as twists go, this one could have been a doozy of a gem.

Now with the mood, the tension, the mystery, the cast and characters do a good job with a story/script where the focus isn't specifically on them. They're a means to an end. Phoenix does a good job as the moody, questioning Lucius (quite a stretch, huh?) while Howard especially shines as Ivy, the blind young woman who is a favorite in the village because of her generally pleasant outlook on everything. As for the town elders, look for William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson and Cherry Jones.  For some of the other townspeople, keep an eye out for Judy Greer, Michael Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, and Adrien Brody as Noah, the mentally challenged adult who never grew up. Some very good actors committing to generally unwritten parts and doing their best to bring it to life.

There's something missing in general here. The build-up is there, that tension and fear of the unknown palpable through much of the first hour. From there on in though, the story loses momentum with a focus on the village and the people. I wanted to like it more. I wish I had liked it more, but it's not bad, just not as good as it could have been unfortunately. A disappointing semi-misfire.

The Village (2004): ** 1/2 /****