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, November 28, 2014

Nine Hours to Rama

So you know what isn't the most uplifting source for stories? Assassins and their assassination attempts. You don't hear a lot of movies about John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan. How come? Well, it's odd because there's a fascination with killers and those they killed. And then there's the movies that are made, almost completely forgotten like 1963's Nine Hours to Rama, the story of the killer of Mahatma Gandhi.

It's January 30, 1948 in New Delhi, India. Just a few months into the country's independence after 200-plus years under Great Britain's rule, India is still finding its voice as an independent nation, and peace-preaching Mahatma Gandhi is that voice. The police and the army have been mobilized. Evidence and rumors suggest an assassination attempt is going to be made on Gandhi before the day is out. The killer? An extremist hell bent on ending Gandhi's life, his name Naturam Godse (Horst Buchholz). He's been chosen by his movement as the man supposed to kill Gandhi and he is ready to do whatever it takes to accomplish his mission. His work is cut out for him though, as the police, including police superintendent Gopal Das (Jose Ferrer), are closing in on him.

What I don't know about Gandhi's life could fill volumes. The same for Indian history, even more recent history like earning its independence from England. This 1963 story from director Mark Robson has been basically completely forgotten over the last 50-plus years. I caught a couple minutes of 'Rama' a few years back on AMC and finally was able to catch up with the feature film thanks to a recent airing on TV. What an interesting if flawed movie. Robson filmed on location in India, an incredibly nice touch that gives his film quite the authentic feel. He films the crowded streets, the country roads, the people, and there's almost a documentary feel as the story develops. Composer Malcolm Arnold turns in an excellent score, slightly reminiscent of his Bridge on the River Kwai score, to aid the assassination story that's based on the truth but mostly fictionalized.

One of my favorite movies is The Magnificent Seven, a western featuring a cast full of stars and recognizable character actors...and Horst Buchholz, a German actor playing a Mexican gunfighter. It's a very good part, but one of two movies I actually have seen Buchholz in. Well, make that three now with Buchholz doing a solid job here as Naturam. I think the script makes a wise choice in not demonizing him. He's a flawed character, obsessive in his beliefs and convinced he's in the right through his actions. If you know the history, it takes some of the mystery out of where this will end up but that doesn't take away from the strength of the story.

And how about the weakness of the story? That's from a storytelling device that can make or break a movie...the dreaded flashback. This is a story with two paths. One, Naturam in the hours building up to his assassination attempt. Two, his life, how he ended up on this path. His motivations and reasons are one thing, but that doesn't make the flashbacks interesting. Maybe in a separate movie, the flashback device works, but I felt that it fell short here mostly because the other half of the movie is so straightforward and effective. The main focus is on Naturam's troubled relationship with Rani (Valerie Gearon), a woman from vastly different backgrounds and beliefs who's still drawn to Naturam. A fiery, up and down relationship, it just doesn't work well in context. Minimizing the story of Gandhi's assassin to a tortured love story just doesn't work.

With the rest of the cast, Ferrer is the best supporting part. His Das is a dedicated, driven police officer who wants India to succeed as an independent nation. He knows that future needs its leader, Gandhi (J.S. Casshyap, a dead ringer for Gandhi), and has to convince the great man to listen to advice when his life is in danger. Don Borisenko plays Naturam's worrying accomplice, Diane Baker plays a prostitute who Naturam comes across in his efforts to hide while the police search for him and Harry Andrews and Robert Morley don some face-darkening makeup to play an Indian general and an Indian politician.

'Rama' is at its absolute best in the assassination plotline. Ten years before The Day of the Jackal was released, Robson's film does a great job laying things out, a race against time with life and death on the line through a crowded city. Naturam knows he's being pursued with the police close behind every step of the way. The tension keeps building and building as the sun begins to set, especially knowing where the story will end up. Knowledge of the history isn't a hindrance to any enjoyment of the story. It all builds to an incredibly moving ending, a flawed movie that manages to rise above its flaws in its strongest moments. A not so well known historical story but an interesting one to watch develop to its inevitable end.

Nine Days to Rama (1963): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Night of the Grizzly

So that 1975 movie about a great white shark terrorizing a summer vacation locale? What's it called? Jaws I think? Yeah, it's halfway decent. It spawned far too many ripoffs, knockoffs and lousy sequels, many of which I've reviewed here. Here's a twist for you....what about a movie that inspired Jaws? It comes from a genre you might not have thought of, the western. Here's 1966's The Night of the Grizzly.

Having worked for years as a marshal, Big Jim Cole (Clint Walker) has decided to turn in his badge. He has acquired a ranch in Wyoming from a family member and with his wife, Angie (Martha Hyer), three kids, and his former deputy, Sam Potts (Don Haggerty), is uprooting and moving for a new life. The nearby town is welcoming -- for the most part -- and the land is good farming land. Cole even has plans to raise some cattle, but he's got two problems to deal with. One, the rich landowner and fellow rancher in town, Jed Curry (Keenan Wynn), desperately wants his land and is going to stop at nothing to get that land. Two, a grizzly lives in the mountains that has terrorized the area for years. Dubbed Satan by the townspeople, the bear kills randomly, killing man and livestock alike and not just for food. If he wants his family to stay on their new land, Cole has his work cut out for him.

So did you notice how I didn't mention that whole man-killing grizzly until late in the plot description? Yeah, that wasn't an accident or oversight on my part. For a movie named 'Night of the Grizzly,' director Joseph Pevney sure doesn't seem too interested in doing much with the whole grizzly bear plot. It's just an odd movie in the end, one that can't pick a rhythm and stick with it. It is equal parts family drama that would seem more comfortable on The Waltons, odd, out of place humor, some typical western land/rancher drama, and oh yeah, that killer bear who everyone is terrified of. Dun-dun-duh!!! If you just commit to the bear story and go with it, maybe we've got something, but it plays out like there wasn't much of a script so things got fleshed out with all those other odds and ends.

The most disappointing thing about 'Grizzly' is that the cast alone has plenty of potential. Whether it was on TV or in feature films, Walker was an underrated western star. For starters, he looks like a wild west sort of guy you wouldn't want to tangle with in a fight. The former marshal turned rancher is weighed down by the family drama, Walker left to deal with his worrying wife and a gaggle of troublesome kids. Not given much to do but be the cliched bad guy, Keenan Wynn is slimy and sinister as Jed Curry, ready to do whatever it takes. Jack Elam similarly isn't given much to do other than hang out with Cole's precocious daughter, Gypsy (Victoria Paige Meyerink), in a rare change of pace good guy part. Showing up at the hour-mark in full-on intimidation mode, Leo Gordon is a convict and crook from Cole's past brought in to cause some trouble.

But's an unstoppable killer grizzly bear!!! Focus on the bear!!! An attempt here and there at a mood-lightening laugh is one thing. But repeatedly? And at the expense of the story? Talk about a potential killer. One extended bit has little Gypsy chasing after a skunk she thinks is a cat. Oh, no! A smelly little kid who has to eat outside! Oh, and there's Nancy Kulp (of The Beverly Hillbillies) as a general store owner who's got a crush on the drunken Potts. There's also a mountain family that moonshines where we even get to see a drunken rooster stagger around the barnyard. And also, Curry's kids are stupid and awkward. They trick Potts into giving them money for whiskey...but it's a dry county. The acting is anywhere from rough to awkward to watch, and it's hard to tell whether it was because of the actors or the script. Maybe both.

The biggest comparison to Jaws comes in the finale. Much of the movie has the bear shown via a stomping paw or his fuzzy head as he stands up. When we do see the bear, it doesn't look particularly big. In the end, Cole and Gordon's baddie end up chasing the bear around a mountain. Again, lots of potential but it never adds up to anything too interesting. Steer clear of this stinker.

The Night of the Grizzly (1966): */****

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Bridge on the River Kwai

When you're talking about great prisoner of war movies, that conversation is inevitably going to come down to two movies. For me, it's an easy distinction, an easy pick for which one is the best. That's one of my two favorite movies ever, 1963's The Great Escape. What's the other classic P.O.W. film? One of Hollywood's all-time greats, 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It's 1943 in western Burma and a battalion of British prisoners has arrived at Camp 16 along the Burma Railway. Allied prisoners are being used all along the railway to help build the tracks and bridges it needs to move supplies up and down the country. The commandant of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), has been given a quick deadline in order to build a bridge over the river Kwai, but he quickly hits a roadblock in the form of the ranking officer among the Brits, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). Both men are career officers, both of them stubborn and strong-willed that they know what is right and how to do it. What follows is a battle of wills as the two commanders see who will crack first with the deadline fast approaching. Unbeknownst to both of them, Allied intelligence has caught wind of the bridge across the river. A former prisoner, Shears (William Holden), of the camp is working with an experienced commando, Warden (Jack Hawkins), to lead a team back into Burma and take out the bridge. 

That David Lean, he was a halfway decent director, winning two Best Picture Oscars in his storied career. One win was for Lawrence of Arabia. One was for River Kwai. My favorite? You're reading that movie's review right now. It is a film remembered as one of the all-time greats, and it deserves that status. The portrayal of war, its message about war, the instantly recognizable Colonel Bogey March (listen HERE), the phenomenal casting, the on-location shooting in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the gorgeous filmography, and a great musical score overall from Malcolm Arnold. The scale is gigantic, but the story remains personal. It is a giant movie with an ability to never lose its focus or get too far away from where it wants to go. On my most recent viewing, I thought (more than I remember) there were some slow/sluggish portions in the 161-minute movie but not nearly enough to fault an otherwise pretty perfect movie.

The name evades me, but I remember seeing another British actor say in an interview "I didn't understand the Nicholson part until I saw Guinness' performance." That's how good Alec Guinness is in his Oscar-winning performance. This is an incredible acting job, a layered character that is baffling at times to understand. Colonel Nicholson is a fascinating character because his word, his beliefs and his stubborn make-up are everything to him. If he believes he is right, he IS right. This is a career soldier willing to put his life on the line to stand by his beliefs. A career officer, he knows nothing else other than the army. His dynamic with Hayakawa's Col. Saito is the guts of the movie, two officers believing they're right and seeing who will blink first. Who needs the other more to accomplish their goal? A late scene where Guinness' Nicholson discussing his career illuminates what drives the man. He wants to leave something that will be remembered. He does, but what if it helps the Japanese war effort?

What a cast! Guinness rightfully deserves first mention, but that's only the start. William Holden's character, Shears, is underwritten some, but it is a necessary, still very interesting character to move the action along. Holden is one of my favorites, and I liked his Shears, especially when a big twist is revealed near the halfway point. Jack Hawkins is just solid as Warden, the unlikely commando officer, an interesting similarity to Nicholson in the very, very British officer category. Hayakawa at times gets lost in the conversation, but he too is highly memorable as Saito, rough facade, terrified/worried inside at a possible failure. James Donald (also starring in The Great Escape) is the viewer, playing Major Clipton, the medical officer, trying to figure things out, to understand what's going on. Also worth mentioning is Geoffrey Horne as Joyce, the young, inexperienced commando trying to prove he can handle the job.

Also look for Andre Morell as Colonel Green, a key officer in Force 316, and Percy Herbert and Harold Goodwin as two British soldiers in the camp, Grogan and Baker.

Without resorting to hitting us over the head with a message, Lean does an understated job of delivering an anti-war message. What is it? Well....war is crazy. This isn't a horrifically violent movie, and the portrayals of a Japanese P.O.W. camp are pretty tame, but 'Kwai' effortlessly lays out all these different responses to war. Shears = Survival. Warden = A job. Clipton = Chaos and confusion. And Nicholson? A career. There are some moments of humor, usually pretty dark, mostly cynical, but Lean's movie (working off a novel by Pierre Boulle) presents the lunacy of war and simply lets it breathe. Decide for yourself who is right, if anyone.

So let's talk about that ending. No real SPOILERS here, but still, I'm talking (hopefully vaguely) about the finale. Great movie overall, one of the best ever. The ending to 'Kwai' is maybe top 5 finales to a movie ever as Force 316 (Warden, Shears, Joyce, a Siamese guerrilla and several Siamese girls) attempts to destroy the bridge at its grand opening. With nothing given away, there's a twist that is too perfect to describe. The last 35-40 minutes are phenomenal, and it only gets stronger in the final 15 minutes when the twist is revealed. Talk about tension built to an almost unbearable level. You can't believe what you're seeing, especially when Nicholson makes an amazing decision. It is a finale that leaves you drained and hammers home Lean's anti-war message. In the end, what is accomplished and at what cost? Boulle's finale is a doozy, a true whopper, if you read the novel.

Sometimes movies just work, a synergy of everything assembled clicking together. It is a beautiful movie, and Arnold's score works in unison with that visual, especially when Warden, Shears, Joyce and Co. finally arrive deep in the jungle at the bridge site. It is the first time we're seeing the completed bridge, and there's something simple and beautiful about the structure. Arnold's score soars, and all the pieces fit together. I think that's the beauty of it. This is my favorite David Lean movie overall, and it deserves its status as an all-time classic.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): ****/****

Monday, November 24, 2014

The War Devils

Well, it's been about a year since I reviewed a cheap Italian war movie so we might as well dive back in, right? Part of the Combat Classics 50 Movie Pack DVD set, here's 1969's The War Devils, another not so well known World War II movie. Not a spaghetti western, but a spaghetti war movie instead!

The fighting is raging in North Africa, and Captain George Vincent (Guy Madison), an American Ranger, has been tasked with leading a squad of commandos deep behind enemy lines. Though the mission proves costly, Vincent and his men pull it off but are left stranded in the desert. Their only possibility to get out alive? The American commandos are forced to team up with a squad of similarly stranded German infantry, commanded by fiery Captain Heinrich Meinike (Venantino Venantini). Both sides must put their differences aside if they hope to survive, but the desert is full of obstacles. Whatever happens, the war and the fighting might not be done with both Vincent and Meinike even when the war seems so far removed.

I can't quite put my finger on it. Growing up, I fell hard for the western genre and eventually fell just as hard for the spaghetti western genre. I kinda naturally assumed I would love the Euro-war genre that popped up in Italy in the wake of the popularity of the spaghetti western craze of the late 1960s. So far? It just hasn't been there. Now granted I haven't seen a ton of these films -- I mildly enjoyed 1968's Hell in Normandy -- and the ones I'm watching are public domain DVDs so the quality isn't always there in terms of viewing quality. I've enjoyed the movies, but there's that special something missing. Now if only a young budding star like Clint Eastwood had starred in these movies and helped make them more readily available for foreign, I guess that's wishful thinking.

I'll give credit where and when it's due. From director Bitto Albertini (who also worked on the story/screenplay), 'Devils' definitely tries something a little out of the ordinary. It is one of very few movies that makes a major jump in theaters, bouncing from continent to continent. 'Devils' runs about 96 minutes and splits down the middle, the first 50 minute following the fighting in North Africa while the last 45 jump to fighting in France in 1944. The reasoning behind that time jump? SPOILERS Both Vincent and Heinrich survive the fighting in North Africa, the German captain vowing to kill his American counterpart should they ever run into each other again. They do -- of course -- a year later in France. END OF SPOILERS It's nothing too crazy, but it does work as far as throwing something slightly different into a familiar formula.

A TV and film star in America in the 1950s, Guy Madison ended up getting another crack at stardom via Euro-war flicks and spaghetti westerns. He's in his mid 40s here, looking grayed and grizzled a bit as the most recognizable face in the cast. Not great acting (now THAT would be out of place), but Madison was always a pretty cool screen presence. His counterpart, Venantini, gets to ham it up a little bit as the very loud, emotional and fiery German intelligence captain. Pascale Petit gets to play the sexy young French woman, thrust into the mission with her father's life on the line, because every WWII movie needs a sexy young French woman. Also look for Anthony Steel in a small part as Colonel Steele (originality not required), a key intelligence officer, Claudio Biava as Sgt. Kelp, Vincent's right-hand man, and in the odd casting department, John Ireland making a one-scene appearance as an Allied officer and Raf Baldassarre in a wordless part as a sheik helping Vincent's commandos.

Now there's an end-all, be-all with these flicks, and that's ACTION!!! There's plenty, with two major firefights dotting the running time. 'Devils' may have a small budget, but that money was spent on some decent pyrotechnics. Lots of bullets flying, lots of arm-flailing deaths as dead soldiers go tumbling through the air. Still, there's got to be something more. Soldiers get killed, and the camera lingers like we're supposed to be distraught. That's a problem when they've been background players in most of the scenes up to that point. The action is tolerable, but the movie itself is pretty dull unfortunately. Check out the full movie below if you're curious.

The War Devils (1969): **/****

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Naked Prey

Does the name Cornel Wilde ring a bell? For movie fans, it should. Working in films from the 1940s and on, Wilde starred in feature films and some television consistently into the 1970s and 1980s. The catch though is that he doesn't have that signature role or film to his name. He was an actor, not a movie star, even getting into the writing, producing and directing side of movies. If he does have a signature role, it's 1965's The Naked Prey, Wilde starring, producing and directing.

It's the late 1800s in Africa and a safari guide (Wilde) is leading a big game hunting party deep into the African veld. On the trail, the party is approached by a group of warriors who are seeking some treasures, some prizes, some trinkets for allowing the party to travel across their land and ultimately hunt. The party's leader turns them down in aggressive fashion despite their guide's insistence to the counter. Soon after, their party is attacked by the warriors and wiped almost, just a few men remaining, among them the safari and hunting guide. While the rest of the survivors are gruesomely tortured and killed, the tribe and its warriors have other plans for the guide. They're going to hunt him, giving him a short head start and then racing after him. Could he somehow, some way make it or is he doomed to meet a similarly gruesome death?

What an interesting movie. As I mentioned, Wilde stars, produces and directs this 1965 survival picture. It is a minimalist picture at its best. There's no bigger scale, no sense of character backgrounds, no picture of a larger impact. The characters don't even have names, Wilde identified in the credits simply as 'Man' while his pursuers are similarly nameless. 'Prey' was filmed on-location in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and simply reeks -- in a good way -- of authenticity. As Wilde's Man makes it across the landscape, we get a sense of the immensity of the country, of the daunting attempt at survival looming over him. The soundtrack is limited too, African drums navigating the survival story and driving the chasing action. 'Prey' is better because it never tries to get bigger. Here's a man trying to live. Here's the pursuers trying to kill him. That's it, and that's all.

Kudos to Cornel Wilde for absolutely nailing his part as the unnamed man on the run. When 'Prey' was being made, Wilde was in his early 50s and he spends basically the entire 96-minute running time....well, running and basically nude (a stylish black loincloth). This guy was a natural athlete and freakishly in shape. Wilde was even sick during much of the production, but this is a remarkable performance. There's little to nothing in terms of spoken word or a dialogue-driven script. Not much talking to fall back on. This is a man with no clothes, no food, no water and no real concept of where he is or where safety is. All he knows is that a small group of warriors are close behind and their only goal is to kill him. To stop, to take a break (however brief), it means death and a painful death at that.

Not that I think this really needs to be said, but here goes just the same. This is a dark, vicious, uncomfortable movie to watch. From the get-go, this is an eat or be eaten story. Once the hunting party is wiped out, the African tribe tortures them in horrific fashion (poor Gert van den Bergh and Patrick Mynhardt meeting particularly bad deaths). From there, the lead warrior (Ken Gampu) and his fellow hunters are constantly on the man's trail. What starts off as a sure thing ends up turned on its side when the man is able to kill several hunters who thought they hunting a sure thing. All the while, Wilde cuts in footage of animals on the hunt, a variety of predators and hunters killing. The message? Well, it ain't subtle, but everything in the wilderness is more than capable of killing, and it's not always for necessity. There are some moments of hope, the man saving a little African girl from slavers, bonding as they travel on the trail. Mostly though, it's kill or be killed with no margin for error.

'Prey' runs 96 minutes, about 75 minutes or so spent on the kill or be killed chase. It's never dull or boring, but there are certain parts that run a little slower than others. 'Prey' is at its strongest when Wilde's man is dealing directly with his pursuers. This is a bloody, nasty, vicious story that never really taps the brakes in its portrayal of the nastiness exhibited by good, old-fashioned mankind. Well worth checking out. If you're looking for some clips, try HERE with nine total clips available.

The Naked Prey (1965): ***/****

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chato's Land

Here's one of my biggest pet peeves as I watch westerns. Well, any movie that resorts to this hackneyed technique. When you need someone to play a Native American character or a Mexican or an Asian or just cast a white guy who can pass as a different ethnicity. It almost always fails in grand when it does work? Enjoy it. Go figure, but Charles Bronson of all people makes for a passable Apache in 1972's Chato's Land.

Picking up supplies in a desert town in Arizona, Pardon Chato (Bronson), a half-breed, is told by the sheriff to leave the saloon without getting a drink. The sheriff draws on Chato, forcing the half-Apache, half-Mexican to turn and fire, killing the sheriff. Chato mounts his horse and rides out of town as news spreads across town. A former Confederate officer, Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), organizes a posse and sets off into the desert in pursuit of the Apache fugitive, fully intending to hang Chato should he be captured. The posse has trouble tracking him though across the desert and begins to question if the hunt should be continued. But then when they seem to be at the end of their rope, the posse stumbles across Chato's home and more importantly, his wife and child. Now, the hunters have become the hunted.

A frequent collaborator with Charles Bronson, director Michael Winner takes a lot of grief because of his total filmography. They're not necessarily good films, but son of a gun, they're usually pretty entertaining. His forays into westerns though are pretty good, both 'Chato' and 1971's Lawman. Filmed in Almeria, typically a backdrop for spaghetti westerns, 'Chato' is a violent, dark, uncomfortable and yes, revisionist western. It isn't necessarily a movie you love, but one you watch with a sick sense of dread. This isn't the polished, clean western of the 1950s. This is a dark, filthy, world where violence and betrayal reign supreme. Horrific people in a dusty, sweaty world where anything and everything can and will kill you. If that doesn't sound like fun, I don't know what does!

A star in the 1960s, Charles Bronson became an international star in the 1970s with movies like this, Death Wish, The Mechanic and many others. What's impressive about his titular performance as Chato? Well, he's on-screen for maybe 15, maybe 20 minutes total. He says about 48 words the entire movie. This is a movie about his presence alone being the star. Bronson is ideal casting for this steely-eyed, cold, calculating and brutally efficient Apache warrior looking for revenge. The posse spends whole scenes talking about him, Chato waiting in the darkness or over the next ridge to attack, a one-man army. In the second half, Bronson strips down and wears nothing but a loincloth as he goes after the posse. The dude was 51 years old at the time and looks like he could kick anybody's ass. Like anybody. Go ahead, challenge him. It's weird that the title role is almost a cameo, but Bronson kills the part.

So who does he get around to killing on the posse? Another actor who found second life in Europe and internationally in the late 1960s and 1970s, Jack Palance. This is a great part for the grizzled actor with the perfectly, smoky (some would say evil) voice. He waxes eloquently about the Civil War, the desert, the Apaches, anything and everything. Not quite chewing the scenery, but he nibbles a bit. As for the posse, there's some townspeople (Richard Basehart, Paul Young, William Watson, Victor French), some ranchers doing their civic duty (James Whitmore, Roddy McMillan), a Mexican scout (Raul Castro) and three brothers who ranch and are looking for blood (Simon Oakland, Ralph Waite, Mr. Walton himself, and Richard Jordan). We see their unity at first, their eventual turning on each other, and then their desperate bid for survival. There's some cool names, lots of recognizable faces among the posse.

Now if you look back and read some original reviews, they were startlingly negative. I get it. It would be easy to peg this 1972 revenge western as a snuff film of sorts. Much of the second half of the movie is finding interesting ways for Bronson to kill the posse that isn't so pure, isn't so interested in justice or doing what's right. Given a chance to do something horrific, they don't hesitate. They don't flinch. We know virtually nothing about Chato, but we're rooting for him simply because he isn't the posse. And it's there where the snuff aspect comes out. Quite an ending, quite a final shot too. Know what you're getting into but a western definitely worth seeking out. Come on, how many movies can you see a man use a rattlesnake as a throwing weapon? Not too many, huh?

Chato's Land (1972): ***/****

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

2 Fast 2 Furious

Released in 2001, The Fast and the Furious was a huge success in theaters, making over $200 million compared to just a $38 million budget. It jump-started the careers of much of its cast and kicked off a hugely successful franchise that through six films has made over $2 billion in theaters. Let's dive into the first sequel, 2003's 2 Fast 2 Furious.

Still on the run after letting Dom go back in Los Angeles, Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) is making a name for himself as a street racer in Miami. He's gotten into trouble now and is back on the radar of several different law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and U.S. Customs. If Brian takes on a dangerous assignment for both the FBI and Customs, his record will be wiped clean. The assignment? Help put together a case against smuggler and Argentinian drug lord, Carter Verone (Cole Hauser). With authorities closing in on his circle, Verone needs drivers to help transport piles of drug money under the cops' noses. Brian needs help if he's going to pull off the job and get out alive. He seeks out a childhood friend who's he fallen out with, an ex-con and skilled driver, Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson). Can they pull the job off?

Okay, let's get this out of the way. I love the Fast and Furious franchise. Always have. Always will. So all that said, this ain't a good movie -- by a long shot -- but I love it just the same. Of all the movies, this is probably the guiltiest pleasure. How many movies can you hear Paul Walker say 'Forget about it, cuz.'? It tries to be incredibly hip and street and just so cool. Seriously, try a drinking game where anyone says 'cuz' or 'brah.' You'll be drunk for days.

Building on the surprise success of the first Fast/Furious movie two years earlier, '2 Fast' doesn't mess too much with the winning formula. Director John Singleton knows not to bite the hand that feeds so keep things simple. That formula? Some supremely cool cars from street and drag racers to some throwback classics, or as Brian and Roman say several times 'American muscle,' some cool characters and lots of scantily clad ladies all over the place. It ain't rocket science so don't overthink it, right? The races are edited in crazy, hyper fashion as the cars fly by, the soundtrack is littered with some then timely rap and hip-hop songs, and everything is easily digested in 107 minutes. You realize how far the movies have come since these early entries, a roguish, cheap quality that rises up to be pretty entertaining.

Otherwise occupied filming XXX, Vin Diesel -- star of the first Fast/Furious with Walker -- was unable to participate in this first sequel. The winners of that decision/unavailability? Paul Walker and Tyrese Gibson. A whole bunch of 'brahs' and 'cuz' lines aside, the biggest appeal of '2 Fast' is the Walker and Gibson pairing. Any screen they're in together, it plays like two friends hanging out and talking. It doesn't feel forced in the least. The character backstory provides some fun fireworks too, the duo growing up close friends but having a falling out when Brian decides to become a police officer. Just the same way Diesel and Walker played off each other so well in that brotherly fashion, Walker and Gibson do the same. You're rooting for them, two talented drivers backed into a less than ideal situation with all sorts of outside forces closing in on them.

Who else to look for? Walker is the only main cast member to make the jump from the original to the sequel so we've got some fresh meat! I've always liked Cole Hauser (wish he was in more movies), and he's having some fun as Verone, clearly doing some sort of slightly subdued Tony Montana impression. Eva Mendes sexes it up as Monica Fuentes, the deep undercover agent working to take Verone down, and flirting some with Brian in the process. Also joining the franchise is Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges as Tej, a do-it-all race organizer and mechanic while model Devon Aoki plays Suki, the designated sexy female driver. Thom Barry does reprise his role as Bilkins, FBI agent extraordinaire while James Remar plays the cantankerous Agent Markham, always mad at somebody. Also look for Michael Ealy as Amaury Nolasco as rival street racers.

Want some more in-depth analysis? Yeah, I didn't think so. If you like these movies, even this type of movies, you're going to enjoy this sequel. I've recommended to moviegoers that it's worth it to stick with the franchise because it has gotten significantly better, especially most recently with Fast Five and Fast and Furious 6. Those are great fun movies, pure entertainment, but these are pretty cool too. Also worth watching? A short film made with Walker showing how Brian ends up in Miami after the finale of the first movie. Check it out HERE.

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003): ***/****

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Is there a such thing as a situational western? No, not a large scale story of cavalry vs. Indians or a bandit gang organizing a huge heist. Instead, a story that takes place in a specific amount of time in a semi-confined setting. The big example I can think of is 1952's High Noon. It's a good one but not necessarily my favorite. Well, here's another one, a western I enjoyed a lot, 1951's Rawhide.

At an isolated way station for the Overland Mail and stagecoach line in the Arizona desert, Tom Owens (Tyrone Power) is a week away from moving back east away from his job as the assistant to the grizzled stationmaster, Sam Todd (Edgar Buchanan). News of a stagecoach robbery is making its way up and down the line, forcing one stagecoach passenger, Vinnie Holt (Susan Hayward) and a toddler, to hole up at the station due to company policy. It's only a few hours later when the outlaws behind the robbery arrive, led by escaped convict Rafe Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe). They put the station in a hostage situation, Zimmerman revealing what his plan is. A stagecoach packed with gold bars is due in the next day, and he intends to get away with all of it. Can the hostages do something in time to stop the robbery and ensure their safety?

Here's a good example of why I love the western so much. From director Henry Hathaway, 'Rawhide' is neither a classic nor it is a dud. To say it's somewhere in between isn't even fair. It's a really good western that I enjoyed throughout and will gladly revisit it in the future. This 1951 small scale western has little to no reputation, but it came along at a different time. The late 1940s and early 1950s were an underrated time for the entire genre before the glossy widescreen (and often white-washed) examples of much of the 1950s. It's just 89 minutes long, was filmed in beautiful black and white and deserves a far more well-known reputation. Western fans will definitely get a kick out of this one.

There is something appealing and charming about the generally confined setting here for this 1951 western. Written by Dudley Nichols, 'Rawhide' has the feel of a stage-based play getting a big screen adaptation. Do you recognize Nichols? I didn't, but I should have. He wrote the screenplay for John Ford's 1939 classic Stagecoach, and 'Rawhide' has a similar feel. The entire story is set at the stagecoach station whether it's in the main building or the barn/corrals out in the middle of the desert. With the Alabama Hills used as a stunning backdrop, the black and white, sparse look of the story is a gem. The entire story takes place over about a 24-hour time period. We spend a lot of time in the expansive main room of the station, the claustrophobic room used as a prison cell or sorts, and then things open up in a big way outside with the mountains in the background. It's a not so flashy but perfectly set little story.

I'm guessing a big reason why 'Rawhide' doesn't have a huge reputation or following is because of the star power, or lack of it. It's a very solid cast (VERY) but there aren't any John Wayne or Henry Fonda waiting in the wings. Power and Hayward are excellent together, strangers forced to pretend they're married for safety reasons. Their kinda Odd Couple dynamic works in a hectic, tense situation. Marlowe is the nasty villain who's cold and calculating with Jack Elam (the psycho), Dean Jagger (the over his head horse thief) and George Tobias (the oafish/loyal enforcer) rounding out his gang. Buchanan is underused as the grizzled stationmaster who could use a bath while Jeff Corey, James Millican, Louis Jean Heydt and Kenneth Tobey make some quick appearances.

'Rawhide' is never slow but does have some relative struggles in getting to the third act. The threat is laid out and really there's only so much you can do before Marlowe's Zimmerman has to either gun somebody down or smack somebody. The ending though, it provides some good twists in dark fashion. The master of the psychotic, possibly unhinged 1950s western bad guy, Jack Elam even outdoes himself when he's in a desperate spot. And what's one of my main complaints about female characters in westerns? The damsel in distress. Not the case here as Hayward's Holt is front and center in the action. Who needs help? Give that woman a gun! An underrated western, one any genre fan should enjoy a lot. Track this one down!

Rawhide (1951): ***/****

Monday, November 17, 2014

Cuban Fury

I loved Hot Fuzz, really liked Shaun of the Dead, and thought The World's End had its moments but could have been better. My favorite part of those three flicks from director Edgar Wright? That's one easy answer for this guy. I loved star Nick Frost, the lovable sidekick who's always ready with a quick one-liner or some nicely time physical humor. Push that sidekick stuff aside, it's starring role time! Here's 2014's Cuban Fury.

Growing up in England with his sister as his partner, young Bruce Garrett is a champion dancer on the salsa dance circuit. On the brink of winning the national championship, Bruce has quite a run-in with a group of bullies who beat him up and mock him mercilessly to the point he chooses not to dance at the championship. Years pass and Bruce (Frost), all grown up in his 30s, works at a manufacturing firm. He's single, overweight and feels like he doesn't have much in the way of prospects. Bruce has a new boss at the firm, a pretty American, Julia (Rashida Jones), and he can't figure out how to talk to her, how to break the ice. Well, there's one way. Bruce finds out Julia is into salsa dancing, but there's a problem. It's been 25 years since Bruce has danced so now it's time to find out if he can pick it up again. It ain't going to be easy, especially when a co-worker, Drew (Chris O'Dowd), also sets his sights on Julia.

If I had just read that plot description without seeing who was in the movie or having seen the trailer, this definitely isn't a movie I would have sought out. A former child dancer prodigy trying to impress his new sexy boss? Um, no, that sounds downright awful. I watched that trailer though. I looked at that cast, and yeah, I had to give this one a try. It looked a little dumb but mostly funny. End result? I loved it. I laughed out loud far more than I usually do with comedies. The laughs and comedy are there without being forced. Working off an original idea from Frost, director James Griffiths has a winner here. It's his first feature film after working on television and a TV movie and short, and it ain't perfect. But my goodness, I enjoyed it from beginning to end. I don't even remember it getting a theatrical release in the states, but this is one comedy definitely worth seeking out.

It starts with Nick Frost as our portly, very likable, and very funny Bruce Garrett. It was very cool to see Frost get a chance to star in a leading role. In supporting parts in the Wright films, he was an absolute scene-stealer. He does the same thing here, just on a bigger stage with more screentime. The main reason I like Frost as a comedian and as an actor is his versatility. He can rattle off a subtle one-liner in the same scene that he pulls off a physical stunt in the vein of Chris Farley or John Belushi, able to bounce back and forth effortlessly. Funny doesn't always translate to likable, but in Frost's case, it definitely does. An overweight 30-something trying to regain his former salsa flare? Yeah, that's just crazy enough to work.

The whole cast works in that sense. It's drawn with some broad strokes, but the cast is talented enough to make it work. Jones is cute and awkward as the boss and girl of Bruce's dreams while O'Dowd gets the showy jackass part as Drew, crude and lewd but quite the ladies man in general. What's the most out of left field name you can think of to play an aging salsa/dancer teacher? How about a legendary English actor with a gravelly voice and perfectly grizzled look? Ian McShane!!! It's a perfect, little supporting part with some great laughs. Also look for Olivia Colman as Bruce's sister, his biggest supporter and former dance partner, Rory Kinnear and Tim Plester as Gary and Mickey, Bruce's best friends who get together for some guy time, and in a great scene-stealing part, Kayvan Novak as Bejan, Bruce's flamboyantly gay friend who helps him get back onto the dancing scene.

I'm not going to overanalyze this one too much. I loved it. There's laughs sprinkled throughout the 98-minute flick, and if it's a tad predictable, I didn't care. It's rare I really enjoy recent comedies whether in theaters or on DVD, but this seems to be the rare exception. Likable, charming comedy with a great cast having a lot of fun and plenty of laughs. Also, look for a blink and you'll miss it appearance from Frost co-star and friend Simon Pegg. It's a good one, mixed in with a parking garage dance-off. Yes, you read that right. Just go with it.

Cuban Fury (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, November 14, 2014

Flags of Our Fathers

The picture itself is one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable images in American history. Days into the battle for Iwo Jima, photographer Joe Rosenthal snapped a picture of six Marines on Mount Suribachi as they raised a flag pole on this remote Japanese-held island. For a country who needed it as World War II raged on and the casualty lists increased day-by-day, the picture became something bigger, something more. The story itself though, isn't so well known, as told in 2006's Flags of Our Fathers.

It's February 1945 and World War II is in its final year. The Allies are advancing on all fronts and in the Pacific theater, a huge invasion is being planned on the island of Iwo Jima. After days of horrific fighting, a platoon of Marines walks up Mount Suribachi, planting an American flag at the summit. A photographer snaps a picture that becomes an instant sensation across the U.S. Three soldiers in the picture, John Bradley (Ryan Phillippe), a Navy corpsman, and two Marines, Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford), and Ira Hayes (Adam Beach), are pulled from the fighting and sent back to the U.S.. Why? The trio of soldiers begin a nationwide tour so Americans buy war bonds to aid the fighting. As they criss-cross the country, each of them begins to question what they're doing. There's more to the story than what people are being told. And why are they being honored when so many others didn't make it off Iwo Jima, off hundreds of little islands all over the Pacific?

What director Clint Eastwood set out to do when he decided to make two films about the battle for Iwo Jima was truly daunting. Filming back-to-back, Eastwood filmed 'Flags' (from the American perspective) and then Letters from Iwo Jima (from the Japanese perspective). Both films received excellent reviews (Letters higher than Flags) and the two films combined to earn about $130 million in theaters while also picking up quite a few award wins and nominations. For 'Flags' alone, he's taking on a lot. The true story of the flag-raising in Iwo is a fascinating one. The picture we all know, the Marines memorial in Washington D.C., that was actually the second flag-raising on Mount Suribachi that day in March 1945. That's one of the biggest selling points for Eastwood's film, a not so well known historical story, and what actually played out. Interesting stuff throughout.

This is not a combat heavy movie for those expecting Saving Private Ryan or We Were Soldiers. This is a war story that involves combat but uses that as a jumping off point. The firefights on Iwo Jima were filmed in Iceland and are incredibly uncomfortable to watch, but that's what the fighting on Iwo was like. The Japanese garrison had miles of tunnels, bunkers, pillboxes and intended crossfires, all waiting to unleash hell. That garrison didn't intend to surrender. They intended to die fighting for the island, and the fighting was the definition of hell. These scenes aren't prolonged, but it's quick, hard-hitting and visceral. It's never flashy either. Eastwood just presents it and lets the scenes breathe. The actual flag-raising on Mt. Suribachi is almost secondary, an effective scene that is even underused a little.

No, not a combat movie. This is a movie about the profound impact the Iwo Jima picture makes in the months following the picture's release. The focus is on Phillippe, Bradford and Beach, three different responses, three solid performances. Also look for John Benjamin Hickey as Keyes Beech, the trio's military handler on the bonds tour, and John Slattery as Bud Gerber, the Treasury official working as the ramrod of the tour. The story in a sense is familiar, those who survived honored as heroes and struggling with the title. They survived while thousands of others didn't. Now they're talking heads, public relations figures meant to give the war a heroic and financial boost. A truly interesting story that isn't hugely well known.

Who else to look out for? Beyond those three main soldiers, look for Jamie Bell, Barry Pepper and Paul Walker as key Marines, Bell given more to do as a close friend of Phillippe's Bradley. Pepper is solid -- as he always is -- as Sgt. Mike Strank, the platoon sergeant trying to get his men through the fighting. Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough have small parts as higher-ranking Marines. With this comes a pretty major issue for me. The focus is almost solely on the three survivors. The Marines who raised the first flag and the three who don't survive from the second flag-raising are barely mentioned, much less introduced. When we see them killed later in a quick montage, the deaths have little to no impact because we simply don't know these young men. Two deaths do resonate, one happening off-screen, but it's because we've met these two men and know a little something about them.

The storytelling device is tricky here, 'Flags' going a little down the Saving Private Ryan route. The story is told with a modern framing device, WWII/Iwo Jima vets telling their story to a reporter ('Flags' author James Bradley). Then we're thrown back to the actual tour. Then we're thrown back to the fighting. It leaves a disjointed feel to the story without a rhythm being found. It feels like we're bouncing around too much. Mostly though, the film works. The emotions are there, and it is an effective, fascinating story. The final scene is especially touching as are the pictures we see rolling over the credits of the real-life people and the real-life incidents. It's not Saving Private Ryan, but that's an all-time classic. Well worth checking out for history and WWII buffs.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006): ***/****

Thursday, November 13, 2014


War movies -- any war -- were a dime a dozen back in the 1960s, my without a doubt favorite decade for movies. The reasoning was simple...audiences ate them up for good and bad. Like any successful genre, there was an ebb and flow. With 1998's Saving Private Ryan, the war movie (especially World War II) was forever changed. More realism, more violence, less glory and flag-raising. In one of the best war movies since 1998 and still chugging along in theaters, here's 2014's Fury.

It's April 1945 and World War II is all but over in Germany but the fighting rages on as the German army makes its last stand. In the 66th Armored Regiment, a Sherman tank command by Sgt. Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Brad Pitt) returns to base having been the lone survivor from the entire outfit of tanks sent into battle. One of his five-man crew was killed in the battle, leaving the tank -- named 'Fury' -- short a man. Wardaddy is about to get his replacement, but it isn't what he was expecting. Joining the tank crew is Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), eight weeks into his army life, a tour he was trained to work as an office clerk. He's got no combat experience and has never been inside a tank. Wardaddy works with what he has though, Fury gearing up with supplies, fuel and ammunition. The dying gasps of war await up the road as the Allies must take the next crossroads and next town all the way until Berlin.

Wow, what a flick. Director David Ayer -- of Training Day, End of Watch fame among others -- spent several years developing this film, and let's say this. He did his homework. This is a gritty, gruesome, truly uncomfortable film to watch not because it exaggerates anything, but because it lays it all out there and simply tells the truth. This is war in all its horrors. It isn't heroic or full of glory. War is about survival, about sticking by your buddies, about getting by and not letting the war claim you. It is a dreary, muddy movie featuring a solid musical score (underused, never overbearing) from composer Steven Price (listen to the soundtrack HERE). Call it the Private Ryan effect, but war movies can't get away anymore with being glossy or clean or easy. The bar was set ridiculously high with Steven Spielberg's film, and Ayer's Fury does a hell of a job trying to climb up to that level.

When I saw first saw the trailer for 'Fury,' my curiosity/worry was that Brad Pitt was channeling his excellent but over-the-top performance from Inglourious Basterds. He isn't. This is an equally intense but not so hammy performance, Pitt bringing Wardaddy to life. It's an archetypal character, one you've seen before in war movies and will likely see again. Sergeant Collier has promised his crew he'll get them through combat untouched, and since they've joined the fighting in Africa (about 2.5 years earlier), he's been able to keep that promise. Well, until now, as a crew member was killed in combat, and they're all starting to question their mortality. Like the rest of the Fury crew, Sgt. Collier isn't necessarily a likable character. He makes decisions that men only have to make in war and combat. Excruciating decisions, ones that tear a man apart. So not likable? Maybe not, but eternally fascinating and interesting to watch.

I think Ayer -- who wrote the script in addition to directing -- had two goals in making this film. One is in the Band of Brothers vein, showing the bond that men in combat situations develop. Life and death certainly brings men closer. Again, it's some archetypal, familiar characters, but they WORK. In addition to Lerman's Norman, a newbie to everything war-related, the Fury crew includes Boyd 'Bible' Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the gunner, Trini 'Gordo' Garcia (Michael Pena), the driver, and Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (Jon Bernthal), the ammo loader, a drawling Southerner. These are different men from different backgrounds, but they've been to hell and back in combat. Their outlook on life and war is altered to the point it's warped. They've been fighting across Africa and France and Belgium and Germany for years. The end is in sight as the war comes to a close. All they want to do is get through it alive.

So on that level, Ayer nails Goal No. 1. The attempt never comes across as heavy-handed in showing us how close these men are. That's not to say they're perfect friends. They argue constantly, they rip each other to places, and would seem to have nothing in common. When the line is drawn in the sand though, they're there for each other. Some scenes especially crackle, especially Gordo explaining the Fury's involvement in the fighting after D-Day. LaBeouf nails the scene, a single tear rolling down his face. As they roll across the countryside up top or preparing for battle in the tight, claustrophobic confines of their Sherman tank, the movie reeks of authenticity. This is the bond that develops among men in combat. This is how awful life as a tank crew was. This is war at its dirtiest, grittiest and bloodiest. Also look for Jason Isaacs as an infantry captain working in conjunction with the Fury.

Now Goal No. 2; what tank combat was really like. Killing an infantry soldier is horrific itself, but weapons and technology were developed to tear through the thick armor of a tank. Imagine then what those weapons do to the men inside those tanks. Ayer did his research, no doubt about it. Watch 'Fury' and you truly get a sense of what fighting inside a tank was like. A horrific, gruesome fight between four Sherman tanks and one Tiger tank illustrates the strategy, the weaknesses in both sides' armor, and the frenetic chaos of battle. The violence is on the level of Saving Private Ryan so be forewarned if you're squeamish (and I typically am). Ayer doesn't dwell on the violence so it comes across in lightning-quick flashes, but it is rough. Limbs are ripped off, heads explode and countless soldiers -- both Germans and Americans -- are killed. This isn't a movie for the weak of heart. What 'Private Ryan' did for infantry violence and combat, 'Fury' does the same for tank and armored combat.

It all builds to an incredibly moving, graphically violent, chaotic extended firefight as the Fury crew goes toe to toe with an SS battalion in transit. One of the most perfect battle/firefight scenes I've ever seen in a movie, an insanely choreographed sequence in the German countryside as darkness approaches. The final shot of the movie truly shows the carnage of battle, a perfect ending to illustrate what we've just seen. It isn't a perfect movie, but for what it sets out to do, I loved it. The bond among fighting men, a great cast, incredible combat sequences, and a sense of how awful the closing months of the war in Germany really was.

Can't recommend this one enough. One of the best war movies around.

Fury (2014): ****/****

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Brick Mansions

Well, it's almost a full year later, and it's still odd and incredibly hard to believe that Paul Walker isn't with us anymore, the actor dying last November 30, 2013 in a car crash. There was an odd sentiment watching Hours and Vehicle 19 for me knowing he's not around anymore, taken too soon. His last completed film before his tragic death? Here's 2014's Brick Mansions.

It's 2018 and Detroit has become a crime-ridden war zone. It's so bad that one especially horrific housing complex, Brick Mansions, has been walled off and is guarded around the clock by armed personnel. Inside Brick Mansions a criminal kingpin, Tremaine Alexander (RZA), rules the walled-in complex with an iron fist but even he may have stepped in it too big this time. His men have acquired a neutron bomb, and the countdown is on until it explodes just a few hours away. The only ones who can possibly stop it? An undercover detective, Damien Collier (Walker), looking for revenge, and a longtime resident in the Mansions and huge rival to Tremaine, Lino Dupree (David Belle). The two men from different backgrounds and with different incentives must now work together to get to Tremaine and find the bomb in time. Can they survive the bullet-riddled Brick Mansions?

This 2014 action flick from director Camille Delamarre is actually a remake of a 2004 French film called District 13, also starring Belle. It got mixed to negative reviews but did tolerably at the international box office. It is pretty easy to see why people/critics didn't care for it. 'Brick' is dumb, sometimes really dumb. Cliched, familiar and goofy, yes, yes and yes. And here comes the shocker. I liked it for all those reasons. Not proud of the fact, but whatever. It's 90 minutes of action, cool characters, and fun to cheesy one-liners. And it is only 90 minutes. If you hate it, so be it. 'Brick' isn't around too long to offend anybody. This feels like a movie ripped away from the 1980s and plopped down into 2014. With all the makings of that action heavy decade, I came away very pleasantly surprised.

Maybe I shouldn't be too surprised. Yeah, I realize the fact that I'm an action fan is hard to believe. Right?!? What is surprising is 'Brick' comes from a Luc Besson screenplay, a writer/director/producer I'm typically hit or miss with. The coolest thing is Belle's involvement, one of the creators of parkour. Watch some examples HERE if unfamiliar with it. An early chase scene sets the tone, Belle's Lino running and bouncing and jumping his way through Brick Mansions with a small army of gangsters close behind. It's just cool to watch, cool to see and impressive in with what ease Belle does it. Even Walker (and some stunt doubles) get into the action late with some parkour fighting. This is an action flick, pure and simple. Character development, slow, pensive scenes about beliefs and principles...this ain't the movie for it. Sit back and appreciate the goofiness.

Without a ton of star power, the movie and the cast still look like they're having a ton of fun. I especially liked the dynamic between Walker's Damien and Belle's Lino. An action Odd Couple, they fight their way through the Mansions, always ready with a clever quip or fast-paced one-liner. Walker always seemed at home in the action genre, always looked comfortable, and this is no exception. The same for Belle, not an actor but appearing at ease in front of the camera. They each have their motivations for their actions, Damien looking for revenge for his father's death in the Mansions (damn you, RZA!) and Lino trying to save his ex-girlfriend (Catalina Denis) who becomes a bit of a bargaining chip...while basically wearing a Catholic school girl outfit. Because, you know, waitresses wear outfits like that for a long work shift.

Look, I get it. This isn't a good movie. Whole scenes and characters seem ripped from previous movies. Again, this should have been a 1980s action movie! RZA gets to ham it up as Tremaine, the smooth, well-dressed arms and drugs dealer always ready to dispatch one of his thugs to prove a point. He also cooks a lot so he's a good guy deep down someplace. Gouchy Boy plays Tremaine's main enforcer, K2, usually trying to just not mess up too bad while Ayisha Issa is Tremaine's fishnet and high heels wearing, switchblade-favoring lesbian enforcer, Rayzah. And because we need some corrupt officials, look for Andreas Apergis, Richard Zeman and Bruce Ramsay.

Don't judge me too harshly for enjoying this one. It's fun, entertaining, pretty dumb and over the top. We've got bad guys who couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn, over the top henchmen, including one mammoth enforcer named Yeti (Robert Maillet), and at one point we actually get the Catholic school girl-looking girlfriend strapped to a missile with the lesbian enforcer close by waiting for the order to...well, enforce. The action is hyper-edited and dumb and fun and so, so stupid. That's the movie. Appreciate it for all its badness and goodness rolled into one.

Brick Mansions (2014): ***/****

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sniper: Legacy

Released way back in 1993, Sniper was a moderate success and little more. It received generally mixed to negative reviews and earned only $18 million in theaters. So why did this movie have such a second life? It's 21 years later, and the original Sniper has spawned four sequels, all of them of the straight to DVD variety. They're not especially good but in the guilty pleasure category, they qualify as highly entertaining flicks. Today's review is the newest sequel, 2014's Sniper: Legacy.

Having survived the bloody conflict in Congo (see Sniper: Reloaded), Brandon Beckett (Chad Michael Collins) has become a very skilled sniper in the Marine Corps, building up a reputation for himself as a promising young shooter. He's stationed at a black ops base near the Turkish border when his commanding officer, Major Bidwell (Dominic Mafham), tells him that Beckett's father has been murdered by a rogue military sniper. He can't allow him to go on a mission to take out his father's killer but just the same...he can turn his head and let Brandon do what he chooses. The rogue sniper is taking military personnel out one-by-one, all related to an off the books mission 10 years before in Afghanistan. What happened exactly? Can Brandon find this sniper before he gets caught in his gun sights? The key to it all may be Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger) and what he actually knows.

As I mentioned in my 'Reloaded' review, I grew up watching the original Sniper on countless airings on AMC and TNT, weekdays and weekends alike. It's not a great movie by any means, but it is an endlessly watchable flick. The sequels aren't on the same level -- even 'Reloaded' was more guilty pleasure than good -- but it's fun watching them just the same. They're all straight to DVD and made on a small-scale, especially in the budget department. The reason for checking this one out is pretty obvious but more on that in a bit. From director Don Michael Paul, 'Legacy' isn't particularly original, mostly cliched, generally pretty dumb...and a lot of fun. It's a turn your brain off 98 minutes where you can sit back and watch some fun, cliched and familiar character archetypes throw some one-liners around and a whole lot of snipers picking off their enemies via headshots. Can't ask for too much more, huh?

Oh, right, the big reason to check this out. Yeah, it's that Tom Berenger fella. The original star of Sniper (along with co-star Billy Zane, who returned in 'Reloaded'), Berenger returned for the first and second sequels but deciding not to do 'Reloaded.' Well, Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett is back! Now 65 years old, Berenger isn't the spry sniper from the original. He's rocking some cool white, even Silver Fox-esque hair and he's got a little paunch around the middle, but who cares?!? Beckett is back. Unfortunately Beckett doesn't show up until the 55-minute mark but he makes the most of his screentime. One-liners and smart-ass comments around every corner, he even gets to say the character's most famous line, "One shot. One kill." Berenger never became a huge star, but he's always been one of my favorites, and this is probably his most well-known role. Definitely cool to have him back.

Thankfully 'Legacy' seems content to avoid the pratfalls of the abandoned son and the father who abandoned him backstory. It's almost brushed aside, two tough guys -- Thomas and Brandon -- wanting to talk about it, but this ain't the movie for it! Let's shoot some bad guys! What few scenes they have together, Berenger and Collins are solid together. I especially liked their scene where they discuss some vices and how they ended up where they are. Again, nothing flashy, but solid.

With Berenger not showing up until almost the hour-mark, we've got plenty of chances to meet some other characters. And in the end, this is more of an ensemble which ends up being pretty cool. I really liked Mafham's Major Bidwell, the no-nonsense team leader with the nickname 'Bullet Face' because one of his sniper trademarks was shooting his victims in the face. Yikes! In the big name department, Dennis Haysbert plays the Colonel (no other name provided), possibly a good guy, possibly a bad guy. You'll have to watch to find out! And come on, it's a Major League reunion, Jake Taylor (Berenger) and Pedro Cerrano (Haysbert). That's cool! There's also Mercedes Mason as Sanaa, adding the necessary sexy female sniper to the recipe

It's all pretty mindless, dumb and entertaining fun. Things are better when Berenger is around, especially in the final 30 minutes as both Becketts, Bidwell and Sanaa team up to take out our rogue sniper (Doug Allen) and a Syrian terrorist (George Zlatarev) he's working with. There's some cool shootouts sprinkled throughout the briskly paced flick, a whole lot of snipers gunning for their targets. If you like the Sniper movies, you'll enjoy this one. I did. I'm giving it a 3-star rating knowing it's not that good. I'm getting to be a cheap date in my old age. If a movie entertains me, I'm on board and I was entertained throughout here with 'Legacy.' Now how about another sequel pairing Tom Berenger, Billy Zane, and Chad Michael Collins? Heh?!? Get to it, Hollywood.

Sniper: Legacy (2014): ***/****

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ride in the Whirlwind

I think one of the best ways to describe director Monte Hellman is interesting, maybe even quirky. A director with movies like Two Lane Blacktop, Cockfighter, and China 9, Liberty 37 to his name, Hellman specialized in odd, typically pretty low budget flicks. He also had a friendship and solid working relationship with a huge rising star in the 1960s. That name? Keep reading with 1966's Ride in the Whirlwind.

Riding south through Texas to find more work in the border country, three cowboys, Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson) and Otis (Tom Filer) are casually making their way down the trail. They ride up to an isolated line shack in the mountains, a group of five men hiding out there and suspicious of this trio of newcomers. Why? The men are what's left of a gang of stagecoach robbers led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) on the run from a posse after a robbery produced a dead stagecoach guard. Upon seeing that the three cowboys don't present a challenge, Dick allows them to eat and drink with them, even staying the night. Seeing the clues all around them, Vern, Wes and Otis immediately know they're not being told everything. They need the rest though and agree to ride out the next morning. They wait too long though. A posse shows up the next morning, and now these cowboys are in some serious trouble.

Shot back-to-back with another 1966 Hellman western, The Shooting, 'Whirlwind' is a little-known, mostly forgotten western. It was released in a time when the perception of the western genre was changing to a more cynical, realistic and sinister outlook. These flicks were dubbed revisionist westerns as they gave a new look at a genre that was always good guys vs. bad guys. Nothing is clean or easy. It's a dirty, gritty world where survival reigns above all else. Both Shooting and Whirlwind were filmed in Utah, the budget for both films a combined $150,000. That wouldn't cover the catering for most modern movies!

In the revisionist vein, 'Whirlwind' is worthwhile because of that darkness. If there was a such thing as a tragic western, this would be it. The iconic image of the cowboy is a genre archetype, maybe the most important western archetype. The three cowboys we meet -- Vern, Wes and Otis -- aren't heroes. They're not lightning-fast gunslingers. They're not maniacal killers. They are cowboys, plain and simple. We learn little to nothing about them, only that they're hard-working saddle tramps who are most comfortable in the saddle. Their laconic, easy-going demeanor feels real, very natural and not forced at the least. They sit around a campfire talking about where they hope to go, what jobs they hope to get. They don't want the trouble they find themselves in, but there's no clean way out of it. They have to make decisions about how far they want to go to make sure they get out unscathed.

It sounds so criminally simple, but the mistaken identity angle works perfectly. That's where the tragic element comes into play. They're just trying to do their job. They don't want anything to do with this trouble. The focus is on Nicholson and Mitchell, the younger cowboy with a lot of experience just the same and the more veteran cowboy with a few more miles on his backside. Without knowing much about them, I found myself liking them. The rest of the cast is generally unknown, Harry Dean Stanton as Blind Dick the lone exception. George Mitchell and Kathleen Squire are a husband and wife on their small ranch the cowboys meet on the trail with Millie Perkins as their semi-curious daughter.

So what's the big issue? Almost everything I've brought up until now seems like a glowing review. It could have been a classic, but it isn't. At 82 minutes, 'Whirlwind' is a short movie but it ain't a quick movie. Hellman has said in interviews he tries to focus on the visual and leave dialogue by the wayside. That's fine but when nothing happens for long stretches of an already short, slightly sluggish movie, we've got an issue. Reality is almost always a plus in a western -- and it is here -- but there just isn't much in the way of energy as our cowboys are on the run with the posse closing in not too far behind. I liked where it went late with a dark ending that could have been far darker. I liked the movie for a lot of reasons, but it could and probably should have been better. Still worth checking out if you can track it down.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

I grew up in Chicago so I love just about everything in the Windy City, all the sports teams, the downtown area, all that great food from Chicago style hot dogs to Chicago style pizza. But that Chicago history? My goodness, there are some dark moments from the Black Sox scandal to the Chicago Fire, the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention and generally all sorts of political corruption and deception. One of the most violent incidents in the city's history? That's told in a 1967 B-movie, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

It's early 1929 and the streets of Chicago are filled with warring gangsters from two rival gangs. On one side is Al Capone (Jason Robards), a brutal, possibly maniacal Italian gangster with Mafia ties, who rules Chicago's South Side with an iron fist. Running the city's North side is George 'Bugs' Moran (Ralph Meeker), his Irish gang trying to hold onto their territory.  Things across the city are building to an unavoidable confrontation as both sides fight for control of thousands of speakeasies, Prohibition still raging. Capone has grown tired of Moran's gang trying to build up their power and has put into work a plan to execute his rival gang leader. Can one gang win out over the other? Can anyone win with the city's streets riddled with bullets and blood?

Everyone's heard of producer/director extraordinaire Roger Corman? He's one of Hollywood's all-time greats at getting movies made on the cheap so basically the King of B-Movies. That's not a bad thing, and I say it as a compliment. This generally forgotten 1967 gangster flick is one of his best, telling the true story of one of Chicago's darkest moments. It was filmed on studio streets -- cheaper than Chicago's downtown area -- but it works, giving the city a closed in, wintery and claustrophobic effect. This is a flick that works almost like a quasi-documentary, like something you'd see on The History Channel...but darker, much darker. With narrator Paul Frees and his perfectly gravelly voice laying things out, introducing dates, people and times, it all fits together like puzzle pieces.

Where 'Massacre' separates itself from the quasi-documentary feel is that darkness, that gangster world we're thrust into. Low budget though it may be, the movie looks great with countless gangsters wearing impeccably cool suits with fedoras, rocking vicious tommy guns and 1920s boats of cars that look as cool as ever now in 2014 as they would have in 1929. As for the real life gangsters, this isn't The Godfather where you kinda sorta maybe sympathize with the Corleones, however vicious and murdery they are. There ain't a single sympathetic character anywhere in sight. These are nasty, brutal, violent folks interested in making money and killing some rival gangsters in the process. You're not rooting for anybody. You're not hoping these guys come out unscathed. You just wanna see how it all shakes out and who's gonna make it. Let me tell you...not many do.

One of the coolest aspects of 'Massacre' is its ridiculously deep cast. We're not talking a disaster flick type of cast full of aging A-list stars. We're talking a couple very solid movie stars/actors at the top and a cast backing them up absolutely packed to the guts with familiar, recognizable character actors. As for the leads, Robards is terrifyingly hammy as everyone's favorite Chicago gangster, Al Capone. He's got that look in his eye, you just never know what he's going to do next. Meeker is excellent too in a more understated but just as sinister part, Bugs Moran, an Irish gangster and Capone's main rival for power. Also look for a young George Segal in one of his best early roles, playing Peter Gusenberg, one of Moran's enforcers/lieutenants working closely with his brother, another enforcer, Frank (David Canary) while constantly fighting with live-in girlfriend (Jean Hale).

Okay, brace yourself because you're about to get hit with a whole lot of links to actor's IMDB pages. These are all the real-life people involved in the 1920s world of Chicago gang wars, an extremely interesting historical time if you're interested in the subject matter. On the Capone side keep an eye out for Clint Ritchie as the massacre's mastermind, Frank Silvera, Harold J. Stone, Paul Richards, Joe Turkel, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, John Agar, and Richard Bakalyan and Jack Nicholson (Yes, that Jack Nicholson) as two hired mafia killers. On the Moran side of things, watch for Bruce Dern, Kurt Kreuger, Tom Reese. Some appearances are quicker than others, but it's cool to see so many people in one movie, even if it is only for a scene or two.

Just an entertaining dark and dirty movie. If you're a fan of history whether it be Chicago or gangsters or anything in between, this gritty, cynical, particularly vicious flick is for you. I loved it.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Sex Tape

You know, just KNOW that the movie isn't going to be good. It isn't word of mouth. It isn't the negative reviews or the generally poor box office showing. You only need to see a trailer and immediately understand that this certain movie is going to be a dud. Today's entry? That's 2014's Sex Tape!

A married couple with two kids, a nice house and good jobs, Annie (Cameron Diaz) and Jay (Jason Segel) have hit a bit of a rut...sexually. Their busy lives don't allow them to have sex much anymore, if at all, both of them exhausted each night. After one particularly disastrous attempt to rekindle things in the bedroom, Annie comes up with an idea. What if they recorded themselves having sex, attempting all the unique positions offered by The Joy of Sex? It works just as they planned...except with one unforeseen consequence. Jay didn't delete the video, their sex tape accidentally uploading to their iPad Cloud. That's not an issue in itself except that Jay has given away a bunch of iPads, and they're all synced up. Now some of their closest friends and families, co-workers and acquaintances are now in possession of Annie and Jay's very intimate sex tape. Can they get all the copies back?

Released this summer, 'Tape' reunites much of the cast and crew from 2011's Bad Teacher. You know what's not so good about that sentence? I thought Bad Teacher was pretty bad to the point it was painful at times. On the other hand, a movie is a movie and a review is a review so I watched it just the same! Director Jake Kasdan works off a script from Segel, Kate Angelo and Nicholas Stoller, Segel and Stoller also writing the two new Muppet movies and Five-Year Engagement. It's odd to consider the fact that a movie about the evolution of amateur sex tapes can...ya know, exist, but it is. From the celebrity pornos that popped up in the 90s to the more technologically advanced iPad videos of the 2010s, here we sit. The odd part? As bad as I thought the movie looked, it had some potential early on.

Go figure. I didn't expect that either. The formula early is tried and true, the married couple who's been together for years looking to spice things up. Yep, it's the stuff of romantic comedies dating back to the birth of romantic comedies. It works in an odd way though, an early flashback showing Annie and Jay's early parts of their relationship when they had sex all the time, everywhere, anyplace and in lots of different positions. It quickly, and I mean quickly, detours once their sex tape gets uploaded unintentionally to the Cloud. The humor was already physical, but it becomes madcap, screwball physical humor that simply tries too hard. Nothing just breathes, just develops on its own. It's like the cast is defying you NOT to laugh. THESE ARE THE MOMENTS YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO LAUGH! At one point, Segel's Jay actually runs through a mansion from an angry German shepherd and then swears at him. In the meantime, Annie does some cocaine with her boss. Hilarity!

Much like when they co-starred in Bad Teacher, Diaz and Segel do have some legitimate on-screen chemistry. They're good together. They play off each other well, but that script is just so bad. Unfortunately, they just never had a chance to really make something of the story that honestly/truly/for reals has some potential. Oh, and Jason Segel is very comfortable with male nudity. If curious, we see his butt...a lot, and unfortunately not enough of Cameron Diaz. Also look for Rob Corddry and Ellie Kemper as Robby and Tess, Annie and Jay's best friends, a fellow married couple and potentially in possession of the missing sex tape. Rob Lowe makes an uncomfortable appearance as Annie's potential new boss. His Direct TV commercials are far funnier than the part here, and that ain't a good thing. And in the uncredited surprise cameo appearance, Jack Black shows up late, potentially holding the key to getting the sex tape back.  

What most of my comedy reviews come down to is pretty simple. Did it make me laugh? A stupid story is far from a deal-breaker as long as I laugh, and that's the biggest issue here. I didn't laugh nearly enough. When I did, it was because what I was watching was so unbelievably bad/dumb. Case in point, Jay violently swearing at the passed out German shepherd. Jay falling off a balcony is pretty priceless too. Some of the best moments come late when we do see some of the in-question sex tape. Those are some genuine laughs, but those are in the final minutes of a 94-minute movie. Not a surprising negative review, but just not too good.

Sex Tape (2014): * 1/2/ ****