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, January 30, 2015


So by all accounts, everyone agrees a movie is awful. It's made some lists as one of the worst movies ever made. It tackles a controversial subject matter when the wound was still fresh in one of the most turbulent times in world history. The man? Revolutionary Che Guevara. No, it's not Steven Soderbergh's two-part Che. Silly you, I reviewed that HERE and HERE two years ago. It's time for a flick that's been critically panned for years, and don't we all love that?!? Here's 1969's Che!

It's 1956 and a young Che Guevara (Omar Sharif) lands in Cuba with a small revolutionary force of around 80 men commanded by Fidel Castro (Jack Palance). Having studied to be a physician, Che is brought along to be a medic, to treat the wounded but quickly becomes much, much more. As the revolution picks up momentum and followers all across Cuba, Che becomes an essential figure in the fighting, even becoming Castro's right-hand man, a key strategist and tactician in the fighting. It all leads to an overthrow of the government as Fidel, Che and their followers take the head of the coup, installing their own socialist government in 1959. It's just the start though as Cuba becomes a thorn in the side of the United States and worldwide. The revolution has changed though, and Che begins to feel uncomfortable. Maybe he can be of more use elsewhere where the fighting still rages...

Judging by reviews, IMDB ratings, word of mouth, all of the above, this movie from director Richard Fleischer is considered an all-around dud. As a jumping off point, I don't know what it says about me that I didn't think it was that bad. Rather, I was entertained throughout so go figure. Whether you love it or hate it, it's certainly an interesting film. It was made just two years after Che's death in 1967 as the world was tearing itself apart with one bloody conflict after another. My biggest question is 'What was the rush?' in getting a Che Guevara movie into theaters. The script certainly has some issues, packing a ton of stuff (about 10 years) into a 96-minute movie. It has far too many preachy scenes where Sharif's Che expresses his beliefs to anyone and everyone who will listen, and many who couldn't care less. Is it a good movie? No, but it's a fascinating flick in a guilty pleasure sort of way.

Talk about a daunting task. Mr. Sharif, would you be interested in playing infamous revolutionary Che Guevara? Working with a flawed script that tries to accomplish too much in its relatively short running time, Sharif makes the most of it. The screenplay certainly seems based off Guevara's diary and sticks relatively close to the facts of the revolutionary's life. The moments when he's preaching -- repeatedly -- his revolutionary beliefs, his hatred of imperialism (especially America) get to be tedious, but it is in the other, quieter moments where Sharif does an admirable job. We start to see Guevara as a man obsessed with revolution, with chaos, with taking down the system. These beliefs ultimately prove to be his undoing as Che becomes blinded with his goals rather than seeing that his plans simply can't work.

Now the rest of the cast, one actor in particular, has taken some abuse for his role. That man? Steely-eyed, gravelly voiced Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. Wearing a prosthetic nose, sporting big, wire-rimmed glasses and always chomping on a cigar, Palance seems to be playing a stereotype, a cliche of Castro rather than a flesh and blood individual. Fascinating, but not in a good way. The unfortunate part of the cast is that it features a long list of recognizable character actors who popped up in countless 1960s/1970s flicks. Oh, the unfortunate part? They're basically background performers. Some get a line here and there, but for the most part, they walk with Che or are visible in action scenes and dialogue exchanges.

Too bad. Among Che's followers we see Cesare Danova, Robert Loggia, Woody Strode, Perry Lopez, Rudy Diaz, Tom Troupe, Barbara Luna, Linda Marsh and Sid Haig. Other key parts go to Frank Silvera, Albert Paulsen, Rodolfo Acosta, Abraham Sofaer, and Paul Picerni. Just wish they could have been better utilized.

The one thing I can give credit for to this film over the Soderbergh version is that 1969 Che! takes a stance on the revolutionary icon. He's one flawed individual for good and bad. We see what his actions cause in terms of consequence on himself and those around him. In a somewhat odd storytelling device, we see some of the cast directly addressing the camera like a documentary, addressing the developments in Che's life but also in Cuba and Bolivia. Things obviously get a tad dark in the last half hour as Che's efforts in Bolivia never develop as planned. So you know what? I liked this movie. It's not necessarily good, but it's always entertaining (sometimes in a bad way). Still, it's worth a look.

Che! (1969): ***/**** 

Thursday, January 29, 2015


As far as directing powerhouses of the 1960s, Andrew V. McLaglen will never be remembered as one of the greats. He started off in television before making the jump to feature film, teaming several times with John Wayne while also specializing in audience friendly "guy movies." Good guys versus bad guys, lots of familiar faces and situations, you know the formula. One of his best? An underrated Civil War drama, 1965's Shenandoah.

It's 1864 in Virginia, and the tide of the Civil War has turned as the Union forces are slowly beating down the Confederate armies. Doing his best to remain free of the bloody fighting, farmer and patriarch Charlie Anderson (James Stewart) wants nothing to do with the war. Both for himself and his family -- seven kids, one daughter-in-law -- Anderson simply wants to keep working his 500-acre farm and get through the war unscathed. Fight for Virginia? Fight for slaves he doesn't have? He fights for what he believes in, his family and his farm. Well, that's what he'd like to do. While the fighting rages on, Charlie is stunned when he finds out his youngest son (Phillip Alford) has been confused as a Confederate soldier and captured by nearby Union forces. Now the war and the fighting that Anderson has done so well to steer clear of has landed square on his front porch. Can he find his son amidst the hell of war?

This was a movie I watched often growing up when my sister and I had sleepovers with my Grandma. It made an excellent Civil War double feature with Friendly Persuasion, and let me tell ya, they both hold up! I watched this McLaglen-directed Civil War drama for the first time in years, and it resonated just as much now as an adult as it did when I was a kid, if not more. McLaglen had some excellent movies to his name -- The Wild Geese is a favorite, Hondo, McLintock are also excellent -- but this is his best movie overall. The story is a series of very effective, often moving and often disturbing vignettes, all held together by the Anderson family. Filmed on-location in Oregon and California, 'Shenandoah' is an underrated visual film, and the musical score from composer Frank Skinner is a gem. So what stands out viewing this one as a 29-year old, not a 13-year old kid?

That would be James Stewart, one of my favorites in just about any movie he's in. This doesn't get the attention or notoriety as one of Stewart's best performances, but it certainly belongs in the conversation. I love what he does with the part of Charlie Anderson, a stubborn, feisty Virginia farmer and widower looking out for the best intentions of his family. He doesn't care about the war, about slavery, about Union and Confederate. He will do anything, ANYTHING, to protect his family. Stewart has some great scenes with the younger supporting cast, especially Alford's youngest son, only called 'Boy,' with his daughter, Jenny (Rosemary Forsyth), daughter-in-law, Anne (Katharine Ross), and his sons. There are too many memorable, emotional scenes to mention, but my favorites are the most simple. Minutes before the Andersons go to church each Sunday, Charlie visits his wife's grave and just talks to her. Simple perfection, Stewart absolutely nailing the underplayed but charged scenes. 

Stewart is the unquestioned star of McLaglen's film, but 'Shenandoah' offers quite the ensemble of recognizable faces. Glenn Corbett and Patrick Wayne play Jacob and James, the two oldest brothers. Corbett especially stands out as Jacob who's beginning to question if their choice to stay out of the war is the right decision. Wayne is solid too, especially in his scenes with Ross. In her film debut, Forsyth is excellent, a subtle scene-stealer as innocent, tough and thoughtful Jenny who's also interested in a young Confederate soldier, Sam (Doug McClure). The other Anderson boys include Charles Robinson, Jim McMullan and Tim McIntire. Maybe the best thing you can say about the story is that the family dynamic, it just works. You believe them as one cohesive unit, one that stands together through thick and thin.

But wait, there's more! Also look for George Kennedy as a sympathetic Union officer, Gene Jackson as Gabriel, a friend of Boy's, a slave, Paul Fix as the local doctor, Denver Pyle as the pastor, James Best as Carter, a fellow prisoner who takes Boy under his wing, Harry Carey Jr. as another Confederate prisoner, Tom Simcox as Lt. Johnson, a Confederate officer, with Kevin Hagen, Dabbs Greer and Strother Martin also playing small but memorable parts.

So 29-year old me certainly picked up some new things, or at least was able to process things differently. This is one hell of an anti-war flick. The portrayal of the latter stages of the Civil War is unsettling and often times, disturbing. Death awaits around every corner, hiding behind every tree. The lines are up in the air as the war takes a turn toward its ultimate conclusion. A late battle between a small Confederate camp and a larger Union force with heavy artillery is quick and awful and uncomfortable, one of the more underrated battle sequences I can think of. The last half hour especially features one kick in the gut after another that truly hammers home the anti-war message. And that last scene? Pretty perfect, the possibility of hope lingering in the air amongst all this pain and suffering and death. One of my favorite movies.

Shenandoah (1965): ****/****

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Time Limit

The Korean War helped change things when it came to portrayals of war in film. Sure, there were still huge, blockbuster epics to come like The Longest Day and The Greatest Escape. The nastiness of the war, changing times in America, darker methods of war, it all added up to something new, different and often times, uncomfortable. This wasn't soldier shoots soldier anymore. Part mystery, part prisoner of war drama, part courtroom drama, here's 1957's little-known Time Limit.

An officer in the Judge Advocate General's Corps, Colonel William Edwards (Richard Widmark) is wrapping up interviews for a messy little case that has crossed his desk. An Army major, Harry Cargill (Richard Basehart), has been accused of collaborating with the North Koreans during his time in a prisoner of war camp during the Korean War. Edwards has 14 other witnesses testifying what Cargill did in the P.O.W. camp and complicating matters is that Cargill absolutely refuses to defend himself, turning down legal counsel. If anything, it seems that the officer in question wants to be found guilty and prosecuted to the fullest extent, even if that court martial hearing sentences him to death. It seems like an open and shut case, and that's what makes Edwards curious. Something doesn't add up. What happened in that mountaintop prisoner of war camp in North Korea?

Despite the talent assembled to round out the cast in this 1957 military legal drama, I'd never really heard of this film. I've never seen it pop up in TV listings, and the DVD isn't readily available in Best Buys and Barnes and Nobles. But that Christmas stuff, you get some good presents, and I got this flick! What an interesting movie, one that doesn't get the attention and respect it deserves. Actor Karl Malden takes a crack at the directing chair (his only directing effort) and doesn't disappoint. It is a military film ahead of its time, willing to tackle some brutal, harsh realities about the changing concepts of war. As I mentioned earlier, this isn't Soldier A shoots Soldier B. This is total war that goes far beyond the battlefield. Maybe it's because 'Time' tackles those difficult to talk about subjects that its legacy has been buried over the years. Moral of the story? It's worth catching up with.

A co-producer who also encouraged Malden to direct the film, Widmark clearly had an interest in bringing this film to life. He's always been one of my favorite actors, and this is a performance that clearly shows off his ability. Some of his most well-known performances are big and bold, but this one is understated and subtle (and the better for it). His Colonel Edwards just wants to find out the truth, however dark it may be. It's also a performance that foreshadows Widmark's part four years later in Judgment at Nuremberg, a somewhat similarly-themed courtroom drama. Basehart gets the showier part as Major Cargill, an officer and former prisoner clearly struggling with some past demons. It's never over the top, just emotionally charged. Instead, this is a part of a man just trying to hold it all together as a secret from his past tears him apart.

'Time' doesn't have a huge cast, but there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Dolores Michaels provides a bit of a sexy secretary interest as Edwards' secretary, Jean, while Martin Balsam plays Sergeant Baker, Edwards' adjutant. I really liked and appreciated the dynamic among the trio in the office, three different people with different backgrounds all working toward the same goal. Some of the witnesses Edwards seeks out include June Lockhart as Cargill's worrying wife and Rip Torn as Lt. Miller, a fellow prisoner and bunkmate of Cargill's from the POW camp. Also look for Carl Benton Reid as Edwards' superior officer with a vested interest in the case and Khigh Dhiegh as Colonel Kim, the brutal POW camp commander.

Clocking in at 96 minutes, 'Time' is based on a play and definitely has that distinct feel. Malden's focus is on the actors, letting the camera linger for long, dialogue-driven scenes without a cut. Much of the movie is shot in Edwards' office with a quick departure near the halfway point to visit Lockhart's wife character. That lack of style oddly, gives 'Time' some style in a weird way. It's filmed in black and white and with some interesting camera angles, adds an unforeseen sense of tension that helps build the mystery. It isn't always the quickest movie -- especially the first 45 minutes -- but that momentum picks up in a huge way about the 45-minute mark as things start to reveal themselves.

I thought I had the twist pegged, but I was wrong. The final act features two different twists, one working just as well as the other. These aren't just twists for the sake of a surprise or shock either. These are genuine twists that work while also asking some tough questions. An underrated flick that deserves more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

Time Limit (1957): ***/****

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Third Man on the Mountain

When people think of Walt Disney, any number of movies come up. Go ahead. Think of a classic Disney flick. Okay, did you pick one? I bet it was an animated movie, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. In the 1950s and 1960s though, Disney backed some of my all-time favorites, many of them live action flicks like The Love Bug, Swiss Family Robinson and of course, the Davy Crockett episodes on TV's Disneyland. Let's give another one a try, 1959's Third Man on the Mountain.

Growing up in the mountain village of Kurtal in Switzerland, Rudi Matt (James MacArthur) has spent his life dreaming of being and doing one thing. He's working in town as a dishwasher at the hotel, but he aspires to be a mountain guide for tourists and climbers who want to explore the nearby mountains. Mountain climbing in his blood though, even if that stigma hangs over his head. Why? When Rudi was just a boy, his father died on an immense, intimidating mountain that towers over the town, the Citadel. No one has ever even made it up the mountain, but Rudi's father and his legend grew. Rudi wants to live up to his famous name and may get a chance when a famous mountain climber, John Winter (Michael Rennie), visits the town with an intention of becoming the first person to ever climb the Citadel. Winter takes a liking to young Rudi and sees the potential. Could the younger climber join him in his dangerous climb?

That Walt Disney fella, he sure knew what he was doing. From his TV shows to movies to marketing to his theme parks, Disney simply knew what audiences wanted. Read more about his Walt Disney Pictures HERE. He didn't pander to any one demographic. These were movies families could watch together where both parents and the children could enjoy them. Director Ken Annakin works with an interesting story with composer William Alwyn turning in a solid score (the duo would work together again a year later on the classic Swiss Family Robinson). I don't put 'Mountain' in classic status because there are some issues, but it's still a solid movie with some really easy to recommend moving pieces.

Quite the familiar face in Disney movies, MacArthur had already starred in The Light in the Forest, starred here in 'Mountain' and would star in two later Disney ventures, 'Swiss Family' and Kidnapped. Just 21 at the time of filming, MacArthur brings that ideal youthful charm to the part. You believe him as a teenager. Considering his background of losing his father at a young age, we're rooting for him to reach all of his goals, to become the mountain climber that his Dad would have been proud of. A young actor who's likable and natural. Go figure, but it works. I've always been a MacArthur fan because of 'Swiss' and TV's Hawaii Five-O, and even at a young age, he shows off that natural on-screen ability. He's got some good scenes with another Disney favorite and Swiss co-star, Janet Munro, and a former mountain guide who he looks up to, Uncle Teo, played by Laurence Naismith.

In casting his films and TV shows, Disney often was able to pick out that ideal actor for the perfect part, often with names you might not think of. Rennie is excellent as famous mountain climber John Winters, a mentor who becomes a sort of father figure to Rudi. Also look for James Donald as Rudi's uncle, Franz, who is worried his nephew will follow in his father's steps and ruin his life with all its dangers. Herbert Lom plays Emil Saxo, a guide from another village with some selfish intentions. Even MacArthur's mom, Helen Hayes, makes a quick appearance as a tourist at the hotel.

Above all else, there's one BIG old reason to watch this Disney flick. It's the mountain scenery with Disney deciding to film on-location in Switzerland in the Alps. The climbing footage shot up on the mountains is absolutely stunning with the Matterhorn serving as the film's Citadel. This movie serves as a prime example of why I love older films. There wasn't any computer-generated images available so the alternative...well, was to ACTUALLY FILM STUFF!!! Production involved stunt doubles and climbers actually climbing and the resulting footage is stunning to watch. Just beautiful stuff to watch. When filming in the mountains became unfeasible, equally beautiful matte paintings stood in for the action. All the while, we see insert shots of MacArthur, Rennie, Donald and Lom all climbing to add that little touch of realism and authenticity.

The movie struggles at times with the more personal, dramatic moments off the mountains, but it's a minor flaw relative to the overall success. The cast is very good, the visual and mountain locations pitch perfect. Another winner from Mr. Disney.

Third Man on the Mountain (1959): ***/****

Thursday, January 22, 2015


In film, on television and in books, folks have always been fascinated with snipers, myself included. Growing up, I think I watched this movie in today's review a couple hundreds time courtesy of countless airings on TNT and AMC. Well, it's been years, but I watched it straight through for the first time in years. It's the original and still the best in a franchise that has spawned four sequels, 1993's Sniper.

With a long career under his belt, Master Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Beckett (Tom Berenger) is the Marine Corps' most respected sniper, piling up 70-plus confirmed kills. His last mission though was a costly one, his young spotter killed because of an early extraction following a successful kill. He doesn't have long to dwell on it though as a new mission and orders come through for him. Working with an inexperienced SWAT sharpshooter with NSC connections, Richard Miller (Billy Zane), Beckett is tasked with going deep into the Panamanian jungle with two objectives. An election is coming up and intelligence indicates a drug lord will back a general who will lead a violent coup, all of it against American interests. Beckett and Miller must take out both men, both of whom are expected to meet at a well-guarded villa in the jungle. They butt heads almost immediately, Miller in command but Beckett with the know-how. Can they make it through this suicide mission?

Oh, my, how fast the time flies. I was only 8 years old when 'Sniper' was first released in theaters, but this action flick was a cable TV staple in the late 1990s. Young, impressionable me soaked it up and watched it over and over again. It doesn't quite hold up as well 20-plus years later, but it's still an above average action flick. From director Luis Llosa, it was filmed on-location in Australia and feels familiar. If you've seen war movies, sniper flicks, you've most likely seen variations on this story. It tries to accomplish a lot, delving into the background and mindset of snipers, but is most comfortable in the moments on a jungle creep inching closer to a shot and a kill. Small scale with less than 10 speaking parts, it's the better for the focus on Beckett and Miller.

Two actors who never quite became as big a star as they could have, Berenger and Zane are excellent together. This isn't a buddy dynamic as the duo heads into the jungle. This is a rivalry, a conflict, eventually a life and death struggle as the mission develops. Berenger is at his tough, growling best as veteran sniper Thomas Beckett. He's near the end of his career but still has few rivals. He tries to get Miller through the message but the inexperienced spotter and fellow shooter isn't having it. As they travel to the jungle villa, we get to know the duo through their conversations, tough guy dialogue about their experiences, how they got here, and where they hope to end up. Again, familiar but enjoyable. Zane doesn't get lost in Berenger's shadow, holding his own. There are some surprising twists in the mission as Beckett and Miller genuinely come to blows and more as the pressure becomes too much.

This is a movie about those two roles. The targets are targets. That's it. No backgrounds, just guys who need to be killed. Some other key parts include J.T. Walsh as Beckett's commander back at base, Aden Young as the spotter in the opening mission, and Ken Radley as El Cirujano, a former CIA operative now working as an enforcer for the drug cartels. Naturally, he's got some history with our Mr. Beckett. 

For the small scale, generally low budget flick, 'Sniper' tries its best when it comes to the action and the good, old-fashioned shooting scenes. The violence is quick and startling with only some use of slow motion (thankfully), and that comes in death throws as nameless baddies take a bullet. With a 98-minute flick, there isn't a ton of action, heavy duty action at least. The first hour there's some quick shots, some fire fights but nothing crazy. That's saved for the finale as Beckett and Miller descend on the villa to take their shots amidst guards and patrols. It's a really cool, straightforward action scene that's packed to the guts with tension. The entire last half hour is the movie at its strongest, a series of twists and surprises and chases and shootouts, including one very genuine, truly surprising twist.

It's a good movie, obviously not a great one. It has its limits, but as far as non-blockbuster action movies go, it's pretty good. Who would have figured back in 1993 that it would inspire four sequels, starting in 2002 and continuing more recently with 2011's Sniper: Reloaded and 2014's Sniper Legacy? Overall, it is a fun, progressively mindless series, and it's always cool to see where it all started. Now how about another sequel with Beckett, Miller and Chad Michael Collins as Beckett's similarly skilled sniper son? Get on it, Hollywood!

Sniper (1993): ***/****

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


Well, it's that time of the year again. AWARDS SEASON!!! Last week, the nominations for the upcoming Academy Awards were released and appropriately set the Internet on fire with one opinion after another spewing its thoughts. This and that deserved a nomination. This and that didn't deserve a nomination! One that picked up two acting nominations and one directing, here's 2014's Foxcatcher.

With an Olympic gold medal from the 1984 Olympics to his name, wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is struggling to get by in life. He lives in a small, poorly furnished apartment and lives in the relative shadow of his older brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), who similarly won at the '84 Olympics. Growing up, Dave cared for and helped raise Mark so they've always been close, but Mark wants to break out on his own and create a name for himself, not just Dave's brother. Courtesy of the extremely wealthy and quirky John duPont (Steve Carell), Mark just might get that chance. du Pont asks Mark to come train for the upcoming World Championships and '88 Olympics at his expansive home, Foxcatcher Farm. Mark is encouraged by his benefactor's drive and patriotism and agrees, leaving Dave and what he knows behind him. Can he finally be remembered as his own man, not just as the younger Schultz brother?

Some advice from your loyal movie reviewer. If you want to see this movie and don't know the true story, DON'T look into it. Go in unaware. I was aware of the names and some vague things here and there but wasn't sure of where things end up. I recommend you do the same for a stronger viewing experience. That said, I won't give away any major spoilers so continue reading!

This next statement won't sound too positive but here goes just the same. A few weeks ago, I reviewed The Imitation Game, an incredible true story with some great performances that for lack of a better description can be dubbed 'Oscar bait.' From director Bennett Miller (also directed Moneyball and Capote, he likes one-word titles) and based on a true story, 'Foxcatcher' has that same feel, in a good way! Dark, unsettling and foreboding, it is all about the personal drama. This is about the characters and their interactions and their relationships. Miller films his story in almost documentary fashion. He moves the camera as little as possible and uses very little music. Basically, anything that could take away from the very real, often very uncomfortable human drama is thrown by the wayside.

And that's where the Oscar bait comes in. 'Foxcatcher' provides some juicy parts for its three leads, Tatum, Ruffalo and Carell. Again, don't read too much into the real-life people. Just go along for the ride. The odd thing? Both Ruffalo (Best Supporting Actor) and Carell (Best Lead Actor) picked up acting nominations, but I thought Tatum's was the strongest performance of the three. I've come around on Mr. Tatum from a pretty boy actor who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag to an actor who carries the movie for the first hour. Physically, Tatum brings a brooding energy to the part while also bringing Mark Schultz to life. He's looking for support, for someone to have faith in him...besides his brother. It's a fascinating character as we see the depths he'll go to mixed with his persistent nature, his natural talent, and his deep-seeded flaws. Credit to Channing Tatum who continues to show off his dramatic side.

'Foxcatcher' is unique in its storytelling and its portrayal of its main characters. Carell picked up the Best Lead Actor nomination, but at different points, each of the three main actors gets a chance to lead the movie. It's Tatum's movie for the first 60 minutes, Carell's for the next 45 and Ruffalo closes things in the final 30. Carell plays against type in a big way -- no laughs in sight -- as John E. du Pont, a quiet, quirky man who inherited the du Pont fortune and is used to getting his way in everything. His relationship with Tatum's Mark is fascinating to watch develop, just two guys looking for approval from a parent figure. Ruffalo is excellent as Dave, a world-class wrestler looking out for his wife and kids and his brother. Yeah, he's a big brother to Mark, but it's more than that. He's a coach, a brother, a father figure, a sparring partner, a sounding board, all of it. Three excellent performances all around.

With a movie that runs 134 minutes, one of those three is on-screen in just about every scene. There are some other supporting parts worth mentioning including Sienna Miller as Dave's wife, Vanessa Redgrave as John's equally quirky mother, not too forthcoming with ya know, emotions, and Anthony Michael Hall as John's assistant who knows how eccentric his boss can be and tries to warn Mark of that exact thing.

Talk about a movie that I just wasn't sure where it was going or what it was building to. Again, DON'T read too much about the real-life inspiration. Now that said, it doesn't take a genius to deduce that where it's going, well, it ain't going to be too pleasant for at least some of those involved. Boy, was I surprised though. It's that of movie though. All about the drama where you appreciate the roles and the performances, but it isn't necessarily going to be a movie you revisit again and again. Watch it and then read about the true story. Miller's story takes some liberties with timing -- and lack of telling the audience -- in the final act with an ending that was disappointing. It isn't the most well-paced movie, and all the sudden, ta-da! It's over! Still worth it though for the acting performances on display. Curious to see if either Carell or Ruffalo picks up some momentum heading into February's Oscars.

Foxcatcher (2014): ***/****

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


So it seems that it is only a matter of time before technology completely takes over the world, huh? Yeah, Terminator 2: Judgment Day predicted it years ago! More and more though, that prediction is becoming frighteningly true with our reliance on all technologies from smart phones to iPads to all those new-fangled gadgets (I'm not a techie). Ripped apart critically last year, 2014's Transcendence tries to explore that premise.

A brilliant intellectual with quite a following -- some good, some bad -- Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has long wondered about the potential of artificial intelligence. One of his theories has that A.I. eventually growing to the point that it supersedes all human intelligence (his Transcendence theory) and then who knows what will happen? It is a theory that produces quite a counter, people scared of that potential, people who pull off an assassination attempt on Will because of what he might be up to. As he slowly dies from radiation poisoning, Will begins to work with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), and a friend and associated, Max (Paul Bettany), about uploading his consciousness into a potentially thinking computer that will act as his brain and be that missing link in human intelligence turned into A.I. Max sees the potential but also the inherent threat in what they're doing. Evelyn on the other hand, simply wants to preserve her husband in whatever way she can. What will become of this potentially world-altering scientific development?

Talk about a movie that you think 'What could have been.' I loved the idea of 'Transcendence,' what first-time director Wally Pfister and writer Jack Paglen are going for. The execution at times, falls a bit short. For what they set out to do, this is a scenario that at times feels rushed, feels goofy, feels like we're missing something. There's some plot holes I feel an 18-wheeler could drive through comfortably. How does the government not realize what Will's A.I. is doing? How does no one notice millions and millions of dollars changing hands on Wall Street? If the answer is 'Will's A.I. stopped the passing of knowledge,' that's just not a good reason. In a way I can't put my finger on, there's something missing from this tech thriller. It's something that stops it from truly being all it can be. The Marines!

Now that said...I enjoyed this flick. I didn't love it, but whatever. Reviews were universally negative, and 'Transcendence' did struggle in theaters, especially in the U.S. There's an impressive cast put together, and Pfister's background is working as cinematographer on Christopher Nolan's Batman movies so we see some familiar faces in that case. If it doesn't develop as well as it should, so be it. I was intrigued by the premise, the build-up and even if there are holes along the way, I was entertained throughout. It gets goofy -- downright goofy, even stupid -- in the final act but I was invested in it to the end...even if it uses one of those ominous final shots that feature a twist that makes literally NO SENSE. That's for you to decide though. Feels like a lot of folks really disliked this one, but there's enough positive going on to give it a mild recommendation.

Johnny Depp has been in a rut for a couple years now so give him credit here for taking a unique, out of the ordinary lead role. It's not really a SPOILER, but his Dr. Caster is dead 30 minutes into the movie only to see his brain and consciousness uploaded into a computer. In just about every role he's in, Depp -- say whatever else you want -- is a likable on-screen presence. It's a solid part, his monotone delivery as A.I. Jack adding a creepy dimension to the second half of the flick. What is the A.I.'s goal? Is it well-meaning or is there a darker intent? The answer in the end surprised me for sure, but Depp is one of the best parts of the movie. Hall is very good too as his wife, Evelyn, working as the audience is to try and figure out what her husband (or at least her husband's mind) is up to.

Who else to look for? There's some solid names if not necessarily well-written parts, several sticking with Pfister from the Batman flicks. I thought Bettany was good if underused as Max, a researcher who immediately sees the threat of uploading Will's mind who also possibly maybe probably has a thing for Evelyn. Also look for Cillian Murphy (FBI), Morgan Freeman (necessary wise older man role), Kate Mara (cute extremist who hates technology), Cole Hauser (mean-looking army officer), and Clifton Collins Jr. (dupe for Will's ever-building power).

As I look back on 'Transcendence,' I'm remembering all those goofy moments that could have used a little more development, a little more time to breathe. The story has a ton of potential, maybe enough to justify a two-part miniseries that could have explained the science in more depth. As is though, it's a slightly above average technological thriller. Worth a watch/rent.

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

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas

Growing up, I was a huge Looney Tunes fan. I still am to be fair. One cartoon short that always cracked me up was The Abominable Snow Rabbit where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck -- on vacation -- actually run into the abominable snowman (appropriately named Hugo). Then there's the lovable bad guy the abominable snowman from the Christmas special Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer. How about a slightly darker version? Let's go with 1957's The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas.

Working with his wife and his assistant, Dr. John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is high up in the Himalayas at a remote monastery on a botanical/nature expedition. He's making all sorts of discoveries when news reaches the monastery that a second expedition is on the way to their location. It is a small group headed by Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), and their intentions are completely different from those of Rollason. Their goal is to track down and hopefully find evidence of the existence of the legendary Yeti. Both his wife and his assistant don't want to him be a part of the search high up in the mountains, but with Friend boasting evidence and sightings on his side, Rollason is hard-pressed to pass up the opportunity to be a part of something so big. He agrees to join the expedition, joining with Friend and three other men as they head up into the Himalayas. What awaits them?

I don't always like horror films, but when I do, they're often from Hammer Films Productions. A British production company, 'Hammer' turned into one of the best backers of generally low-budget but well-done horror flicks in the 1950s and into the 1960s and 1970s. This 1957 entry from director Val Guest has popped up recently on TV a lot recently so I thought I'd check it out. It's actually based off a stage play, a setting that ends up working quite well in the film. Though mountain footage was actually shot, the scenes with the cast actually on-screen was shot on claustrophobic, rocky, snow-covered sets. It is small scale, small cast and never seems affected in the least by any budget limitations.

Working off a script by Nigel Kneale and an uncredited Guest, 'Snowman' borrows from the Jaws school of how to show or not show your movie monster. Translation? The appearance of the Abominable Snowman is kept hidden for the most part as we see an immense footprint, a shadow, a distant roar, and in his first appearance, his giant hand. That certainly helps build the tension and mystery as we start to see the creature as some sort of ethereal being hovering over the action. Unfortunately, we never actually see the creature fully in frame. The closest we get is a close-up on the creature's eyes late in the movie in a key scene that does deliver quite a twist in the final act. It's good and bad in that sense. There's some great tension but if it never gets a payoff then is it worth it? The beauty of Jaws is that we don't see the great white shark a lot...and then WE DO! That's probably the biggest indictment of the smaller budget, a lack of a payoff with the Yeti.

Who else to look for? Cushing and Tucker were the names that caught my eye originally. An instantly recognizable face in the horror and sci-fi genre (and frequent Hammer star), Cushing is the intellectual, the driven scientist trying to find something previously believed to be a myth, a legend. The possibilities are just too much for him to pass up. Tucker is his opposite, a showman, a businessman looking to make some serious cash by capturing the Yeti and bringing him back to civilization in a nod to King Kong. The other members of the Yeti expedition include Shelley (Robert Brown), the greedy trapper, McNee (Michael Brill), a photographer who's seen the Yeti before, and Kusang (Wolfe Morris), the superstitious local guide. Maureen Connell plays Rollason's worrying wife, Helen, while Richard Wattis plays Fox, Rollason's bookish assistant.

If there's an accurate description of this Hammer horror flick, it's moody, subtle and unsettling...but it's not always in a good way. I think it is a little too subtle. It never quite builds to anything too satisfying. The story becomes less about the Yeti, the abominable snowman, and more about how the expedition begins to fall apart and disintegrate. The Yeti is just what sets the match off to the explosion amongst the men traveling up through the mountains to find something dark and mysterious. It's good and potentially very good but never quite jells how you want it to. For me at least.

The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Kiss Me, Stupid

There wasn't much director and writer Billy Wilder didn't do over a career that spanned six decades. He did one of the best comedies of all-time in Some Like It Hot, one of the best dramas in Sunset Boulevard, some of the best noirs in Ace in the Hole and Double Indemnity, and many more I'm not even listing. How about something out of the ordinary then? Yeah, a romantic comedy...of sorts. Here's 1964's Kiss Me, Stupid.

Having closed out a successful show in Las Vegas, a highly successful musician and performer named Dino (Dean Martin) jumps in his car and starts driving toward Los Angeles. What's waiting him? A TV special and everything L.A. has to offer. Well, that's the plan at least. He stops in the little Nevada desert town of Climax where two aspiring songwriters, Orville (Ray Walston), a piano teacher, and Barney (Cliff Osmond), the gas station owner, see a chance to make their riches if they can sell a song or two to the famous singer. How should they go about it though? Dino has quite the reputation as a hard-drinking, partying womanizer so....what if he was interested in Orville's wife? The piano teacher can't go along with it, not with his actual wife at least. He enlists the help of a waitress, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak), from the local roadhouse (that appears to be doubling as a bordello of sorts). Can they somehow pull this wacky plan off?

Leave it to Billy Wilder to completely throw an entire genre on its side and do it well. The 1960s were the age of the screwball sex comedies that as you watch them now 50-plus years later....they're not always that good. The jokes and innuendos are tame to say the least, and the attempts at humor are usually so overdone that any natural laughs get killed on the spot. Sure, there are some exceptions. There always are when the number of movies continues to pile up. This 1964 satire on the whole has some bite. All those laughs that fell short in the played straight for laughs comedies land with an effective boom here. The laughs crackle, they're subtle but not too subtle and overall? That formula just works so well. Sure, it's a little slow, a little long at times at 126 minutes, but for the most part it hits all the right buttons.

In production, 'Kiss' sure seemed like it was going to be a difficult film to make. Wilder originally wanted to cast Jack Lemmon (a frequent Wilder collaborator) in the Walston role, but Lemmon had prior obligations. Next up, Peter Sellers who was cast, started filming and had to bail when he had 13 freaking heart attacks!!! Six weeks into filming, Wilder had to recast the part, choosing Walston and then re-filming all those scenes. Does it show? No, not especially. Walston is excellent and the movie moves on without missing a beat. It was filmed in black and white -- I watched a beautiful print on MGM-HD on TV -- and is based off an Italian play and was later turned into an Italian feature film. The story develops like a play, the entire story taking place at Orville's home, Barney's gas station and the Belly Button (the roadhouse). It all fits together in pretty perfect fashion.

A movie that loses potential star power and quite the acting chops in Lemmon and Sellers could be quite an issue, but not here as the ensemble carries the sexually-charged comedic story. Martin plays a variation on himself, sleezy and without a care in the world other than hooking up with a different woman every night. Considering how harsh the script is, it's somewhat surprising Martin even took the role! Walston gets to ham it up some as Orville, paranoid and convinced his far prettier wife, Zelda (Felicia Farr), is cheating on him with anyone and everyone. In a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak -- one of my favorites -- is a sultry scene-stealer as Polly, a girl down on her luck who has to take some rather drastic measures to save some money. Playing Orville's sidekick of sorts, Osmond gets some big laughs as the big, boisterous Barney, putting this crazy plan into action.

The script/screenplay itself screams I Love Lucy episode when it comes to the gag Orville and Barney try to pull off. That's where some of that risque quality comes in. Using a stand-in wife, Orville just turns a blind eye to Martin's Dino making brutally obvious advances at his wife. He intends to give her to him. This is 1964?!? You can see why it met with some objections. Things get downright crazy and completely out of left field in the last 15 minutes in ways I was not expecting. So yeah, the ending kinda falls apart, but getting there is a lot of fun. The innuendos building up to it work pretty well, especially Orville talking about the size of his...well, never mind, and Polly overhearing the plan for what she's intended to do with Dino. Misunderstandings and all sorts of hijinks like that just shouldn't work, but it does.

A pleasant surprise. Go figure. Worst case? Kim Novak is downright perty here in one of her sexiest roles.

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964): ***/****

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw

Here's an odd formula for you. A very British actor, a busty bombshell, a British western (British?!?) and filming locations that would go onto bigger and better things within five years. What does all that add up to? A mostly entertaining, often fascinating 1960 western, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.

The son of the owner of a firearms company based in England, Jonathan Tibbs (Kenneth More) is looking for something to do. He doesn't feel quite at home in his father's company and is more comfortable building all sorts of crazy gadgets and contraptions. It doesn't take Tibbs too long to figure out a solution. Reading the newspaper one day, he reads a story about the violent wilds of the American west...where guns are quite prevalent. His rationalization? Where there's violence...there's guns so Tibbs packs up and heads to the American west in hopes of expanding his father's business. After plenty of travel, he ends up in the lawless town of Fractured Jaw where sheriffs can't seem to stick around too long. Well, they've got a new one. Through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, Tibbs becomes the new sheriff and the key to getting through it? A tough saloon owner, Kate (Jayne Mansfield), who takes a liking to the semi-clueless Brit. 

Go figure. This oddball, schizophrenic kinda works. In one of his last films, director Raoul Walsh helms this goofy, off the wall western. He was past his heyday back in Hollywood's Golden Age, working often with swashbuckling star Errol Flynn, but it's just one more choice you'd think wouldn't work but ends up working quite well. I'll watch anything western but a British western? It wouldn't/shouldn't seem to fit. Look, this isn't a classic. Far from it, things falling apart nicely in the last 30 minutes. When it does work, it's a pleasant change of pace, an entertaining mess. Oh, and those filming locations? 'Fractured' films on-location in Almeria, Spain where in about four years hundreds of spaghetti westerns were filmed. Makes sense, don't it?

Okay, let's cast a male and female lead, two actors who you'd never think would star in a British comedy western together. Hmm, and they're going to have to show off some lovey-dovey chemistry? How about Kenneth More and Jayne Mansfield? DONE! But once again, 'Fractured' gets the last laugh. More is by far the best thing the movie has to offer. A character development that depends on misunderstandings sounds tenuous at best, but More just commits. He plays it all straight and never seems to be going really hard at getting the laughs. He just gets them. The fish out of water routine -- the gentlemanly Brit in the rough and tumble west -- works over and over again. More's Tibbs is a gentleman, polite and trying to make friends and in the process never seems to realize he's doing everything in about the exact wrong way you're supposed to do it. An example? Indians attack the stagecoach he's on so naturally he tries to approach them peaceably to tell them to stop. Oh, by the way. His plan works.

Because More is so good, the chemistry with Mansfield works. One of the biggest sex symbols of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Mansfield isn't a great actress but she makes a go of it. She's here to look sexy, wear very tight dresses and let her natural endowments do the rest. She also sings three different songs, but she's dubbed so that's not her real singing voice. Instead, we're left to consider how anyone could actually be built like that. She's a real-life Barbie doll!

Who else to look for? Some familiar western faces to help ease viewers into...GASP...a British western!!! Henry Hull gets the most screentime as Masters, the Mayor of Fractured Jaw who likes Tibbs immediately, even if he has no idea that his new sheriff can barely handle a gun, much less live up to a reputation of a hardened fast draw. Also look for Bruce Cabot as a rancher who wants to test Tibbs, William Campbell as the real deal, a real fast draw and gunfighter, and Robert Morley as Tibbs' uncle.

So 'Fractured' runs about 103 minutes and for 60 minutes or so, it's really good. Then it takes a detour it never really recovers from. More's Tibbs gets caught up in a sticky situation with two warring ranches and their armies of gunslingers as well as an Indian tribe looking to stir up some trouble. The fish out of water bit wears a little thin as things are stretched out to fill that running time. Still, the first hour is really fun, and I enjoyed it a lot. So in the end, it's an enjoyable mess with some surprisingly good performances. Yep, a British comedy western actually works. I would have bet big money against that thought!

The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1960): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


There aren't a lot of huge, big name directors making movies in Hollywood right now. You know, those directors that if they're behind a film makes it a must-watch film. I put Christopher Nolan high up on that list. The director of the most recent Batman trilogy, Nolan is a big old talent so I was more than curious when I first saw the trailer for his Batman follow-up, 2014's Interstellar. Where does it come down?

It's sometime in the not too distant future and Earth is in trouble as a crop blight is causing the planet to slowly but surely run out of food. Society has changed in countless ways with those people still alive forced to become farmers in hopes of continuing to provide food, among them a former NASA pilot, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his family. Something needs to be done if humanity has any hope of surviving long-term, and Cooper and his daughter may unknowingly hold the key to it all. The former pilot begins to work with NASA on quite the alternate solution. A wormhole has been discovered around Saturn that can transport a spaceship and its crew into far-off galaxies that otherwise would have been impossible to reach. Could there be an alternate galaxy that offers a planet that can sustain human life? Can it be reached? Knowing that the trip will take years to complete, will Cooper go along? The depths and mysteries of the universe await through the wormhole.

In the same way I loved the Batman movies, Inception, The Prestige, I loved Interstellar. This most recent Nolan film has flaws -- no doubt about it -- but there's a sense of what movies could and should be. Even those who are critical of Nolan should be able to admit that this talented director tries something different. He aspires to direct something more, something bigger and something you can't look away from. The story is obviously pretty big (can't do much bigger than the end of Earth) with stunning visuals, solid casting, a memorable score from composer Hans Zimmer, and overall, just something different that I thought worked so smoothly and ridiculously well together. It's a long movie at 169 minutes and could have been trimmed here and there but this is an excellent movie. Highly recommend this one.

Say what you want about Nolan as a storyteller, but I think he's at his best as a big picture sort of guy. Unique ideas, scope and scale, the bigger the better. Where better to bring that to life than the science fiction genre? Nolan tweaks the world we know, adding a few years but a world that seems pretty inevitable for our planet. The plight that ravaged crops worldwide is never addressed head-on. It happened. Let's try and fix it. Humanity's time on Earth is running out with the end fast approaching. With a few quick scenes, some dialogue here and there, we're introduced to this world. What does our future hold? That's the beauty of Nolan's vision. We see future technologies, including robot assistants (voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart) with unique movements. We see a world far less populated where the accepted ways of living have changed. That's what Nolan does so well. He creates a world with broad strokes laying out the groundwork. He aspires to do something different, something better.

Before I delve into some technical "analysis" (or at least as much as I can imagine), let's deal with some casting. McConaughey makes the most of his first film with Nolan, his Cooper a kind of wild-eyed dreamer with an inventive streak and intellect that makes him seemed destined for bigger and better. I wish McConaughey didn't mumble so much, but the performance itself is very strong, especially his relationship with his 10-year old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). There's a human side that works really well here, a single father who makes an impossibly difficult decision that could take years away from his time with his daughter and son (Timothee Chamalet) but could potentially preserve mankind's existence. That question pervades much of the second half of Nolan's film. With so much on the line, do you think selfishly or do you think for the bigger good?

There's plenty more in the old casting department. Anne Hathaway plays Brand, a scientist who travels with Cooper into the Saturn wormhole, another intellectual trying to wrap her head around their situation, about making decisions that could cost years and millions of lives. Michael Caine plays her brilliant scientist father with Wes Bentley and David Gyasi playing the other two members of the Saturn wormhole. Now who else to look for? Here's some semi-SPOILERS for you. SPOILERS I don't want to explain much about the rest of the cast in terms of characterization, as in who and what the roles are. That's the fun of where this story goes with some unexpected appearances and characters twists. Those names include Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, William Devane, Topher Grace, and with some big old-fashioned star power, Jessica Chastain, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck. Chastain and Damon especially leave the best lasting impressions. END OF semi-SPOILERS.

It's hard not to watch Interstellar and not see influences from previous sci-fi movies, most notably Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey but also including Contact (also starring McConaughey), Planet of the Apes and Armageddon among many others I'm probably forgetting. With the openness of our galaxy and beyond, Nolan is like a kid in the candy store. Much like last year's Gravity, the spacial visual is a stunning backdrop as we see the spaceship Endurance heading into deep space, unexplored space to find something, anything. We're introduced to two quasi-Earth like planets -- one as frightening as the other -- in a galaxy centered around an immense black hole dubbed Gargantua. You get a sense of the immensity of space, of the vastness of what surrounds us and the time it would and does take to get there and back. The screenplay has some fun in the department, time in one dimension moving far slower than someone close by. What's an hour for one character in real-time is several years for another. It's a unique, thought-provoking technique that's used well throughout Nolan's film.

I'm writing this review almost a week after seeing it in theaters. I definitely needed some time to process it, to really think things out. What was my conclusion? There are some plotholes, some issues in storytelling that I thought could have been tightened. As many other far better writers than me have written -- check out Chris' review HERE over at Nothing is Written -- Nolan has a knack for long scenes of exposition that explain everything that's going on. For me, I appreciated these scenes because I wasn't always sure what was actually going on. So yeah, there are issues but none of them did me in to the point where I couldn't take anymore. I loved the idea and thought behind the film, I loved the execution from the spectacle to the visual to the musical score to the cast to a mind-bending story and a moving ending.

Highly recommended. Definitely worth seeing in theaters if you get a chance. It feels like a movie where it will lose some of its impact on a TV.

Interstellar (2014): ****/****   

Monday, January 12, 2015

Gun the Man Down

At the height of his popularity in the 1950s, John Wayne turned down an offer that ended up profiting for one person in particular. Wayne turned down the lead role for TV's Gunsmoke and instead recommended James Arness for the part. Wayne kept on being Wayne, and Gunsmoke...well, it aired for 20 seasons with over 600 episodes. Wayne and Arness became friends, Arness even starring in a flick from Wayne's production company (Batjac), a 1956 western, Gun the Man Down.

Following a botched bank robbery, Rem Anderson (Arness) is left behind by his fellow robbers, Rankin (Robert J. Wilkie) and Farley (Don Megowan), when he's wounded and can't keep up with a posse close behind. Anderson is able to hide, but it's only a matter of time before the posse picks up his trail and he's sentenced to a year in prison. Upon getting his parole, Rem has one goal in mind; revenge. He's not sure what became of Rankin and Farley, but he intends to find out. His trail leads him across the territory where finally he tracks them down in a town where they used the money from the bank robbery to open up a successful, raucous saloon. They're out in the open, but that presents a problem in itself. No one knows them as bank robbers, only saloon owners. How can Rem hope to exact his revenge with the chips stacked against him?

Starting in the early 1950s, Batjac Productions backed movies well into the 1970s, many of them starring the Duke, several others made with other stars. For the most part, they were fan friendly flicks, movies audiences would scoop up and enjoy. Not too surprisingly, the ones with Wayne were more successful than those without him, but of the ones I've seen, they've all been solid to good to really good. This 1956 western is a no frills western from director Andrew McLaglen and screenwriters Burt Kennedy and Sam Freedle. McLaglen and Kennedy were frequent collaborators with Wayne in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and you could see a younger Duke playing the Arness part. 'Gun' clocks in at just 76 minutes and features a small scale story with a small cast. It's good, but could have been better.

The odd part? There are times you feel like you're watching a small-scale film noir western. Revenge stories are nothing new to the western genre, but this one is simple and straightforward. We've got our anti-hero (Arness) trying to right a wrong, get his revenge, and get his woman (Angie Dickinson) back in the process (the femme fatale). The villains are dastardly, the cops are waiting for their chance, and we've got a fringe character or two waiting to swoop in for a profit. How can you go wrong? I wish all these pieces fit together in tighter fashion though. It is only 76 minutes long, but it drags at times with some serious pacing issues. Lots of talking, lots of dialogue, making an already short movie feel inexplicably long at times. That's never good when you're struggling to get through a movie that isn't even an hour and a half long.

Without the star power of a John Wayne, 'Gun' still has some cool parts. Arness is a solid, resolute hero who in the second half is more of a presence than an actual hero. We see other characters react to him, see others cower and worry what he's up to. Also, he was robbing a bank to provide for a new life with Dickinson's Janice so he's not all-bad, right? Right?!? Wilkie and Megowan are solid as our villains, ready to cut bait at the first sign of trouble. My favorite parts were for Emile Meyer (usually playing a heavy) as Sheriff Morton and Harry Carey Jr. as his well-meaning but little slow deputy, Lee. Morton knows the dangers of the job, has been at it forever, and is trying to look out for Lee as best as possible. Their dialogue scenes are especially worthwhile, especially Meyer as Morton. Also worth mentioning are Michael Emmet as Billy Deal, a hired killer and friend of Rem's, and Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as a hotel employee (he'd work with Dickinson in a similar role 3 years later in Rio Bravo). A solid cast, nothing too flashy.

I just wish I liked this one more as I'm wavering back and forth between ratings. I liked it, but man, it was slow-going at times. There's also some funny, odd moments, including Rem being told a judge will throw the book at him for the robbery...and he gets a year sentence for bank robbery where a man in town was shot during said robbery. Maybe I misread it, but there's a hilarious scene where Wilkie races to catch his horse, mounts up, rides about 4 feet and then dismounts. I'm assuming it's meant to show the horse came up lame, but it had me laughing. Now with all that considered, it's still a pretty decent little western. There are some surprising, dark twists in the last act, and things are wrapped up nicely for everyone (well, almost everyone). Western fans should at least check it out with just enough positive going for it.

Gun the Man Down (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, January 9, 2015

Top 10 of 2014

Here we sit with another year in the books. Let me tell ya....2014 kinda sucked in the movie department! Here's my Top 10 for 2014, not films just released in the calendar year but for all the movies I saw from January 1 through December 31, 2014. As I've said, this isn't necessarily classic films or all-time greats, but the 10 films I simply put, enjoyed the most. What entertained me. Enjoy! What did you think of 2014? Click on the name of the movie to go to the full review.

10. The Spikes Gang (1974)
Revisionist westerns are usually pretty hit or miss for me. They try too hard, try to be too realistic in their portrayals of the American west. This one? I loved it. Gary Grimes, Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith play teenagers who leave home and encounter an infamous bandit (Lee Marvin) on the run. I couldn't get enough of this one, but 'Spikes' saves some twists for the last 20 minutes.

9. Cuban Fury (2014)
I love a good comedy, but they rarely make my Top 10 lists. I don't know what it was about this 2014 comedy, but it worked so well for me. Having played Simon Pegg's sidekick in some great comedies, Nick Frost gets his chance to take on a starring a middle-aged man who must re-embrace his tango dancing past to get noticed by his boss (Rashida Jones). Also look for Chris O'Dowd and Ian McShane. Nothing about it screams 'GREAT!' but I laughed a ton. Genuine, out loud, my stomach hurts laughing. Those are rare.

8. Unknown (2006)
One of my favorite shows is the classic The Twilight Zone. This mysterious thriller screamed of some Zone inspirations. Five men (Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Joe Pantoliano, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto) wake up in a locked up and seemingly abandoned warehouse in the desert with no memory of who they are or how they got there. What the hell happened to put them in this spot? Peter Stormare and Bridge Moynahan also star. Loved the mystery, the sense of doom, and even the payoff is worthwhile. Not a hugely well known flick but a gem that I loved.

7. Locke (2014)
Tom Hardy continues to impress and keeps on climbing up my list of favorite actors. This is Tom Hardy's movie, the British actor playing Ivan Locke, a construction site manager on the brink of a huge career breakthrough but he's got some problems to fix first. The movie develops like a stage play, the entire running time spent with Hardy's Locke in his car, driving on the highway and talking on the phone. It might not work for all viewers, but my goodness, I loved this one.

6. Nightcrawler (2014)
I thought I was getting one movie and ended up with something far better with this crime thriller. I've always thought Jake Gyllenhaal was an incredibly talented actor, but this may be his best work yet. His part as budding crime videographer of sorts, Lou Bloom, is terrifyingly, horrifically good, a performance I hope earns him a Best Actor nomination. Also look for Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed in key supporting parts. It isn't getting quite the buzz some other films are as the awards season approaches, but it's pretty great.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
From director Martin Scorsese and star Leonard DiCaprio, this true story was an awards darling about this time last year. DiCaprio stars as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who starts up his own business empire without morals or business ethics in sight. A long movie full of some great performances -- especially DiCaprio -- with Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey and Margot Robbie helping steal the show. Full of excess and ridiculous moments, it's funny, dramatic and one great flick.

4. St. Vincent (2014)
Approaching Clint Eastwood in the aging legend and crotchety old guy role, Bill Murray is supremely excellent in this comedy/drama that sure looks and sounds pretty familiar but ends up being much more. Murray is a man in his 60s, living on his own and set in his ways, who gets some new neighbors, a single mom (Melissa McCarthy) and her somewhat nerdy son (Jaeden Lieberher). When she needs help, Murray’s Vincent steps in as an unlikely babysitter. Funny, dark, emotional and moving, I loved this movie with Chris O’Dowd and Naomi Watts also starring.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
If there’s a such thing as a “risky Marvel movie,” then this was it. Not a huge cast with generally unknown characters, ‘Guardians’ was a gem and made boatloads of money. A great, if unlikely cast – Chris Pratt as a Han Solo-like anti-hero, Zoe Saldana as the femme fatale-like assassin, Dave Bautista as an alien strongman, Bradley Cooper as a smart-mouth, gun-toting mercenary, Vin Diesel as a talking tree – combine for this space adventure as a team of five unlikely prisoners end up together, potentially saving the world. I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this one but a movie that’s just so much fun. Loved it throughout with too many cool scenes and good laughs to mention.

2. Fury (2014)
 There are two genres I love more than others, westerns and war movies. This David Ayer-directed World War II film looked like a throwback to men-on-a-mission war movies from the 1960s but mixed in with the extremely graphic violence of a movie like Saving Private Ryan. Familiar stuff in terms of the war genre but done with a fresh eye, a new look. Brad Pitt is excellent as Wardaddy, the veteran commander of a Sherman tank trying to get his crew and tank through the war unscathed. The end of the war seems close – very close – but nothing is guaranteed as the tank (dubbed ‘Fury’) heads out toward the front lines. Very good cast – Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal – works well with a well-written stories, some horrific action and violence, and a very moving finale. The definition of an uncomfortable movie but a modern gem, a classic war film.

1. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
What a gigantically pleasant surprise. When I saw the trailer for this 2013 drama, I was intrigued but not necessarily interested. Boy, was I wrong. Ben Stiller stars as Walter Mitty, a negatives analyst at Life Magazine who has vivid daydreams that take him away from his somewhat dull, straightforward daily life. I absolutely loved the message of this film, loved the idea and execution, the performances and especially the ending. Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adrian Martinez, Patton Oswalt and Kathryn Haan co-star.

What does 2015 hold? The list of movies I'm looking forward to keeps getting longer and longer so who knows for sure. I can say as far as movies go, I'm really looking forward to what 2015 offers in theaters. Bring it on 2015!

Thursday, January 8, 2015


Just a few years ago, Louis Zamperini was a name generally lost in the annals of history. He accomplished a lot, one remarkable thing after another but in the grand scheme of things? LOST in the history books. Then, a little book called Unbroken, by author Laura Hillenbrand, was published back in 2010 and EVERYBODY knew the name. It was and is a great read, a tribute to the human spirit. A huge bestseller, it was only a matter of time, right? For what you ask? For the film adaptation of course. That's today's review, 2014's Unbroken.

This is a movie that defies a straightforward plot description. It tells the slightly condensed story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), a young Italian-American man who grew up with his family in California. Putting a troublesome childhood behind him, Louis finds his niche as a runner, eventually becoming a world-class runner who competes at the 1936 Olympics. But this stubborn, fiery young man is about to be tested as the world is thrown into WWII as a bombardier on an American bomber flying missions in the Pacific. That plane will go down with no warning in the Pacific, he will fight through a survival ordeal adrift fro longer than anyone ever has, and be moved from one brutal Japanese prison camp to another over two-plus years. What helps him survive one horrific ordeal after another? What pushes him to keep on fighting, keep on hoping and keep on surviving?

I loved Hillenbrand's non-fiction book, racing through it in a week or so. It was a book that raced through my entire family with my parents, cousins, aunts and uncles also reading it. So to say I was excited when I found out it was being adapted into a film? Yeah, an understatement. The talent assembled to film that adaptation is a big reason for the excitement, starting with Angelina Jolie directing and Joel and Ethan Coen writing the screenplay with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. Just because Louis's story is so all-enveloping, any book to film adaptation is a daunting task. How do you encapsulate so much in a reasonably timed movie? I think Jolie did as good a job as possible with this remarkable true story. It's not a movie you're necessarily going to love. Instead, it's one you watch and appreciate, and for me, question how Louis and all those around him made it through World War II in a Japanese prison camp.

This is a brutal, uncomfortable movie to watch, and that's as a PG-13 film. If this was an R-rated goodness. It would be nearly impossible to watch. Jolie's direction is solid throughout, a personal story of survival that does an impressive job navigating Louis' life. O'Connell is the star, but through some flashbacks we see Louie growing up (C.J. Valleroy as young Louie, John D'Leo his older brother), and how he goes from a street punk of sorts to a world class runner. With cinematographer Roger Deakins shooting the film, it's a beautiful finished product, artsy at times without hitting your head with its art. Composer Alexandre Desplat's score is okay, nothing too flashy but doing a good job supporting the ever-increasing drama.

So we've got a feisty, cocky Italian-American young man as a main character. Who should we pick? How about a red-headed and generally unknown British actor?!? I kid. O'Connell does a fine job as Louis, sporting some dyed jet black hair and some skin-darkening makeup. This is O'Connell's first big role in a major film, and he doesn't disappoint. He brings that right amount of charm and likability to a character early on that goes a long way as we see the hell Louis is put through after his bomber goes down. Dramatically, it is quite a performance, but more importantly, it is an incredibly moving emotional and physical part. From his days adrift at sea to trying to survive the POW camps with little food while being progressively beaten down by his Japanese captors -- quite literally -- we see O'Connell's Louis start to wither away. One of the most moving scenes -- and most uncomfortable -- has Louis forced to hold a heavy wooden rail tie above his head. If he drops it, a guard will shoot him. In terms of survival, it doesn't get anymore cut and dry than that.

Years down the road, I think the role that will be most well-remember is that of Takamasa Ishihara as Watanabe, a brutal, sadistic Japanese guard who earns the nickname 'the Bird' from the prisoners (because what they actually call him would produce worse repercussions) and takes a liking to Louis. What's that mean? He wants to break him down, to grind him down to nothing at all. This isn't just a job though. The Bird enjoys what he does. He enjoys torturing and pushing and beating the prisoners. It's a terrifying performance, one I'm guessing will stir some Oscar buzz. The crazy part? Ishihara is actually a Japanese singer and songwriter with little in the way of acting experience. Well, if the whole music thing doesn't work out....yeah, he's got a future in acting.

Those are the two key parts where the focus remains throughout. It's a better movie because both O'Connell and Ishihara are relative unknowns. We come into 'Unbroken' with no preconceived notions about either actor. Who else to look for? Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock are excellent with O'Connell as Louis' fellow survivors adrift at sea just trying to hold out until some sort of help (any help really) arrives with Jai Courtney playing another member of the crew. One of the more recognizable faces, Garrett Hedlund plays Fitzgerald, the highest ranking prisoner at the POW camp Louis is sent to. Maddalena Ischiale (Louis' mom), Vincenzo Amato (Louis' dad) and Alex Russell (Louis' brother) play Zamperini's family, but they're not given much to do other than look worried and/or be supportive. No big stars overall across the cast, and the movie is the better for it.

The movie is at its strongest when following Louis' 47-day ordeal adrift at sea and then his two and a half years as a prisoner of war in the Pacific and later in Japan. Reading the book, these segments were excruciating to watch at times, and Jolie does a fine job bringing the real-life story to film. I think the best choice she could have made was focusing mainly on Louis' involvement in WWII. It's just that; focused. I don't know if it is a movie I will revisit anytime soon, but it is an excellent, well-done, moving story that shows how powerful history can be. There are thousands and millions of stories that history has swallowed up over the years. It's cool, informative, moving and educational to see a story like that of Louis Zamperini brought to life. Easy to recommend the film, and if you haven't already, definitely give the book a try.

Unbroken (2014): ***/****