The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Ride, Vaquero!

Apparently I'd seen 1953's Ride, Vaquero! before. I don't remember it so well. And yes, I'm such a movie nerd I keep a list of all the movies I've seen, and there it was in August 2008. Pretty seductive, aren't I? So when this western popped up on TCM's schedule, man, it sure sounded familiar but I couldn't remember...well, much of anything at all. Speaks well of the movie, doesn't it? Any-hoo, here it is, a western that clearly left a huge impression on me for a second viewing.

It's soon after the end of the Civil War, but the fighting is far from over in the Texas border country along the Rio Grande. Controlling the area with his gang of gunmen and cutthroats, a bandit named Jose Esqueda (Anthony Quinn) has no plan of relinquishing that control even as landowners and hopeful ranchers move back into the area. At his side is his right-hand man, a cold, calculating gunfighter named Rio (Robert Taylor) who has few if any equals with a gun. Esqueda may have met his match when one of those hopeful ranchers, King Cameron (Howard Keel), buys up all the land he can in hopes of turning it into Texas' biggest cattle ranch. Esqueda is having none of it and intends to drive this stubborn, forceful rancher off his land with Rio's help. There's a problem though. Rio isn't so sure he wants to help anymore after meeting Cameron's beautiful young wife, Cordelia (Ava Gardner). Where does his allegiance lie? More than a few lives hang in the balance.

I'm not always a huge fan of 1950s westerns. Putting the black hat vs. white hat westerns of the 1930s/1940s behind them, the genre moved into heavier, more adult stories and themes. The efforts are a mixed batch where the failed efforts are usually undone by a heavy-handed storytelling technique. What about 'Ride'? It's not great, but it's pretty good and boosted by a fitting, moving and dark ending. Director John Farrow does a pretty decent job with a story that has some flaws, some things being too familiar but with some solid performances that have some fun with genre conventions and cliches. That's how you make an adult western.

Two of the more familiar character archetypes in the western genre are the lone gunfighter, the drifter who moves from town to town looking for work, and No. 2, the Mexican bandit. In steps Robert Taylor and Anthony Quinn to fill those shoes. I'm not always a huge fan of Taylor and his too-often wooden qualities, but I love Quinn in just about everything they do. Without giving away any spoilers, their backstory provides the crux of the story and makes them far more sympathetic...even when that's difficult because of their actions. These aren't good guys. These are bad guys, but they don't play like cliches or stereotypes. Taylor's Rio is quiet, stone-faced and generally pissed. Quinn's Jose loves life and drinking and women and raising hell, but there's more to it. Both men are part of the changing times of the west. They want to be free and live in the wild. Settlement and civilization? They've got no interest in it.

While I didn't remember the movie very clearly, as I watched it parts of it came back to me. Mostly, it was that duo. I love their brotherly dynamic that comes with all its fights and rivalries. Brothers? Yes, but they have that curiosity of who's quicker with a gun. Who would win if it came right down to it? Rio doesn't care, but Jose begins to wonder more and more. The story's focus is at its strongest in that relationship but suffers when Keel and Gardner's husband-wife combo are in the spotlight. Rio is drawn to this beautiful, feisty woman who's loyal most of all to her husband...but can't help but feel drawn to this mysterious, moody gunfighter. Keel's Cameron never seems to realize he's got a threat in Rio. It isn't quite soap opera-esque, but it sure is close and I'm no fan of a love triangle in basically any medium, especially my favorite genre, the western. It's not that Keel and Gardner don't deliver interesting performances, but they're just undone by a lackluster script at times.

Also look for Kurt Kasznar as Father Antonio, a local priest trying to keep it all peaceful in an excellent supporting part. He's not some dull, vanilla priest but ready to pitch in and get the job done. There's also supporting parts for Ted de Corsia as the town sheriff worried about Esqueda and Rio's potential and then familiar baddie Jack Elam as one of Esqueda's men, Barton.

With the better (even just tolerable) 1950s westerns, there's a quality of Greek mythology to the story and characters. 'Ride' certainly has that, especially in its final act as all the different sides come together to settle things once and for all. The ending itself is pretty inevitable. You know where it's going, but the mystery of who's gonna make it through it unscathed adds that dimension of mystery. I liked the movie overall, but the ending is especially memorable and as I mentioned earlier, particularly effective if you were even remotely sympathetic to Rio and Esqueda. It's an interesting western overall with some good performances, cool, good-looking filming locations in Utah (standing in for Texas), and a good score from composer Bronislau Kaper. A classic? No, but pretty decent.

Ride, Vaquero! (1954): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 23, 2015

His Kind of Woman

Occasionally I have some genuine freak-out moments. Case in point? I’ve been writing movie reviews here with Just Hit Play since January 2009. I must be getting old! I’ve mentioned before though the timing of starting some of these reviews. I watched some good, even great, movies in the months right before I started this site but never reviewed them, not feeling confident enough to review months later from memory. That’s today’s review, a film noir from 1951, His Kind of Woman, that’s one of my favorites.

A down on his luck gambler living in Los Angeles, Dan Milner (Robert Mitchum) is drifting along with the clothes on his back and very little money in his pocket. Then, his luck turns on a dime, but it seems so easy. A mysterious man with underworld connections offers him a huge payday if he’ll simply leave the country and visit Mexico. There’s a catch though. He can’t know why, only get to a remote hotel on the Baja California peninsula and wait. From there, he won’t be able to return to the United States for at least a year. Suspicious but in need of the money, Milner takes the deal and heads to Mexico. There at the hotel, he meets a beautiful singer, Lenore (Jane Russell), in pursuit of a popular Hollywood actor, Mark Cardigan (Vincent Price), and an odd assortment of guests and locals. Milner sits back and waits for what’s heading his way. What has he gotten himself into exactly?

I saw this 1951 film noir in November 2008, two months before I started writing these reviews. Talk about bad timing, huh? I loved it, something pulling me in and keeping me interested throughout its two-hour running time. It comes from bazillionaire Howard Hughes and had a whole bunch of production problems that become evident in the final act. Now that said, there’s something charming and fun about it from beginning to end. It hasn’t been distributed much, if at all, since its release and ‘Kind’ doesn’t have a huge following. The moral of the story is simple. It should. I highly recommend it.

To say this is a film noir is limiting. It is to be sure, but it tries to do a lot more and generally, succeeds on most of those fronts. Director John Farrow (and an uncredited Richard Fleischer when Hughes didn’t like Farrow’s work) is at the helm of an equal parts film noir, love story, comedy with some action and shootouts thrown in. It isn’t always perfect, but the script makes a mostly successful go at it. Six different people are listed at the IMDB page for this movie as having written part of ‘Kind’ (again reflecting the behind the scenes drama). It’s smart. The dialogue crackles. The story is sorta kinda there, relying on the actors to bring the at-times slow story to life. I think the biggest compliment I can say is that it almost plays like a spoof of the film noir genre itself…but never truly becomes a spoof. Now that takes some doing. Not too light, not too heavy-handed, but more importantly and more successfully, somewhere in between.

Just a few weeks ago, I reviewed 1952’s Macao, another pairing of stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. I watched ‘Kind’ back in 2008 in my Jane Russell phase. I’d never seen her films but fell hard for her right away, and this was only my second Russell film I believe. Again, talk about an on-screen match made in heaven. It’s easy to say Mitchum does the same thing movie in and movie out – that laconic, loner anti-hero – but he brings a different edge and energy with each passing film. I loved his Milner character, a man who knows he’s in trouble but keeps going along to figure out what’s up. The same for Russell’s Lenore, a young woman looking for love but with a fair share of failed attempts behind her. The duo just WORKS so well together. Their scenes are pretty pitch perfect throughout. They’re believable, you like them, and they seem to like each other. How can you go wrong?

What surprised me about the movie’s general unknown quality is the cast. With the cast assembled, how does it not have more of a reputation even by accident? Mitchum and Russell are excellent, but it’s Vincent Price who steals the show. His Mark Cardigan is an Errol Flynn-like movie star, a swashbuckler who’s looking for his movie star life to become his real life. A little too much at times, but very funny. Still not enough? There’s also Tim Holt as an investigating cop, Charles McGraw as a thug and enforcer, Raymond Burr as a mobster trying to get back into the U.S., Jim Backus as a talkative investment banker, Philip Van Zandt as the hotel owner, and an uncredited Anthony Caruso a brooding sidekick to Burr. Not bad at all.

An additional character worth mentioning is the hotel set on the Baja California peninsula. It’s so 1940s/1950s stylish with its bungalows and pool and just some really cool architecture. The sets date the movie a bit, but it truly becomes an additional character. The ending? Yeah, things fall apart a bit as the last 40 minutes get a little too kooky. Even when it goes off the tracks though, ‘Kind’ is still a really fun movie. Definitely worth seeking out, the 1951 film noir popping up occasionally on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule.

His Kind of Woman (1951): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


They don't have the all-time classics to their names that other film couples did. They weren't Tracy and Hepburn or Bogart and Hepburn or Wayne and O'Hara. But you know what stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell had in their two films together? An easy-going, sizzling charm that oozed off the screen. I'm hoping to write reviews for both soon, starting here with 1952's Macao, their second pairing.

Just 40 or so miles from Hong Kong, the city of Macao in the years following World War II has become a den of gambling, corruption, violence and any number of any other vices. One particularly crooked casino owner with his hands in everything, Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter), is especially worried though after he and his men killed an investigating officer from New York. They're playing the waiting game for the officer's replacement...and maybe some more heavy duty reinforcements. Coming ashore from a ship traveling from Hong Kong, all but three passengers are recognized, leading Halloran to believe one of them is the cop. The suspects? A Navy veteran on the run, Nick Cochran (Mitchum), a talkative salesman, Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix), and a nightclub singer looking for a job, Julie Benson (Russell). Who is the right one to target? Just which one is the cop looking to take Halloran in?

If that doesn't sound like the most pointed plot description, well, it ain't. Director Josef von Sternberg (along with some uncredited work from Nicholas Ray) was a silent film director who drifted along a touch when the sound era moved into the film industry. The Wikipedia page for 'Macao' specifically says "When von Sternberg's scenes made no sense dramatically..." so you know he wasn't always interested in a Point A to Point B (or C-through-Z) story to begin with. Production actually wrapped on filming in 1950, and then the finished product sat on the shelf for most of two years. How come? Producer Howard Hughes' track record basically. Decisions didn't have to make a whole lot of sense when your boss is one of the world's richest people. What's the end result then for this shelved, quasi-film noir?

It's good to great early on because of its randomness and general kookiness. It derails some in the last 20 minutes of its 80-minute running time. Let's focus on the positive though. 'Macao' is genuinely fun as everything is laid out and established. It mixes classic film noir with international intrigue with the huge chemistry between Mitchum and Russell with some laughs along the way. Long story is a pleasant, enjoyable movie. It is dark, but not as dark as most film noirs. Some reviews point to that lack of a unified tone as a negative but the helter-skelter tone really worked for me. Should it have? Probably not but something clicks for me. Filmed in black and white with some stock footage of Macao and Hong Kong mixed in with the seedy Hollywood sets for the two cities, Sternberg's film has style and a great visual look.

Blah blah blah with all that film analysis. Let's talk about movie star chemistry!!! Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell are two of my favorites. Mitchum was that perfect tough guy anti-hero who just didn't give a crap. Russell was a solid actress, singer and performer who fit in well with the tough guys when her film roles allowed it. The end result? Two actors who don't look like they're acting. They're just hanging out, having a ton of fun bringing these two characters together. Their chemistry is evident from Scene No. 1 and never lets up. Not remembered as a great role -- and rightfully so -- Mitchum is pretty perfect, laconic and laid back with a checkered past hanging over his head. The same for Russell's Julie, bouncing from city to city looking for work. Oh, and Russell is drop dead gorgeous here. Hughes made her a star by utilizing her....natural talent I'll say. She's beautiful, and she's even given a chance to sing two songs.

The rest of the cast is solid throughout. I especially liked Bendix as Lawrence C. Trumble, fast-talking, looking to blow off some steam traveling salesman. His almost manic delivery pairs well with Mitchum's slower-paced line reads. Dexter is perfectly slimy as Halloran, the black market casino dealer always with an eye on shady deals and easy money. Also look for Thomas Gomez as the corrupt police officer working with Halloran, poorly and under-used Gloria Grahame as Halloran's much-maligned girlfriend, Philip Ahn as Halloran's steely-eyed enforcer, and Vladimir Sokoloff as a mysterious blind man who seems to pop up at the right moment whenever needed. A fun cast with some cool parts.

Now that line before about von Sternberg's lack of dramatic timing, yeah, that comes into play in the last 20 minutes. The cool, couldn't care less style loses all momentum. The finale turns into a big chase scene that doesn't keep the adrenaline flowing unfortunately. The ending itself feels a tad rushed, a disappointing end to an otherwise very enjoyable movie.

Macao (1952): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, April 13, 2015

Destination Gobi

For every war film documenting a huge world-turning event like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, there are hundreds and thousands of other stories out there waiting to be told. And sometimes, it's good just to have a change of pace. These aren't stories that impacted thousands and millions of people or even altered the course of history. But as I've said before, dig a little and you'll always find some cool, very unique stories. Case in point, a 1953 World War II flick called Destination Gobi.

It's well into 1944 and with the tide of war officially turned toward the Allies, Chief Petty Officer Samuel McHale (Richard Widmark) is readying himself to head back into the fighting at Okinawa as part of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Well, that was his plan at least. He receives orders to report to a new office with an odd but very dangerous mission. McHale is going to be posted at a remote outpost in the Gobi Desert deep in Mongolia with a seven-man "garrison" tasked with observing weather patterns and how they will impact the fighting across the Pacific. The longtime Navy man wants nothing to do with the orders but ever the resolute soldier, he follows his duty and travels deep into the desert. Always used to having a ship's deck under his feet and water on all sides, McHale must adjust quickly at Argos Camp 6. Extremely isolated, the small camp must deal with limited/lousy supplies and growing rumors that Japanese forces are trying to find and destroy the camp (one of six all over the desert). McHale and the men must brace for what's coming, and oddly enough, a nomadic Mongol tribe that could help them.

What an interesting premise. I'll get into some details and depth in a bit, but the premise for 'Gobi' is incredibly interesting, and supposedly a true story. An opening title card introduces the basic premise as listed in Navy records as 'Saddle for Gobi.' Is it true? I hope. It's certainly fun to watch. From director Robert Wise, this is a World War II story far removed from the European battlefront and the island-hopping strategy of the Pacific fighting. It turns into far more of a survival story with some odd detours thrown in along the way. 'Gobi' covers a lot of ground in its 90-minute running time to the point I'd say it loses some of its effectiveness by the end credits. For the most part though, the ride is always fun and interesting, including some solid performances from an up and coming cast.

Start with Richard Widmark in a part that feels similar to several roles he did during the early 1950s as he carved out a niche and reputation for himself, many of them for 20th Century Fox. He specialized early on in manly roles like this, a tough guy leading other tough guys in movies like Halls of Montezuma, The Frogmen, and Take the High Ground!. Widmark spent years trying to distance himself from villainous roles like Kiss of Death that helped put him on the map, but he certainly did a good job. As Navy lifer Samuel McHale, Widmark is the strong, solid and resolute leader of Men who wants nothing more than to survive, to get through this hellish situation and to get his men through it too, even if it isn't his ideal posting. He's one of my favorite actors anyways, and this is a solid lead role.

Who else to look for at this isolated weather station in the sand-swept Gobi desert? Some familiar faces (and voices) to round out the inexperienced crew. The group includes Don Taylor as McHale's right-hand man, Max Showalter as the fast-talking ladies man of sorts, Darryl Hickman, Martin Milner, Ross Bagdasarian (creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks), Russell Collins, and an uncredited Earl Holliman. We don't learn much about the crew, just some off-hand comments about their backgrounds. Still, I liked the dynamic among the group as their scenes early-on show that natural, affable back-and-forth that seems realistic among men forced to get through such a difficult posting like the middle of the Gobi desert hundreds of miles from any sort of help. Nothing flashy, but some good parts.

 It then proceeds to fall apart a touch because....well, because. An interesting angle is added when a tribe of nomadic Mongols, led by Kengtu (Murvyn Vye), a chieftain always looking out for the best interest of his people. At first, that involves helping the desert-bound American sailors and then it doesn't and then it does. The story proceeds to bounce around a ton among the survivors, their bickering, the Mongols, the patrolling Japanese and a surprising interlude across the Chinese border into a Japanese-held village. With just 90 minutes to do its thing, 'Gobi' simply tackles too much. In the last 20 minutes, things really fall apart. Is it the truth of the story behind the Navy files? Have things been stretched a little bit? Also look for Rodolfo Acosta, Judy Dan and Leonard Strong as some of Kengtu's tribesmen and tribeswomen.

A mixed bag in the end, but a mostly positive mixed bag. Now if they could just have fixed that last act!

Destination Gobi (1953): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, April 9, 2015

King of Kings

Is there a more daunting task as an actor to play a man millions of people around the world believe to be the Son of God? Sure, any portrayal of a real-life person has to be intimidating, but playing Jesus? That's gotta be on a whole other level. As I learned from the Internet, this movie was the first American film to show an actor's face portraying Jesus Christ. Here it is, a childhood favorite and one I revisited this past Easter weekend, 1961's King of Kings.

This is the story of Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter), a man who grew up in tumultuous times in Judea as Roman occupiers keep the Jewish/Hebrew people oppressed under their thumb. Revolts and rebellions rise up from year to year as Judea seeks its freedom, its independence to get away from the control of the Roman empire. Into this world, Jesus grows up into manhood ready to do his life's calling. Having worked his entire life and living in the Galilean town of Nazareth as a carpenter, Jesus in his late 20's ventures out into the world to embrace his calling as the messiah, the son of God who will teach the world how to live. It is a message that preaches peace but will no doubt send ripples throughout the Roman empire. As Jesus travels around the country with a small group of disciples, his name, his message and his words begin to spread. His followers increase, but so does the danger around him as many want nothing more than to kill him before he becomes too dangerous.

A plot description for a film about the life of Jesus Christ is pretty unnecessary, but I had to lay things out at least a little bit. In the age of the historical film epic, this entry from director Nicholas Ray has always been one of my favorites. I grew up watching it with my Mom every spring, and even years later, it holds up. If anything, I liked it more as a 29-year old viewer as opposed to a 10-year old kid. A whole lot of history is covered in 168 minutes but things never feel rushed. 'King' was filmed on-location in Spain with countless lavish sets and natural backdrops adding an incredibly authentic feel to the proceedings. The TCM print shown on Easter looked PHENOMENAL. Just a stunningly good-looking visual movie. The musical score from composer Miklos Rozsa is pretty perfect too, big and booming mixed in with softer, quieter and just as effective emotional moments. Listen to a sample HERE.

What struck me most in this 1961 epic about Jesus is that...well, it isn't just about Jesus. Ray and writer Philip Yordan use Jesus, his life and his teachings to tell a story about the times this man lived his life. Yes, the focus is on him, but it isn't exclusively focused on him. The casting is very solid with Jeffrey Hunter playing Jesus. Up there with The Searchers as his most famous, respected and recognizable role, Hunter does an excellent job here. It isn't the most human part, but that's not his fault. Hunter is sincere and likable and genuine with a script that keys in on Jesus' teachings more than getting to know the man as a person, as an individual. What works so well is the quieter moments and the impact we see as viewers that this man has on those around him, both the believers and the non-believers. Hunter never became the huge star he could have before his tragic death in 1969, but performances like this show his acting skill.

Four years later, a similarly-themed Jesus epic -- The Greatest Story Ever Told -- would set the bar for ridiculously overdone all-star casts. That ain't the case here. Ray fills out some major roles with recognizable faces and some stars, but this is even't close to being considered an all-star cast. Oh, and that's a good thing. The best supporting part goes to Ron Randell as Lucius, a Roman officer in the garrison at Jerusalem tasked with figuring out if Jesus is a threat to be dealt with. A human, questioning part, and a really good one. Next up, Irish actress Siobhan McKenna as Mary, Jesus' mother, making the character memorable with just a few quick scenes. And then there's the most recognizable face, Robert Ryan getting a meaty part as John the Baptist, a prophet more fiery than Jesus but who preaches the same peaceful message, one predicting the coming of the Son of God.

Who else to look for? If you're familiar with Jesus and the gospels, you know the names. Also in the cast are Pontius Pilate (Hurd Hatfield), Roman governor of Judea, Claudia (Viveca Lindfors), Pilate's more open-minded wife, Herod Antipas (Frank Thring), the Judean governor, his wife, Herodias (Rita Gam), and his stepdaughter, Salome (Brigid Bazlen), disciples Peter (Royal Dano) and Judas (Rip Torn), Barabbas (Harry Guardino), and Mary Magdalene (Carmen Sevilla).

Working consistently throughout the 1950s, director Ray carved a niche for himself as a director of smaller scale human dramas. A biblical epic about Jesus? Not his usual cup of tea. For all the immense scale though, it is the softer, quieter scenes that work. Quick montages of Jesus' miracles set to Rozsa's score are beautiful and effective. The sermon on the mount boasts all sorts of massive scale but is effective because of the dialogue and Hunter's acting. Certain events are glossed over more than others with a bigger focus late on the Passion and Resurrection. Obviously not nearly as graphic as the Passion of the Christ, it remains a moving finale.

King of Kings works because it doesn't try to be gigantically epic. It is content to tell a big story -- maybe history's BIGGEST story -- and to tell it well. Well worth it though, definitely worth checking out. Also listen for Ray Bradbury's uncredited narration, Orson Welles reading said narration, and future familiar face from the spaghetti western genre, Aldo Sambrell, making his screen debut.

King of Kings (1961): ****/****

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Furious 7

When I think back to the first time I watched 2001's The Fast and The Furious -- probably about 13 years ago -- I remember liking it but not loving it. I can safely say I never thought that six movies later the franchise would be stronger than ever, and that I also would be disgustingly excited for each new entry. I've been counting down the months, weeks and days until the latest franchise entry. Maybe you've heard of it, a little movie released in theaters this past weekend, Furious 7.

Having put their mission in England and Spain behind them in putting away Owen Shaw, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew of street racers and drivers have moved on. Well, that's the plan at least. Having moved back to his old stomping grounds in Los Angeles, Dom, friend and partner and crime, Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker), and his sister, Mia (Jordana Brewster) barely survive an explosion from a bomb sent their way by Shaw's older, more dangerous brother, Deckard (Jason Statham). Worse than that? Their friend, Han (Sung Kang), has already been killed by Deckard who has vowed to dispatch anyone involved in the attack on his brother. As if the younger Shaw hadn't been good enough, now Dom, Brian and the crew are going up against the very best. Their best hope of getting Shaw before Shaw gets them? Teaming up with a government agent who knows the perfect way to bring that confrontation into reality.

Let's start with the uncomfortable. Star Paul Walker tragically passed away in November 2013 as filming was in high gear for this action-packed sequel. His death left the production in a troubled state. Should they continue on or abandon the project? How would the Brian character be treated in terms of a send-off? In stepped Walker's brothers Caleb and Cody who helped stand in for their brother in scenes that hadn't been filmed yet. Some brotherly look-a-likes, some quick CGI work, yeah, it stands out at times the scenes Walker wasn't there, but it's never distracting. Is it a difficult movie to watch at times knowing it will be Walker's last? Hell yes, but it is a fitting send-off for an incredibly likable actor and movie star.

The movie itself, well, it continues on without missing a beat. In steps director James Wan, replacing Justin Lin who had directed the last 'Fast' entries starting with 'Tokyo Drift.' I was a little wary, but Wan follows the formula that's made these movies so successful and amps it up quite a bit. The biggest compliment I can give here is that this is the type of fun, ridiculously over the top entertainment that movies SHOULD be. These movies are F-U-N from beginning to end. 'Furious' is the longest such entry at 137 minutes, but it never even remotely feels long. The pacing and story actually fly by. It's far from the most pointed story and drifts along with crazy action sequences filling in the blanks, but you go along for the ride. Pun intended by the way. This is a popcorn movie at its absolute freaking best.

Yes, the action is ridiculous and will be discussed later. I have thought and continue to think that the heart of these movies is the characters. Seven movies in, you're familiar with them. You like them and you're rooting for them. That starts with Vin Diesel as Dominic Toretto, the team's leader, a philosophizing, growling street racer who holds family and loyalty above all else. Mess with his family and brace to incur his wrath. The most important relationship is between Dom and Walker's Brian, a brotherly relationship that has gotten better and deeper with each passing movie. These aren't the youngsters of 2001's original film. They're a little older, a little wiser, but they're still two of the best, most skilled drivers around. Their dynamic throughout is the real heart of the movie, two friends off-screen who allow that friendship to carry over onto the screen.

But wait, there's more! Basically the whole team is back. Unfortunately Dwayne Johnson isn't around much for his part as muscle-bound, one-liner spewing Agent Hobbs. He's there at the beginning and end but not the middle. When he's there, it's prime stuff. He just brings an energy to the character no matter how long he's around. Along with Brewster's Mia, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, and Ludacris are all back. Rodriguez's Letty is slowly getting her memory back and gets some surprisingly effective scenes with Dom about their past. Tyrese as fast-talking jokester Roman Pearce and Ludacris as tech and hacker extraordinaire Tej provide some comic relief, a one-two punch who consistently get laughs from their bickering back and forths. Kang and Gal Gadot make quick appearances in footage from the previous movies and in a cool touch uniting the seemingly disjointed timeline of the franchise, Lucas Black reprises his role from Tokyo Drift as young driver Sean Boswell. Just a fun cast who are familiar with their characters and continue to bring them to life.

What would a successful franchise be without some fresh blood? Expanding on his surprise appearance at the end of 'F+F 6,' Statham has some fun as Deckard Shaw, a brooding, menacing villain who isn't given much to do other than pop up and wreak havoc at the least opportune time. I wish he was given more to do, but it's Statham in villain mode. That's rarely a bad thing. Other new faces include Nathalie Emmanuel as Ramsey, a world-class hacker, Djimon Hounsou as an international terrorist and Tony Jaa as his brutal enforcer, and UFC fighter Ronda Rousey as a bodyguard who tangles with Rodriguez's Letty. My favorite new part? Kurt Russell having a blast as Mr. Nobody, an incredibly capable, dangerous government agent who teams up with Dom and Co. to bring Shaw to justice. Russell is smiling almost every scene he's in, and it looks like he's genuinely having some chaotic fun.

Most movies would be hard-pressed to improve on the action of its two predecessors, Fast Five and Fast and Furious 6. '7' manages to do just that. The action is flat out, over the top, ludicrously nuts, never possibly exist in this reality type of action. Car chases in abundance, Statham taking on Hobbs early and then Diesel in the finale, Rodriguez and Rousey tearing each other up (in some classy gowns at that), it is all NUTS. It works though because the story and characters commit. It never plays out like a spoof. So yes, there's cars dropping out of a plane and parachuting to take down an armored convoy. Yes, the attack is nuts. Yes, Dom and Brian crash from one skyscraper to another....and another in Abu Dabi. The finale itself is probably about 30 minutes long and just a smorgasbord of excessive action on the streets of Los Angeles. Car chases, fist fights (with wrenches), helicopters and missile-loaded drones....and very few cops in sight. Go along with it and have some fun.

I read heading into this sequel that Wan and Co. filmed a poignant tribute to Paul Walker for the finale. Yeah, about's a perfect, moving ending. And no, those aren't tears in my eyes. I'm allergic to something, anything, whatever. Don't Judge Me!!! The final scene and a quick montage of Walker's involvement in the series is beyond a perfect send-off to the very popular movie star and actor. If this is the end of the series, so be it. This was a more than worthy finale. If it isn't -- supposedly there's at least 2 more sequels coming -- I'll welcome them with open arms. This is that rare series that has gotten better in the second half of its run. Judging by the box office money on opening weekend, I'm not the only one to feel that way. It made $400 million this weekend internationally. 400 MILLION!!!! That perfect popcorn movie and a fitting finale for Paul Walker's Brian O'Connor character.

Furious 7 (2014): ****/****

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Every so often I get embarrassed when it comes to movies. Yeah, those movies you should have seen by now. The classics for good and bad, the great performances, an award-winning something or other. We've all got them. I do my best to make sure that list is ever-shrinking, but there are gaps. So while I've reviewed all sorts of dud disaster flicks from The Swarm to When Time Ran Out, I'd never seen one of the first disaster films all the way through in one sitting until a recent viewing. Here's 1972's The Poseidon Adventure. Don't judge me. You think you're better than me?!?

Sailing from New York City to Athens, the S.S. Poseidon is making one last voyage after years of service around the world, a ship destined for the scrap heap. That voyage is behind schedule though, and its captain (Leslie Nielsen) is under pressure to make up some serious time with so much money on the line. That speed may make up lost time but it puts the ship, crew and passengers at serious risk, but none of them know what awaits. Sailing through the Mediterranean, the Poseidon receives news of an immense earthquake off the Greek coast and its repercussions are heading right for the fully-loaded passenger ship. During a New Year's Eve celebration, an enormous wave moving at dangerous speeds is coming right for them. The ship is capsized in the wave's wake with much of the crew and many passengers killed. One small group survives though, and led by a fiery, trouble-making reverend, Scott (Gene Hackman), they try to make it through an upside down apocalyptic environment that was their ocean liner. Can they make it to the hull and possible rescue?

When it comes to disaster movies, I typically associate two movies with kick-starting the genre into its highest popularity. First, there's 1970's Airport. Second, well, here we sit. Though I've seen the entire movie here, I'd never before seen it in one viewing where I just sat down and blazed through it. Thanks, TCM! I didn't love it, but I did like it. It's difficult to watch this movie in 2015 and see it with a fresh light. This is a movie that has impacted hundreds of flicks since its release in 1972. So now on a fist-time view over 40 years later, it feels cliched, familiar and at times, overdone. None of those criticisms prove to be a deal-breaker in the end, but it will definitely impact your viewing. Still, this is a movie that helped launch an entire genre that was everywhere in theaters for almost a full decade. They weren't always classics -- or even that good -- but let's give credit where it is due.

One of the biggest impacts 'Poseidon' had on its future is the casting. This disaster movie from director Ronald Neame (and an uncredited Irwin Allen, the producer as well) assembles a pretty solid all-star cast. Future flicks would take the all-star cast concept to ridiculous levels where EVERYONE in Hollywood would make an appearance. If the script here is a little goofy, who better to keep righting the ship than Gene Hackman? I submit No One. His Reverend Scott is angry, a leader, a fighter and not interested in any excuses or garbage. When all else seems lost, he keeps his motley crew of survivors to keep moving as the water levels keep on rising. He's also rocking an impressive combover and a very stylish turtleneck. With a lot of actors, maybe the part gets a tad hammy, but because it's Gene Hackman, you go along for the ride. It's Hackman!

So what's the appeal of the ensemble all-star cast? Let's get down to business. We want to see which celebrity lives and which celebrity is due for an overdramatic death scene. So who is possible fodder for that finale? A Just Hit Play favorite, Ernest Borgnine goes for the gusto as Rogo, a police officer traveling with his new bride, a former hooker (Stella Stevens). There's also an older Jewish couple (Shelley Winters, Jack Albertson) traveling to see their grandson, two siblings (Pamela Sue Martin, Eric Shea) going to meet their parents, a lonely, middle-aged man (Red Buttons) who bonds with the ship band singer (Carol Lynley), and a member of the ship's crew, a waiter (Roddy McDowall). Winters was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress and comes across the best. The kids are pretty shrill, Borgnine and Hackman yell a lot, and Buttons is also very solid. A little hit or miss, but a strong cast overall.

How about some originality? Well, a capsized ocean liner quickly filling with water sure is a unique starting point. The survivors have to navigate their potential tomb...upside down. It's a hellish, claustrophobic, steamy, smoky environment littered with dead bodies and an ever-rising water level. You definitely feel like you're there with the survivors as they navigate this almost other-worldly situation. It's a cool premise that definitely pays dividends. The early, doom-building scenes are also incredibly effective as is the actual capsizing scene, just one epically uncomfortable extended sequence featuring some very cool special effects.

Sure, things get a touch overdone at times, especially with the pissing contest between Hackman and Borgnine for control of the group. Sure, the God/religion/faith aspects get to be a little much. Overall, it's an enjoyable movie that I've got to give a notch up simply because of its profound impact on countless movies released in its wake. Any movie that is still impacting flicks over 40 years later is okay in my book. Took quite a long time to sit down and watch it, but 'Poseidon' was worth the wait.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972): ***/****