The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

More Dead Than Alive

The name Aubrey Schenck might not immediately ring a bell. A longtime producer in Hollywood, Schenck was at the helm of some very good B-movies and some very bad B-movies. The common denominator? Good or bad, they were usually pretty entertaining. Here's one of his western ventures, 1969's More Dead Than Alive, a familiar story with a twist and a good cast.

Having served 18 years in a territorial prison in Arizona, a man named Cain (Clint Walker) has put his past behind him and has earned parole. Not bad considering his past life as a gunfighter piled up 12 kills to his name. Earning that early release though, Cain wants nothing more than to put that violent, blood-riddled life behind him. Can he though? He can't find a steady job, has no money to his name, and as he quickly finds out, his name still means something to a whole lot of people. Some are just curious to meet him while others are more interested in testing his long since lost prowess with a pistol. Taking somewhat desperate measures, Cain takes a job with a wild west shooting show run by an opportunistic businessman and carnival barker, Dan Ruffalo (Vincent Price). His reputation precedes him, even if his shooting ability isn't what it used to be. There may be a bigger issue with the show's previous main attraction, a young gunfighter named Billy (Paul Hampton) who doesn't like his attention stolen away from him.

From producer Schenck and director Robert Sparr, 'Dead' is definitely a somewhat budget-constricted B-movie, clearly filmed on some back lots in California. The cast is small(ish) with a few big names and some unfamiliar faces filling out the rest of the roles. Nothing that qualifies as a deal-breaker yet, right? Correct! I like cheap, easily digestible westerns like that...most of the time. So while this one has potential, it derails slowly but surely, really coming off the tracks in the last act. In the end, I felt like I was getting one movie and instead got one that couldn't quite make up its mind about what it was trying to accomplish.

This is a western that has some fun with the myth of the gunfighter. From 1950's The Gunfighter to 1976's The Shootist, a whole sub-genre of westerns is devoted to demythologizing of the wild west gunfighter. Often romanticized, the profession of sorts was far from it. You were the fastest gun around...until you weren't. There was a price for fame, for gaining that reputation, and often it was a bullet in your back. That's Clint Walker's Cain (no first name), a reformed hired gun and killer with 12 dead bodies to his name. Those years in jail did him good, cleaned him up and got his mind right to the point all he wants to do is settle down and start up a ranch of his own, if he can get some money to do so. Familiar territory? Yep, seen over and over again in westerns as a safe, fallback option for a story. So....

Yeah, not new ground, but when 'Dead' works, it is because of star Clint Walker. A western standby after his TV run as Cheyenne ended in 1962, Walker is always a welcome sight when I see him in a cast listing. His heroes -- even relative anti-heroes like here -- are stout and resolute, ready to stand by their guns no matter what gets thrown at them. In just about every role I've seen him, Walker is natural, likable and obviously quite the imposing physical presence at 6-foot-6 with a stature that looks like he could take on a grizzly bear...and win. He injects some energy into Cain, a gunfighter who wants to move on. You're rooting for him, a man who's made his mistakes and wants to leave them in the past.

So Walker is good, and Vincent Price steals the show as only Vincent Price can, but...that's about it with worthwhile characters. Hampton overacts so laughably bad that his Billy character develops like a spoof. Billy Valence is extremely talented with a gun but has never faced anyone down, just inanimate targets. When he begins to crumble, the emotional scenes are cringe-worthy. Anne Francis is okay as Monica Ralston, but her character seems out of place. She's a free-spirit, a painter and artist who travels and the wild west. Seems more appropriate for a hippie movie of the late 1960s, not a hard-hitting western, and their slowly developing love interest never worked with a general lack of chemistry. Mike Henry has a small but fun part as a notorious bandit with a grudge against Cain, and also look for Craig Littler, Clarke Gordon, Beverly Powers and William Woodson in other small supporting parts.

Taking it all in though, there's something missing. The bloody, harsh opening jailbreak scene is a gem, getting my hopes up in a big way. The music is pretty horrendous, horrifyingly out of place in dramatic scenes to the point it plays like a spoof. Oh, and of course there's a moody, overdone ballad of a theme song. Mostly though, it can't pick a path and stick with it. The story and characters bounce all over, seemingly getting somewhere but never in a direct fashion. Hampton is really, really rough with a character with potential but is completely hammed up and trying too hard. As good as Walker and Price are, 'Dead' is undone by those flaws. The ending should come as more of a surprise, but it doesn't and because the tone has been all over from left field to the end zone (yes, I understand), the end falls flat. Just too bad.

More Dead Than Alive (1969): **/****

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Great Locomotive Chase

Walt Disney was a man with ideas far ahead of his time. As television was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the 1950s, Disney's Disneyland TV series was ground-breaking and gave viewers something they'd never seen before. These were smart shows too, shows about culture, the world, nature, and maybe most memorably, history. Kids loved history (kinda still do I guess). In one of his lesser known efforts that doesn't have the reputation of his other ventures, a historical feature film, 1956's The Great Locomotive Chase.

It's 1862 and the Civil War is still in its early stages both in the east in Virginia and in the south too in Tennessee and Georgia. Among all the fighting, one man, James Andrews (Fess Parker), is making a reputation as a blockade runner, supplying the Confederate forces with much-needed supplies. In reality though, Andrews is a spy working for the Union. Now, he's been tasked with a dangerous mission. In hopes of helping a surprise Union advance, Andrews and a small detachment of men must travel deep into Georgia and try to destroy as much of a key railroad as they can so Confederate reinforcements can't reach the fighting in time. What's Andrews' plan though? Well, the odds are against him. Not too far north of Atlanta, he and his men will steal a locomotive and race up the line, destroying track, burning bridges, and ripping down telegraph wires, all the while hoping to stay ahead of pursuers. Can they do it? It's going to take some luck and some impeccable planning and timing.

This 1956 Disney historical drama is actually based on a true story from the Civil. With an obvious SPOILER warning, read about it HERE. This is a story that may seem familiar to movie fans with Buster Keaton telling the same story way back in 1926 with the classic silent film, The General (a gem if you haven't seen it). For whatever reason, it hasn't resonated with audiences since its release like so many other Disney movies of the 1950's and 1960's. The goal? At least partially replicate the success of the Davy Crockett episodes (starring Parker) that swept the country. I've seen this movie twice and like it a lot. If it isn't a classic, so be it. If it exciting stuff, especially when the locomotive chase comes along, and features a pretty cool cast of recognizable faces, if not huge star power.

Aired recently on Turner Classic Movies as part of a Disney-themed night, host Leonard Maltin made an interesting point, something I try and bring up occasionally in reviews. Way back in 1956, there was no such thing as computer-generated images. If you wanted something in your movie, you had to find some way through special and visual effects, matte paintings, tricks of the eyes to get the job done. So what's the coolest thing going here? That chase. THAT CHASE. Filmed in Georgia, 'Locomotive' used real locomotives and had them tearing up and down railroad tracks through the Georgia countryside. Shot in technicolor, director Francis D. Lyon turns in one beautiful-looking movie. The chase is incredibly exciting, edge of your seat stuff as Andrews and his Raiders run for their lives with....

Dogged pursuit unfortunately (for them). The mission actually starts off pretty successfully. What Andrews hadn't counted on was the freakishly stubborn train official, William Fuller (Jeffrey Hunter, just 30 years old), who chases them up the track with everything he has. At just 85 minutes, 'Locomotive' is a pretty quick movie, but it is at its absolute strongest in the 45-minute or so extended chase scene from beginning to end. It becomes a lightning-paced cat and mouse game as Andrews throws everything he can at Fuller while Fuller puts his head down and barrels through the obstacles. I try and avoid saying a movie is a thrill ride, but as far as chase scenes go, this is one of the best. There's too many anxious moments to count, the success or failure of the mission contingent on a second or two here, a minute or two there. The chase, the twists, the Georgia countryside, the matte paintings in the background, it's all can't miss stuff.

If you're a fan of tough guy movies from westerns to war movies to film noirs and with a good dose of Disney thrown in, you'll get a kick out of the cast here. For starters, Davy Crockett himself as Andrews is a welcome lead. A tad wooden at times, Parker is nonetheless a very likable hero, stout, resolute, loyal and willing to risk it all to accomplish his mission. Hunter isn't given much to do other than stubbornly chase after a train, but his presence is always welcome. Their few scenes together -- Parker and Hunter -- are excellent, especially one when Hunter's Fuller approaches Andrews because he believes something is up minutes before the locomotive heist. As for the rest of the cast, look for Kenneth Tobey, John Lupton, Jeff York, Harry Carey Jr., Don Megowan, Slim Pickens, Claude Jarman Jr., and Eddie Firestone. Remember, it's just 85 minutes long so little character development but a lot of familiar, welcome faces.

Not much to fault here. The post-chase fallout drags a bit only because it seems Disney and Co. didn't quite know how to wrap things up. Stick with the history (a rather dark history at that) or fudge the truth a little bit? Disney sticks with the real-life history for an ending that's pretty dark for a Disney movie. Thankfully, it goes down the Davy Crockett route and only hits at what's to happen, never showing it in what would have been graphic detail. And come on, Parker (Crockett), Tobey (Bowie) and Megowan (Travis) are back together again! With York (Mike Fink) too! How can you lose?!? An underrated winner.

The Great Locomotive Chase (1956): ***/****

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Logan's Run

My timing really couldn't have been more impeccable. I just turned the big 3-0 a few weeks ago in mid-June. Through dumb luck, Turner Classic Movie's always solid schedule, and my inability to catch up with this movie over the years, I watched 1976's Logan's Run for the first time. The premise? A futuristic society where everyone is killed once they turn 30 to help control the population. Well, if that isn't downright bad timing, I don't know what is.

It's late in the 23rd Century and what remains of mankind lives in a domed city protected from all outer dangers. This is life at its hedonistic, fun-loving, screw the consequences best...with a catch. You get to live life to the fullest, but at the age of 30, you must undergo Carousel, a renewal process to let you start life over again. Among the population is a man in his late 20s, Logan 5 (Michael York), a 'Sandman' who helps track down 'Runners,' those not interested in the Carousel process. As he watches on renewal ceremony though, Logan begins to question more and more about the whole layout. Something just doesn't make sense. Something doesn't add up. The problem is though, he's good at what he does -- very good -- and doesn't want to risk anything by investigating. Some things though...they're just too perfect to pass up.

Well, here we sit. I do love me a good science fiction flick. I especially love those ventures from the 1960's and 1970's, movies like Planet of the Apes, Fahrenheit 451, Westworld, Soylent Green (more on that later), and The Omega Man. This flick from director Michael Anderson is one I've always wanted to see but never actively sought out. It is based off a novel by authors William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, but it sounds like the film and novel have very little in common other than the name and the basic premise. My biggest issue though? I liked it, but as has been the case with a lot of so-called twist movies, the twist works...but not afterward in using that all-important twist as a jumping off point.

It's my Christmas Eve theory all over again. Do you want the mystery of your presents or do you want to know what's under all that wrapping paper?!? I like the mystery so naturally, I love the build-up in mysterious, twist-based movies. The other issue is pretty obvious. Of course everything isn't hunky-dory in this futuristic world!!! It doesn't come as a surprise that the whole 30-year old Carousel renewal process is garbage. The build-up is solid as Logan 5 begins to piece things together. All humans have a crystal implant in their left hand inserted at birth and once they reach 30, it begins to flash. Your turn for renewal! I felt like something was missing. The "twist" seemed far too obvious to me, especially actually seeing the renewal process. Still, though there are flaws through the first hour of the 119-minute movie, it is still an above average, tension-filled sci-fi story. I just wish the second half could have followed suit with it.

The cast definitely has some fun along the way, whether it be starring roles or just key supporting parts. I thought York was okay as Logan, but it's missing something in that lead role department. His female companion is Jenny Agutter's Jessica, a 20-something young woman drawn to Logan who may know more than she's letting on. They spend much of the movie running for safety and whining when they have some free time. They just aren't the most compelling characters and that takes away from the drama and mystery. Richard Jordan is excellent as Francis, Logan's best friend and fellow Sandman who wants his friend to simply get in line, stop questioning and enjoy life but when it comes right down to it, he's got his own job to do. In other supporting parts look for Michael Anderson Jr., Roscoe Lee Browne, Farrah Fawcett (feathered hair and all), and Peter Ustinov.

Just last year, a movie was released that I don't remember seeing in any theaters, and I only noticed it on Redbox. It's called Space Station 76, and is a futuristic sci-fi movie, 1970's style. Just check out that poster! 'Logan' is a prime inspiration for that spoof. This futuristic world, a domed city, looks like it was shot in a mall. A nice mall at that, but you get the idea. Everyone wears pastel colors because God bless, everyone is happy. The women refuse to wear bras (so there's that), instead opting for loose, almost sheer quasi-dresses. The effects too are horrifically dated, both obvious miniatures and more obvious green screen shots. Considering all these things, there is a certain charm in small doses, but combine them all together and you've got quite a lot of 1970's science fiction cheese. At times, it reminded me of the classic Soylent Green, but the payoff there was far better than it was here.

And that's what my disappointment comes down to. 'Logan' has a ton of potential and delivers on it at certain points but ultimately comes up short. It's played straight but too often comes through like a spoof. Roscoe Lee Browne providing his voice for a ridiculous-looking killer robot? Peter Ustinov as the oldest man alive, a crazy cat man at that? Shouldn't someone be controlling the questioning? Just a computer is in charge of this last beacon of hope for mankind? There are simply too many unanswered questions and predicaments that ultimately did the movie in for me. A disappointing rating because I definitely wanted to like this one more.

Logan's Run (1976): **/****

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jurassic Park

I couldn't remember the last time I sat down and watched 1993's Jurassic Park. In my teenage years -- better known as the late 90s -- this movie was on TV seemingly every day on countless channels....and I watched it a ton. But that whole mildly successful sequel, 2015's Jurassic World, threw me right back into the franchise. Sure, the sequel was a lot of mindless, stupid fun, but the original is almost always better. A true classic. A gem. A must-see. Jurassic Park.

Working at a fossil/dig site in Montana, paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) are in the midst of unearthing a huge find...when they're interrupted by a helicopter carrying a bazillionaire philanthropist, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), who has an odd request for them. He's asking them to come examine, experience and see a new theme park he's spent years building, promising quite the paycheck if they come along. They do, flying out to Isla Nubar, an island in the Pacific off the coast of Costa Rica, not sure what they've gotten themselves in to. Along with them is a brilliant mathematician, Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who's equally curious. What exactly is Hammond behind? The entire group is stunned to find that somehow, some way, Hammond and his bioengineering company, InGen, has managed to create real-life dinosaurs and not just one, but many different species. The plan to open the theme park to the public couldn't possibly work, could it? There are just too many things that could go wrong....right?

My goodness. What a freaking movie. It's hard to believe it has been 22 years since the original and by far still the best of the series hit theaters way back in 1993. It's hard to believe for so many reasons. One, it impacted countless movies after. The technology on display here helped rewrite Hollywood with big, broad strokes. What 'Park' did with its computer-generated effects is nothing short of extraordinary, and almost every movie released since featuring any CGI owes a tip of the cap in this direction. The premise itself? Both inventively genius and criminally simplistic in its entertainment value. You can't say that for too many movies now, can you? Twenty-plus years later, it hasn't lost any of its edge, shock value or entertainment, director Steven Spielberg turning in a true classic, and a profoundly important movie in film history.

This 1993 scientifically-charged thriller is based off a novel from author Michael Crichton. The book is a gem, one of those great examples of what a perfect thriller can be. It's by no means a criticism to say that Spielberg's film is one of the few books as good as its source novel. Instead, it is a compliment to both film and novel. It will come as no shock that Hammond's idealistic park has its faults, resulting in an ever-growing body count, but 'Jurassic' does bring together intelligence and creativity with a straightforward survival story. Doesn't get any simpler than that. Run and get away or get eaten by a prehistoric dinosaur brought back from extinction. Oh, the movie looks great, what's real and what's CGI, and a little musical score from composer John Williams is pretty decent too. Maybe you've heard it? Listen HERE, a score and theme that becomes another character in a generally flawless movie.

Who doesn't love dinosaurs? Anyone? Bueller? Exactly. From kids to senior citizens and everyone in between, DINOSAURS ARE AWESOME. AWESOME I TELLS YA! Spielberg, Crichton and a heck of a crew from Industrial Light & Magic bring the dinosaurs to life, most notably the tyrannosaurus rex and the velociraptor, two of nature and history's most terrifying killing machines. The characters are excellent (more on the cast later), but it is the dinosaurs who steal the show. The T-Rex chasing down a fleeing jeep, the raptors hunting in packs, an attack always a blink away, these scenes of dinosaurs on the bloody hunt are scenes to behold, like Jaws on steroids. Spielberg builds the tension up to unbearable levels, water in a plastic cup shaking as a T-Rex approaches from the jungle. The horrifying realization that a raptor can open a door. These quiet, terrifying moments balance out with the hold onto your seat moments in impeccable fashion. Even knowing where these scenes are going,

The best movies bring their stories to life, and that's where Jurassic Park succeeds at the highest levels. Whether it's the hint of the power and vicious hunting of a raptor or a chase across a grassy plain with a herd of gallimimus being chased down a T-Rex, these moments are exhilarating to watch as a moviegoer. All those creatures you saw in books, there they are, big as life, on the screen in front of you. Yeah, it produces some freaking scary moments once the dinos are loose, but from the moment we first see the dinosaurs, there is that feeling of being transported back to your childhood reading those books. We're seeing something that has been extinct for at least 65 million years. It sounds so simple to say that, but that is the simple, elegant beauty of this classic movie and its lasting impression, impact and quality. Just a gem.

The stars are the dinosaurs, but the human actors aren't too shabby either. I've always been a Neill fan, mostly because of this part as the pragmatic, highly intelligent Dr. Grant, amazed by what he sees but wary of these scientific developments. His chemistry with Dern's Ellie is spot-on, and the questioning trio is complete with a scene-stealing, never better Jeff Goldblum as questioning mathematician, Ian Malcolm. Throw in Attenborough (in his first acting role) since 1979, and you've got some thump at the top of the order. Also look for Samuel L. Jackson and Wayne Knight as park employees, BD Wong the bioengineer who helped create them, Bob Peck as Muldoon, the game hunter and park's game warden, Martin Ferrero as the $-for-eyes lawyer, and Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards as Tim and Lex, Hammond's grandkids visiting the island.

As an old man of 29 watching this -- as opposed to a know it all 12 year old -- I was able to appreciate the kick-ass dinosaurs, but also the intelligence, creativity and general smarts of the movie. I loved Malcolm's non-stop criticism, the destructive nature of the park no matter what it was intended for, leading to his immortal line 'Nature finds a way' in a phenomenal monologue. His chaos theory says that in the end, well, chaos will reign. You can't truly control what doesn't want to be controlled, especially dinosaurs. Creatures from literally millions of years ago, recreated and controlled? No way. As well, the way the dinosaurs are created is beyond ingenious, a credit to Crichton's writing ability and Spielberg's ability to flesh it out (and with some twists along the way about dinosaurs that are supposedly unable to reproduce). Yes, this is a huge action/thriller blockbuster, but it is also an incredibly intelligent and creative film. It works pretty effortlessly on basically every level possible.

Spielberg is an all-time great, a director with classics Jaws, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and the Indiana Jones movies to his name (among others). This is a film that definitely belongs on that list. A true classic on all levels. This will be a movie that down the road people still look back and marvel at it. Can't say enough about this classic. A gem, and a movie you most definitely should have seen by now.

Jurassic Park (1993): ****/****

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Mind of Mr. Soames

Well, it's been awhile since I've used this intro so let's dust it off. I watch way more movies than I probably should to the point I feel like I've kinda run out of older, good movies. I can find plenty of bad ones! But use that old sticktuitiveness (that's a word, right?) and keep looking. You will find some gems out there, some forgotten classics, or at least something mildly entertaining. That was 1970's The Mind of Mr. Soames for me, a movie I'd never even remotely heard of but ending up enjoying a lot.

At an isolated English manor, an extremely risky medical procedure is about to be performed, something that has never seemingly been done before safely. During its birth some 30 years earlier, damage was done to an infant boy's brain, putting him into a coma he never awoke from. Now, that man, John Soames (Terence Stamp), is just turning 30 and two doctors, Bergen (Robert Vaughn) and Maitland (Nigel Davenport), intend to wake him up. The risky procedure works, but that's only the start of things. Soames never had a chance to grow up even though he has the body of a full-grown adult. What to do? Well, Soames exhibits all the characteristics of an infant so Doctors Bergen and Maitland have to teach him literally how to be a person. Their methods differ though and threaten to cause a riff. How do you teach a 30-year old man about...well, everything? Their work is cut out for them, and nothing will come easily.

What a cool, interesting movie. And yes, to reiterate, I'd never heard of it in the least. Aired recently on Turner Classic Movies a few weeks ago as part of a Robert Vaughn-themed night, I gave it a shot. I'm glad I did although I will say I was heading into a different movie than I got. Just looking at the cast and watching the first few minutes of the flick, I thought I'd stumbled into a horror thriller from Hammer Films. I was wrong. From director Alan Cooke, 'Soames' is far more of a low-key thriller early on that morphs into a darker, more sinister psychological thriller in its second half. Definitely worth seeking out though.

For starters, the trio at the top pulled me in here, Vaughn, Stamp and Davenport. By 1970, Vaughn was the most established star by far in both film and television, Davenport was a recognizable face and a very reliable character actor and Stamp the up and coming star. These are three incredibly interesting performances, all for different reasons. Vaughn and Davenport get to play off each other and do it incredibly well. We've got two incredibly gifted, talented doctors who are also convinced of their own methods. Vaughn's Bergen is more sympathetic, wanting the infant 30-year old to grow up and learn in a nurturing, more natural environment. Davenport's Maitland is more rigid, wanting Soames to learn, learn and LEARN and then maybe have some fun. The script pretty obviously shows which one they think is right (cough Vaughn cough Davenport is always evil cough), but the two actors do a good job bringing that friction to life.

And then there's that third guy, Terence Stamp. Still a relative newcomer to feature films, Stamp had starred in a handful of movies since making his screen debut in 1962's Billy Budd and Term of Trial. Here, it's just a quality, intriguing and interesting performance. As is usually the case with roles similar to this (disabilities of any sort, mental or physical), there's always the potential to be over the top, ridiculous, forced, even hammy. Stamp manages to avoid all of those potential disasters. He's believable, sympathetic and is always interesting. The range of the character goes from an infant who can't speak and has absolutely no concept of the world to a young boy, maybe four or five who can speak and is slowly beginning to grasp things. Still, how do you explain the entire world to an individual who's 30 years behind? An emotionally effective performance, one that balances the drama and some laughs mixed in as Soames "grows up" in some sorts.

Also look for Christian Roberts as the TV personality who with a crew is taping the first few months of Soames' life for a TV special and Donal Donnelly as Allan, another doctor at the manor in the English countryside working with Soames and maybe the one who's closest to the childlike 30-year old.

As I watched 'Soames,' all I could think of was how similar at times it is to 1968's Charly, starring Cliff Robertson in an Academy Award-winning role. Both films take similar outlooks on life, stories about people deemed "different" because they aren't cookie-cutter in appearance or personality or behavior. It was cool to read then that the same studio that made 'Soames' had previously tried to buy the rights for Flowers for Algernon, the novel that became Charly. As for our movie here, I liked it a lot, intriguing to the end. I thought I had the ending pegged but I was off in the finale-predicting department. What could have been an absolute whopper of an ending is still pretty good but it taps the brakes a bit rather than going for a knockout blow. Still, an excellent, little-known flick that is definitely worth tracking down.

The Mind of Mr. Soames (1970): ***/****

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

World Without End (1956)

Hard to mess up a good, old-fashioned time traveling story. When it's good, it can be great, a picture into the future we don't know or the past we do. What bizarre versions of our future can be presented? When it's bad....oh, it can be glorious and downright awful, often times in B-movies like 1956's World Without End. Where does this one end up?

It's 1957 and a crew of astronauts is orbiting Mars, transmitting what they see back to Earth before completing their mission and heading for home. Commanded by Dr. Eldon Galbraithe (Nelson Leigh), the crew includes John Borden (Hugh Marlowe), a scientist, Herb Ellis (Rod Taylor), the radioman, and an engineer, Henry Jaffe (Christopher Dark). Soon after beginning the return trip though, the spaceship begins to accelerate to dangerous speeds, eventually going so fast that all four members of the crew are knocked out. The spaceship crashes on a snow-covered mountain on a mysterious planet, but the entire crew survives. What do they find? They theorize the spaceship flew so fast that it flew forward in time. Dr. Galbraithe and his men surmise that they've actually crashed on Earth some 500 years into the future. The crew has found our future where a surviving band of slightly altered humans are fighting for their existence against mutant human beings. Can they make it out alive?

This 1956 sci-fi B-movie was aired on Turner Classic Movies recently as part of a time travel themed-night. And my goodness....was it cheesy, but in a good way! It comes from probably the strongest decade ever for science fiction movies (the 1950s) and has an interesting story, casting and some timely messages. It comes from director Edward Bernds (who also wrote the screenplay) and manages to rise above its B-movie status to be pretty damn entertaining, sometimes in a bad way but mostly in a fun, sit back and enjoy the ride kind of entertainment. This isn't a movie with a huge fan following or rave critical reviews, but it was a good flick in itself and also in how it was an influence on some major science fiction flicks still to be released in the coming years.

The most obvious influence? That would be 1968's Planet of the Apes. The first 30 minutes or so serves almost as a literal blueprint for that famous sci-fi classic that spawned a whole franchise that's still plugging along today. Astronauts on mission, something goes wrong, they land on a mysterious planet, and GO! Let the new planet hijinks begin! Obviously, if you've read this far you know the twist -- that they've landed on....future EARTH!!!! but it is in the build-up that the story works. What happened exactly? So if we know where they are, we now get to ask the infamous time travel question. WHEN are they? Yeah, it can be cheesy but if you've seen enough time travel sci-fi flicks, you know the moment is coming so sit back and appreciate it for all its cheesy glory. In the meantime, watch out for the giant spiders, mutated creatures and caveman-like residents of Earth.

No big names here and really only one future star in the cast. That would be Rod Taylor in an early role and rocking his heavy Aussie accent. The crew's radioman, Taylor's Herb (maybe the sexiest name ever) is the resident ladies man of the quartet. Taylor is clearly having some fun with the part as these future Earth women are completely undone by his muscles and physique. A good early part (albeit a supporting one) for Mr. Taylor. Marlowe was the most recognizable star of the time, and he's okay in a part that doesn't give him much to do other than be the stout, sturdy, resolute hero who's trying to overcome some past mission failures. Rounding out the four-man crew, Leigh is older and brainier as the crew's commander and scientist while Dark's Jaffe is the brilliant mathematician coping with the loss of his family, now long since dead know, the ship traveled forward in time.

One of the biggest selling points for me within the science fiction genre is how does said movie envision the future. In the meantime that vision is dated by budget and special effects limitations. So what does 'World' think the future will be like? Well, funny looking. The men are all crippled and saggy and withering away while the women wear tight clothing, are apparently really horny and fascinated by these new arrivals from Earth's past, these new specimens that represent all that is man. The sets and the wardrobes are hysterical once the crew finds some remnant of mankind, but they add that all-important cheesy charm to the proceedings. For the future babes of Earth, look for Nancy Gates and Lisa Montell while the future weaklings of men are led by Everett Glass' Timmek.

There is a muddled message somewhere in the story about the Cold War and nuclear destruction and embracing life and all that good stuff. It's not really an effective message, nothing as ominous or effective as like-minded messages from so many other classic 1950s sci-fi movies. This is a movie better suited to dumb entertainment without any messages getting in the way.

World Without End (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Night Moves (1975)

The time of the film noir was long since past, its shadowy streets, scarred, flawed anti-heroes and dastardly villains gone the way of the do-do bird. The genre lived on into the 1950s some before moving on. Then...THEN, along came the 1960s and everything weird and drug-induced and dark and cynical. Here came a new type of film noir, almost as if it was on LCD or acid of some sort. A whole sub-genre of flicks came along, the private detective meets film noir meets general weirdness. That's today's flick, a 1975 neo-noir called Night Moves.

A former pro football player, Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman) is a mildly successful private investigator working in Los Angeles. He's a dogged investigator and good at what he does, stubborn to a fault to get answers, but there just isn't much money in the business. His home life with his wife (Susan Clark) becoming increasingly frustrated with that lifestyle, but now Harry has a case on his plate that's peaks his curiosity. A past her prime actress, Arlene Iverson (Janet Ward), wants Harry to track down her missing daughter, Delly, who's been gone for several days with no word at all. Delly is a teenager with a free spirit who's embraced quite the freeing lifestyle. Where to start though? Delly...well, she got around but Harry decides to start in Florida where her stepfather lives a life of ease (seemingly). Immediately though with anyone he talks to, Harry feels like he's getting the run-around. What has he stumbled into?

I recorded this movie on Turner Classic Movies a few months back and never got around to it, eventually deleting it. Just my luck, it popped back up on the schedule a few weeks ago so I gave it another shot. What to say? What an interesting, weird, off-the-wall movie in just about every description I can come up with. 'Night' comes from director Arthur Penn, he of Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man and The Missouri Breaks, among others. His movies were part of a New Wave in Hollywood, featuring European influences (mostly French) while also blending the general cynicism washing across America. Authority, the government, the system, all of it would come under question in the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

The filming style and technique used by Penn is a more natural effort. Scenes transition from one to the next in the blink of an eye. The story itself drifts along as Hackman's Harry meets one person after another, some he's met in the past, others he's meeting for the first time. There is some description or background of these people, but not a lot so pay attention or you'll miss the little tidbits here and there. There has to be a confidence within the story and the director and his crew to pull off something like that. Yeah, 'Night' has the idea of a story, but it is far from your typical, even straightforward story. So in that sense, this is a movie that drifts along in pretty easy-going fashion. It's also intensely frustrating at times because it slows down to a snail's pace where there's literally no story movement. The thing that holds it together...

Maybe you've heard of him. His name is Gene Hackman. The 1970s were Hackman's decade with one classic role and movie after another. Even when he hams it up a bit, he's still eternally watchable. When he plays things straight, you get movies like this. Hackman's Harry is calm and cool and exceptionally good at what he does. His personal life is a different story, like when he discovers his wife is having an affair (with Harris Yulin). Frustrated to no end, this P.I. dives back into his work, seeking some sort of solace in finding answers for his cases. He gets a lot of screentime with Jennifer Warren's Paula, a woman in her 30s with quite the checkered past that got her to this place. I didn't love the movie overall and struggled at time to stick with it, but Hackman helps get through the rough patches in a very solid lead performance.

The rest of the cast is okay, but nothing crazy. Not much in the way of big names so instead we get a lot of familiar faces in character actors. Along with Clark, Yulin and Warren, look for Edward Binns, Kenneth Mars, Anthony Costello, and John Crawford. In two of the best supporting parts, 17-year old Melanie Griffith plays the sexually free Delly while James Woods plays a mechanic who may be up to something who's also a friend of our young Delly. 'Night' caused a stir because the underage Griffith has several nude scenes and even had several love scenes cut from the final product. Woods is already brimming with intensity which works well in several scenes with Hackman.

It's been a week since I watched this 1975 detective noir story, and man, I still can't wrap my head around it. The second half of the movie does pack some surprises as Harry's investigation uncovers all sorts of shady dealings, but it never quite comes together. By the time everything is laid out....yeah, I'm still not sure what happened and why that person is dead or that person betrayed somebody. Confusing to say the least, but even with that said, there is still something oddly entertaining about this not so normal detective story. Flawed but interesting.

Night Moves (1975): ** 1/2 /****

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Sometimes the formula is better than the finished product. That was my thought going into 2015's Blackhat, a colossal failure at the box office earlier this season. We mix director Michael Mann, star Chris Hemsworth and a cyber-thriller story....should be pretty good, right? Reviews and a very poor box office seem to indicate otherwise. Where does it end up then for this Michael Mann/Chris Hemsworth fan?

At a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong, a hacker causes the coolant pumps to overheat and eventually cause an immense explosion. Not long after, the same hacker unleashes his work on a mercantile exchange, making millions of dollars in the process by placing stocks in the right place. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), a military officer in China's cyber warfare unit, has now been placed in charge of the investigation, tasked with finding those individuals responsible for the attacks. As he investigates the attacks and how the hacker pulled them off, Chen realizes the code the hacker is using was actually written by...Chen himself, years before when he was in college. He actually wrote it with his roommate, Nicholas Hathaway (Hemsworth), now wasting in prison for a sentence because of his own hacking and computer crimes. Working together, Hathaway is granted release to help track down the hacker but time is in short supply. Could this hacker unleash another attack? If so, what's his end game?

I'm a huge Michael Mann fan. I love Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Thief, Collateral, and even like his less well-received efforts like Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and yes, this movie, Blackhat. I liked it. I did. I understand the objections but in spite of them a bit (while admitting they VERY much exist), I enjoyed this most recent Mann flick. Now that said, it seems not too many other people did. Released near the new year, 'Blackhat' cost around $70 million but earned only $17 million around the world. It's rocking a 5.4 at the IMDB and a 34% at Rotten Tomatoes. In other words, not good At All. There are some huge flaws that should have been dealt with, but if you're a Michael Mann fan, there's enough here to give a slight recommendation.

Probably the biggest complaint I have is that this movie feels far more like a cyber-thriller you would have seen in the late 1990s or even early 2000s, movies like Swordfish, Sneakers, The Net, Enemy of the State and many others. It feels dated, even a little past its prime. Yes, computer hacking is at an all-time high -- yeah for identity theft! -- but it's more the way Mann brings it to life. The opening scene as the power plant gets taken down "follows" the code as it races through the wires and computers and yeah, been there and done that countless times before. If this intro is supposed to look cool, it did....15 years ago. That's what is most surprising. Usually Mann is pretty up on things when it comes to his films -- period pieces, crime thrillers, biographies -- but this felt like a misfire considering that aspect of the film and its mildly successful attempt at timeliness.

So when you think of Mann movies, what comes to mind? For me, that's simple. When they work, we're talking bad-ass, renegade, freaking awesome, all that is man lead characters. We're talking Daniel Day Lewis' Hawkeye with a rifle in each hand running up a mountain. We're talking Pacino and De Niro mano-a-mano. We're talking James Caan in Thief, Tom Cruise in Collateral, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Miami Vice. Mann does a roguish anti-hero like nobody's business so a pairing of him, his script and, Chris Hemsworth seemed logical. Other than Hemsworth not being my first (or 18th) choice to play a hacker, he makes the best of it. He's cool. He can mumble a line with line. He can seductively stare at both men and women. And when it comes down to it, and everything hits the fan, he's calm, cool and collected. Oh, and because he's a hacker, he can figure out seemingly impossible things with ease.

Who knows why audiences do and don't see certain movies. I wonder some if the lack of a recognizable cast beyond Hemsworth had anything to do with it. Wang's Dawai character is interesting but underdeveloped, an up and coming security officer who risks it all to get the job done. Wei Tang plays his sister, Chen Lien, loyal to a fault...until she develops feelings for Hemsworth's Hathaway. Yeah, the script goes there unfortunately. Oh, no, doomed love! As for Hathaway's relative team (i.e.: the ones making sure he doesn't bolt), there's an underused Viola Davis and an underused Holt McCallany with Andy On joining the group as a like-minded hacker. Also look for John Ortiz, Ritchie Coster and Yorick van Wageningen in key supporting parts.

There's a certain look and feel and touch to a Mann movie. He was shooting in handheld, shaky cam in digital long before others thought to do so. That look and feel of the movie is definitely there with a story mostly based in a very humid-looking Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia. That Michael Mann style is there to burn. The set pieces are okay, but nothing too memorable with the exception of the finale at a crowded parade ground during a religious ceremony. Even then though, the finale disappoints because it could have packed quite a punch but instead goes for a far safer ending. Too bad.

So what's the biggest issue? It isn't the most action-packed movie. I'd say more than that it is even a tad slow to the point of being boring in a 133-minute running time. I did like it though in spite of its flaws, but just not as much as Mann's other previous ventures. A flawed recommendation.

Blackhat (2015): ** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Ted 2

I loved 2015's Ted. It's filthy, raunchy, disgusting, stupid, smart and mixed all together, it's a gem. It's also a pretty good stand-alone film. In other words, it don't need any sequels or follow-ups or reboots or any rejigger of any sort. But here we sit, and it got a sequel. Hitting theaters last weekend to mixed reviews and an underwhelming box office performance, here's 2015's Ted 2.

It's been a year since Ted (voice of Seth MacFarlane) has married Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and....well, everything isn't all right in the world. In the midst of a seemingly never-ending fight, Ted and Tami decide the best alternative is to have a baby to save their marriage. Other than the obvious issues of Ted being a teddy bear and not being able to...ya know, reproduce, they quickly hit a roadblock in court. A judge rules that Ted is not a human being. Instead, he's a piece of property. Now with the help of his best friend, John (Mark Wahlberg), and a like-minded young lawyer, Sam (Amanda Seyfried), Ted has to prove without a reasonable doubt that he is in fact, a person, a human being, and not just a little kid's toy. Let the road-tripping, weed-smoking shenanigans begin. No one and nothing is safe...

As I mentioned in my first Ted review, MacFarlane can be a pretty divisive guy, whether it be his humor, his directing, his animated shows...basically everything. I think when it comes to pure humor, he has few equals right now. He manages to find that generally pretty perfect of really smart and truly dumb while all keeping it incredibly entertaining. Sure, there have been misfires along the way, but the laughs are almost always there. Well -- and here comes the twist -- they're not there as much anymore. Just because I loved the first movie so much, I wanted to love this unnecessary but hopefully entertaining sequel just as much. I didn't, and it wasn't even close. There are laughs (no doubt about that), but there are just as many and maybe more misfires along the way.

My worry was this sequel would be more Million Ways to Die than the original Ted. Lovely premise, horrific, so not funny execution. 'Million' was one of the worst movies I saw last year to the point I almost walked out. The unfortunate part is Ted 2 falls somewhere in between with some great laughs that get bogged down in running bits and repetitive scenes that don't get laughs and don't have much energy. Case in point; Patrick Warburton returns as Guy, John's co-worker, this time in a relationship with Rick (Star Trek's Michael Dorn). They joke about weird sexual preferences, beat up nerds at Comic Con (over and over again) and genuinely don't provide many laughs, but the script keeps going back to them. Then, he brings it back around with Warburton (The Tick) and Dorn (Worf) dressing up as their past characters. It can be infuriating how equal parts clever and dumb one script can be.

When the movie succeeds and produces genuine, out-loud laughs, is when the focus is on Ted and John and all their stupid, mind-blowing antics. MacFarlane's voice work is -- as usual -- pretty flawless as we see all the different sides of Ted, MacFarlane bouncing among them with ease from scene to scene. Wahlberg too shows off his funny side, often times playing the straight man while Ted gets the bigger laughs. I'd love to see Wahlberg do his thing on camera with no one sitting next to him as the scenes are filmed. This is a great buddy dynamic as we see in their scene where they sing their made-up words to the Law & Order theme song, their efforts to steal Tom Brady's semen (Yeah, just go with it), and their rapid fire dialogue that reflects two friends that go way, Way back. Two great characters, a movie at its strongest. I just wish there was more.

And that's where the script issues seem to come in. There doesn't seem to be much of a script. The first hour is definitely stronger, but things fall apart in the second half. There's no real pointed direction where things are going, just scenes thrown together that kinda have something to do with the ones preceding them. That wouldn't be an issue if there were more laughs, but there simply aren't. Amanda Seyfried seems kinda out of place and quite the forced love interest for Wahlberg's John. At one point, she sings a campfire song in a nice nod to Three Amigos, but it falls short. As does a pot-smoking montage in a law library, too many Breakfast Club comparisons to mention. These scenes just don't play well to the point the theater was almost dead silent. By the time Giovanni Ribisi shows up -- Yeah, Donny is back! -- and starts dancing and being weird, I'd kinda checked out already.

Just like he proved with 'Million Ways,' MacFarlane is someone some very talented people want to work with. On top of all the above-mentioned names, we also get appearances from the always reliable Morgan Freeman, Mad Men's John Slattery, an expanded part for Barth as Tami, less Sam Jones (unfortunately), sinister John Carroll Lynch, a downbeat doctor in Dennis Haysbert, and a hysterical one-scene appearance from Liam Neeson who's got some questions for Ted at the grocery store and Patrick Stewart returning as our smooth voiced narrator.

When I laughed, I LAUGHED. Ted's appearance on the stand at his trial is priceless. A running bit between John and Ted taking awkward pictures of each other is priceless, and their encounter with Patriots QB Tom Brady is a gem. I just wish there had been more of those laughs. Any comedy is going to have its hit and miss laughs, but all you're usually looking for is more hits than misses. This one comes out about even. If you enjoyed the first one, you'll enjoy this one, but this sequel isn't on par unfortunately.

Ted 2 (2015): ** 1/2 /****