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, August 26, 2015

The Cheap Detective

From a career that spanned six decades, Peter Falk accomplished it all, but he will always be remembered for one specific role, that of rumpled, seemingly frazzled detective Colombo. Lost amidst the great scripts and guest stars is Falk's impeccable comedic timing, usually lost because he played it so freaking straight. The man was an actor but he could have been a comedian. Colombo fans, Falk fans, I highly recommend 1978's The Cheap Detective.

It's 1939 and the world is about to tear itself apart, but working as a longtime private detective in San Francisco, Lou Peckinpaugh (Falk) is just looking to get out alive. He receives a phone call late one night informing him that his partner at the P.I. firm has been murdered and several other people were killed around him. Making it worse? Lou has been having an affair with his partner's wife, Georgia (Marsha Mason), and the cops think Lou might be the killer! They don't have the evidence though to convict him -- yet -- so Lou must figure out who the actual killer is. Later that night he meets a mysterious woman (Madeline Kahn) in his office who needs help finding her missing sister. This woman isn't telling Lou everything he needs to know though, plunging Lou deeper into a world of backstabbing and betrayals, Nazis and smugglers, and everything in between. Hopefully and maybe (just maybe), Lou can make it out innocent and alive.

As I've beaten to death in countless reviews as I continue to serve as a broken record, I like spoofs...when they're handled the right way. Basically in not too heavy-handed, obvious fashion. Mel Brooks was a master of such smart-minded yet incredibly stupid spoofs while others like the seemingly never-ending Scary Movie series just...keep...going. From director Robert Moore and a script from Neil Simon, 'Cheap' is more in the Brooks vein. It is equal parts smart, wicked humor mixed in with stupid, dumb laughs with everything from a subtle line delivery to a perfect site gag. At just 92 minutes, it crackles along at a ridiculously quick pace, scenes coming across as episodic more than joined in any sort of linear fashion. It's one bit and onto the next. No time to sit and catch a breath here!

To spoof, you need something to spoof and 'Cheap' jumps headfirst into film noir mysteries with private detectives, using that as a jumping off point with The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca as story points. So yes, we get entire scenes -- classic, iconic scenes -- absolutely torn to pieces, most of them working in almost effortless fashion. We've got a cheating private detective, a small harem of women who want nothing more than to jump into bed with him, international intrigue, murdering Nazis, shady underworld types, lost love, new love and confusion around every corner. To say there's a story is inaccurate. It instead is those episodic set pieces, deliver the joke and move on, and more less, it's all somewhat kinda sorta related. You don't notice though. There's too much going on -- most of it pretty funny -- to complain.

Peter Falk is the man. I love the guy. He's one of my favorite actors ever, a character actor who never disappointed when given a chance at the spotlight. Here as private detective Lou Peckinpaugh, Falk is clearly having a ball. The entire performance is based off being Humphrey Bogart. Not acting like him, Being him, and Falk hits it out of the home run. The best kind of spoof is a loving one, and Falk loves his source material, nailing his spot-on impression of one of the all-time Hollywood greats. The dialogue, the physical look, the mannerisms, he never hams it up or tries for the laughs. He just gets them with ease. His Lou has ready-made drinks in desk drawers everywhere. When he answers the phone, not sure who's on the other end, he pulls a gun on the phone (Ya know...just in case) and holds it there. Through all the craziness that develops, Falk's steady hand keeps things going.

That's not to say this is a one-man show. Falk often plays straight man to the avalanche of laughs around him, but there's so much talent on display it's ridiculous. Kahn is hysterical (similarly deadpanning all her lines), but she's just the first of the love interests. There's crazy with love Mason, sexed-up Ann-Margret, lounge singer Eileen Brennan (doing a great Lauren Bacall), lost love Louise Fletcher (Ingrid Bergman of Casablanca) and Stockard Chaning as Lou's secretary who just wants to be "thanked" properly. I loved Dom DeLuise as a smelly smuggler (doing Peter Lorre), a perfect John Houseman doing his best Sidney Greenstreet impression, wearing an enormous oversized suit to sell it, So many names here, including Sid Caesar, James Coco, Nicol Williamson, Fernando Lamas, Phil Silvers, Abe Vigoda, Paul Williams, Vic Tayback, David Ogen Steirs, and Scatman Crothers, all getting their chances at their fair share of laughs.

If there's anything flawed here, it was the commitment to the spoof. If that makes any sense I guess. There are a ton of laughs (genuine, out-loud laughs), but the story gets so goofy, feels so disjointed at times, that it loses some of its edge. By the time the end does come along, it comes with one twist after another, bing bang boom in rapid fire. It's still an excellent comedy, but not a true classic. Still recommending it though, especially as a companion piece of sorts with the same director and much of the cast working together in Murder By Death. Not quite on par with that one but still damn funny.

The Cheap Detective (1978): ***/****

Monday, August 24, 2015

Flaming Star

Elvis Presley was a singer, a performer, an entertainer. And yes, he was a movie star, starring in 31 movies over 13 years. Most were movies meant to capitalize on his singing (and scandalous dancing), the King singing plenty of his songs to keep audiences dancing in their seats. I like Elvis' music a lot, but musicals are not really my thing so I've actually never seen any of those movies. What have I seen? Presley's ventures into the western genre, 1969's Charro! and today's review, 1960's Flaming Star.

In the late 1870's in west Texas, aging, small-time rancher Sam Burton (John McIntire) has worked hard to create a life for himself with his family. On their small but solid ranch, they run cattle and horses, working every day to keep things up. Sam's family includes his wife (his second wife), a full-blooded Kiowa woman, Neddy (Dolores Del Rio), and two sons, Pacer (Presley), and Clint (Steve Forrest), with his first wife. Pacer is a half-breed but has lived his whole life with the whites, not the Kiowas. It's never been much of an issue as the Burton's friends think of them as just that; friends and even family. But when a new, young chief riles up his Kiowa warriors, no one in the territory is safe...except the Burtons who seem to go untouched while everyone around them is attacked. The townspeople and local families begin to suspect something. Now who's the bigger enemies? The supposedly friendly white families and settlers or the rampaging Kiowas?

I caught parts of this 1960 western years (YEARS) ago on AMC at some point but never sat down and watched the entire thing. Well, this channel called Encore Westerns shows, and I was able to track it down. Westerns I haven't seen are getting harder and harder to find! Why this one doesn't have more of a reputation for the positive, I just don't know. It's not a classic, but with an excellent performance from young Mr. Presley and a hard-hitting story, 'Star' deserves much more standing within the western genre.

A big ingredient for success? Director Don Siegel behind the camera. One of the all-time great tough guy directors, Siegel is known for his pairings with Clint Eastwood in the 1960's and 1970's, but he had actually been directing feature films since the late 1940's. He was a no-nonsense kind of director, and 'Star' fits the mold. Even by 1960, westerns often painted the white Americans as the good guys and the Indians (whatever tribe, pick one) as the blood-thirsty savages obsessed with killing. That trend would begin to change in the coming years, but this is one of the first westerns I can think that tries to not only humanize Native Americans but shows that white settlers were far from perfect. It is a rare socially conscious western that simply paints things as they were. Prejudices and biases are ugly in any form, whether it's 2015 or 1878. This is a western story ahead of its time, and it's the better for it.

By the time this film was released, Presley was a S-T-A-R. He'd already made five movies, but this was the first to allow him to show off his dramatic acting chops. Much like he would years later in Charro, Presley gives an above average turn as the stoic, quiet, loyal and very capable anti-hero (of sorts). If there's any red flags, it's that Presley is playing a half-white, half-Indian character, but the part, script or Presley never makes it cliched, forced or overdone. Other than some really tan skin (really tan), the casting of a white actor as a Native American character isn't an issue, never presenting itself. Presley is known for being a singer, a dancer, an entertainer, but when given the chance, he showed that he was a more than respectable dramatic presence too. This is a good one.

The dynamic among the Burton family as a whole is key and the main (and best) focus of the story. For these four people, their "situation" isn't a situation at all. They are family. White blood or Indian blood doesn't matter in the least. McIntire and Del Rio are excellent as a couple that's been married for half a lifetime by now. The same goes for Presley and Forrest, half-brothers who never question the 'half' part. They complain and insult each other but are always there for the other because that's what brothers do. Hatred and violence can be quite the divider though, testing even the strongest of brotherly relationships. Four very strong performances from Presley, McIntire, Del Rio and Forrest as the heart of the movie.

Filling out the rest of the cast, look for a pre-I Dream of Jeannie Barbara Eden, Rodolfo Acosta, Richard Jaeckel, Karl Swenson, L.Q. Jones, Ford Rainey, and Perry Lopez.

There are some slightly overdone dramatic moments in the second half as everything comes front and center. AH, DRAMA! The ending too feels a little rushed, almost like a key scene was shot but eventually cut for timing or something. Overall though, this is an easy movie to recommend for any number of reasons from Elvis fans to western fans. And yes, Presley sings one song early almost to appease his fans before the story takes a turn for the dark. A hard-hitting story western that's definitely worth checking out.

Flaming Star (1960): ***/****

Friday, August 21, 2015

Wyatt Earp

When it comes to iconic, famous names in American history, specifically the wild west of the 1860's and on to the turn of the century, rise above all others. Names like Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill, Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok are all synonymous with the wild west, but maybe none more known and recognizable than lawman Wyatt Earp. He led a remarkably busy (and unscathed) life, and has been immortalized in both films and television shows alike. Here's 1994's Wyatt Earp, a bio-pic I'd never seen before a recent viewing.

Growing up on the family farm with his parents and brothers and sisters, young Wyatt Earp grows up learning to trust in himself and his family, and to always be there should that family need help. But as he puts his teenage years behind him, Wyatt (Kevin Costner) marries a beautiful young woman (Annabeth Gish) and looks to settle down and start a life. When his wife dies from typhoid, Wyatt is distraught, turning to alcohol and going into an epic depression. That's not the end that's meant for this enterprising young man though. Wyatt heads west, attracted by the possibility of riches in the untamed regions of the young country. Freight driver, bounty hunter, buffalo hunter, he tries it all, but his ultimate calling? That may be as a lawman, and the west is in great need of those. From boomtown to boomtown like Dodge City and Abilene, Wyatt's reputation grows and grows. That name begins to mean something -- fear, respect, intimidation -- as the far-more experienced, cynical Wyatt heads west once again with his brothers. This stop? Tombstone, Arizona.

I ain't real good at writing the words to describe an epic biography that covers multiple decades, introduces countless characters and in general, ain't easy to succinctly describe. And that's what this movie is. From director Lawrence Kasdan (also directed Silverado), 'Earp' is a three-hour biography of one of the west's most recognizable names, a bio-pic that was originally intended as a miniseries. Big impression? It probably would have been better that way. Even at three hours, this western feels like it tackled too much, taking on too much and not enough depending on the scene. Second big impression? It came out a year after one of the best westerns ever that dealt with the same topic, 1993's Tombstone. That's two strikes. What's gonna be the third one? Pick and choose because there's plenty.

History has a fun way of remembering folks. Case in point...Wyatt Earp. He was not a pleasant fella to say the least. The thing he is remembered most for -- the gunfight at the OK Corral -- led some to consider him and his brothers outright murderers. Wisely, 'Earp' does not try to gloss over the foibles and flaws in its titular character. Costner does a fine job showing Wyatt Earp's dark, cold, brutal side...but that's it. At a certain point, it gets repetitive. It becomes a performance without emotion because Wyatt becomes this one-note person. He wants to make a fortune for himself and his brothers. Anything else is just getting in the way. I found myself actively disliking the character and maybe that's the point. This is a bio-pic that probably shows Earp as he really was, not as we'd like to think of him. Accuracy is always a bonus in biographies, but that doesn't make it entertaining.

Almost from the beginning, 'Earp' felt like it handles everything in matter-of-fact fashion. Again...realistic but not necessarily entertaining (or even enjoyable). In its execution, this is a western epic that's trying to be EPIC and never quite gets there. Just not enough energy to bring it up to an epic level, much less a classic level. Gene Hackman gets to speechify in a small part as Wyatt's father, instilling (you could say drilling) the values that will impact his son for the rest of his life. One bbbbbbig moment after another comes along -- always with composer James Newton Howard's scoring swelling at the right moment -- and I kept waiting for these countless scenes to have some sort of impact on me...but they never did. When you know there's a three-hour running time still ahead of you, that's never a good feeling when you're not..well, feeling much at all about the movie.

One of the best things about Tombstone is the casting and characters. Here, dealing with the same people and the same basic story, only one performance really stands out. That's Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, a dentist, southern gentleman and gambler who's dying of tuberculosis. He has the unenviable task of following Val Kilmer's scene-stealing part as Doc, but creates his own character and performance. Quaid lost 30 pounds for the part of the dying gambler, giving him a distinctly sickly look. He's quick with a putdown and insult, just as quick as he is with a gun or knife in a scene-stealing performance. The only problem is that he's not around enough. There's too many speaking parts in general and most of them aren't developed nearly enough. Like so much else here, it felt like a wasted opportunity.

That said, 'Earp' does featuring some cool casting choices, even if they're misused. Michael Madsen, David Andrews, Linden Ashby and Jim Caviezel all play Earp brothers with Madsen and Ashby standing out for the positive. The Earp women, wives and sorta wives, played by Catherine O'Hara, JoBeth Williams and Mare Winningham, are given nothing to do other than complain Wyatt is mean in one-note performances (no fault of their own). In cool parts, Tom Sizemore and Bill Pullman play Bat and Ed Masterson, friends of the Earps and fellow lawmen, but they too are underused. Also look for Mark Harmon, Jeff Fahey, Joanna Going, Isabella Rossellini, and James Gammon in other supporting parts. Too many excellent historical figures are glossed over somewhat or entirely to the point it was unnecessary to even mention them.

I've always felt saying a movie is 'boring' is a cop-out, but man, this movie was boring. The last two hours are far better than the first, but I still kept waiting for the story and characters to pull me in. An epic disappointment unfortunately on basically on all levels.

Wyatt Earp (1994): **/****

Thursday, August 20, 2015

John Wick

I looked at the description and thought "Nope. Just Nope." The movie was 2014's John Wick, and the theater's website described it as "Hit man comes out of retirement after mobsters kill his dog." I thought 'Man, there is no way that's good. There is no way I'm going to see it.' Then I heard the basically universal positive reviews, and I do like Keanu Reeves. Yeah, I watched it. Yeah, point John Wick. It's excellent.

John Wick (Reeves) is alone. After a battle with an unidentified illness, John's wife (Bridget Moynahan) passes away, leaving John wracked with grief and not knowing what to do next with his life. It's not long after her death though that John receives a present from her, something she set up before her death to be delivered. It's a puppy, one he bonds with instantly...until one night his home is raided by Russian mobsters who take his classic Ford Mustang and kill the dog. Well, they picked the wrong person to mess with. They don't know it, but John is a retired hit man, and not just any hired gun. He was the Best. John has focus again, and he intends to exact revenge on the gangsters who came after him. Their front man? Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the spoiled son of the gangster (Michael Nyqvist) who John used to work for. Nothing is gonna stop John so let the bullets fly.

So, yeah, that's pie on my face. I thought it sounded pretty dumb and looked kinda generic, but I'll admit when I'm wrong. I'M WRONG. I loved this movie. It comes from directors Chad Stahelski (formerly Reeves' stunt double) and uncredited David Leitch, and you know what? It's a bullet-riddled, bone-snapping, blood-splattered glorious mess. That's the beauty of it. There's no fat on the meat here. It's all choice. Even John's wife dying is handled in quick but effective montages that last about 2 minutes. Then, it's back to the SHOOTING. That's the entire movie. Cool characters doing cool things with guns and an alarming and ever-increasing body count. You've gotta gives props when they're due. Stahelski, Leitch and Reeves set out to do a bare-bones shoot 'em up movie and succeeded across the board.

You'd never know it by looking at him, but Keanu Reeves is 51 years old. Seriously!!! The star of Bill and Ted, Speed, even The Matrix series, has grown up, but he's lost none of his edge. I thought this was one of his best parts in years, if not ever. Channeling anyone and everyone from Lee Marvin to Clint Eastwood to Steve McQueen, Reeves embraces all that is badass here. His John Wick is a legend, a killing machine with seemingly no equal who walked away from the business when he met his future wife. The name sends chills up the backs of those who hear it because they know what it means to cross this brutally efficient killer. Oh, and the physical look is there too. Reeves' long hair, coiffed beard, immaculate black suits, he looks cool. Throw in a classic 1969 Ford Mustang, and yep, you've got one uber-cool anti-hero in the spotlight.

The story itself is nothing too crazy. If anything, it's pretty basic, pissed off individual looking for revenge against the mob (of some sort). It manages to be entertaining throughout, paying tribute to countless movies before it while still claiming its own spot in the revenge genre. For starters, Reeves' John is channeling Lee Marvin in Point Blank or Alain Delon in any Jean-Pierre Melville caper. Stoic, almost silent and surgical in his job. As for the action and gunplay, that's obvious. That's a twist and new look on the style John Woo brought to the table (without the slow motion and doves). The gunplay is brutal, quick, hard-hitting and gone in a flash. The editing is aggressive and quick but never to the point where you can't see things. As well, the killer hell bent on revenge is another Woo touch. Kudos in general though here. A tribute film that claims its own status in the genre and does it well.

'Wick' creates its own world amidst all the bloody chaos, and that adds something. It has its own world. My favorite? The Continental Hotel in NYC caters exclusively to hit men and hired killers with owner Ian McShane and know-all desk attendant Lance Reddick. There are rules here that all must abide by, a code of sorts...until the payday offered is too lucrative to pass up. Among all our participants, a gold coin has quite the pull with Wick carrying a ton of them. Where do they come from? It goes unexplained but my guess; payment for jobs, and there's only so many out there. With a movie that looked like it would be pretty dumb, it's cool to see stylish touches like that sprinkled throughout a fast-moving story.

The cast across the board is excellent. Reeves leads the way, and Nyqvist is a gem as the Russian mobster caught in the middle. It'd be easy to ham it up, but he just goes with it, an intimidating mobster who finds himself in over his head. Allen is good as the weasel-like Iosef, a villain you can't wait to see get his comeuppance. Willem Dafoe is excellent as Marcus because...well, because he's Willem Dafoe. He's an assassin, the last of the old guard, an old friend of John's who gets involved whether he wants to or not. Dean Winters (Mayhem in TV commercials) plays Avi, Nyqvist's maligned right-hand man while Adrianne Palicki is Perkins, a killer with $ for eyes. Also look for John Leguizamo in a too-short performance as a chop shop owner, Moynahan appearing briefly as John's wife, and that McShane guy who is a welcome addition to any movie.

I won't delve into the action too much other than this. It's a gem. There is something straightforward, simple and primal about the shootouts here, Reeves' Wick navigating his way through small armies of rival gunmen. An assault on his home is a gem with a dozen killers trying to get him as is a shootout in a crowded nightclub with strobes all over and the music cranking. Stahelski clearly picked up a ton in his years as a stunt double, and it shows. The movie is packed to the guts with ridiculously stylized action sequences that don't overstay their welcome. A complete surprise, and one I was glad I was wrong about. I loved this movie. Definitely worth checking out.

John Wick (2014): *** 1/2 /****

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Hell in Korea

When I think of anti-war films, I tend to zoom right in on the 1960's, right as the Vietnam War jumped into full gear and moviegoing audiences amped up their cynicism. Well, sorta. The theme of today's review intro? The Brits, ahead of the game in the dark, gloomy, cynical anti-war film. I'll obviously mention some others later, but for now, here's 1956's Hell in Korea.

Commanded by inexperienced Lieutenant Butler (George Baker), a 15-man patrol leaves its base and heads out on a reconnaissance patrol. The patrol is split up down the middle, half professional soldiers and the other half National Service men called up when the fighting in Korea started. Their objective is simple; march out to a seemingly isolated village and find out if it is garrisoned or being used at all by North Korean and Chinese forces. Short answer? It ain't, but on the way back to base, the patrol is cut off by a much larger Chinese force. Butler tries to pull off a delaying action, but more Chinese troops quickly arrive on the scene. Butler's patrol has only one alternative...cut back through the abandoned village and fort up above it in a mountainside temple cut perched next to a cliff before they're cut to pieces. If they can make it...

There's something to be said for movies like this. By the late 1950's, studios in Hollywood and London alike were starting to focus more on BIG movies, EPIC movies with a huge scale and a bigger cast. Then there's movies like this. Filmed in black and white, 'Korea' focuses on one patrol, its mission, and its fallout when things go wrong. There is no bigger picture of the war. The focus is on one patrol. It was filmed in a barren location (I can't find where) and feels removed from any civilized part of the world. Cut-off from their own forces, the patrol is on their own. It can be stories like this that work so well because for all the huge battles and large-scale clashes, there were far more stories like this when it comes to a realistic war.

Two movies came to mind while watching this 1956 war drama, both like-minded stories and outlooks, as I thought about what to write. Wouldn't you know it? Both are British, 1961's The Long and the Short and the Tall (liked it) and 1959's Yesterday's Enemy (loved it). These aren't movies interested in glorifying war or showing it for all its heroism and bravery. It was about survival, plain and simple. That's where director Julian Amyes' film works best. The men on the patrol come from a variety of backgrounds, some don't like each other to the point it borders on hate, and they aren't looking for medals or notoriety. They want to survive and get home, war be damned. There's honesty in that sentiment. There's nothing heroic about getting your head blown off on a desolate Korean hillside. The stark black and white photography certainly adds something to that bleak, no-hope filled anti-war sentiment.

What originally caught my eye though wasn't the message or anti-war feelings. It was the cast! Featuring a Lost Patrol/Sahara/Bataan-like ensemble, the cast here is the patrol. We don't meet anyone back at HQ, no one on the enemy, NO ONE else. The cast is the patrol. That's it, and that's all. Though none get key, lead parts, it's cool to see Michael Caine (in his screen debut), Robert Shaw and Stephen Boyd in early roles. As the inexperienced but intelligent Lt. Butler, Baker is very solid in the best performance, getting help from Harry Andrews and Stanley Baker as the embattled veterans on the patrol, Andrews the tough as hell sergeant, Baker the Chinese-hating corporal. Also look for familiar faces in Michael Medwin, Ronald Lewis, Victor Maddern, Percy Herbert, Harry Landis and Robert Brown as members of the patrol.

As simple, straightforward and effective as 'Korea' can be at times, there are moments that feel like misfires. There's some key moments in firefights where the camera moves away from where the action should be. Characters being killed off is almost an afterthought, brushed away as quick as the camera can move. Things feel a bit rushed at just 80 minutes, much of the downtime between battles spent with the patrol bitching and moaning about the state they find themselves in. Some of it builds the tension, helps us get to know the men at least a little bit, but it also gets repetitive when it should be getting interesting as the bullets are supposed to start flying.

It is is a good, interesting movie, but not a great one. I loved the temple set, up on a hilltop seemingly in another world. I liked Malcom Arnold's score, somewhat reminiscent of his most famous score, The Bridge on the River Kwai. So while it isn't a great movie with some big flaws, this is still a little-known, mostly forgotten war film that is definitely worth catching up with. Track it down if you can. I happened to stumble across it on Turner Classic Movies recently.

Hell in Korea (1956): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, August 17, 2015

To Live and Die in L.A.

I don't know what to say sometimes. I watch a movie and hmm, I just don't know where to start. When facing that issue, it's usually a bad thing, a movie so awful, so horrifically bad the words or criticisms just ain't there. Other times....yeah, this is the other time. A weird, scary, off-beat, violent and overall, just a damn excellent flick, 1985's To Live and Die in L.A.

Working out of the Los Angeles field office, Secret Service agent Richard Chance (William Petersen) is about to be without a partner as his longtime fellow agent (Michael Greene) is only days away from retirement. The partner instead turns up dead at a remote desert warehouse, and Chance knows who he was investigating, a professional counterfeiter, Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe), who they have long been after. Swearing to put away his friend and partner's killer, Chance will stop at nothing -- NOTHING -- to get Masters who has proved very elusive when it comes to proving his guilt. Saddled with a new partner, the more button-down John Vukovich (John Pankow), Chance follows the evidence where it may lead, but Masters has some trouble of his own. Who can get to the other one first? How far will either man go to get what they want?

With 1971's The French Connection and 1973's The Exorcist, director William Friedkin had one of the most impressive one-two punches of back-to-back films...well, ever. He followed them up with a string of movies that struggled -- for whatever reason -- to get any footing to the point that this 1975 cop thriller/drama is considered by some as his comeback of sorts. What a comeback it is. It works because of all its moving pieces. Stylish and innovative, it is very 1980's. It is equal parts dark, gritty, brutally violent and uncomfortable at times. And then for good measure, 'Live and Die' has a little art-house in its story and characters. Quite the mix, ain't it? This is the sort of movie that shouldn't work, but does it ever, almost in spite of flaws that would cripple most other movies.

Through his previous movies, Friedkin had shown his ability not just as a director, but as an auteur. He made films, not always movies. He was willing to try something different, to reach for something difficult, to not settle for the status quo. 'Live and Die' is a case in point. It's like a procedural cop drama/thriller...on steroids and cocaine with some LSD thrown in. Friedkin freaking GOES FOR IT. The style is schizophrenic, the score from Wang Chung incredibly 1980's, the violence in your face, and even some frontal male nudity, not to mention a whole lot of guy butt. Stylized, computer title cards show the progression of time, and Los Angeles ends up becoming an additional character, a charged-up backdrop to the ever-crazy story developments. How far will it go? How far will Petersen's Chance go? Getting there is more than half the fun. It is the definition of an unpredictable movie, and that is rarely a bad thing.

I grew up and will always associate William Petersen with O-N-E part...that of CSI's Gil Grissom. This was his first starring role, starting a handful of late 80's/early 90's flicks that seemed to indicate Petersen was going to be a star, a big one. It never quite came together, but my goodness, what a starring debut.  The rogue cop who plays by his rules -- laws, procedures and protocol BE DAMNED -- is absolutely nothing new to the genre, but Petersen injects a ridiculous amount of energy to Agent Chance. He brings balls. He brings swagger. He brings uber-confidence. How good? At a certain point, you're not even rooting for him anymore to the point he's unlikable but you just can't look away. Chance is manipulative, intimidating, not above breaking the law, and callously disinterested in anything that doesn't affect the case.

Part of it is the look. It is the mid 1980's, and Peterson's Chance wears tight jeans at all times, badass sunglasses, badass boots, badass leather jacket and...well...badass. He reeks of cool. He's an adrenaline junkie. He pushes his partner too far. He basically blackmails a parolee/informant (Darlanne Fluegel) into a sexual relationship. He threatens lives left and right, some being claimed. I keep coming back to swagger. There is a physicality to the part, Petersen running like a maniac through chases scenes, brimming with energy in interrogations, intimidatingly subtle when he wants something. What a part. What a performance. Clearly impacted by those cop movies before him (French Connection, Bullitt, Dirty Harry) and clearly an impact on those still to come.

Dafoe is terrifying just because he's Willem Dafoe and looks and appears terrifying. He's a villain. That's it. No real background or motivation, his Masters is just a supremely talented counterfeiter looking to make one big payday after another. Quite the match-up of stars, quite the cat and mouse game (but who's who?). Along with Fluegel and Pankow (an excellent supporting part of a conscious-riddled cop), look for John Turturro, Debra Feuer, and Dean Stockwell as a high-class, scumbag lawyer in key supporting parts.

When filming the famous French Connection car chase, Friedkin apparently wanted to do bigger and better but simply ran out of time. The run-off falls to this flick, and it does not disappoint. Chase and his new partner kidnap someone for reasons because of a case (Just Watch It) and things go horribly wrong in a bullet-riddled chase and shootout through Los Angeles' backroads, highways and of course, the Los Angeles River. The capper is an incredible driving sequence as Chase drives into incoming traffic in hopes of getting away relatively unscathed. It is an absolutely insanely tension-packed extended sequence, expertly shot, cut and edited by Friedkin and his crew that belongs on the same level as similar chases in Bullitt, French Connection and so many more I'm forgetting. An amazing sequence to watch.

What a crazy movie. I have a picture of Friedkin filming and editing his film, basically flipping the bird to anyone and everyone in front of him. I kept thinking while watching this thriller that 'Live and Die' was Friedkin as a renegade director before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez took over that notion in the 1990's. Friedkin is -- simply put -- at the top of his game here. It's days later, and I'm still thinking about this one. It keeps building and building to one of the most surprising, trippiest finales I've ever seen. Genuine shock value on several different levels. Can't recommend this one enough. Also, one movie kept popping into my head as I watched this 1985 film as having a huge, profound impact on said newer film. That movie? Drive with Ryan Gosling. Watch both and tell me they couldn't be impeccable companion pieces.

To Live and Die in L.A. (1985): *** 1/2 /****

Friday, August 14, 2015


Let's give him points. John Wayne could admit a mistake when he made one. Offered the part of San Francisco detective Harry Callahan -- better known as Dirty Harry -- in the late 1960's, Wayne turned down the part only to see the cop series blow up in a big way for star Clint Eastwood. It took him a couple years to answer, but Wayne turned to the cop genre himself, first with 1974's McQ, and a year later with 1975's Brannigan.

A longtime Chicago cop, Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) has built up quite a reputation for himself over the years, both for good and bad. He's always done his job well but built up quite a list of enemies in the process, especially Ben Larkin (John Vernon), a gangster with a whole lot of knowledge about a whole lot of mob money. With the district attorney's case against Larkin finally coming together, the mobster bails and heads for London on the run. The Chicago police are well aware of the move and with Scotland Yard have Larkin under full surveillance. The catch? They need somebody tough to bring him back. Who better than the man who's been on his case for years, Brannigan himself. The veteran cop heads to England, but what starts as a simple pick-up is quickly thrown out the window when Larkin is kidnapped and ransomed off. Can Brannigan and London police track him down before someone else finishes him off?

As Wikipedia is quick to point out, this 1975 cop drama/thriller follows in the footsteps of Coogan's Bluff (also starring Mr. Eastwood) in terms of the cop as the fish out of water. This isn't fast, brutal Chicago where police work doesn't always play by the rules. This is London, an almost gentlemanly situation where guns are forbidden and rules are made to be followed. Who better than John Wayne to mess that world up? I submit that NO ONE would have been more suited to it. From director Douglas Hickox, 'Brannigan' is a solid if unspectacular cop story, benefiting from Wayne's presence, some solid supporting cast members and very cool on-location shooting in both Chicago (too briefly) and London. Like McQ, it's no classic, but there's enough to recommend.

If you've poked around my reviews these past years, you can tell I kinda like John Wayne. Through good and bad, I'll give his movies a watch. By the 1970's as his health took a turn for the worse (again), he made movies that weren't ground-breaking or world-shattering. Instead, these are movies and roles that are fun. That are entertaining, and in a way, serve as a sort of comfort food. In a way, they were almost a Farewell Tour for one of Hollywood's all-time greats. Much like McQ, Wayne is able to fill the screen with his larger-than-life persona, a gruff, aging cop while still allowing the script to have some fun with his senior citizen status. I've lived in Chicago my whole life, and let me tell you, there's no 68-year old cops running around. From what I've read, Wayne was very much struggling with health concerns during filming, but it doesn't show.

He brings that John Wayne energy in all his scenes, whether he's interrogating a suspect, working with his appointed British partner (Judy Geeson), or going toe-to-toe with his British Scotland Yard counterpart, the very Commander Swann (Richard Attenborough). Health concerns or not (the Duke would only make two more films), Wayne brings that familiar energy to the screen. He has some great chemistry with Geeson in some flirty scenes that aren't pushed too far or too cheesy. The same for his alpha male showdowns with Attenborough's Swann. These are two guys used to doing things their way and getting things done their way. It was very cool to see two pros like Wayne and Attenborough play off each other so effortlessly, one scene ready to murder each other, the next cops doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Some fun parts for surely.

Three years away from his most famous, iconic role in Animal House, Vernon is excellent -- as always -- as the slimy, smooth villain, although he's underused as his characters gets twisted and turned around. Still, it's John Vernon as a bad guy. Hard to pass that up. Mel Ferrer gets to have some fun as Larkin's equally slimy lawyer, forced to work with the cops when the ransom negotiation begins. Also look for Ralph Meeker as Brannigan's commanding officer (a very quick part), Daniel Pilon as a hired killer tasked with offing Brannigan, John Stride as Traven, one of Swann's officers, and James Booth (of Zulu fame) as one of Larkin's sneering kidnappers.

'McQ' had its fair share of flaws, but overall, it was a pretty decent cop flick. I put Brannigan a touch below it. The story and running time feels a little bloated, like 10 or 15 minutes could have been edited here and there. The action is solid -- especially a car chase through London -- and packs quite a punch. It's fun especially seeing Wayne when he does get to unleash all his fury in some interrogation scenes. There are too many times though the story simply drifts. Even the ending disappoints a little, a pretty decent twist livening things up thankfully. It's not a classic and maybe it's not very good at all, but I enjoyed it for what it is.

You only get so many flicks from your favorite actors so enjoy them and focus on the positive. It ain't a classic, but it's entertaining.

Brannigan (1975): ** 1/2 /****

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

I remember watching the first Mission: Impossible with my parents way back when it hit VHS (yeah, I'm old) and being thoroughly confused and entertained. I never thought it would become a franchise such as it has, especially after the big gaps in years in between the first and second sequels. we sit. It's 2015, and the series is going as strong as ever. Case in point? The recently released Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, beautifully schizophrenic and action-packed, a movie that dares you NOT to like it.

For most of a year, IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) has been on the trail of a dangerous organization that seems to have its hand in everything. Their name? The Syndicate. Try though he might though, Ethan can never quite get his hands on the organization until finally, the Syndicate comes after him instead. With the IMF disavowed by the CIA and the U.S. government because of some of Ethan's more aggressive methods, Hunt now finds himself a fugitive on the run, turning to some old friends for help in not only staying alive but also bringing the Syndicate to justice. On top of any number of other problems, he has a new wrinkle to deal with. A mysterious agent, Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), who seems to be playing all sides against each other, and she seems to be after the same thing Ethan is. Who's who? Who can be trusted? What crazy action sequences can be filmed in the process?

I love these movies. Released four years ago, M:I Ghost Protocol took the series/franchise to a crazy level as one of the most ludicrously entertaining action movies I've ever seen. Naturally, I was slightly kinda sorta interested in seeing this newest venture. The verdict? Not quite as good as 'Ghost,' but pretty damn close and really freaking good. Nice work, director Christopher McQuarrie! It earned across the board positive reviews and is raking in the dough in theaters as we speak. And not surprisingly, as Cruise admitted last week, there will be a sixth M:I movie. No way I'd miss out on that. The series is just too good, too fun, too entertaining to pass it up.

There's just something perfectly straightforward about these movies. They cut away any excess fat and go to work. These are action movies on steroids full of gadgets, car and motorcycle chases, exotic locales, large and small-scale fight scenes, improbable stunts, great characters, and bad guys you just know can't and won't win in the end. The Bond movies are some of my all-time favorites (and always will), but it can be refreshing to watch a movie like this that is trying to blow your socks off. Literally, 'Rogue' wants you jumping out of your seat at some of the stunts. So is the story somewhat derivative of the original? Are some of the premises tweaked and twisted from the other movies? Yeah, but you're having too much fun to give a damn. 'Rogue' clocks in at 131 minutes, but that time absolutely flies by.  There are better movies out there, deeper and darker with more story, but in terms of pure fun, you'll be hard-pressed to find one better than this.

That Tom Cruise fella, he's still as cool as ever. As one of his most famous/iconic characters (up there with Maverick I'd say), Cruise seems to have shaken off his off-screen, personal issues (G-O-O-D) and just focused on the movies again. He's always been a daredevil, an adrenaline junkie, and he takes that to the max here. That well-advertised shot of Cruise hanging off the plane? That's actually him, that's actually a plane taking off, and N-O, there's no CGI involved. HE STRAPPED HIMSELF TO A PLANE AND IT TOOK OFF FOR GOODNESS SAKE! That's Cruise, and that's the incredible energy, focus and seemingly, pure joy he's brought to the franchise. His Ethan Hunt isn't tortured or in emotional turmoil. He's a secret agent, a damn good one, and he's going to get the mission done no matter how impossible. Cruise brings all that charisma and energy and it shows with scene-in and scene-out.

Now let's give Cruise credit. He's the star, the face of the franchise, but this isn't a dictatorship. Through all the movies, he's welcomed in other stars who end up being perfect fits, whether as good guys or bad guys. The scene-stealer here is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa, an agent with too many secrets to mention. Her chemistry with Cruise's Ethan is spot-on, sexually charged a bit but never too much, and as an action counter, she more than holds her own (and looks good doing it). I'm hoping this is a character who's in the franchise for the long haul. Because it is an action movie, we need some testosterone, and we get it via Jeremy Renner's Brandt, Ving Rhames' Luther, and Simon Pegg's Benji, the smart-mouthed, one-line slinging tech expert. Pegg is excellent as Ethan's sidekick of sorts with Renner and Rhames not given as much to do but still cool because they're Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames.

One of the more underrated parts of 'Rogue' is the screenplay from the director himself, McQuarrie. Because we can't have just action scenes (Okay, Mad Max could), there are at least a couple scenes of exposition, setting up a character, or a mission or an objective. The scenes of the team piecing things together are excellent, especially one at a Moroccan desert bar when everything has blown up and nothing gone according to plan. These are the brief slow-down scenes that every movie needs. As an audience, we get to catch our breath (even for a second), and on-screen, the cast gets to show off their excellent chemistry. Oh, that Alec Baldwin guy gets a solid supporting part, chewing the scenery as only Alec Baldwin can. Also look for Sean Harris (as the villain), Simon McBurney (of British intelligence), Tom Hollander (the Prime Minister) and Jens Hulten (as the bad guy's brutal enforcer).

Seriously though, guys....the action. My goodness, the action. The opening scene -- Cruise hanging off a plane taking off -- is quick and hard-hitting, smacking you in the face to get things moving. 'Rogue' never goes too long with a follow-up, whether it be a car/motorcycle chase (my personal favorite), an impossible heist at an underwater vault, a fight to the death with gunmen everywhere at a Vienna opera, and over and over. It never gets repetitive and is always done in expert fashion. This is a crew, a director, a cast, everyone involved, who knows what they're doing. As far as action movies go, there are few equals to the caliber of what's on display here.

Could the villain have been stronger? Sure. I would have liked more Renner and Rhames too, but you know what? None of my complaints are enough to even remotely turn me off from this movie. Cruise and Ferguson and Pegg and that action -- THE ACTION -- just continue to take this franchise forward and into the stratosphere. Where will it head next? On the shoulders of the ageless Tom Cruise and that winning formula, I'll be there for the whole ride until they one day decide they've had enough. Go out and see this flick now!

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015): *** 1/2 /****

Monday, August 10, 2015


I tend to think of the 1950's as a pleasant mix of Leave it to Beaver and Happy Days. Naturally, that's not what the entire decade in the U.S. was like, but isn't it fun to think of it that way? They were more innocent times before the hair on fire 1960's rolled around, huh? Some of those 1950's movies though, you could see an indication of what was to come. One sexually charged or sexually repressed movie after another hit theaters, many of them based off scandalous novels or stage plays. One I've always been curious to watch and was finally able to track down? That's 1955's Picnic.

A freight train rolls into a quiet Kansas town on a hot summer day, and a man named Hal Carter (William Holden) jumps off. A drifter without a home or too much money in his pocket, Hal hopes to reunite with a friend from college and maybe get a job out of it...if possible. It doesn't take too long for Hal to find the friend, Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), the well-to-do son of one of the richest men in town. Even after years apart and with both men having gone down such different paths, the two fraternity buddies pick things up like they were never apart. It's Labor Day, and Hal's timing is pretty good as the whole town is heading off to an immense picnic, a farewell of sorts to the summer. Hal is a little wary of the gathering as the outsider in town but ends up going. Problem? You bet, especially when Hal sets his sights on Madge (Kim Novak), Alan's beautiful girlfriend who comes from a poor(ish) family. Let the drama begin.

In the button-down, gentlemanly, poodle-skirt era of the 1950's, people simply did not have sex. It was simply...FORBIDDEN. Or so the movies would have you think. This was a huge time of change in Hollywood as studios got away from all sorts of production codes that limited what could and couldn't be shown. So as a result, audiences got a lot of sexually charged, forbidden love movies, often set in little towns where sexual frustrations apparently ran rampant. We got movies like this, Peyton Place, God's Little Acre, A Streetcar Named Desire, Baby Doll and plenty more I'm probably forgetting. All that repression and frustration always explodes in dramatic fashion! Ah, emotions and feelings! Yeah, at times, things can go a little overboard. That's Picnic. Some good moments, some good performances, with some really heavy, overdone moments.

'Picnic' is based off a Pulitzer Prize winning play that took Broadway by storm in 1953. Director Joshua Logan helmed both the play and the feature film, picking up an Oscar nomination in the process. In its filming techniques, 'Picnic' never feels like a stage-based play turned feature film. You can't say that for a lot of like-minded films. Logan filmed on-location in Hutchinson, Kansas and explores the town. You get a feel for the town, its people and its energy. The movie itself clocks in at 115 minutes and can clearly be divided in two parts. That first hour sets the stage, introducing all this hidden drama, rivalries, personal problems and lets the tension build into the high-drama of the second half as all those issues come to center stage. As for me? I loved the first hour and tolerated the second. More on that to come.

The cast doesn't feature a ton of big names, but that's not a bad thing. Holden took some heat because at 37 he was probably a little too old for the Hal part, but probably doesn't mean much. He brings the right energy to the part, hiding some personal demons while presenting an outgoing, fun-loving, likable persona. Really? He's a man in his mid-20s trying to find his lot in life, and so far, he's come up empty wherever he's turned. This isn't always a likable character, but Holden's Hal is a sympathetic one. His chemistry with Novak's Madge is perceptible in the air, just two people drawn to each other and they can't explain it. Novak would develop into a solid actress over the years, but here, her performance is a little rough. As a presence, she's unquestioned, stunningly beautiful, her Madge sick of everyone judging her by looks and looks alone.

Who else to look for? 'Picnic' was actually Cliff Robertson's first credited feature film, his Alan being an interesting mix, a spoiled kid who doesn't want to be the spoiled kid. We do get to see a mean streak in him though so stay tuned. Betty Field plays Flo, Madge's single mother, badgering and worrying and overbearing, while Susan Strasberg is Millie, Madge's tomboy little sister, smart, a reader and sick of Madge.  Rosalind Russell hams it up as Rosemary, a 40-something schoolteacher in town, with a suitor/boyfriend of sorts in shop owner, Howard (Arthur O'Connell in an Oscar-nominated turn). Also look for Verna Felton as Helen Potts, the adorable next door neighbor, a bit of a conscience for the film/town, and Nick Adams as a horny teenager.

When Picnic is good, it's really good. But when it goes? Man, it goes. Everything comes to crazy fruition at the tail end of the picnic, and all hell breaks loose. The key, momentum-changing shift is started when a shirt gets torn, and literally everyone FREAKS THE EF OUT. A movie based on a stage play becomes very stagey and overdone and hammy. EMOTIONS and FEELINGS are everywhere. It's not that the drama isn't effective. It's that it lacks all subtlety at all. It becomes painful to watch at times. The ending itself is built up as a happy ending (of sorts), but man, when you think about it, this is NO happy ending at all.'s a very cool final shot, so that counts for something right?

An interesting mix in the end. I really liked parts of it, especially Holden's performance, but the whole thing gets to be a little much in the end. The positives serve as a time capsule of sports. The entire story takes place in a 24-hour time period, and my goodness, it was quite the sunny, beautiful Labor Day. This is a beautiful movie to sit back and watch and appreciate it. We get a picture of 1950's life, especially in the extended picnic sequence as the whole town comes together to celebrate. Before all hell breaks loose in the emotions department in the second half, you get a sense of a more innocent time, and then Holden's shirt gets ripped and all bets are off. Still, there's enough to recommend but be forewarned that things turn into a sappy, tawdry soap opera in the second half.

Picnic (1955): ** 1/2 /****

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Man From Laramie

By 1950, James Stewart had been working in Hollywood for 15-plus years, most of those years as a go-to star who audiences and critics alike liked and appreciated. In 1950 though, he starred in a western called Winchester '73, teaming with director Anthony Mann. It ended up playing a key -- if unappreciated -- role and movie as Stewart headed into the next portion of his career. From there on in, Stewart was a regular in the western genre, by my count starring in 17 westerns. Today's entry? That would be 1955's The Man from Laramie.

Having endured a long trip on the trail, Will Lockhart (Stewart) and his packed-to-the-gills freight wagons have finally arrived in the small, isolated desert town of Coronado. Lockhart sells his goods and is in no rush to get back to Laramie. Actually...he'd like to stick around. He's got some questions he would like answered about a cavalry patrol being massacred several months before by an Apache war party using repeating rifles. Where did those rifles come from? Who sold them to the Apaches? Now, Will isn't letting on to his real goal of being Coronado, but he quickly draws the ire of the local rancher, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), who with his weak son, Dave (Alex Nicol), and loyal foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy), rule over the surrounding area. The clock is ticking on Lockhart if he wants to get his answers before he ends up six feet under with a bullet or knife in his back.

Early in his career, Stewart did star in one pretty excellent western, 1939's Destry Rides Again. Some more years under his belt, his service in World War II behind him, Stewart was a little more weathered, a little more grown up when he really dove into the western genre in the 1950's. He just looks like he belongs in the western, from the beat-up hat he wore in so many to the tall, lean look that screamed authentic cowboy. He's likable -- as always -- but as necessary, Stewart is able to call up this rage and fury as needed. That's especially important as we discover exactly what his Will Lockhart is up to in Coronado. It's an excellent performance from Jimmy Stewart all around, an actor and a man who appears quite comfortable in a genre that is and was happy to have him.

John Wayne had John Ford. Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher. Jimmy Stewart....he had Anthony Mann. This is actually the fifth and final pairing of the actor/director combo, and it's a good one. They also paired in Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and this film. So many 1950's westerns were clean and polished, but there's a meanness, a darkness to these pairings. With touches of Shakespearean storylines, even some mythological storylines (greed, betrayal, lust, murder), Mann added a much-needed darkness and depth to the western. It wasn't always a cut and dry good and bad. It was tortured anti-heroes (a sign of things to come in the genre). It was realistic -- if not graphic -- violence. There are a fair share of pretty weak westerns from this decade, but when they were good? They were pretty good overall, like here, and so many Stewart/Mann, Scott/Boetticher pairings.

'Laramie' doesn't feature a huge cast or a ton of recognizable names, but the casting in general is solid because of the script with all that Shakespearean, mythology-based storylines. Crisp is excellent as the aging rancher who's desperately clinging to what he carved out of the wilderness. He's trying to keep it all together, balancing things between his whiny, weak-minded son, Dave (a sniveling Nicols), and the tougher, ruthless Vic Hansbro. Kennedy is excellent, as he usually was, without resorting too much to chewing the scenery. Cathy O'Donnell plays Barbara, Waggoman's niece and Vic's fiance, caught up in the middle of all the family drama, Aline MacMahon is a weathered, ranching rival to the Waggomans with a history with her rivals, Wallace Ford is Charley, Lockhart's quasi-partner and a tried and true wagon driver with experience to burn, and an underused Jack Elam doing what he did best as shifty, two-faced supporting villain.

This is a western with a ton to offer. It has elements of film noir storytelling, the mystery of the massacre playing out against a western backdrop. Lockhart's secret doesn't come as a huge surprise, but it works because the tension and mood is built up more with each passing scene. The final reveal in the closing scene is dealt with in almost matter of fact fashion, but getting there is a ton of fun. The score is nothing to write home about, but my goodness, the visuals from the on-location shooting in New Mexico are Stunning. What a beautiful picture, the rocky mountains and sand-swept plains and vistas filling the background with each passing scene. It is a sun-drenched western with seemingly no clouds anywhere near or around the location shooting. Story, twists and characters aside, you can just sit back and appreciate the natural beauty.

If there's a weakness, it's in the last 45 minutes or so of a 104-minute movie. As certain things are revealed, the story loses some momentum. The ending itself features some twists and betrayals and backstabbing along the way that do make it fun, but there isn't the same energy as was there in the first half. Still, it's a solid, well-made adult western from the 1950's and Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch. Definitely worth seeking out.

The Man From Laramie (1955): ***/****

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Slow West

I started a new job in April and just haven't had as much free time as I used to. Meaning? I haven't gotten to watch as many movies as I'd like. So now, when I do grab a couple hours here and there, I find myself revisiting westerns I've seen, my favorite genre that always puts me at ease (basically no matter the quality). I was psyched when I saw a new western was available to watch, one that earned uniformly positive reviews. Here's 2015's Slow West.

It's the 1870s and a teenage Scottish boy, Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is traveling across the American west on a mission. He's searching and on the trail of the girl he loves, a girl a few years older than Jay named Rose (Caren Pistorious), who had to flee Scotland and is now on the run with her father. To say the least, Jay is inexperienced in surviving in the wilderness, and he has no real idea of where he's going, only that he'll keep on looking for Rose -- the love of his life -- for as long as it takes. It is on the trail though he meets Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), an experienced bounty hunter who offers to be Jay's guide...for a price. Suspicious but desperate, Jay agrees so both he and Silas ride west, following what little evidence the Scottish teenager has. The trail behind him has been rough enough, but he has little idea of what awaits.

Though it pains me to say it, I can admit the truth. It's something I've known for years, but man, it does suck. The western genre has gone the way of the dodo bird. The big, extravagant, epic westerns of the 1950's and 1960's are long gone, as are the bigger than life stars like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, Randolph Scott and so many others. What are we left with? The occasional western that gets a big theatrical release, but more likely, a smaller, indie western like this 2015 effort from director John McLean. Small scale, almost minimalist at times, and most definitely in revisionist mode, it's an interesting movie but not one I necessarily enjoyed unfortunately.

The late 1960's started the trend, and the 1970's kicked the door in with the concept of revisionist westerns. These were movies that tried to look at the American wild west with a more honest, brutal, graphic and dirty vision. There were some great westerns released, but often times, the finished product was so bleak, no one wanted to see any more westerns. 'Slow' is in the revisionist vein 100 percent. The portrayal of the wild west in the 1870's is violent, startling, survival-based and any one who gets in your've a right to kill them. Bbbbbut, my goodness it is bleak to the point it is hard to just sit and appreciate the movie that definitely had a ton of potential. It clocks in at just 85 minutes and is painfully drawn out at times (taking its title incredibly seriously) with very little actually happening. That becomes a bit of an issue.

The positive is obvious. His name is Michael Fassbender. Maybe you've heard of him. One of the most talented actors working currently in film, Fassbender's Silas is a presence that's both comforting and intimidating at the same time. He's looking out for Jay (for a price), but with something else in mind too. Fascinating to watch an extremely talented actor do his thing, and his scenes with Smit-McPhee are excellent as they find a rhythm, almost an unlikely friendship but not quite. The 85-minute running time comes into play there. I never really felt like I knew much about either character. Therefore when things get sticky and the bullets start flying, I didn't have much in the way of an emotional investment. Interesting performances, but I would have liked some more depth to the script.

The only other recognizable face -- who's quickly becoming one of my favorites -- is Ben Mendelsohn as Payne, an outlaw and leader of a gang who has some history with Silas. The physical appearance here is amazingly perfect for Mendelsohn, a wide-brimmed hat and an IMMENSE coat made of buffalo to the point you can barely make out his face. Now that said...he's in about three scenes and is criminally underused to the point it feels like a waste. His presence alone, his cold glare often says more than any line of dialogue could. Along with Pistorious as Rose, also look for Edwin Wright, Andrew Robertt and Rory McCann in small but important supporting parts.

Something is missing though. The on-location shooting in New Zealand is stunningly good-looking. One shot after another could be freeze-framed and hung on a wall like a painting. The mostly low-key musical score isn't too folksy and one main theme resonates throughout the story. Even the message in general of a brutal, bullet-riddled American west is strong....but it doesn't make the movie good as much as it pains me to say it. The ending packs quite a wallop, or should have, but I had checked out already. A disappointing misfire unfortunately, a western with a ton of potential that spends too much time on style and its revisionist roots over characters and developing characters.

Very disappointing unfortunately.

Slow West (2015): **/****

Monday, August 3, 2015


By the mid 1960's John Wayne wasn't just John Wayne anymore. He was the Duke, an icon and a star. He came to represent something bigger, something Wayne thought people needed to look up to. Because of that sentiment, he turned down some roles that he thought were too much against type. The two big ones? The Major Reisman part from The Dirty Dozen and the role of a famous rogue cop named....Dirty Harry. Wayne regretted not taking the part made famous by Clint Eastwood and went about fixing the issue. The result? Two cop movies, starting with 1974's McQ and following a year later with Brannigan (soon to be reviewed).

A longtime detective on the Seattle police force, Lieutenant Lon 'McQ' McHugh (Wayne) has seen everything there is to be seen. After years on the force, he's sick of the politicians and the glad-handing and all the garbage. He's interested in putting the crooks away, but now one attempted murder hits too close to home when his partner, Lt. Stan Boyle (William Bryant), is shot in the back with a shotgun with no witnesses. Boyle's chances aren't too good, but McQ intends to do something about it. Who shot his partner? The clues are there, and McQ begins to suspect there's a whole lot more going on than meets the eye. He begins to find evidence that could point to any number of trails worth following, from a high-level drug supplier to corruption within the police force. Can he piece it all together before those people he's chasing get him instead?

I've been a huge John Wayne fan for as long as I can remember. If he's starring in a movie, I'll give it a shot. Mostly, they're winners but occasionally there's a dud here and there. I'm looking at you The Conqueror. In this last portion of his career -- mostly the late 1960's and into the 1970's -- Wayne was making movies he wanted to make, movies he figured his fans and audiences wanted to see. Are they classics? With the exception of True Grit and The Shootist, no. On the other hand, they're F-U-N, movies like Big Jake, The Train Robbers, Chisum, The Cowboys and several others. So regretting not taking the Harry Callahan role (a big thank you from Eastwood), Wayne dove headfirst into the renegade cop genre. The winners? Us. McQ and Brannigan aren't classics, but man, are they ever fun.

The rogue/renegade cop movies of the 60's and 70's were everywhere, ranging from Bullitt to Dirty Harry to Magnum Force to The French Connection with plenty more in between. The crime thriller as a whole was at its absolute best. But a John Wayne take on the genre? Yes. Yes. The script gives him some nice touches to show he's a cool cop, like his houseboat, his Pontiac trans am, his efforts to stay involved in his daughter's life, even though ex-wife Julie Adams just couldn't take their marriage anymore. By 1974, Wayne was 66 years old, a little thicker around the midsection and sporting a toupee but you know what? He makes it look effortless. That no-nonsense, all-business attitude plays well as the frustrated cop role. Rules? Meh. Hippies? Don't bug him about them. Getting the crooks behind bars? NOW you're talking.

It doesn't matter the genre. It doesn't matter the script really. It's John Wayne, and he's going to make the most of it. The cast across the board is pretty cool. Eddie Albert gets to glare and snare as Kosterman, McQ's commanding officer who's sick of his take no prisoners attitude, and has some great scenes, two pros going toe to toe. Diana Muldaur plays Boyle's wife, always close with McQ, while Colleen Dewhurst plays Myra, an informant, waitress and drug addict who McQ milks for dirt. Among the cops on the case, also look for Clu Gulager, David Huddleston, and Julian Christopher while Roger E. Mosley plays a pimp/snitch, quite the one-two punch. And last but not least, Al Lettieri does what he does be a slimy 1970's villain, this one a drug supplier with a checkered history with McQ so you know that's going to end well. Some fun parts to back up the Duke throughout.

If you're a fan of Bullitt, the Dirty Harry movies, or assorted other 1960's/1970's cop movies, you'll like this one. Director John Sturges does a good job using his on-location shoots in Seattle to give the story that sense of authenticity, and composer Elmer Bernstein turns in a cool, funky, jazzy score...that's still very clearly an Elmer Bernstein score (and that's a good thing). There's a really cool car chase through and around Seattle's highways about halfway through (just like Bullitt), and the shootout finale on oceanfront beach is very well-done as three 1970's boats, um, I mean "cars," tear after each other. Oh, and John Wayne gets to unleash a heavy-duty automatic machine gun.

Is it a classic? No way, but it is a heck of a lot of fun with a story that never really slows down and has some fun with twists you think you'll see. More than enough to recommend, and John Wayne is having some fun from beginning to end. What would it have been like if Wayne took the Dirty Harry role? We'll never know, but it seemed to turn out generally okay for everyone involved. I guess. Right, Mr. Eastwood?

McQ (1974): ***/****