The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Walk

Heights scare the bejesus out of me. Let's get that out of the way early. I'll do roller coasters, I'll go up in skyscraper, and the upper upper deck at a baseball game doesn't do me in. But something about heights, it just gets me. So naturally 2015's The Walk seems a perfect fit for this guy, doesn't it? Putting aside my genuine fear, I still had to check it out!

Working on the streets of Paris in the early 1970's, 20-something Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a street performer who specializes in sleight of hand, magic, his mime-esque performances and above all, performing tricks on a rope he ties up and acts as a street-improvised "high-wire." He's worked for years to improve and become great as he performs his high wire act, but for several years now, he's had one huge dream. Philippe wants nothing more than to string a high-wire at the very top of the newly-built World Trade Center towers in New York City. It seems impossible for any number of reasons from the whole it's illegal to do it to the obvious and inherent dangers, but Philippe will hear none of it. He will get it done no matter the risks. Assembling a small crew of friends and accomplices to help him pull off his "coup," Philippe begins to put it all together, hopefully pulling off the impossible high-wire act.

I saw the trailer for this film from director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump) and was instantly hooked. The camera flies up the still under construction World Trade Center, finally revealing where it is at the top of the tower when a man walks out toward the ledge and proceeds to almost walk off, only to stop and balance off a steel beam. How about that for going for the jugular, huh? I must have seen the preview for Zemeckis' film each time I went and saw a new flick in theaters. Finding out it was based on a true story, I went into curiosity lockdown, not wanting to know what really happened on the World Trade Center in 1974. If you don't know already, I recommend doing the same. Go in with a clean slate and no knowledge of where 'Walk' is going.

So how does the finished product measure up against the impressive trailer? It's a good film, a very interesting story, but not one I loved. I liked it. In a way, 'Walk' is impressive because it is simply a story about a man trying to achieve his dream. Though there is a love interest, it isn't a love story. There's adventure, but it isn't an adventure film. It is a solid, well-told character study of a man -- Philippe Petit (<--- avoid="" don="" if="" nbsp="" p="" pesky="" spoilers="" t="" those="" want="" you="">
Long since removed from his Third Rock from the Sun days, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the best actors working out there. He dove headfirst into this role, both learning how to speak French and more importantly, to look like a competent high-wire walker. It is a performance bursting with energy, Petit coming to life with a glee for life, a stubbornness to do what others say he can't, and maybe an obsession. The French accent gets laid on a little thick at times, and through no fault of his own, the performance does hit some overdone moments, but I'll give credit. It is a very interesting part for a very talented actor. Petit is an artist who isn't doing his death-defying stunt for publicity or fame or money. He sees something beautiful and simply wants to do his act, do something profound and beautiful, while paying tribute to something so awe-inspiring as the towers of the World Trade Center.

The rest of the cast is solid, but nothing flashy. Charlotte Le Bon is Annie, Philippe's supportive girlfriend who begins to realize how truly driven her boyfriend is to accomplish the walk. Clement Sibony plays Jean-Louis, Philippe's closest friend, confidante in his "coup," and right-hand man in putting it all together. Oh, he's also the official photographer! Their motley crew of assistants and accomplices is headlined by the always solid James Badge Dale as J.P., a New Yorker with some connections, and Steve Valentine as Barry, the inside man working at the World Trade Center. The team also includes Cesar Domboy, Ben Schwartz and Benedict Samuel. And last but not least, Ben Kingsley is excellent in a supporting part as Papa Rudy, Philippe's mentor and teacher who tries to teach him all the ins and outs of being a high-wire performer.

Admission of guilt...I didn't see 'Walk' in 3-D. Maybe I should have. Why? Well, there's that whole walking between the World Trade Center towers scene....if you're into that sort of thing. It's an incredible sequence that really puts into perspective the absolute insanity of what Philippe is attempting to do. He can do everything humanly possible and still fail because the wind picks up, he loses focus, his equipment fails, any and all. The build-up can be a touch slow in the process getting to this point, but the high-wire finale is well worth the price of admission (3-D or not). My counter is that the actual build-up to the act is far better. What Philippe intends to do is HIGHLY ILLEGAL so it's not like he can just walk up to the still under-construction tower and do his thing.

The end result? An extended sequence of about 25-30 minutes of Philippe and his team of accomplices getting into place. It develops like a heist sequence and for me at least, was absolutely as intense and riveting as the actual high-wire act. A spectacle movie with some character and heart, it's a flick well worth catching up with. As for the 3-D, that's up to you. A good movie is a good movie regardless of where or how you see it.

The Walk (2015): ***/****

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past

I have my favorite series. I love the Bond movies, love the Fast and Furious series and will watch just about any western out there. Some series, well, they just weren't on my radar. Take the X-Men series. I wasn't a comic book reader as a kid and never got into the successful Marvel series. So as a 30-year old movie nerd, I'm catching up. I've really enjoyed where the X-Men franchise has gone in recent years, including the highly successful and very positively reviewed 2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past.

In the not too distant future, a group of mutants is constantly on the run as robots known as Sentinels mercilessly hunt them down. This small group meets with a small group of fellow mutants -- the few remaining members of X-Men -- and come up with a desperate plan to ensure (or at least try) their survival. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) will be sent back in time to 1973 hoping to turn the tide of the past and naturally, the future. His objective? Stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing a man, an act that will ultimately doom all of the X-Men and mutants. His only hope is to find Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) and get the two enemies to put their horrific differences aside and work together to stop Mystique before they're all doomed. Can time-traveling Wolverine pull it off?

As I do from time-to-time, I hedge my bets. That's an awful plot description I've just provided you with. Like real bad. It's a whole lot of characters, series history, always confusing time travel, stars from two different timelines within the same series and my general lack of knowledge from the X-Men franchise. A winning formula for a review, ain't it? AIN'T IT? All jokes aside, it's an excellent film, one well worth seeking out.

I loved 2011's X-Men: First Class. A ton of fun, great cast, cool history-bending story, not much more you can ask for. This sequel amps things up in a big way. It brings the two timelines together, combining the first three movies of the series with the recent quasi-reboots. For this X-Men nube, it can be confusing at times, but it is always interesting. I won't get in-depth about my issues because much of my general sense of huh?!? comes from not knowing who everyone is. Director Bryan Singer returns to the series and keeps things going at an extremely high level. It's a series that ain't going anywhere either with the next release coming in 2016 supposedly. Color me psyched to see where it goes.

The beauty of these movies is the casting. Superhero movies aren't just MOVIE STAR movies anymore as both this series and the Avengers/Marvel universe has shown. These casts are filled with FREAKING actors and lots of them! McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence and oh yeah, Jackman comes back?!? It's crazy. All characters capable of carrying a movie by themselves work together to form a great ensemble. Jackman is the heart, the steadying force throughout as Logan, Mr. Wolverine himself, now traveling through time to save the world (and yes, it's that cool). Also reprising their roles are some huge names from the original trilogy including Patrick Stewart as Xavier, Ian McKellen as Magneto and Halle Berry as Storm, among several other familiar faces who make some quick appearances at the beginning and end of the movie.

The heart of the rebooted films is the trilogy of stars, McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence with Nicholas Hoult also returning (thankfully) as Hank McCoy, better known as Beast. No one is a cardboard cutout of a character, each of them feeling like a flesh and blood human...uh, mutant. I especially liked McAvoy as Xavier, tortured over his failures as his body too starts to fail him. He saw what could have been and is wasting away only to be reminded by Wolverine what still could be. Fassbender is criminally good at being Magneto, a villain you just can't get a read on. He's so impeccably cool and suave and a continuing great addition to the franchise. Lawrence is excellent too as Mystique, driven, stubborn and obsessed with doing what she believes is right. It's thankfully not a love interest but this triangle is fascinating to watch as they try to work together but...come on, that ain't gonna happen now, is it?

Who else to look for? Let's throw Peter Dinklage as Dr. Bolivar Trask, a brilliant scientist, engineer and weapons developer, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, a mutant with the ability to bend time and conscious, and a very cool part for Evan Peters as the future Quiksilver, helping Wolverine and Co. with an elaborate prison breakout. There's many other X-Men/mutants to mention as well, but most of them are given little explanation or background. I looked them up, and they're all parts of the X-Men world but with little to no regard for who/what they are, I struggled to keep them straight.

 Maybe the coolest part of these new X-Men movies is their general comfort level. I loved the Avengers movies, but let's be honest, they're schizo, over the top debacles of excess (and the better for it). The X-Men movies have a lot of the same ingredients but never goes for BLOCKBUSTER mode. These are movies content with characters, well-written story, some fun with history (including a great what-if about Magneto and the Kennedy assassination), and some....some explosions, much of it saved for the finale at the White House with President Nixon's life on the line. These are movies content to be a little different, and they're the better for it. I didn't love the movie -- and I had some issues with the ending -- but I liked it a lot. Definitely looking forward to seeing where the franchise goes from here.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): ***/****

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Martian

I'm gonna tweak an intro I like to use from time-to-time. I've used it before talking the ocean and huge bodies of water but am twisting it up a bit to outer space concerning a film in theaters that's raking in the dough and piling up positive reviews. Rightfully so as well. So what's scarier than outer space? How about being trapped in outer space millions of miles and months and potentially years away from rescue? Yeah. Pretty...freaking...scary. So goes 2015's The Martian.

It's two-plus weeks into a NASA mission on Mars when a horrific storm forces the six-man crew to abort ahead of schedule and head back to Earth. In the evacuation though, one member of the crew, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is struck by a piece of flying debris and swept away. The Ares crew leaves before they too are lost, suspecting that Mark was killed in the accident...but he wasn't. With the crew having left Mars behind, Mark wakes up the next day, wounded, running out of oxygen and very much on his own. All he has is a habitat that isn't intended for long-term living and with stockpiles of supplies but only to a point. If he intends to survive, he's got some serious work to do. A potential rescue is at least four years away -- it takes awhile to get to Mars -- and that's only if he can somehow get in touch with NASA. If he can. First things first, Mark has to provide for himself with the food and water (even rationed) scheduled to run out long before any potential rescue arrives. The clock is ticking...

'Martian' is based off a best-selling novel by Andy Weir. I read it this past spring and I loved it. LOVED it. Mark Watney quickly climbed onto my list of all-time favorite characters. At different points reading Weir's novel, I felt physical ill I was so nervous, my eyes teared up with extreme worry about Mark's fate and what I took away most, I laughed out loud over and over again. It's one of the best books I've read in years, funny, emotional, smart and dramatic, all rolled into one. So how about the movie...

It's a gem. Director Ridley Scott is at the helm of an excellent, almost great movie. I don't have any huge flaws to call into question, but I can't call 'Martian' an all-timer. It's just really, really good from beginning to end. Scott has had a string of so-so to meh to not very good movies, but this is the veteran director at the top of his game. It can be daunting adapting any novel, but the effort here is spot-on. Filming was done in Wadi Rum in the Jordanian desert, giving the film a startling, far-off look to the "location" shooting on "Mars." I really liked composer Harry Gregson-Williams' score, unassuming and quiet that more than suits the action. We don't need aggressive, in-your-face music telling you how to feel. You need quiet, companion music that underplays the emotions and action.

When I read Matt Damon had been cast as Mark Watney, I was skeptical -- a little -- because the character is in his late 20's and though it suited Damon regardless of age, something didn't seem spot-on about the choice. Well, I'll admit when I was wrong. Mr. Jason Bourne himself was a perfect choice. Part of the appeal of the Watney character is his response to his isolation and potential death. We see him break down in a couple instances, but this is a man who takes every problem as it comes and attacks it head-on. He never gets too down no matter how hopeless or impossible it seems. It's one of Damon's best performances, showing off what a versatile talent he is. You're rooting for him from the start and that never lets up. Intelligent, funny, stubbornly persistent and quite sure he's going to survive no matter what's thrown at him, an excellent part for Matt Damon.

Damon's Watney is -- not so surprisingly -- on his own during his time on Mars. In other words, it's kind of a one-man show during those scenes. Here, Scott uses some cool style points. In the book, it was quite acceptable that Watney kept a diary of all his day-to-day activities. Short of narration playing over his actions throughout the entire run-time, that wouldn't work here. Instead, Watney films video diaries, keeping us updated on one fiasco or success or observation after another. Damon injects the character with the same energy and dark sense of humor and stubborn hope that Weir's novel presented. It's a straigthforward call on style, but it works. The days pass with a simple 'Sol 18' and so on appearing on-screen, a sound effect like a radar ping playing over it. Not aggressive in the style department, but it works in subtle, underplayed fashion.

Now of course, 'Martian' isn't a one-man show. The overall cast is excellent, Damon on Mars and the expansive rescue effort playing out back on Earth with the Ares crew also traveling back to Earth. Lots of potentially excellent parts and they don't disappoint. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Benedict Wong, Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover lead the NASA rescue effort in a variety of roles. The "surviving" Ares crew includes Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie. If that's not a cast powerful enough to melt your face, well, I don't know what is. There isn't a weak link, but I especially thought Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, Wong, Chastain and Pena did especially good jobs bringing characters to life that could have been cardboard cutouts. What a cast!

It's hard not to watch Scott's 'Martian' and not think of countless other science fiction films. For every comparison you can make from similarly-themed movies like Gravity or Apollo 13, you get the sense that while familiar, Scott's film is carving out its own niche and heading out on its own. I thought Gravity was excellent as a visual medium -- a true experience of what being in space is like -- but I never felt emotionally connected with it. That isn't the case here. It's a spectacle movie, an astronaut wasting away on Mars while a rescue effort is mounted, but it connected far more with me emotionally. That's a credit to Weir's novel, the screenplay adaptation, Scott's directing and an amazingly talented cast. An all-around excellent film. And one more thought...

I liked -- maybe loved -- the humanity of 'Martian.' The trailer introduces the concept that often times when a man/woman, men/women are in trouble, people come to help, to rescue, to save. Racial and cultural differences are set aside, all in the hope of helping those that so desperately need it. It's a highly effective storytelling technique here as billions of dollars are spent to bring one man home. That's where this story is so effective emotionally. You're rooting for Mark, you like him, and you want him to survive. What drives him? He's stubborn and man, he does not want to die on Mars. Watney has some great narration late as a potential rescue effort draws nearer, a man doing a long list of firsts on a planet that is untouched by human hand (or feet). Very well-written, well-executed and well-delivered lines by Mr. Damon.

Reading Weir's novel, Mark Watney became one of my favorite literary characters, and Damon more than does him justice. A heck of a movie that succeeds on basically every level you could ask for. Highly recommended for a great sci-fi spectacle, a moving story with some very high highs and some very low lows with a ton of dark humor sprinkled in here and there. Go see it and read the book too!

The Martian (2015): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

China 9, Liberty 37

Monte Hellman isn't necessarily a household name among movie fans. He worked pretty regularly in the 1960's and 1970's and has worked on and off since. He doesn't have a huge, crazy classic to his name, a director who usually was at the helm of low-budget, straightforward flicks. His best film -- for me at least -- is Two-Lane Blacktop. His others? More hit or miss, like 1978's China 9, Liberty 37, a western I didn't like at all.

Wasting away in a prison cell, Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is minutes away from walking to the hangman's noose when he's given a reprieve. Well, sort of. Local government and train officials have an offer for the infamous gunfighter. They'll let him go free and avoid the noose if he agrees to ride out and kill a farmer, Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates), who owns a piece of land that the railroad needs to continue building across the country. Somewhat suspicious, Clayton takes the deal and rides to the Sebanek homestead where he meets the farmer and his younger wife, Catherine (Jenny Agutter). Drumm doesn't ride up and shoot the farmer but instead introduces himself as a drifter passing through looking for a roof over his head for the night and maybe a meal. Sebanek agrees, but he's no dummy. He knows what's Drumm is up to. What will come of the slow-burning showdown?

Hmm, interesting...interesting. I wanted to like this 1978 quasi-spaghetti western. I did, but it just isn't very good. As a director of westerns, he specialized in low-key, low-budget stories that were more about the reality of western life than the romance or the glory or the heroes. It was a dark, nasty life where death seemingly hovered in the air. There wasn't any romance or glory or glamour. In that sense, 'China' is spot-on. It is cynical, violent in quick strikes, and with a touch of irony sprinkled in for good measure. All these little positives though, they got lost in a sea of a wayward story, out of place soundtrack and a disappointing go-nowhere direction.

First, the biggest issue. The first 40 minutes are interesting. I kinda sorta maybe thought I was getting a story about a gunfighter who must make a difficult decision. Do what's right? (Not kill the farmer). Do what he's spent his life doing? (Kill the farmer). It isn't even close. It becomes a forced, uncomfortable love story about the gunfighter, the farmer and wouldn't you know it, the farmer's wife. Yeah, we're talking about some low-budget porn. All the potential goes out the window in an instant, and the rest of the movie is far different than what I thought I was watching. The switch itself isn't awful (but it ain't good either), but the pacing dies and any interest I had in the story was gone with the snap of a finger.

The casting definitely intrigued me, but that too came up a little short. Warren Oates is the man. I'll watch him in anything, even when he's just chewing the scenery. This is a good part for him, a for the most part quiet performance, a farmer who knows he's in a hell of a pinch and must decide how far he's willing to fight to keep what is his. So yeah, 40 minutes and then he's just an angry husband looking for vengeance. Testi was a big star in the 1970's, and I've typically liked him. The performance is -- again -- potentially interesting, the infamous gunslinger with a chance for redemption of sorts, but it goes literally nowhere. He isn't dubbed either so I had trouble understanding his very heavy Italian accent. There are some great scenes between Oates and Testi as they talk about how they got to this point, what to do from here that indicates this could have been an excellent, thoughtful western...but it isn't.

Instead, 'China' degenerates into soft-core porn. Agutter is nude for much of the movie and Testi goes shirtless a lot in awkward, truly uncomfortable love scenes as Testi and Agutter stare into each other's eyes before getting to the oh so sexy lovemaking. Except they don't have any chemistry, and they literally look like robots when they're kissing. It is truly awkward, almost like they were told to do it that way. It wouldn't be a huge issue except that this happens four and five times, long sex scenes set to equally uncomfortable and out-of-place folk songs that dot the soundtrack. When things should be quickening the pace, that pace goes nowhere as we get one more repetitive sex scene. So yeah, the good western goes bye-bye.

'China' was filmed on-location in Spain as so many classic to good to god-awful westerns were in the 60's and 70's. It is a mix of the American revisionist westerns and the hard-hitting, horrifically violent spaghetti westerns but never finds its own groove or rhythm. You get the sense Hellman was going for something lyrical and beautiful with a story about true love that can't be denied, but that never comes together. The running time is 102 minutes -- and I did get to watch a beautiful print on Turner Classic Movies -- but the last 100 minutes dragged in a big way. A major disappointment because it feels like there was so much wasted potential. So much potential that never goes anywhere.

China 9, Liberty 37 (1978): */****

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Conqueror (1956)

I love John Wayne so let's get that out of the way. I've seen just about every single one of his feature-length films, and more than a few of his ventures are on the Just Hit Play All-Time Favorite List. I can be honest though when necessary, and the 1950's were far from the Duke's strongest decade. Though there were some gems -- Rio Bravo, The Searchers, Hondo among others -- there were some duds, real tankers. Blood Alley, The Barbarian and the Geisha, Legend of the Lost, all not remembered so fondly but one rises (or sinks?) above the rest. Definitely Wayne's worst film and one remembered as one of the worst of all-time, 1956's The Conqueror.

"Why is it so bad, Tim?" you might ask. Why? Well, John Wayne, the all-American movie star takes a crack at playing the infamous Mongol warrior and leader Genghis Khan. Yeah, you read that right. John Wayne plays Genghis Khan. And away we go!

Ruling his tribe/clan of Mongols on the Asian Steppe, fiery, brutal warrior Temujin (Wayne) has caused himself some issues. Namely, a violent conflict he's started with a rival tribe because he kidnapped said tribe leader's wife-to-be, Bortai (Susan Hayward). The equally fiery woman wants nothing to do with Temujin and making it worse, her father killed Temujin's father years before. Uh-oh, family drama! Even as war looms and his people threaten to leave him entirely, Temujin refuses to give up his kidnapped bride who wants nothing to do with him (or does she?!?). Instead, the Mongol leader looks to form an uneasy alliance with a past enemy to hold his power and hopefully gain much, much more. Can it all hold together long enough for Temujin to do what he needs to do to reach out and grab everything he wants? The answer lies on a trail of bodies and a river of blood across the Steppe.

Well, that was a fun plot synopsis to write! It's not too often I get to write a trail of bodies and a river of blood in a review. It's an easy plot to spell out because it is just so criminally bad. We will address John Wayne as Genghis Khan in a bit -- that's too easy -- but there's so much badness here in all-around fashion. The script offers one stilted scene of dialogue after another and then one betrayal and backstabbing after another. Imagine the Indians in 1950's westerns -- Me Indian. How! -- but transitioned to a war on the Asian steppe. Yeah, it's just as bad and cliched and just plain dumb as you'd expect. Actor-turned-director Dick Powell is at the helm of a real stinker here, basically from beginning to end. It doesn't build to bad. It just IS bad.

Okay, John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Let's process this. Let's rationalize. It can't be as bad as it sounds, right? No, it's exactly how it sounds. In the late 1940's and into the 1950's, Wayne really developed as an actor, piling up some of his best roles -- She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Searchers -- but this is just uncomfortable to watch. As Ben Manckiewicz said during the recent airing of 'Conqueror' on TCM, Wayne has said in interviews he played Khan as an American cowboy, a tough gunfighter and wouldn't you know it? That formula doesn't work. He's trying so give him credit because it would have been easy to phone this one in (real easy). Wayne just has too much working against him from the aforementioned dialogue that sounds especially stiff coming from the Duke down to the ridiculous mustache wardrobe set him up with. Bad. Really bad so be forewarned.

No one in the cast escapes the wrath of the script to be honest. Hayward was one tough actress, but she doesn't have much chemistry with Wayne and that's a problem when the driving force of the movie is their passion-filled, love-hate relationship. Hayward does get a bizarre, forced striptease/sexy dance of sorts so....there's that, I guess? Pedro Armendariz plays Temujin's half-brother, Jamuga, his conscious, a wise sidekick who recommends what to do next. Also look for Agnes Moorehead, Thomas Gomez, William Conrad, John Hoyt and Ted de Corsia in supporting parts. Familiar faces Lee Van Cleef and Leo Gordon get supporting background parts. A whole bunch of very non-Asian actors playing Asian parts and the end results are just as bad as you figured they would be. Not a winner in the bunch!

If there's a positive, it comes as a bit of a loaded statement. The scope and scale of the movie is impressive. The battle scenes of colliding, thundering armies crashing into each other are something to behold. The stuntwork is impressive throughout as hundreds of riders fill the screen in lavish uniforms set against the stunning backdrop of the Utah desert. Then there's the issue...the filming locations were 100-miles south of nuclear testing sites and judging by the amount of cast members that would die from cancer over the coming years, it seems the U.S. government's promise that the nuclear fallout wouldn't head their direction...well, that's garbage. Much of the cast and crew would die over the next 5, 10 and 20-plus years from varying cancers, quite possibly from the arduous filming schedule in the Utah desert. If that's not tragic, I don't know what is.

So here we are. The fact that 'Conqueror' has a 3.3 rating on IMDB is a testament to John Wayne fans who are fighting a heck of a battle to bring that number up at least a little. This movie is just as bad and worse as you've heard. I lost interest pretty quickly but stuck it out, hoping things might improve at some point. That's the worst kind of a bad movie, one that's almost impossible to even enjoy in guilty pleasure fashion. Give this one a wide, big-old berth, and that's coming from one of the biggest John Wayne fans around.

The Conqueror (1956): */****

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Dr. No

In 1952, British author Ian Fleming introduced the world to a character that would become one of the most famous, instantly recognizable characters in literature-film-pop culture history. That name....Bond, James Bond. Fleming would write 14 007 novels, starting with 1952's Casino Royale, but it took 10 years for the British super spy to make it to the big screen. It was worth the wait, and one of the most successful franchises in film history was born. It all started with 1962's Dr. No.

A station chief and his new secretary working for British intelligence in Jamaica has gone missing without a trace, leaving London scrambling to figure out what happened. The station chief, Strangways, had been investigating possible interference with American missiles but all his files have been stolen as well. In steps another agent, James Bond (Sean Connery), dispatched to Jamaica to investigate. He's quickly stone-walled wherever he goes, finally receiving some help from a CIA agent, Felix Leiter (Jack Lord), and a local fisherman, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller), who had worked with Strangways. What little evidence Bond can find -- among several attempts to kill him -- is an isolated, mysterious cove, Crab Key, owned by the equally mysterious, Dr. No., who no one knows much about. What's waiting out there? And is Dr. No behind these wayward American rockets? Maybe only Bond can find out.

All successful franchises have to start somewhere, right? This is an excellent jumping off point for my all-time favorite franchise. Producers debated over which Fleming novel to use as the first film, finally settling here on Dr. No. It immediately resonated with fans, propelling Connery to stardom basically instantaneously. It isn't one of the best 007 movies, but it's pretty damn good. You see all the groundwork being laid out for what was to come from the one-liners to the diabolical villains, the girls to the gadgets, the exotic locations and effortless style. And of course, that main theme, maybe the most famous movie theme of all-time. An excellent starting off point. Listen HERE to the theme but shame on you if you haven't heard it by now. No Bond song here, just Monty Norman and John Barry's perfect theme to play over the stylish 1960's credits.

When he was cast to play 007 himself, James Bond, Connery was a young actor who'd worked regularly in films and television but was far from a star. That kinda sorta changed with this film. Just a bit. This is a rare example of perfect casting. Connery was born to play Bond. It's the style, charisma, confidence, it all flows so effortlessly. Maybe not physically, but Connery brings Fleming's Bond to life as well as anyone with Daniel Craig knocking on the door in that department. He's a killer, brutally efficient with his license to kill, but he's also smooth and suave, an impeccably dressed ladies man. Connery finds a rhythm immediately with the character. There's no sense of an actor feeling out what works and what doesn't work. He just knows what he wants to do and goes for it. There were better Connery/Bond entries -- From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball -- but Connery is and always will be 007. The maiden voyage with an iconic character, and the young Scottish actor hits a home run with ease.

The rest of the cast lacks huge star power, but that ends up being a positive. It's cool to see Lord in a pre-Hawaii Five-O part and he's got some good chemistry with Connery, as does Kitzmiller in their scenes together. But what about those Bond villains and Bond girls?!? The franchise is off to a good start with Joseph Wiseman as Dr. No and maybe the most iconic Bond girl of all-time, Ursula Andress, as Honey Ryder. Who hasn't seen the famous shot of her in a white bikini coming out of the water? She actually isn't introduced until the hour-mark, but her appearance is definitely an idea of things to come. The same for Wiseman's Dr. No, and he's not introduced until there is less than 25 minutes left in the movie! He's intelligent, foreboding and gets the franchise started off right. Now, if he had just killed Bond on the spot rather than let him waste away in a cell....oh, the possibilities.

Also look for Bernard Lee as M and Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, introduced in the early goings. Anthony Dawson plays a potential lead for Bond once he arrives in Jamaica while Zena Marshall and Eunice Gayson play two more Bond girls.

I think what's most alarming about this first James Bond movie is how calm it is. It is self-assured and confident, hitting a groove pretty quick, but it barely resembles what the franchise would become (for good and bad). This is more of a detective story than a secret agent story. It isn't necessarily low-key because of all the chases, Bond girl-seducing, perfectly-timed one-liners and all, but it's certainly in that territory. Director Terence Young simply isn't trying too hard -- that would come later in the franchise -- in introducing 007. It's a good intro and not a great one, but it is an excellent film just the same. The next venture, From Russia With Love two years later, is a true classic and one of the series' best.

Dr. No. (1962): ***/****

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Black Mass

With the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Johnny Depp went from well-known but quirky actor to a huge star, an actor who embraced the weird, the odd and the deranged and was the better for it. He was a big star and he still is, but his film choices since have been more hit or miss. Some decent performances but nothing too crazy and not a whole lot of box office success (yeah yeah, I know that's not the end-all, be-all). Well, 2015's Black Mass is getting all sorts of positive buzz, much of it surrounding Mr. Depp himself. Onward Boston gangsters!

It's 1975 and in south Boston -- AKA Southie -- James "Whitey" Bulger (Depp) is a small-time gangster (but an extremely dangerous one) with a tight-knit crew of like-minded crooks called the Winter Hill Gang. Their Irish territory is under pressure from the other end of town where the Italian mafia is muscling in, forcing Whitey's hand. He gets an out in the form of FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a local boy done good, returning to Boston swearing he'll leave his mark. Connolly convinces Whitey to be an FBI informer, giving him any dirt he can on the seemingly unstoppable Italian mafia. As both men discuss, it isn't ratting anyone out. It's simply business. It's an alliance that helps both sides. Well, it may help one side more than the other. Connolly intends to do something good -- while turning a blind eye in other places -- while Whitey sees the vast potential in front of him. He was dangerous before. Now what can he accomplish with the FBI's protection?

No point in beating around the bush. Johnny Depp or more appropriately...JOHNNY DEPP. An always reliable actor basically no matter the movie, script or subject matter, Depp makes the average usually pretty interesting. When he's working with really good material? Here we sit, Depp stealing the show in director Scott Cooper's film that's based on the true story of infamous Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger (<--- about="" actually="" and="" as="" be="" but="" can="" could="" cover="" crazy="" decades.="" details="" don="" exploits="" happened="" help="" his="" how="" i="" if="" in="" is="" it="" itself="" keep="" knew="" little="" moving="" multiple="" obvious="" of="" p="" people="" performances="" read="" s="" some="" sorts="" spoilers="" story="" stupid="" t="" terms="" that="" the="" things="" thinking="" throughout.="" type="" want="" watching="" without="" you="">
Depp is an excellent actor, but here he's really working with a worthy character. The physical transformation is startling and chilling, Depp wearing icy blue contact lenses, donning a pointed prosthetic nose and makeup that thinned his hair. He looks evil. Like really evil, and the story helps develop that with ease. It is an intimidating, frightening performance, full of foreboding and doom that show the depths one man will go to in maintaining his hold on the power he has. Stay local? You'll be fine. Start to look for a way out? Start looking for a bullet with your name on it. Some attempts are made to humanize Bulger early on and it works to a point, but you really do get a sense of the evil in the man as the years pass and the body count rises. A testament to Depp's ability is that he does it with ease. You never get the sense he's trying too hard or hamming it up. He just dives in headfirst and goes for it full-bore.

An excellent performance, one that deserves the early Oscar buzz Depp is generating. There isn't a weak performance in the entire film, all the actors hitting the right notes one after another. It just shows you how good Depp is that not much else in the cast is being mentioned. The names though...those names. As he showed with Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace (liked it a lot), some very talented actors want to work with Mr. Cooper. He's a talented director, getting the most out of his cast, both major supporting parts and smaller but still essential parts. Edgerton is excellent in a part that defies reality. No one could be both this dense and high-reaching, could they? I would have liked some more development of Agent John Connolly, but you get a picture of a man who wants results, the means be damned. Not as frightening as Whitey, but scary in a different way that puts into perspective how far some will go to get the job done.

Lots and lots of other very talented actors to check out. Benedict Cumberbatch -- getting third billing -- plays Whitey's younger brother, Billy, a state senator in Massachusetts in spite of what his brother is up to. A small but essential and layered performance. Whitey's crew includes Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane (excellent) and W. Earl Brown, all part of Whitey's madness and power. David Harbour steals his scenes as Morris, Connolly's right-hand man in their doings with Whitey, with Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll as other office representatives at the D.A. and FBI. Because that's not enough, also look for Dakota Johnson (shaking off the awful Fifty Shades of Grey), Peter Sarsgaard, and Julianne Nicholson in key supporting parts.

'Mass' covers a lot of ground in its 122-minute running time, but it never feels rushed. The time jumps are never too severe and find a decent rhythm. If there's an issue -- and it ain't a crippling one -- it's that Cooper's film is missing that one special something to make it a classic. The story is always interesting, the casting pretty spot-on and the musical score from Junkie XL adds something to the tension and sense of foreboding. It's missing that final ingredient to take it up to the next level though, and I can't quite put my finger on it. The story is familiar, a tad predictable, and at times feels a little too influenced by The Departed, The Town and any number of Scorsese crime dramas. It's tough to criticize a movie for something like that. This is a true story that no doubt influenced those movies, but those movies hit theaters first. Make sense? Nah? I'm not even sure!

An easy movie to recommend, especially for the acting from top to bottom, especially Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch. An excellent lead performance from Depp, one of the first to gain some Oscar buzz as we fast approach the end of the year and the beginning of award season. Definitely worth seeking out if not a classic.

Black Mass (2015): ***/****