The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Deja Vu

The thought of time travel in film rattles my brain. It's never as simple as John Smith goes back in time and explores. There are dire consequences and horrific consequences for each and every action!!! Cue intense, foreboding music! When handled correctly though -- or as much as my feeble mind can grasp -- it can be a gem, like 2006's Deja Vu.

It's Fat Tuesday in New Orleans when late in the morning the Canal Street Ferry explodes in a fiery blast that claims 500-plus lives. There is little doubt the attack was the work of a terrorist with countless law enforcement agencies descending on the town to investigate. Among them is ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) out of the New Orleans office. A dogged investigator, Carlin follows the clues, trying to find out why a suspicious corpse ended up in the explosion's aftermath. He's approached by an FBI agent (Val Kilmer) leading a special investigative team that has some special technology at its disposal. They say it enables them to compile satellite images to see what happened some four days before. Carlin goes along with it, starting to piece it all together, all in hopes of finding some clue that will lead them to the terrorist bomber. It isn't long though before he figures out the "satellite" description is garbage. Somehow, some way, he's literally looking back in time...

What a fun, smart, stylish movie. Like I mentioned, time-travel movies are inherently complicated to the point it is difficult/impossible to 1. Keep up with it and 2. Not shake your head at the goofiness of it. With director Tony Scott at the helm, it has some of the stylistic elements of his previous efforts, especially Man on Fire, Spy Game and Enemy of the State. The quick cuts, the rapid camera movement, the unique shooting angles, it's all there, combining with a memorable score from Harry Gregson-Williams to add that great secondary layer to the story.

For me though what sets 'Deja Vu' apart from so many time travel movies -- Back to the Future to The Terminator, Looper to Planet of the Apes and many more -- is its creativity. It seems to revel in that creativity, that original, generally unique idea. How so? SPOILERS Carlin figures out they're not looking back in time, they're literally watching the past happen through some time-bending technology this investigative team has stumbled upon. Plot holes, time discrepancies aside, it's so cool as a premise. Scott's clearly having some fun with the time-bending concept, especially with a bit of technology that allows Carlin to wear a goggle headset so the time-traveling moves with him, what he sees through the goggles is what happened previously. Wwwwwhhhhaaaatttt? The premise injects some crazy energy into the always fun car chase sub-genre. Just watch this extended chase scene, sit back and smile, take it all in.

There is something eternally watchable about Denzel Washington in just about any movie he does, from heavy drama like Philadelphia or Glory to more mainstream, fun affairs like 2 Guns, Out of Time and Deja Vu. His Doug Carlin is a career agent with the ATF, and a good agent at that. He's a dogged investigator, stubbornly pursuing his cases, especially a terrorist attack that tears apart a city with the deaths of 500-plus people. Washington is so good, so effortless, it's just a pleasure to watch him do his thing. He's calm and cool...until he isn't like when he pieces it all together and figures out exactly what kind of technology he's working with. The case develops around the dead body of a beautiful young woman (Paula Patton) from New Orleans, Carlin wondering what he could have done to save her. Could he have done something different? Not one of his best performances, but just about any Denzel is good Denzel.

Dezel is the star, and Paula Patton gets a chance to shine in the final act, but who else to look for? Doc Holliday himself, Val Kilmer, has some good chemistry as Carlin's quasi-counter, not always telling the full truth while not lying either. His team includes the always reliable Adam Goldberg, Erika Alexander and Elden Henson. As for the villain who we see in all sorts of different ways courtesy of the time-bending story, Jim Caviezel is perfectly creepy, a so-called patriot but an unhinged one willing to go to horrific measures. Bruce Greenwood is a high-ranking FBI official on the case while Matt Craven appears briefly as Doug's long-time partner in the field.

It can be so easy with time-traveling stories for things to derail and do so quickly. That's not the case here with a story that manages to hold it all together under some post-movie scrutiny. The multiple storylines (and timelines) hold together when you really (really) think about it. Through it all, it's fun, even a final act that comes across as a little forced, a little too gimmicky. Still, 'Deja' is ridiculously fun from beginning to end with a finale that's frustrating a touch, but mostly, it just works so well. So freaking entertaining. Highly recommended, a great time-bending thriller.

Deja Vu (2006): ***/****

Friday, February 26, 2016


I love westerns, but by 2016, it can be genuinely hard to bring something new to the genre. To any genre really. It's tough. So what do you say about 2015's Diablo? It's a western with some potential to be pretty decent...but it just ISN'T. It's not very good, but there is a twist. A good twist. What's your take though? Is that twist enough to save an otherwise mediocre-to-bad movie?

It's 1872 in the Colorado Territory and a young rancher, Jackson (Scott Eastwood), is woken in the dead of night. His home, his barn, his corrals are on fire, and he sees three men riding away to the south with his wife. He rides out in the morning having to make up time and miles on the trail, all with the hope of getting his wife back and exacting revenge on the men who kidnapped her. Nothing will come easy though in the pursuit as Jackson meets all sorts of obstacles though. His biggest obstacle? That could be himself as his violent past threatens to tear him apart before he can catch up and save his wife. Can he somehow do it?

As I write today's western review, I check the count and see that I've written 245 western reviews since starting my movie review blog. I've been in a good place lately, watching and re-watching westerns as quick as I could. So while this western from director/writer Lawrence Roeck didn't get a theatrical release (that I'm aware of), I had to give it a shot. The verdict is pretty straightforward. Though there's potential, it simply isn't very good. I'll give westerns the benefit of the doubt for the most part but this one has too many holes.

What's most disappointing is that Roeck and his crew are clearly fans of the genre. Filmed in Alberta, Canada, 'Diablo' is a beautiful-looking film. This isn't the sun-drenched desert vistas you might expect in a western. This is the snow-capped mountains, the frigid air, the bundled-up cowboys so that's pretty cool, an interesting change of pace. The shots of Eastwood's Jackson riding through the mountains, across a snowy ridge, cutting across the horizon, they're first. The movie's only 82 minutes long, and I'm betting 30 minutes are simply establishing shots of a rider riding. Helicopter shots, overhead shots, from the side, from the other side, from behind, straight-on....oh my goodness. It's repetitive and repetitive and repetitive. The same for the musical score. It's appropriate but it tries to be too big and epic-based when the story just doesn't call for it. 'Diablo' knows and respects the western genre but can't quite get there.

Then there's the twist. Looking back on it and the build-up, there are hints as to what's coming. I didn't pick up on them at the time. Either they're too subtle or I just take the western at face value too much (See it and you'll understand my issue; read 'dumbness.') Reading some message boards, some other critics' reviews, the twist is pretty divisive; love it or hate it. For me, it took me by surprise completely. I didn't see it coming. I thought it worked...but it is underutilized. No spoilers, but the reveal comes at the hour-mark after a painfully slow first hour. Then when we should be reveling in the reveal, the movie ends 15 minutes later. The credits roll at the 77-minute mark. We waste so much time getting to that point that it feels completely -- no check that, COMPLETELY -- wasted. I'll give credit where it's due, and the final scene ends on a creepy shocker, but again, it is almost all potential.

The son of the legendary Clint Eastwood (still the coolest), Scott Eastwood has been working in film and television since 2006 and he seems to be taking off a bit in the star department. He's still developing though as an actor and struggles at times when he doesn't get any help from the script. Eastwood does show his skill though, but in a short movie with so many moving pieces, he kinda gets lost in the shuffle. Who else to look for? Some cool names, some recognizable faces including Walton Goggins, Danny Glover, Tzi Ma, Camilla Belle, Jose Zuniga, Adam Beach and Joaquim de Almeida as some folks who pop up along the trail. Most aren't around for more than a scene or two, but it is cool to see them in a western story. Just wish the source material was a little stronger.

Too bad in the end. With some tweaks here and a fleshed-out story there, we're talking a pretty decent little flick. There's just too many holes here. A short movie is almost unbearably slow, the dialogue is some of the most stilted I've ever heard, and a potentially really cool twist never gets a chance to take off. I'll ever so slightly recommend it for the gimmick, for that twist, but other than that, probably for diehard western fans only.

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

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


So....mortality....kinda sucks, huh? We only get one crack at this life so you might as well make the best of it with what little time we have, right? Well, what if we weren't limited to just one go-around? What if we had another chance, maybe multiple chances? It's a potential-filled dilemma, one with countless layers. If we could, should we? I missed 2015's Self/less in theaters but was able to catch up with it on DVD.

A real estate mogul who has piled up fortunes on top of fortunes in a career spanning 40-plus years, Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is quickly dying of cancer that is spreading throughout his body. With doctors telling him he only has months to live, Damian undergoes a dangerous medical situation called 'shedding' where his mind/psyche are transported to the body of a much younger man, a body grown/built genetically in a lab. So while his body may have failed him, his mind won't, giving him a chance to live on and accomplish so much more as a younger version of himself (Ryan Reynolds). New and improved Damian dives into his new-found life, celebrating, partying and living life like he was actually running out of time. It all seems too perfect...and it is. Damian begins to feel funny, begins to question exactly what's happened. Can he figure it all out before something even more dangerous happens to him?

Ever heard of a movie called Seconds? Ha, well I have! I even reviewed it for you! You can read my review from 2010 HERE. It's got 6 whopping views so...yeah, it's a threat to go viral any second. 'Self/less' is a tweaked remake of the 1966 flick from director John Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson. It's a very 1960's movie with a fabulous ending, one that almost saved the movie for me. But that's my rule. If you're going to remake a movie, do one that has little to no reputation or has a ton of untapped potential. This version? It takes the basic premise and goes from there, doing its own thing.

What if you weren't tied to your physical being? What if your conscious could be moved to another vessel? In this frightening age of science, who knows? Maybe that's not too far away...if it hasn't happened already. Director Tarsem Singh turns in an unsettling, creepy thriller with that potential-filled premise. It received pretty negative reviews -- although fans seem to like it -- and bombed at the box office, making just $12 million. Not good. I liked it though, taking the remake and stylizing it and building up some great scenes of doom. It moves at a lightning-pace early on once Damian goes under the procedure, and I wish it would have slowed down a little bit, let it breathe and develop. It's always entertaining though and worth a watch.

This Ryan Reynolds fella, he's been in the news lately for a little movie called Deadpool. Heard of it? Yeah, it's doing pretty well in theaters. He's always been an immensely watchable actor through drama or comedy, but his HUGE movie never seemed to come along until Deadpool. As young Damian, Reynolds is us, he's the viewer. He's trying to piece it all together, knowing the pieces just don't quite fit...but not quite able to figure out why. I'll always think of Reynolds as motor-mouth, fast-talking Van Wilder, but he's shown previously and does it again here that he's quite capable of heavier drama into anti-hero territory. A very solid lead performance!

Now officially into badass, screen legend territory, Kingsley has some fun and gives the film some muscle early on as older Damian, a ruthless businessman who sees his clock running out. Just wish he'd been around longer! The always-solid Matthew Goode plays Albright, the suspiciously smooth doctor who offers the seemingly-dangerous medical procedure that moves psyches without too much risk. Victor Garber is a welcome addition as one of Damian's business partners and friend, making key appearances at the beginning and end. As for the rest of the cast, I don't want to give away too much about what's going on so...look for Natalie Martinez and Derek Luke in key supporting parts!

My theory I write about often is my Christmas Eve theory. Sometimes it's more fun not to know what your presents are. The build-up, the anticipation! 'Self/less' is a rare movie where the payoff works. So does the build-up. The mystery and all those unanswered questions do a great job building the tension as young Damian begins to figure out exactly what's happened. My biggest issue is that 'Self/less' didn't know how to wrap things up. The last 25 minutes or so degenerate into unnecessary action pyrotechnics with car chases (that's actually pretty cool) and a chase and gunfight. I liked that simmering tension and unease through the first 80 minutes more. So thankfully, my issues aren't deal-breakers. An enjoyable thriller with a cool premise and good cast. Worth a watch for sure.

Self/less (2015): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 22, 2016


I was raised as a Catholic, going to church every weekend with my Dad and my sister. Over the years, I've mostly left organized religion behind. I struggle with my beliefs in religion, of a higher being, of faith in general. Through the ups and downs though, I've always been fascinated with the story of Jesus. Whether he was the Son of God or just a man (or both), it is a truly interesting, layered individual, one we'll never fully know. Slinking into theaters this weekend is 2016's Risen, the story of how Jesus' supposed Resurrection from the dead sparked quite a tense situation in Jerusalem.

Stationed in Jerusalem -- in 33 A.D. -- a Roman tribute, Clavius (Joseph Fiennes), is in command of a veteran legion tasked with helping keep the peace. Upon arriving back at the garrison having put down a small rebellion in the hills, Clavius is summoned by the Roman governor of Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth). While Clavius was away, Pilate ordered the crucifixion of  a preacher from Nazareth who was causing problems on all fronts. Now that the preacher is dead, it is feared by many in power that the man's message of resurrection from the dead in 3 days will now incite more disbelief, more fervor, more fight against the Romans. Sure enough, on the morning of the third day, the body is missing from the tomb it had been buried in. What happened? Was the body stolen? Is there something more powerful going on? With Pilate's less than patient mandate to get the job done and do it quickly, Clavius must get to the truth of it all. What really happened to the preacher from Nazareth known as Jesus?

Semi-SPOILERS AHEAD For those that believe Jesus is the Son of God, the thought he rose from the dead is a matter of truth. For others? It's far more incredulous. I don't know where I stand exactly on the subject. I'd like to believe, but I just don't know. 'Risen' -- though it keeps you guessing throughout -- attacks the subject as if Jesus (called by his actual name, Yeshua) did in fact rise from the dead. It's not overtly religious as a film, but your personal beliefs-faith-convictions will no doubt impact what you take away from the film, or if you even like it. I liked it a lot for all the right reasons. End of Semi-SPOILERS.

In the heyday of the EPIC roadshow film hitting theaters -- the 1950's and 1960's -- historical epics were quite common in theaters, specifically biblical epics. How then do you inject some life into a sub-genre that's long since lost its popularity? With an original story like this! Director Kevin Reynolds wrote a screenplay with Paul Aiello that turns one of the most famous stories in history -- Jesus' death and Resurrection -- into a mystery, a police procedural of sorts. How genuinely original and creative is that? If it sounds too straightforward...well, it is a perspective on a familiar story just waiting to be told. Some general background info and knowledge wouldn't hurt here either going in. A lot going on, a lot of names and history so while it's never out-and-out confusing, it could be a lot to juggle if you're unfamiliar with the story and its players.

One of the archetypal characters in biblical epics were non-believers who wanted to believe -- sometimes against their better judgment -- who are then brought into the growing Christian faith. In steps Joseph Fiennes as Clavius, a longtime Roman soldier who's grown weary of the life full of death, blood and destruction. When instructed to find out what happened to Jesus, he doggedly pursues the clues of a case that just seems too impossible to be even remotely true. A man couldn't really rise from the dead now, could he? The transformation Clavius goes through is believable and very effective because Fiennes does such a fine job with the lead performance. An underrated actor all around, he's one of the best things going here in 'Risen.' We see a man tortured inside by his own doubt, comparing everything he knows and believes to all those things that you have to take on faith (no matter how difficult). A layered performance, a fascinating character and our point person in solving one of history's great stories and mysteries.

This isn't an all-star cast full of thousands. There's some recognizable names and faces with an ensemble cast that fills in around Fiennes as necessary. Firth is excellent as Pilate, given some depth here and not just as a cardboard cutout, the easy villain. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy himself) plays Lucius, Clavius' young aide, inexperienced but wanting to learn. Who else to look for? A lot of familiar names if you're familiar with the story, including Mary Magadelene (Maria Botto), Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) , and Jesus' disciples, most notably Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore) and Bartholomew (Stephen Hagan).

Filmed on-location in Spain, 'Risen' has that sun-drenched, sandy, dusty look of so many past epics from The Greatest Story Ever Told to King of Kings, Ben-Hur to Gladiator and so many others. In that sense, Reynolds' film feels like a bit of a throwback to biblical epics of old, albeit with such a cool twist leading the story. How do you prove a man did or didn't die? Finding his body and quickly before it rots to the point it can no longer be identified. In 33 A.D. in the heat of the desert...that's not long. It's never slow-moving, always moving forward, always working toward something bigger in a finished product that runs 107 minutes. There are times I thought it dragged some in the second half when things should have been picking up momentum, but the ending itself -- and some twists along the way in getting there -- certainly make up for it.

In an odd way of looking at 'Risen' as a police procedural of sorts, the story works as it drops hints and clues where it's going. The story we follows begins with us being thrown right into the tail end of Jesus' crucifixion, and away we go from there. There are references to the bloodied crown of thorns, the shroud of Turin, several Bible passages about the days and weeks following the death and Resurrection -- specifically the Upper room -- which we just don't know much about other than some vague(ish) references. The best thing going here (along with Mr. Fiennes) is a moving performance by Cliff Curtis as Jesus, a quiet, dignified performance that just works so well. I don't want to give too much away, but it's an excellent appearance. The second half does take some surprising twists that lean toward the more religious nature so be forewarned going in.

But taking it all in, I loved it. A bit of a throwback to days of old with Hollywood historical epics mixed in with some new elements of a biblical detective story. Fiennes is excellent, but the whole cast is very good. It's not making much money in theaters, but the reviews are fair to middling (with some that actually liked it) so take advantage during the Lenten season and go see this one. And that's from a heathen like me!

Risen (2016): ***/****

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Moonlighter

Not often remembered as one of Hollywood's great on-screen couples -- I'm totally stealing Turner Classic Movie's Ben Mankiewicz's introduction! -- Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck worked together four times during their illustrious characters. Double Indemnity is a classic, and I loved the Christmas-themed Remember the Night. Let's add a third to the list with today's review, 1953's The Moonlighter.

Wasting away in a jail in a small western town, an outlaw, Wes Anderson (MacMurray), has been captured for cattle rustling and is awaiting trial. Outside the jail though, some restless cowboys don't want to wait for that trial though, and through a case of mistaken identity, the wrong man is lynched, leaving Wes to escape with his life. He's torn up inside because a relatively innocent man (a hobo) died for absolutely no reason and struggles with how to handle the guilt. The only thing Wes knows is the outlaw life, whether it be rustling or bank robbing, and that's right where he reverts back to with no other options available to him. As Wes puts together a plan to rob a bank -- with some help from an old partner and his down-on-his-luck brother -- he finds out that a woman from his past, Rela (Stanwyck), is on his trail and looking for some answers.

I love westerns. I thought I'd like this generally forgotten, low-budget(ish) entry to the genre from director Roy Rowland. I was wrong. It's just not very good with too many negatives that cancel out some of its elements with some potential to offer. Good cast? Check. Story with rapid changes in tone? Double check. As soon as there's something to sit back and enjoy/appreciate, there's something equally frustrating that cancels it out.

That starts with the Wes character, MacMurray getting a rare chance at a villainous character. Sounds good, right? Can't go wrong with a star often associated with Father Knows Best and several Disney movies as a cattle-rustling outlaw...until you can. The script is rough. It starts off promising as we meet a grizzled Wes who hasn't shaved in days and is patiently sitting in a jail cell. When everything goes to hell with a lynching of mistaken identity (new band name?), so does the character. Wes' guilt is too much, and he takes it out on the lynching party. It's played like we should feel for him as he's wracked with guilt over what happened, but yeah, I'm not seeing it. His "revenge" is pretty weak too, roping some of the lynchers and then dragging them for awhile. He ropes Jack Elam (because Jack Elam was a villain in EVERY 1950 western) and we're not necessarily sure how much he does so there's that, but come on, if he's full of angst and vengeance, do it right. Make him pissed off and vengeful!

Further removing any edge off the character is the reliance on the love story. MacMurray and Stanwyck had unquestioned chemistry, but again, there's little reason to feel sympathetic for their stories. A tortured love from the past is typically a western-killer, especially when Stanwyck's Rela admits that "her love was too demanding, too strong" and that her demands Ugh, gag me. That's weak. And true love if you ask me! There's also a wasted subplot that doesn't live up to its potential with Wes' younger brother, Tom (William Ching), now engaged to Rela but struggling with where he's at in life. Never quite lives up to its dark potential, including the final act after a genuinely good -- if somewhat telegraphed -- 'twist.' Meh, why go with interesting when you can go with never-ending love full of passionate hugs and adults rubbing cheeks with their love?!?

Also look for Ward Bond as Cole Gardner, Wes' old partner, another rare opportunity for an actor who typically played good guys to get a bad guy role. Along with Elam, look for familiar faces John Dierkes and Morris Ankrum in small parts.

Just a western that tries too much. It's 75-minutes long and tries to tackle way too much. It even has an intermission! It starts off very strong but derails following the lynching scene, including a bizarre flashback as Wes starts to exact his revenge on the lynching party and the town. The scene develops with an intense tone of doom but ends up playing like a spoof. 'Moonlighter' is unfortunately never truly able to recover. It isn't awful -- there's simply too much talent on display -- but it sure ain't good either. Worth it as more of a western novelty than anything, especially with MacMurray, Stanwyck and Bond leading the way.

The Moonlighter (1953): **/****

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


Well, I did it. It may have taken me years, but I finally did it! Thanks to a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies (my go-to movie station), I was able to finally watch the only Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott pairing I had not seen. That entry? From 1959, Westbound, actually the sixth of seven films the director and star worked together on. Where does it end up among the seven? Read on and find out!

It's late in the Civil War as the Union and Confederacy continue the bloody fighting, both sides looking for more gold to bankroll all the fighting. One of the keys? Getting that gold from California across the southwest to safety so it can be deposited in banks and mints. In steps John Hayes (Scott), an extremely capable Union cavalry officer who has a background in running a stagecoach line. He's now being sent to start up a line on the fly, one that will be running coaches full of gold being shipped as fast as humanly possible. The task is incredibly difficult, especially because Southerners in abundance are going to do their damnedest to stop him from succeeding. First up on that list is his former employee, Clay Putnam (Andrew Duggan), a Confederate sympathizer who's hijacked much of the already-established stage line. Into it all, Hayes steps in with little room for error and less time to get things right.

As a western fan, it is hard not to like these films, these seven pairings between Boetticher and Scott. Their reputation has grown over the years -- thankfully! -- to the point that western fans look to these films as some of the best of the genre, a canon to be recognized. Where does 'Westbound' fall? Right in the middle. I liked it a lot, but I can't put it on the same level as 7 Men from Now and Ride Lonesome, my two favorites of the bunch. It's better too than Decision at Sundown and Buchanan Rides Alone, putting it instead among Comanche Station and The Tall T as the 'good, but not great' entries. None of them are bad, just some better than others. 'Westbound' is one that grew on me during its 72-minute running time. Something clicked in about the 25-minute mark or so, and I was hooked.

I've made no bones about my dislike and worry over so many heavy, overdone adult westerns from the 1950's. The drama, the emotion, the betrayals, it was all laid on so thick. One of many beauties of the Boetticher/Scott films is their outlook on the west. There was good, bad and those caught in the middle, those who have to decide to do what's right (and possibly dangerous) or just go along with the easy payday, what's easy. Among westerns -- and films, stories in general -- there's nothing more direct than good vs. evil. Where will everyone fall in the end? Boetticher follows the similar formula, the same archetypes and at just 72-minutes, 'Westbound' is a fast-moving, often dark, adult western that flies by. An excellent, underrated final product.

Leading the way and navigating through the good and bad is star Randolph Scott, an ideal lead for these movies, a necessary front man. Movie-in and movie-out, Scott was what these movies needed. His John Hayes is no different, resolute in getting the job done no matter what odds are stacked against him. He doesn't see black or white or shades of grey. Hayes sees what is right and intends to get the job done. There's never a doubt of his intentions. These aren't anti-heroes, but instead, a last wave of true western heroes. Scott throws himself into those parts with abandon. He's believable. You buy it that he will never take the easy way out. But you ask, even when a lost love (Virginia Mayo) is waiting there to be swept away? NO! Our hero wouldn't dream of it! What about a lovely young bride (Karen Steele) who he's clearly attracted to? Double NO! It just ain't gonna happen, a true western hero, a dying breed by 1959 in the genre.

There's some good parts all around in this Boetticher western. I liked Duggan a lot as Putnam, the Confederate sympathizer determined to stop Hayes but even he has limits. His enforcer, Mace (Michael Pate), has no such limits, providing some tense moments as their plan is put into action. Mayo is Putnam's wife, a woman torn by her past feelings of Scott's Hayes and her genuine feelings for her current husband. Steele is a bright spot also as Jeanie Miller, a young bride to Rod (Michael Dante), a Union soldier who lost an arm in the fighting and was sent home. There's an interesting dynamic among Hayes, Jeanie and Rod as the stage plan comes together that takes some surprising turns as the story develops. Wally Brown provides some comic relief as Stubbs, the stagecoach driver, with John Daheim memorable as the sneering henchman of Mace's...Russ.

Nothing flashy, nothing too out of the ordinary. It wouldn't fit with Boetticher's straightforward, no-nonsense smile. This is a western at its finest with a story that doesn't pull any punches, a hero who it's easy to root for, villains you can't wait to see get their due, and all of it wrapped tightly in a nice 72-minute package. If you're a fan of the other Boetticher/Scott pairings, you'll definitely enjoy this one too.

Westbound (1959): ***/****

Friday, February 12, 2016

Heist (2015)

I've realized something these last few years as I've headed head first into old age. Yep, I'm 30 now. It's all downhill, huh? I went through a long phase where I was always looking for critical darlings, movies -- check that, films -- that were blah blah blah. I want to be entertained. Plain and simple. Therefore....2015's Heist is pretty dumb and even pretty bad, but 30-year old me was entertained and enjoyed it from beginning to end, dumb twists and all.

A dealer at a riverboat casino in the South, Luke Vaughn (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is in trouble. His young daughter is sick and wasting away in a hospital, desperately waiting a surgery he can't afford. He has nowhere to turn other than his brutally efficient boss, Frank Pope (Robert De Niro), the owner of the casino, he has a history with...but is turned down. With nowhere left to turn, Luke agrees to work with a pit boss, Jason Cox (Dave Bautista), to take down the casino and remove some of its dirty money. It's a desperate plan that comes together quickly, but Luke has no other options and Cox wants and needs that cash (because he's greedy...nothing more sinister). The job itself goes awry almost immediately after they get their hands on the money, forcing Luke, Cox and two men Cox is working with to improvise under heavy gunfire. What to do? Where to go?

I love going to the movies. I love watching movies. What I'm still getting used to with that love? There are a lot of movies out there that never got a theatrical release and went straight to DVD/Blu-Ray, like this action thriller from director Scott Mann. Were they meant to be released in theaters only to see a studio back out? I'm still working on it. Seriously, check out Redbox or Netflix and see all these like-minded flicks. Usually some cool casts, interesting premises and...a dud of a movie!

This movie has a lot of potential, much of it coming from a very cool cast. The premise is pretty cool even if it doesn't always take advantage of that premise. There are plotholes so freaking big you could probably drive a semi-truck through them without any collateral damage. It's fairly predictable though it tries to reveal its big twists as HUGE REVEALS. The status quo for these straight-to-DVD flicks seems to be stories that fall apart in the finale, but hopefully by then you're at least partially invested enough that you don't audibly groan. Okay, I did a little bit here but that's my twist with the big reveal. Yes, 'Heist' is cliched, predictable and quite familiar if you've seen any -- ANY -- previous heist thrillers, but I did enjoy it. All those above descriptions aren't necessarily a movie killer as long as things stay entertaining.

Most of my enjoyment came from the casting. I wish Jeffrey Dean Morgan did more action movies that let him play these kinda roguish anti-heroes. I loved him in The Losers, liked him a lot back in '15 in Texas Rising, and he's good here as an unlikely crook who turns to a casino robbery to save his daughter. A little hammy (okay, very hammy, aiming right at the heartstrings), but it works with all the other craziness. As for that De Niro fella, maybe you've heard of him. He's a decent actor. Even when the script is nothing crazy and does him no favors, De Niro looks to be having fun, especially with the villainous Pope, a casino owner who watches over his money like a murdering mama bear. Likable stars can make just about anything worthwhile, and that's the case here. Well, at least the start of something.

There's a fun cast overall here, most of them playing characters that are either cliched stereotypes or cardboard cutouts, but it's fun to see the parts just the same. A former wrestler who's burst onto the movie scene with roles in Guardians of the Galaxy and Spectre, Bautista is quite an intimidating presences as the brutal co-conspirator. Also look for former MMA fighter Gina Carano as a police officer thrust into the situation, Mark-Paul Gosselaar as a fast-talking, no-nonsense detective, Kate Bosworth appearing in one scene as Pope's estranged daughter, and then D.B. Sweeney and Lydia Hull as unwilling participants in the post-heist aftermath. And last but not least, having some fun as a sadistic enforcer of Pope's and his casino heir, Morris Chestnut plays Derrick 'The Dog' Prince.' A fun cast with some cool faces to see pop up.

Not an especially good movie, but definitely an entertaining one. Don't go in with too high of expectations, and I think you'll get a kick out of it too.

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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

Have you heard the name Eddie Mannix? I hadn't. He worked in the film industry for years as a "fixer," making problems go away for Hollywood studios with its stars, productions and films so everything ran as smoothly as possible. A natural idea for a feature flick, right? You bet. Here's the latest from the Coen brothers, 2016's Hail, Caesar!

Working for a major Hollywood film studio in the early 1950's, fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is good at what he does. No, he's great. If a problem comes up with a movie in production or the studio's stable of stars, Eddie pulls some strings, pays off this guy, massages this situation...and poof, it's gone! Well, there's a pretty big problem. One of the biggest stars on the lot, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), has gone missing with no trace. Baird is starring in the studio's blockbuster biblical epic in the lead role and every hour he's missing is costing oodles of money. No one's quite sure what happened until Eddie receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for a group called 'The Future.' What to do? Eddie gets the money from the studio to pay them off, but that's just the start of his problems as all sorts of drama appears around the studio lots.

The idea for this film dates back to the early 2000's when the brother director duo, Joel and Ethan Coen, originally intended to do a like-minded film set in the 1920's about a play based in biblical times. It sat around for years before the brothers finally tackled it again and here's the finished product. The Coen brothers and their films can be an acquired, oddball taste so here's a quick moral of the story. If you like their previous movies (especially their comedies), you'll like/love 'Hail.' If not, it's probably more of a mixed bag.

What appealed to me most about this film was the absolute love the Coen brothers have for film and movie history. 'Hail' is set in Hollywood's Golden Age of Film when studios ran things with an iron fist, where stars were owned by said studios, and America was still (well, mostly so) innocent and naive. Even when they're having fun in quasi-spoof form, there is evident love of the history of film everywhere. Much of it -- as the Coens are known for -- is snappy, knowing dialogue throughout, brief asides, seemingly throwaway lines, underplayed deliveries that pay huge dividends. It's also the look of the film with cinematographer Roger Deakins (he's kinda good) giving the story a distinct visual look that changes from scene-to-scene in a good way. The same for Carter Burwell's score (another Coen favorite) that is able to delicately bounce among genres from epic to western, heavy drama to musicals.

In basically a complete departure from his previous pairing with the Coens, No Country for Old Men (he also worked with them in True Grit), Josh Brolin gets to play the straight man through all the lunacy and craziness as studio fixer Eddie Mannix. Oh, and he still manages to get some laughs along the way. He's the heart of the movie, the baseline it always comes back to. It's fun watching him navigate one perilous situation after another seamlessly, always knowing what to do, how to fix it and most importantly, how to spin it. The most important part of the character? It is something that reflects the general tone of the movie. Through all the craziness thrown his way, Eddie loves movies and what they represent to audiences. Maybe all the drama and long hours he goes through wouldn't be worth it to many people, but Eddie Mannix loves films and the feelings they can produce in its audiences. A bit of a thankless part but one Brolin manages to make his own.

The movie as a whole is more of an ensemble though. Brolin's Eddie is the point man, navigating us through one studio situation after another. The biggest focus goes to that actor named George Clooney who you may have heard of. His Baird Whitlock is a great character, a bit of a doof, a pretty actor, and a tad on the naive side. I don't want to give away who/what kidnapped him, but it provides some truly funny moments as Baird gets duped into the plan. As for the rest of the ensemble, there's Scarlett Johansson in Esther Williams mode, Ralph Fiennes as an English director of spectacle films, Channing Tatum in Gene Kelly mode, Tilda Swinton in dueling roles as twin sister gossip columnists, Frances McDormand as a mousy film editor, and Jonah Hill as an accountant of sorts who helps the studio get themselves out of a variety of different jams. These are all smaller parts though so don't expect it to be a Channing Tatum movie or Scarlett Johansson movie. These are the definition of supporting parts.

By far though, the best performance here goes to Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, a star of B-westerns in the vein of Gene Autry/Hopalong Cassidy/Roy Rogers. A man of few words on-screen, Hobie is forced to take part in a very distinguished, high-class film -- directed by Fiennes -- that...well, makes him talk. What a hilarious character, and it works so well because Hobie seems like such a genuinely nice young actor, especially on his date with a Carmen Miranda-inspired actress (Veronica Osorio). There's not much meanness in Hobie, just a nice guy thrust into some Hollywood dramatics. His enunciation scene with Fiennes is sublimely perfect and perfectly underplayed. No matter who he's on-screen with, Ehrenreich steals those scenes and makes it look easy as he does it.

The ensemble leans toward a story with more moments than a linear plot. 'Hail' has all these great singular moments that work exceptionally well. Mannix sitting down with representatives of different churches to see if their prestige biblical epic is God-approved is priceless. Tatum's "On the Town" dance scene is ripe with innuendos and judged solely as a choreographed dance scene, a treat to watch. Johansson's swim scene looks ripped out of an Esther Williams movie, albeit with a great twist as a capper. The movie is full of these memorable moments from one scene to another that makes it fun to see where things will go next, regardless of a less than pointed, linear story. The Coen brothers script and a remarkably talented cast holds it all together and then some.

Fair warning, it will probably help your enjoyment here if you have some knowledge of Hollywood and film history. 'Hail' isn't necessarily a laugh out loud comedy. It gets its laughs from a sly line here, a clever reference there, a line inflection that brings that line to life. If you're a fan of film and movies in general, the guts and business of making those movies, Hail, Caesar! is for you. It isn't doing so hot in theaters, but I absolutely loved it. Highly recommended!

Hail, Caesar! (2016): *** 1/2 /****

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


You probably know the face if not the name. I first was aware of Martin Henderson in 2006's Flyboys with his scene-stealing part as a veteran World War pilot. He's been working regularly since the early 2000's but never became a bigger star despite some strong appearances. He's a welcome face whenever he pops up in a movie for me! The reason for that lack of stardom? Maybe it's the choices of roles, like 2004's Torque, an awful but highly entertaining action flick.

After six months of hiding out in Thailand, a biker named Ford (Henderson) has returned to the United States with a mission; he wants to clear his name of an unsolved crime concerning drug possession. There's a problem though. A lot more unsavory folks than the police and authorities are interesting in tracking him down, including two brutal biker gangs, the Hellions, led by Henry Davis (Matt Schulze), and the Reapers, led by Trey (Ice Cube). While threading the needle among all those in pursuit, Ford tracks down his ex-girlfriend, Shane (Monet Mazur), who he left with so much unresolved when he hightailed it out of the states six months prior. Time is running out though so Ford teams up with two old friends of his -- wouldn't you know...they're both bikers too! -- in hopes of clearing his name and getting out of it alive at the same time. Can he pull it off?

What a profoundly dumb, truly stupid movie. So....yeah, it's entertaining though. Really entertaining. So bad it's so freakishly good entertaining. From director Joseph Kahn, 'Torque' is in the vein of the Fast and Furious series, especially the first two entries in the series before it got legitimately good, not guilty pleasure good. There is the thinnest, almost see-through impression of a cliched story to hold things together. Those things? Cool anti-hero, wisecracking sidekicks, beautiful, sexy and scorned ex-girlfriend, horrifically cliched bad guys (* Check that. Horrifically cliched everything), and then throw in liberal doses of crazy action, stupid stunts and good-looking women. Every once in a while you need an entertaining dud like this.

As for Mr. Henderson, he's solid as the likable anti-hero who you just know can't be a bad guy. Right? Right?!? The cliched script does no favors for anyone, but the rebellious but oh so dreamy anti-hero is pretty straightforward. Look cool, stand up for the little kid, and have long, pretty hair, and you've got it made. As for his crew of sorts, there's Dalton (Jay Hernandez) and Val (Will Yun-Lee), and the ex-girlfriend who doesn't seem too genuinely upset he's back but...Mazur is gorgeous so yeah, who cares? As a slutty biker girl who likes Val, Christina Milian plays a slutty biker girl who likes Val.

There's plenty of familiar faces around, most of them here to look 1. Cool 2. Tough and/or 3. Sexy. Some are more successful than others. Ice Cube hams it up like a crazy person as Trey, hardass leader of the Reapers with Faizon Love as his much-maligned SUV driver. Schulze actually passes Mr. Cube in the ham department as Henry, but he's not nearly as over-the-top as he was in the awful and far-less entertaining The Transporter. Look for Max Beesley as his right-hand man/enforcer and Jaime Pressly as his tatted-up, piercing obsessed sexpot girlfriend. Adam Scott has some fun as an FBI agent on the case with Justina Machado as his partner. Oh, and Dane Cook makes an odd appearance as comic relief that doesn't quite work.

The weird thing? For the most part, I enjoyed this action-heavy, style-trip through the roguish biker world as it embraces all the craziness that's on display. It's only in the last 20 minutes as our action-packed finale comes along that things truly fall apart. All those separate ingredients mix together in a horrific explosion that's too much for a movie that's entirely too much. The editing is so quick with absolutely no transitions that it is impossible to actually see what's going on. Not to understand what's going on. To see it. It's that fast. And there's product placement. Seriously...there's Product Placement as Mazur's Shane and Pressly's China face off with Pepsi and Mountain Drew posters displayed behind them. They pose and let the camera linger on those posters. SEVERAL FREAKING TIMES. Come on, that's a little much even for a dud like this.

Still, it is blindingly, stupidly fun. There are some cool biker stunts in a story that's just 80 minutes long. It's 84 minutes with the credits. One chase between Ford and Trey is the best as a high-speed train cutting across the desert becomes a prop to their motorcycle craziness. That's where this movie works, in the old "Turn Off Your Brain" department. Watch the pretty people do impossible stunts on cool bikes. Oh so awful but a hell of an entertaining trainwreck.

Oh, and it's hilarious that Torque actually makes fun of the Fast and Furious movies. Nothing this bad -- however entertaining -- should have the balls to criticize any other movie.

Torque (2004): */****

Monday, February 8, 2016

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Oh, remakes...we meet again. And a western at that?!? Oh, the horrors! As for my rule though, if you're going to do a remake, you'd better be ready to do something different, something with a twist. Here's a perfect case in point with 2007's 3:10 to Yuma, a remake of a 1957 western of the same name. The original is a good if not great western that with some tweaks could be great. Does the remake capitalize on that potential?

A rancher in New Mexico with a wife and two kids, Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is struggling. A drought has left his land barely getting by, and he's running out of money to pay off some significant debts. What can he do to save his family and their land? A highly lucrative, highly dangerous option has presented itself. An infamous outlaw and killer, Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), has been captured in the town of Bisbee following a successful payroll robbery. The railroad wants Wade brought to justice, hoping to send him to Yuma Prison where he will be tried and prosecuted, hopefully ending up in a noose. For $200, Dan agrees to go along in transporting Wade to the town of Contention where the outlaw can be put on a train to Yuma. With a small, not too capable posse helping, Dan and Wade hit the trail. Not far behind? Wade's murdering, bloodthirsty gang, looking to free their boss and not caring if they've gotta kill a few people in the process.

The 1957 3:10 to Yuma from director Delmer Daves stars Glenn Ford (as Wade) and Van Heflin (as Dan) in a pretty good but not great western. It's solid. It's entertaining. A remake isn't necessarily needed, but if you're gonna do it it like this.

From director James Mangold, 2007 'Yuma' injects some energy into the western genre. Some of the DVD special features address that aspect, the love of the western, the general death of the western in theatres, and without getting preachy...the need for westerns in theaters. The original is a talkative movie, but the 2007 version is talkative, action-packed, highly entertaining, and features some great performances. Filmed on-location in New Mexico with an Oscar-nominated score from Marco Beltrami, 'Yuma' feels and looks authentic. It's dirty, dusty and grimy with gunplay and death hanging in the air. There's nothing glamorous or romantic about the late 19th Century in the American southwest. Throw it all together though, and we've got a western with a ton of energy that is just fun. It's entertaining. 'Yuma' shows you can be a so-called "adult western" while still having fun.

Who better to inject that energy into a decidedly-American genre? Lead actors from New Zealand and England of course! Crowe and Bale are perfectly cast in their respective roles. Crowe's Ben Wade is a killer, a bandit, brutal, ruthless....but damn, he's charming when he wants to be. Lightning-fast with a gun, he's also freakishly quick with a disarming line. Wade can play mind games with few equals, providing some fun as he messes with his captors. Crowe is clearly reveling in the part, clearly having a ton of fun with the amiable but brutally efficient outlaw. As farmer/rancher Dan Evans, Bale gets the more straight role but similarly throws himself into the part. His Civil War past still weighs on him, and he desperately wants to provide for his family, including his wife (Gretchen Mol) and two sons. While few men would take the risks associated with transporting a notorious outlaw, Dan has no other options. Two fascinating characters.

Crowe and Bale are excellent together, featuring some great banter throughout. The most memorable part though, that goes to Ben Foster as Charlie Prince, Wade's right-hand man, a lightning-fast gunslinger who's also just a touch unhinged. Foster is terrifyingly good here from his wardrobe, to his evil smile to ability with a gun. A great supporting part. Also look for Logan Lerman as Dan's oldest son, Dallas Roberts as Butterfield, the railroad representative, Peter Fonda (who's always welcome) as McElroy, a grizzled Pinkerton agent, Alan Tudyk as Doc Potter, Kevin Durand as the maniacal Tucker, Vinessa Shaw as a madam who meets Wade's liking, and in the odd, out-of-left-field department, Luke Wilson in a random part as a gunslinging miner.

A couple things bugged me on the recent viewing. Trying to stay ahead of the vengeful Prince and Wade's gang, Dan, Butterfield and Co. seem to be in absolutely no rush to get to Contention. They set down and camp....a lot. We're talking long, restful sleeps each night it seems like! Before that, they stop and have a nice dinner at the Evans ranch. Eh, time isn't of the essence or anything, right?

Some plot holes and discrepancies aside, this was a great western. There isn't a ton of action, but what's there is excellent. The opening stagecoach robbery -- featuring a gatling gun! -- is a quality scene-setter and some gunplay is sprinkled throughout until the finale, an exciting, bullet-riddled chase through Contention to the train depot. Where the remake differentiates itself from the original is the mix of drama and action. Mangold knows what he's working with in Crowe and Bale and lets the camera and story stick with his star duo. Their chemistry is without doubt throughout, two pros in a heavyweight fight just waiting to deliver the knockout punch.

As for my general complaint about remakes, do something different if you're gonna remake a movie that didn't need it. The 2007 version does plenty different, including quite a different ending. Some critics took issue with the ending and Wade's reasoning for what he does, but if you're paying attention, clues are dropped throughout as to his intentions. An excellent all-around western that's highly recommended!

3:10 to Yuma (2007): *** 1/2 /****

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Stagecoach (1986)

Released in 1939, John Ford's Stagecoach is one of the all-time great westerns. It was hugely influential in countless westerns that followed, and of course, is famous for helping make John Wayne a huge star, one of the biggest movie stars of all-time. So what's the biggest form of flattery? A remake! And unnecessary ones! Ford's western has been remade twice, first in 1966, and with today's review, a 1986 TV western, Stagecoach.

In the small town of Tonto, a stagecoach is set to leave and keeps its schedule in making it to its next stop in Lordsburg. It is far from an easy ride though across the desert, especially when reports of Geronimo and his Apache warriors being on the warpath start to hit the town. An already dangerous ride is that much worse. The driver, Buck (John Schneider), intends to do his job though, taking the coach through, Apaches be damned. So with a full coach of passengers, Buck leaves Tonto with a cavalry escort hoping to avoid Geronimo and his warriors. His passengers, all of them, have reasons to undertake such a dangerous trip. Some are trying to get somewhere while others are simply trying to get away, but to a person, they believe they're right. Are they? Can they get to Lordsburg safely without coming under attack?

Okay, No. 1. Something that needs to be said. There's no reason to remake Ford's film. NO reason. It's about as perfect a western as you'll find out there. So to remake it in different formats twice? Unnecessary to say the least. I haven't seen the 1966 version -- I'd like to, the cast is pretty crazy -- but I feel safe saying the original is better. The same here. Why bother remaking a movie that didn't need to be remade? Well, the answer isn't one you might easily come up with.

Any ideas? This TV western actually puts a country music spin on the original formula! Didn't see that one coming now, did you?!? The cast includes Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in major roles. Now even as a non-country music fan, that's an impressive pairing of talent! The biggest difference between the '86 TV flick and the '39 original is the re-working of certain characters so the Big 4 Country Stars are actually given something to do. Cash is Marshal Curly Wilcox, on the hunt for Kristofferson's Ringo Kid, with Nelson as the Doc Holliday (quite the change!), and Jennings as Hatfield, a talented gambler (some would say cheater) looking for some redemption. Take the original characters/story, add country stars, lather, rinse and repeat and you definitely get some tweaked stories! That's not a bad thing, giving a refreshing new look at a familiar story.

Of the four, I thought Cash and Nelson come out the best. Cash isn't the greatest actor, but he's very natural, and his scenes with John Schneider's Buck are excellent, two experienced trailhands discussing what their best plan is and should be. Nelson too is excellent as maybe the most famous dentist ever, Doc Holliday (not any old Doc like the Ford version), philosophizing and smoking a cigar and generally having a good time. Obviously he's having some fun with the part. Jennings is okay as Hatfield but nothing crazy. I'm a big Kristofferson fan, but it's a bit of bad casting here. Maybe it's because John Wayne's take on Ringo is so iconic, but Kristofferson is too old for the part and his scenes with Dallas (Elizabeth Ashley), an aging, disillusioned prostitute, lack some chemistry. It kinda feels like a western Last Vegas or Grumpy Old Men, four aging stars getting together and having some fun. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Who else to look for on the crowded stagecoach? Also look for the always welcome Tony Franciosa as Gatewood, a corrupt banker getting out of town with his bank's latest deposit (some $30,000), Anthony Newley as Peacock, a traveling whiskey salesman, and Mary Crosby as Lucy Mallory, a very pregnant young woman traveling west to meet up with her husband, a cavalry officer.

So while there are some changes along the way -- some major, some not as significant -- mostly this TV western sticks with the original's story. The soundtrack isn't entirely country (featuring some solid uses of guitar), and the locations are solid but don't register like Monument Valley does -- I know! Go figure in that department. The biggest changes are saved for the end in a finale that feels somewhat disjointed and/or rushed. It's not an especially good flick, but it is entertaining from beginning to end. The novelty of the country casting is just enough to give it a recommendation. It ain't on par with the 1939 original, but few are.'s not bad.

Stagecoach (1986): ** 1/2 /****

Monday, February 1, 2016

Jane Got a Gun

I'm a western nut. I feel right at home with them. And unfortunately for me and other western fans, the genre hasn't had a prominent theatrical presence since...well, since before I was born. As for today's review, I imagine a lot of people haven't even heard of it. Released in theaters this past Friday, it's had a dramatic production and is basically being released in theaters because....I don't know, it takes millions of dollars to make a movie. So what's the verdict on the little-advertised Jane Got a Gun?

It's 1871 in the New Mexico territory, and Jane Ballard (Natalie Portman) lives on a small spread with her husband, Bill (Noah Emmerich), and their young daughter. Bill staggers home one day, falling off his horse with his back riddled with bullets. As Jane digs the bullets out of his back, Bill mumbles that "The Bishop boys are coming." Their past has caught up to them and with her husband recovering and unable to help, Jane is on her own. With time running out and desperately in need of help, Jane seeks help with a man from her past, Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton), an accomplished gunhand, who at first wants nothing to do with her. After a change of heart though, Dan follows her on the trail, agreeing to help. Riding back to the spread, they have to decide what their plan of both attack and defense will be against John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) and his gang. The odds are already stacked against them though, and that's without considering if they can work through through their checkered past.

Haven't heard of it? Few have. This western has received little to no advertising in recent weeks. After a checkered production, it seems the studio backing the film simply wants to get it off the books. If it's a financial bomb? Eh, it's not sitting on the shelf. 'Jane' was actually filmed back in 2013 and has been sitting on that shelf ever since because of its original studio going bankrupt with the Weinstein Company buying it. The production itself seemed like a revolving door of directors and actors as well. Easy-peasy, right? Well, let's make the best of a lousy situation.

Moral of the story? It's a pretty decent little western. I liked it a lot. Director Gavin O'Connor stepped in after some drama with previously-attached directors and does a solid job with an old school western that would have been comfortable if it had been released in the 1960's/1970's. While it isn't cut and dry black and white, it is a pretty straightforward good guys vs. bad guys. More importantly, it's clear that those involved are fans of the genre, know how to do a western right. Filmed on location in New Mexico, 'Jane' looks authentic, the wide expanses of the desert serving as a backdrop. It's a big, lonely place. O'Connor and cinematographer Mandy Walker have fun with some genre conventions, riders sprinting at the camera in a sun-soaked, vision that looks like a mirage, riders silhouetted against a setting sun. Throw in a good if not flashy score from Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci, and you've got some positives across the board.

What isn't exactly abundant in the western genre? For one, female leads. For two, strong female leads. In steps Natalie Portman, one of the best actresses currently working in Hollywood (wish she'd work more!). Her Jane Ballard is a welcome character, a real character. She's a good shot with a rifle but far from a killer. She makes tough choices for the sake of her family and will do just about anything to protect them. Her backstory is especially interesting which we see in some well-handled flashbacks featuring some genuinely surprising revelations. So while she seeks help from a man, her Jane is far from a damsel in distress. This is a lead female character that is a welcome addition to the genre, not a side character who's brushed aside at the slightest sign of trouble. There's been far too many of those so welcome to the club, Natalie Portman/Jane Ballard!

Having worked together on 2011's Warrior (an excellent movie, one of my favorites), Edgerton teams up with director O'Connor and again, doesn't disappoint. His Dan Frost is the archetypal western hero, capable, stubborn and even when the odds indicate he shouldn't, he does the right thing, in this case agreeing to help Portman's Jane. Edgerton is fast becoming one of my favorite actors, and he shows why here. It's a fascinating character, one dealing with his own past demons and with his own reasons for helping Jane out. He also has one of the best lines in the movie as he dispatches one of Bishop's henchmen. Playing Bishop, the again always reliable Ewan McGregor is a scene-stealer as the steely-eyed John Bishop, a notorious bandit but a well-dressed, well-coiffed gentleman bandit at that. Just wish there was some more of him!

With a small cast, Emmerich isn't given much to do as the wounded, laid-up husband, but some revelations about his past help flesh out the character. Also, look for Rodrigo Santoro as Fitchum, a slimy member of Bishop's gang, and Boyd Holbrook as Vic, John Bishop's younger, sadistic brother. A smaller cast definitely leaves the focus on Portman and Edgerton once things get moving.

This isn't an action-packed western so don't expect shootouts every minute. The action -- like the story -- is about setting the scene, building the tension to nearly unbearable levels. When the firing starts, it's lightning-quick. Most of the action is saved for the finale when Bishop's gang descends on the Ballard house, a violent mix of Home Alone meets Straw Dogs. The story itself has some surprises up its sleeve, much of it revealed in the well-handled flashbacks going back to the later years of the Civil War. If the ending is a tad too tidy, so be it. It's a good ending to an above average western that deserves better. I can't imagine it will stay in theaters too long so get your butts out to theaters quickly or wait for it on DVD/Blu-Ray. It's well worth it!

Jane Got a Gun (2016): ***/****