Westerns Redefined

Stagecoach  M Stagecoach 1939

Theaters:  February 1939

Streaming:  May 2010 (digitally restored)

Rated:  NR

Runtime:  96 minutes

Genre:  Action – Adventure – Classic – Drama – Romance – Western

els:  7.5/10

IMDB:  7.9/10

Amazon:  4.7/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 9.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience:  3.9/5

Metacritic Metascore:  NA/100

Metacritic User Score:  NA/10

Awards:  2 Academy Awards

Directed by:  John Ford

Written by:  Dudley Nichols (screen play), Ernest Haycox (short story)

Music by:  Gerard Carbonara

Cast:  Claire Trevor, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, John Wayne, Andy Devine, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Louise Platt

Film Locations:  Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah, US

Budget:  $531,374

Worldwide Box Office:  $1,103,757

A stagecoach, in 1880, carries 9 disparate members of the old west from Tonto in the Arizona Territory, through hostile Apache territory, to Lordsburg, New Mexico; all passengers with a story that needs telling.  Ringo Kid (Wayne) breaks out of jail to avenge his father’s and brother’s murder, a banker (Churchill) escaping his harping wife with ill-gotten gains, a mysterious southerner (Carradine) attracted to a pretty young lady passenger (Platt), a submissive whiskey salesman (Meek), a marshal (Bancroft) along to ride shotgun and return Ringo to prison, a prostitute (Trevor), and an alcoholic doctor (Mitchell), all compelled to Lordsburg by ghosts that don’t give a wit about the Apaches. They start off their trip in relative safety with a cavalry escort but lose it at the next town when the relief soldiers fail to show.  As they continue on their way to Lordsburg, tensions and troubles mount as the Apaches close in for the attack.

The movie is based on the 1937 Ernest Haycox short story, Stagecoach to Lordsburg, originally published as The Last Stage to Lordsburg in the 10 April 1937 issue of Colliers. Dudley Nichols, a frequent writer for John Ford movies, adapted the book for this movie.

John Ford hadn’t made a western since the 1920s. No one was making big budget westerns in the 1930s and no one wanted Wayne anywhere near a big production, especially in a starring role. Well Ford had an idea and a story that proved he was right and the experts could go teach their grandmothers to suck eggs. Ford resurrected the western, took it out of the kids’ Saturday matinée round-up, and gave the movie going public a good 30 years of great follow-up action movies involving horses and gunslingers. Oh, by the way, this movie made John Wayne the biggest name in Hollywood for decades to come. Artists are always a tough bunch to judge.

It is a rare movie when all the characters are cast just right.  Wayne the righteous bad guy-good guy, Meek the meek whiskey peddler, Trevor the conflicted prostitute; all fitting their roles like a cow hand’s wet leather glove.  Devine, along with Ken Curtis and Walter Brennan, defined the role of humorous sidekick, adding in the well oiled schtick to move the drama along. Carradine plays a good guy this time, although it is not apparent until much later in the movie whether he is a shady character or an honorable southern gentleman. Playing a drunk doesn’t get more realistic than Mitchell’s whimsical but competent doctor portrayal, for which he deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for.

This movie redefined westerns going into the 40s and 50s for the movie going public.  Not the best western every made but certainly in the top 10. Orson Wells is said to have watched this movie dozens of times to provide background and ideas for his Citizen Kane.  Watching this movie dozens of times in a short period is likely not good for your mental health but once a decade will remind you what a truly ground breaking film this was.


Han Solo Weeps

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets  M Valerian 2017

Theaters:  July 2017

Streaming:  November 2017

Rated:  PG-13

Runtime:  137 minutes

Genre:  Action – Adventure – Fantasy – Science Fiction – Space Opera

els:  5.0/10

IMDB:  6.5/10

Amazon:  3.5/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics: 5.5/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience:  3.3/5

Metacritic Metascore:  51/100

Metacritic User Score:  6.4/10

Awards:  NA

Directed by:  Luc Besson

Written by:  Luc Besson (screenplay), Pierre Christin, Jean-Claude Mézières (comic book)

Music by:  Alexandre Desplat

Cast:  Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke,                 Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer

Film Locations:  Studios de Paris, La Cité du Cinéma, Saint-Denis, Seine-Saint-Denis, France

Budget:  $209,000,000

Worldwide Box Office:  $215,116,000

For centuries the International Space Station has acquired additional modules at a consistent rate and by the 28th century its mass is too much for its low Earth orbit. Consequently the decision is made to move it out of the solar system, into the wild cosmos of open space, acquiring a new name in the process; Alpha. As it travels the galaxy it continues to  grow, both in size and population. Millions of life forms from all corners of the galaxy now inhabit the station necessitating a special police force to maintain peace not only on the station but throughout the galaxy. The two protagonists: Major Valerian (DeHaan) and his side kick Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne) are members of this police force.

Flash back 30 years,  Commander Arün Filitt (Owen) is in a space battle with another space faring species above the planet Mul. In order to win a decisive victory the Commander must destroy the idyllic planet, killing most of the peaceful sentient beings that occupy the surface and their priceless energy pearl replicator.  Flash forward 30 years; one replicator did survive the destruction of the planet, becoming the most sought after object in the Galaxy. Valerian and Laureline are tasked with retrieving the object, initiating a grand adventure through fantastic planets and the mysterious bowels of the quirky Alpha.

The movie is based on the 1967-2010 French comic book series; Valerian and Laureline, created by Pierre Christin (story), Jean-Claude Mézières (art).  The best-selling comic focuses on the pair as they traverse space and time for adventure and good.

Luc Besson, director of imaginative and idiosyncratic films, including the 2014 Lucy and the 1997 The Fifth Element, has created another highly original movie replete with a story containing unique concepts, great cinematography, exceptional special effects, and mostly superb acting. And it all fails to gel into a coherent whole.  The parts are greater than their sum, great scenes producing an indifferent movie.

The movie fails because of the 2 main characters: Valerian and Laureline. Neither one has a screen presence, just reciting lines without bringing the audience along. Harrison Ford would have had you cheering and believing. DeHaan has you wondering when will he start shaving. Delevingne’s “oh please” attitude throughout the movie reminds one of a pretty high school football cheerleader being pursued by the awkward school geek. These two eventually deliver you to a mental stage of not bothering to care what they do. Unfortunately for the movie you reach that stage with these two very early on.  On the flip side, Rihanna and Ethan Hawke are the movies tour de force along with the 3 goofy trumpet nosed, fuzz balls. Without their talents the whole movie would have cratered into a mess of special effects without any pretense of art or style.

I saw this in 2D so the story and acting had to carry the movie where as the 3D version likely overwhelmed the audience with inner-ear confusion and visual exhilaration. Besson personally crowd sourced and financed this big-budget extravaganza. On paper it appears to have grossed a bit more than it cost to make but with all things “Hollywood” it likely lost money. Talk of a sequel is in the air but finding the money may prove insurmountable, especially if they keep DeHaan and Delevingne in the lead roles.  This is a mediocre movie at best. You will be able to carry on with your life if you miss this one.

Million Dollar Kidnapping

Big Jake  M Jake 1971

Theaters:  May 1971

Streaming:  April 2003

Rated:  PG-13

Runtime:  110 minutes

Genre:  Action – Adventure – Classic – Western

els:  7.0/10

IMDB:  7.2/10

Amazon:  4.8/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics: NA/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience:  3.8/5

Metacritic Metascore:  NA/100

Metacritic User Score:  NA/10

Awards: NA

Directed by:  George Sherman, John Wayne (uncredited)

Written by:  Harry J. Fink, Rita M. Fink

Music by:  Elmer Bernstein

Cast:  John Wayne, Richard Boone, Maureen O’Hara

Film Locations: Durango, Sonora, Zacatecas, Mexico

Budget: $4,800,000

Worldwide Box Office: $25,350,000

Little Jake (Ethan Wayne), Big Jake’s (John Wayne) grandson, is kidnapped from the family ranch by a ruthless gang of cutthroats who take the boy across the border from Arizona into Mexico. They will not release the boy until the family delivers a $1,000,000 ransom to them in the dusty deserts of Mexico. Martha McCandles (O’Hara), Big Jake’s estranged wife, manages the ranch while her husband, who has deserted her, travels the west with his redundantly named dog; she calls him home to perform the “harsh and unpleasant business” of bringing the boy back to the family.

George Sherman spent his life in film, starting in the mail room of Warner Brothers and eventually working his way up to director of almost exclusively ‘B’ movies, primarily westerns.  He directed John Wayne in a series of low-budget and forgotten westerns in the 1938 and 1939; a period in John Wayne’s career where he was clawing his way back to stardom after a 1931 run-in with Columbia boss Harry Cohn.  John Wayne never forgot. Sherman only danced in the big time twice. He directed Wayne in Big Jake although he fell ill during filming and John Wayne filled in for him but didn’t take any screen credit for it. He also produced Wayne in the 1961 western, Comancheros.  Sherman earned a reputation of making something out of nothing in his low-budget films; creating motion cantatas of cowboys doing what cowboys do, jumping on horses, riding horses, jumping off horses.  In Big Jake he gives his cinematographer, William H. Clothier, free rein to film the majestic Sonoran Desert panoramas along with superbly and convincingly constructing a story that straddles the fading west as it melts into the modern world of 1909.

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara reprise their, can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em roles, that they so charmingly put together in the 1963 comedy, McLintock!. The charm and laughs are still there but this time Big Jake is a tad meaner.  He is still a gentleman but he can be down right ornery and lethal when needed and in this story, it’s needed.  O’Hara is a true treasure in the Hollywood of days gone by and in this movie she proves why. She is absorbing and natural but there is not enough of her. Her part ends after the opening scenes.  It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to keep her in through the end. Richard Boone, as bad guy John Fain, upholds his part with a performance that has you believing that he is truly a dastardly beast.

Big Jake is a friends and family affair. Wayne’s friends and family are thick in the making of this movie. They direct, produce and act. Wayne pays his debts and provides avenues for the up and coming just as John Ford and others did for him in the past.  Wayne also makes this a movie of morals and putting the pieces of his broken family back together again.  Another fine, although not great, John Wayne western that you should watch more than once.

A Waste in Time

A Wrinkle in Time   M Wrinkle 2018

Rated:  PG

Runtime:  109 minutes

Genre:  Adventure – Family – Fantasy – Science Fiction

Theaters:  February/March 2018

Streaming:  NA

els:  1.5/10

IMDB:  4.1/10

Amazon:  NA/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics:  5.2/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience:  2.5/5

Metacritic Metascore:  52/100

Metacritic User Score:  2.9/10

Awards: NA

Directed by: Ava DuVernay

Written by:  Jennifer Lee, Jeff Stockwell (screenplay), Madeleine L’Engle (book)

Music by:  Ramin Djawadi

Cast: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, Levi Miller, Chris Pine

Film Locations:  Eureka, Los Angeles, Santi Clarita – California – US;  Hunter Valley, Wanaka – Otaga – New Zealand

Budget: $103,000,000

Worldwide Take: $39,000,000 (Opening Weekend)

Dr. Murray (Pine), an astrophysicist, referred to as Mr. Murray for reasons not stated, tells an audience of his peers that he can transverse 93 billion light years in the wink of an eye using a concept called tessering.  He is laughed off the stage. Later he disappears without a trace leaving his wife and two children adrift in the world without him. Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), youngest sibling of the two Dr. Murrays and a child prodigy, discovers the three Ws: Mrs. Which (Oprah), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling); shape shifting, time travelers who are in search of a hero to save the universe. Charles Wallace introduces his socially inept sister, Meg (Storm Reid) to the Ws and they all convince her to be that hero; to search for her father and save the universe before the evil thing, It, destroys all that is light and good.

B Wrinkle 1962The movie is based on the Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 book A Wrinkle in Time, a children’s book that was rejected 26 times before eventually finding a publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. The book has been  in continuous print ever since.  The book, as with the movie, deals openly with evil while simultaneously equating Jesus with Buddha and other notable humans.  Publishers felt these topics too heavy for children and too anti-Christian for adults.  Later L’Engle hinted, because the hero was female, that misogyny also contributed to its multiple rejections. Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre, Scott Finch, Dorothy Gale, Anna Karenina, Joe March, Lady Macbeth, and Natasha Rostova could not be reached for comment.

The director, Ava DuVernay, opened the movie with a brief comment on making the film and thanking the viewers for watching, almost begging them to like it.  This was a tact that I have never experienced before, at least that I can remember (maybe Walt Disney did the same with his movies).  At some level, I suspect, she was warning us that what was to follow was an absolute rotter.  She has managed to make a movie where not one single thing clicks.  It’s all strung together scenes with no audience connection, no avenues provided to bring the viewers into the movie. She gives us no reason to like this movie, just reasons to hope it ends soon.  DuVernay along with the writers Lee and Stockwell seem to have a lot of ideas to make great movies but using them all in one film is probably not wise.  The long drudgery of scene on the planet Uriel comes across as an excuse to film in 3D and imitate the 2009 film Avatar. Sorry, but James Cameron did it better.  For a children’s movie the writing was childish. The Ws tell Meg that her faults are her strengths.  Later Meg tries telling her brother that she is uncoordinated and we are supposed to believe that this is a strength that will conquer the big bad evil thing, It.

This is the first movie that a female director was given a $100 million for a budget.  I’m sure it’s not the last big budget for a woman but hopefully its the last for DuVernay.  As for Jennifer Lee it appears animation is where her talents are best utilized.

There is very little good to say about the acting. Oprah is thoroughly wooden throughout the movie and never quite figures out where to look when using the green screen.  Mindy Kaling reads her lines with no delivery —  sad. Meg has no ability beyond deer in the headlights wonder. Witherspoon was charming and excellent but not enough to cancel out the bad acting going on all around her.  Zach Galifianakis, playing the Happy Medium, was also fun and he had the only line in the movie that made me laugh.  He is lecturing Meg and she tells him he sounds like her mother.  Galifianakis responds in all seriousness, “Why is she a baritone?”.

My family watched this movie together at a theater, which we very seldom do anymore; streaming at home is so much easier.  With my wife and I were our 26 year-old daughter, 15 year-old son, and 3 year-old granddaughter. Not one of us 5 liked the movie.  Not the kid, not the teenager, not the young adult, not us slightly older folks.

The granddaughter didn’t exactly say the movie was bad, she just didn’t watch it.  While the movie was playing she found a better use of her time; passing out popcorn to the rest of us one kernel at a time.  In the end I’m not sure who Disney made this movie for or why they wasted everyone’s time with it.  Save your time and cherish your time, see something else with your precious time.  I haven’t seen a movie this bad in long time.

Art Imitates Life

American Made (Theaters-2017; Streaming-2018)  Rated: R  Runtime: 115 minutesM American Made 2017

Genre:  Action-Adventure-Biography-Comedy-Crime-Drama-Mystery-Suspense-Thriller

els – 6.5/10

IMDb – 7.2/10

Amazon – 3.5/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics – 7.0/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience – 3.8/5

Metacritic Metascore – 65/100

Metacritic User Score – 6.8/10

Directed by:  Doug Liman

Written by:   Gary Spinelli

Music by:  Christophe Beck

Cast:   Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright

Film Locations:   Atlanta, Ball Ground and Madison, Georgia, US; New Orleans, US; Araracuara, Caqueta and Medellin, Columbia

Budget:   $50,000,000

Worldwide Box Office:  $135,581,390

Barry Seal (Cruise) is a hustler, a con, a drug smuggling, gun running, money laundering, CIA operative; a Medellin Cartel useful stooge, and all around terrific husband and father who will not let anything get between him and an illicit mountain of cash. Seal is a TWA pilot who can’t make ends meet or fulfill his adrenaline needs, so he turns to flying drugs from South American to supplement his legitimate wages and feed his risk cravings.  He soon attracts the attention of the CIA who need a gofer to conduct business between the agency and Panama’s Noriega. This leads to running CIA supplied guns to Panama and the Cartel in Columbia.  Return flights are loaded with Columbian cocaine netting Seal $2000 per kilogram smuggled.  The amount of drugs involved eventually causes Seal to run out of banks and closet space for his green abundance. The entire story is told with more humor than drama, concentrating on Seal’s/Cruise’s smile and devil be damned style. You know Seal is man without a conscience but he is so darn likable and fun.

American Made is aptly directed by Doug Liman who keeps the focus of the movie light and airy, bordering on silly, against a background of drugs and the ensuing trail of death and ruin; and somehow it all works. Liman last worked with Cruise in the fantastic and critical acclaimed 2014 sci-fi flick: Live Die Repeat: The Edge of Tomorrow.  A little known, but talented writer, Gary Spinelli wrote the screenplay for this movie and auctioned it off to Universal for a cool million back in 2014. At that time Ron Howard was pegged to direct the movie. Filming started around May 2015 and continued off and on until January 2017.

This film is blithely marketed as a true story, a biography. As with all things Hollywood, that statement stretches reality to the breaking point. Barry Seal was a pilot for TWA and he was a drug smuggler; that part is true, after which the rest of the story gets the Hollywood treatment where the truth is pitted against fiction; may the highest gross potential wins.  The CIA part of the story may or may not have happened but the official line is it did not or at least not till much later in time.  Seal was busted for drug smuggling and money laundering and was facing serious time in the pen. He cut a deal with the DEA to help bring down the Columbian Cartels in exchanged for a lighter sentence.  At this point it appears the CIA, in conjunction with the DEA, stepped in to also gather information on the Nicaraguan Sandinistas.  Subsequently, Seal, at an airport in Nicaragua, took photos of Pablo Escobar, Ochoa, plus a Sandinista government official, Federico Vaughan, directing the loading of cocaine onto a DEA aircraft.  These pictures leaked out to the general public, after which Escobar placed a bounty on Seal’s life; supposedly $1,000,000 for capture and return to Columbia or $500,000 for his death. In early 1986 Seal was assassinated by Escobar’s hit men in front of a Baton Rouge, Louisiana Salvation Army facility.

Seal’s American Made life is a comedy.  Seal’s real life was a tragedy. Aristotle said in the 4th century BC, that art imitates life, mimesis, whereas Oscar Wilde in 1889 said the life imitates art, anti-mimesis. Here art imitates life, but comedy polled better than tragedy: money wins. Ok, that might be a bit heavy.  It’s a good movie so kick your feet up and pass the popcorn.


Beyond Comic

Beyond Skyline (Theaters-2017; Streaming-2017)  Rated: R  Runtime: 105-106 minutes

Genre:  Action-Adventure-Drama-Fantasy-Horror-Science Fiction-ThrillerM Skyline 2017

els – 4.5/10

IMDb – 5.4/10

Amazon – 3.3/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics – 5.9/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience – 3.2/5

Metacritic Metascore – 46/100

Metacritic User Score – 5.6/10

Directed by:  Liam O’Donnell

Written by:  Liam O’Donnell

Music by:  Nathan Whitehead

Cast:  Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Jonny Weston

Film Locations:   Toronto, Canada; Batam and Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Los Angeles and Marina Del Rey, US

Budget:   ~$15,000,000

Worldwide Box Office:  ~$1,000,000

Mark (Grillo), a washed up LA cop picks up his troublesome and busted son from the police department and is taking him back home when the aliens, or is it alien, attack the city and suck everyone up into their spaceship via a blue light beaming down, and vacuuming up, from the crowded streets below.  The LA folks who are pulled into the spaceship have their brains removed, inserted into cyborg-like machines, and are reprogrammed to do the bidding of the alien(s), all with a blue twinkle in their eyes.  Mark and his son are eventually captured and brought into the craft but he escapes the brain transference process while his son doesn’t. Mark befriends another cyborg that doesn’t like the alien(s) and together they cause the spacecraft to crash into the drug infested jungles of Laos, actually Indonesia, where they seem to have been totally forgotten by the rest of humanity. At this point Mark joins forces with Laotian drug smugglers and they proceed to battle the alien(s) and cyborgs Kung Fu style, setting the stage for Skyline 3.

Beyond Skyline is an ambitious special effects movie hamstrung with a lousy script and even worse direction; both supplied by Liam O’Donnell. This is O’Donnell’s first shot at directing with the only positive being that he has to improve in his next movie, if there is one. The acting and the special effects are all serviceable but the story just loses all control of reality and veers off into an action soaked craze masquerading as a plot. Each scene seems designed to end the confusion from the previous scene, but fails, and you are left with just witnessing some fairly decent action but not really knowing why. In the end you would be forgiven to think that this flick was a comedy, non-stop slapstick if you will, except it wasn’t funny. Blue lights bad, red lights good.  Red light bombs turn blue lights red. In Skyline 3 we will likely to be informed what green lights are all about. Brains for cyborgs, tots for toys; good grief.  Keep your popcorn in the kernel and move along; nothing to see here.


It’s Magic-Fantasy Will Set You Free

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  (Theaters-2016; Streaming-2017)  Rated: PG-13  Runtime: 133 minutesM Beasts 2016

Genre: Action-Adventure-Family-Fantasy

els – 7.0/10

IMDb – 7.4/10

Amazon – 4.4/5 stars

Rotten Tomatoes Critics – 6.8/10

Rotten Tomatoes Audience – 3.9/5

Metacritic Metascore – 66/100

Metacritic User Score – 7.3/10

Directed by:  David Yates

Written by:  J.K. Rowling

Produced by:  David Heyman, Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling, Lionel Wigram

Music by:  James Newton Howard

Cast:  Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler

B Beasts 2001.jpgJ.K. Rowling, in 2001, wrote and published a Hogwarts textbook, under the pseudonym of Newt Scamander, on the magical world of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; a slim encyclopedic volume of fictional animals that made up the enchanted universe of Harry Potter and his bewitched school chums.  The book, though imaginative, generally did not interest anyone much past age of 12, being just a compendium of beasts without any pretense of a story or plot, but it did spin-off this wonderful film, a charming tale of magic and adventure, 70 years before Harry Potter, in the streets of New York.

The movie opens with Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York for a brief stopover before continuing onto Arizona to further his research into “Fantastic Beasts” but almost immediately has an itinerary change due to one of his creatures escaping from his improbably bottomless briefcase. Promptly the escaped beast goes on a hunt for anything shiny: usually solid gold, resulting in a hilarious wizard and beast chase through the streets and banks of New York.  Compounding Newt’s creature capturing problems is an anti-magical society trying to expose and eliminate all witches and wizards along with a controlling magical political hierarchy attempting to keep everything secret and under wraps, including the threat posed by impending arrival of arch-villain and dark wizard, Gellert Grindlewald (Johnny Depp).

David Yates, the director, and Rowling have put together a lively romp of fun through the magical world of New York, enhanced with exemplary acting by just about all involved.  J.K. Rowling continues to surprise her fans, including me, with the depth of her talent, by adroitly changing roles from an accomplished author to a novice, but never-the-less, a master producer and screenplay writer for this movie. I found this movie heads and lizard tails above the Harry Potter movies, mainly because Harry Potter’s sub-par acting was absent. Make time to see this entertaining film for itself, and ultimately, to keep you abreast of the likely sequels.


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