Apache War Smoke (1952)

apache_war_smokeSometimes the most straightforward stories are the best. There’s nothing particularly fancy about 1952’s Apache War Smoke, but it gets the job done, relying on a familiar but always entertaining premise, a solid, familiar cast, and some good shoot ‘em up action. That’s all you need at times with a good western.

A bandit on the run, Peso Herrera (Gilbert Roland) is infamous throughout the American Southwest. While visiting friends (and maybe family), Peso begins to follow a passing stagecoach full of passengers. The stagecoach pulls into Tonto Valley Station on the line, a stop run by Tom Herrera (Robert Horton), Peso’s son. Smoke signals have been seen in the desert hills, leading Tom to suspect an attack is coming. With about a dozen people inside the adobe-walled stage station, Tom preps for an attack. As for Peso, the bandit has his eyes on the Wells Fargo box weighted down with gold.

This 1952 B-western from director Harold Kress has been sitting on my DVR since mid-October after an airing on Turner Classic Movies. I ain’t timely, but I caught up! It’s become harder for me to find westerns I haven’t seen before, but ‘Smoke’ was pretty entertaining. There’s a feel of a TV episode with a few extra minutes with a final running time of just 67 minutes.

The main locale is the walled-off stage station which works to show off the danger and isolation. There’s also the sense of almost a western stage play. We see Apaches at times, but the threat of an attack from outside the walls is just as effective. Stage stations are a familiar locale for countless westerns, and ‘Smoke’ manages to have some fun with that familiarity. As well, there are some secrets and mysteries to be revealed along the way.

So how about some ensemble cast? Roland hams it up in stereotypical fashion as Mexican bandit Peso Herrera. He’s duded up like a western star of the 1930s and looks a little too polished all-around. He plays his guitar, woos the ladies, yells ‘Ay, Chihuahua!’ too much and resorts to basically every stereotype of a Mexican bandit ever. Horton comes off in better fashion as his son, Tom, a capable worker, a good shot, and similarly able to woo the lades. The father-son western dynamic is cool but is underdone at times by Roland’s theatrics.

The rest of the ensemble doesn’t boast much star power, but there’s some welcome familiar faces. Glenda Farrell plays Fanny, a middle-aged saloon/casino girl who knows Peso quite well. Barbara Ruick (angelic daughter of cavalry officer Douglas Dumbrille) and Patricia Tiernan (sexy, back-stabbing ex of Tom’s) fight for Horton’s attention as potential love interests. Gene Lockhart is the business-like stage rep, a young Robert Blake is Luis, a half Mexican, half-Apache worker, Myron Healey as Pike Curtis, a drifter, Harry Morgan as stagecoach driver Ed Cotten, Argentina Brunetti as Madre, the station cook, and Hank Worden, Emmett Lynn and Chubby Johnson as workers at the stage station. Also look briefly for Iron Eyes Cody as an Apache chief.

Not too much to analyze here with ‘Smoke.’ It’s fun. A little slow in the beginning, but it picks up steam pretty quick. I was surprised by the lack of casualties in the action-packed finale, but I guess those walls were pretty protective! A decent western that fans will definitely appreciate.

Apache War Smoke (1952): ***/****

Island in the Sky (1953)

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

in_a_valley_of_violence_posterEthan Hawke had a very solid supporting part in 2016’s The Magnificent Seven, playing a mix of the Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter characters. What better way to follow it up of sorts? How about another western?!? Much smaller scale, cast, budget and fanfare, but it’s still a western! Here’s 2016’s In a Valley of Violence.

Riding south to Mexico with his dog, Abbie, a drifter named Paul (Hawke) is short of supplies and stops in the small town of Denton. Mining interests have dried up and the town is a shell of what it used to be with the Marshal (John Travolta) ruling the town — or what remains of it — with an iron fist. Trying to get in and out of the town without incident, Paul runs into the Marshal’s bully of a son, Gilly (James Ransone), and his three friends. There’s a quick fight, but everything is resolved without too much trouble. Paul rides out of town still heading for Mexico, but Gilly and his gang aren’t done with him yet. Will they push too far though?

This B-movie western received a limited release, including locally at the always reliable Music Box Theatre in Chicago. I didn’t have a chance to see it, catching up with it instead on its DVD/Blu-Ray release. Long story short? Though it has some potential and memorable moments, I’m glad I didn’t put too much effort into tracking it down! Director/screenwriter Ti West has mostly done horror movies to this point, but Hawke, West and others had expressed interest in doing a western. The most frustrating part in reviewing/viewing is that there’s potential here. They’re all clearly fans of the genre, but those individual moments don’t hold together over a 103-minute run-time.

The biggest influence is from the spaghetti western genre. The opening title and end cards are ripped right out of the genre, and the opening credits do an incredibly enjoyable homage to the credits seen in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Of course, I can’t find them anyplace to link them, but they’re expertly handled. The same for the musical score from composer Jeff Grace that would fit nicely with any number of Eastwood, Van Cleef and Nero-led westerns. The story itself is as straightforward as possible, a straight-up revenge tale (spoilers withheld) of a man with a mysterious past. It’s hard to mess that up, but ‘Valley’ does just that.

Hawke is a solid silent anti-hero with a past. His scenes with his loyal dog are some of the highlights of the movie. The dog — named Jumpy in real-life — is an unexpected scene-stealer throughout. The relationship between man and dog reminded me some of the John Wayne western Hondo, for the right reasons too. Hawke isn’t flashy, just solid. He doesn’t say much, mostly talking to his dog, as he tries to get to Mexico. Why? You’ll have to watch. Here’s a man who just wants to be left alone. Just because he isn’t loud and outgoing about his ability with a gun doesn’t mean he’s not quite capable. A worthwhile western 2-for-2 for Mr. Hawke in Westerns 2016.

Unfortunately, there’s not much else positive in the acting department. Travolta I thought was decent as the underwritten marshal. I would have loved to know a little more about him and what drives him. The biggest issue with the rest of the cast is never a good issue to have. Almost every line delivery sounds overdone, exaggerated and not effective to the point I questioned if we’d gone from western to parody of a western. Characters are screaming at each other, and it’s cringeworthy at times. The lines and their deliveries feel very modern too, not at all how real people would have spoken. Along with Ransone’s Gilly, look for Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan as two sisters with opposite feelings on Paul, Gilly’s gang, Toby Huss (the Wiz from Seinfeld), Tommy Nohilly and Larry Fessenden. Also, a familiar face from Pirates of the Caribbean and AMC’s Turn Burn Gorman plays a down-on-his-luck priest (maybe) with some ulterior motives.

Too much of a mixed bag in the end. Just go for it with all its darkness and revenge, and we’ve got a decent movie. I keep asking though, bad acting or bad script? Either way, it’s enough to seriously dent any enjoyment you’d get out of this.

In a Valley of Violence (2016): **/****

Charro! (1969)

charroelvisA singer and a performer, Elvis Presley has few rivals in terms of entertainers. He has sold millions of records and made over 30 films during his career. Of all his films though, one stands out from the rest as an oddity, and that’s 1969’s Charro! For starters, it’s a western, Presley doesn’t sing, and he even sports a beard. Oh, the horror! Not a classic, but a guilty pleasure of mine just the same.

Having separated from his gang for well over a year, Jess Wade (Presley) has struggled trying to go straight but does not want to return to his outlaw ways. His old gang, led by Vince Hackett (Victor French), isn’t too pleased with his departure either and has framed Wade. Vince and the gang stole a gold-plated, silver-lined cannon from Mexico City that fired the ‘victory shot’ against Maximillian, but they set it up to look like Jess organized and led the robbery. Framed to look like someone else with a nasty neck wound — courtesy of a brand in Vince’s hand — Jess must now look to clear his name and exact some revenge on Vince and the boys.

Doesn’t sound much like an Elvis movie full of songs and huge dance numbers, does it? Not in the least, and that’s probably why Charro! isn’t remembered as one of Presley’s best. For just its novelty alone in terms of the vast departure it takes from his musicals, this is a movie worth watching. Elvis does sing, but only over the opening credits, and not actually in the story. Listen to it HERE. Catchy, ain’t it? By 1969, Presley was trying to mount a comeback of sorts, and this western tries to reflect the changing times. The effort was hamstrung to a point because apparently a fair share of violence and nudity were cut before it was released. Still, though it is nothing groundbreaking, I’ve always enjoyed this one.

According to Wikipedia (so take this for what it’s worth), the role Presley took was originally offered to Clint Eastwood. With the Man with No Name playing the main character, this would have been one more late 1960s western. With Presley here, there’s something oddly charming. As a dramatic actor, he will never be considered a great thespian, but as the revenge-seeking gunslinger? He’s not that bad. A tad on the wooden side at times, Presley does a pretty good job with the part and handles much of his own stunts in this Charles Marquis Warren-directed western. In the tough luck department, he also has the love interest, Tracey, a well-to-do saloon and dance hall owner, played by the gorgeous Ina Balin. That must have been pretty tough.

On the whole, the movie has a lot going for it despite the average reviews and generally forgotten status. It was 1969 when it was released, and the effect of the spaghetti western was in full swing. It wasn’t enough to have good guys vs. bad guys anymore. We needed anti-heroes and despicable villains who weren’t concerned about innocents being killed. Composer Hugo Montenegro‘s score is a gem, part spaghetti western, some borrowed from his The Undefeated score the same year, and other tunes using a heavy Mexican theme. The combination covers a lot of ground, but it works well. The violence — even if it was cut and/or edited — is not graphic, but it’s harsh, nasty stuff anyways. The look of the movie helps too from the sweat, scruff, stubble and dust on all the characters. It doesn’t take much to make a western fan like me happy, and Charro! doesn’t disappoint.

Other than Mr. Presley himself, the cast does not exactly jump off the screen in terms of star power. The future Mr. Edwards in Little House on the Prairie, Victor French is a particularly nasty villain. He’s subtle in his evil qualities, letting the emotions fly in quick outbursts as the leader of a gang that would turn on him in a second. Balin isn’t given much to do but show cleavage and look pretty unfortunately, but wouldn’t you know it? She nails the part. Solomon Sturges hams it up as Billy Roy, Vince’s possibly unhinged, sometimes maniacal brother while James Sikking has some fun as Gunner, a former Confederate artillery officer in Vince’s gang. Tony Young has a small part as Lt. Rivera, a Mexican federale on the trail of the stolen cannon. There’s some potential with Vince’s gang, but they’re left in the background with little to do, background players without much name recognition.

So there it is, Elvis with a beard, no guitar, and little singing in a part different from basically any other part he had. Nothing flashy, but in 1969 when westerns were all over the place, Charro! tries to keep up with the change and ends up being a fast-paced, entertaining final product. If no one else agrees, so be it. I like it. If you’re a Spanish speaker, the movie is available at Youtube HERE.

Charro! <—trailer (1969): ***/****

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

310_to_yuma_281957_film29My love of westerns typically goes down two paths; toward John Wayne movies and spaghetti westerns. The gap then in a genre that I proudly call my favorite? The 1950s, a hit or miss decade for westerns. When they’re good though, they’re real good. It’s been years since I watched today’s entry, a genuine classic from 1957, 3:10 to Yuma.

In the Arizona territory in the 1880s, Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) are two very different men who find themselves on a similar path. Evans is a small rancher who could potentially lose his ranch during a drought. Wade is an infamous outlaw at the head of a gang known throughout the territory. Wade has pushed his luck though and has been captured in the town of Bisbee. The problem? No one wants to risk their life to transport Wade to prison and risk incurring the wrath of the outlaw’s gang. Desperately needing money, Evans takes on the task for $200 upon delivery. Can the rancher pull it off and get Wade to prison? Will the gang get to him first? A train awaits in Contention where all roads converge.

What an excellent movie. From director Delmer Daves and based off a short story from Elmore Leonard, ‘3:10’ is a gem. Filmed in black and white and clocking in at just 92 minutes, this is an adult western. There is little to no gunplay other than a few shots here and there. Instead, this is a western about mood, intensity and a story that is always moving but almost in a lyrical way and never in a rush. Helping drive the story along is a very solid score from George Duning and a memorable theme — listen HERE — that you’ll be humming along with for days. A whole bunch of positives going on.

So little gunplay and a story built on dialogue and…yeah, just dialogue and intensity. That movie better have some damn good performances, and ‘3:10’ has two great performances to lead the way. Heflin and Ford are two of the more underrated actors of their era, and both deliver one of their career-best parts. I don’t know if Ford has ever been better. An actor who typically played a stout, resolute good guy looks to be having a ball playing the bad guy. He’s vicious, bottom-line, highly intelligent and manipulative. The most impressive thing is that this isn’t a ‘hey, look at me!’ performance. Ford is subtle and underplays the part and steals the movie in the process.

Heflin is equally as good as the other side of the coin, the rancher who’s always done things the right way, how he’s supposed to…and what has it gotten him? A struggling ranch he may lose, putting his wife and two sons out in the process. In Wade, he sees multiple opportunities for some much-needed $, some more legit and some illegal. It is a great part as you see Ford’s manipulation makes its impact as Heflin’s Evans starts to question what exactly he should do. Should he do the right thing? There is a straightforward elegance to this relationship, to the story and the execution.This movie succeeds. The last 45 minutes are mostly 2 men talking — an epic cat-and-mouse game — in a hotel room, and it works in effortless fashion.

Not a huge supporting cast on display here, but it’s a good cast. Felicia Farr plays Emmy, a saloon girl who Wade meets and may know from his past. Kinda risque stuff as we see them interact too, especially for a 1957 western (but it is fairly subtle). Leora Dana is solid as Dan’s wife who is a worrier but most of all, purely loves her husband. Robert Emhardt plays Butterfield, the owner of the oft-robbed stage line, while Henry Jones plays Alex Potter, the town drunk who steps up when needed. And last but not least, Richard Jaeckel is memorable in an underused part as Charlie Prince, Wade’s loyal right-hand man and a bit of an unhinged gunslinger.

A lot of fun to catch up with his 1957 western. Not always mentioned as an all-time classic, but it deserves its reputation. It’s so good at building tension and mood and intensity that ‘3:10’ is a movie that is actually nerve-wracking and uncomfortable to watch at times. Ford and Heflin carry the load with a strong supporting cast chipping in. The finale? Light on gunplay but high on intensity with a chase — not a gunfight — wrapping things up. Highly recommended. Also worth watching, the 2007 remake starring Christian Bale as Evans, Russell Crowe as Wade and Ben Foster as Charlie.

3:10 to Yuma (1957): *** 1/2 /****

Top 10 of 2016

Well, here we are. It’s the end of 2016 and a generally pretty weak year at the movies. I also hit a roadblock this year, realizing there aren’t too many older movies out there I haven’t seen…good ones at least. So here’s the 2016 Top 10 movies I saw during the calendar year. I struggled getting to 10 with only 4 movies that needed to be on the list. And away we go!

10. Eddie the Eagle (2015):
eddie_the_eagle_posterI’m a sucker for underdog sports stories. This one did not disappoint, the true story of Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton), a British man who starts later in life at becoming an Olympic ski jumper. His trainer is played by gruff, grizzled Hugh Jackman. Cheesy, overdone and intentionally tugging at your heart strings at times, but beautifully charming and two good performances from Egerton and Jackman.

9. Risen (2016):
risen_2016_posterHow do you make the story of Jesus’ death in Jerusalem uniquely interesting? Making it a murder mystery of sorts. Joseph Fiennes plays Clavius, a Roman tribute tasked with finding the body of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion and potential resurrection. Loved the story, especially the twist it takes near the halfway point. Well worth it.

8. Arrival (2016):
arrival2c_movie_posterDirector Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Sicario, this was an intelligent, well-written and well-executed science fiction mystery. At different points around the world, 12 alien spacecrafts land with no apparent objective. Amy Adams is the linguist brought in to potentially communicate with the aliens, with Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker playing key supporting roles. I liked this movie the more I thought about it, including an ending and twist I definitely didn’t see coming.

7. Sleepers (1996):
sleepers_28movie_poster29Great cast, good story and a timeline that covers two key times in the lives of its main characters, especially 1960s Hell Kitchen. How can you go wrong? The loaded cast — especially De Niro, Pitt and Patric — really shines in a legal thriller that kept me guessing until the end. It took me quite awhile to track this down, but an excellent flick all-around.

6. Hologram for the King (2016)
a_hologram_for_the_king_posterCritically planned and a flop in theaters…but I loved it! Something just appealed to me about the story of a middle-aged man traveling to Dubai to seal an essential business deal. Tom Hanks delivers an excellent lead performance, a mid-life crisis hanging in the air over the deal with his career potentially on the line. It reminded me a little bit of a modern-day Frank Capra movie with Jimmy Stewart in the Hanks role. A pick I might take some heat for, but I loved this story.

5. Hell or High Water (2016):
hell_or_high_water_film_posterA lyrical, modern-day western that you could easily see from the 1970s in the form of a revisionist western. Chris Pine (again showing what a good actor he can be) and Ben Foster are two brothers who start robbing banks to help pay off their foreclosed-on land with Jeff Bridges as a retiring Texas Ranger on their trail. Something elegantly simple and straightforward about the story. A charming, doomed story that you know won’t end well, but you go along for the ride just the same.

4. Finding Dory (2016):
finding_doryThe ultimate slow play for a sequel, this Pixar gem came along 13 years after Finding Nemo. Big twist? I thought the sequel was the better of the two. Ellen DeGeneres plays forgetful, absent-minded Dory who goes missing searching for her past and her parents. Excellent supporting voice characters, including Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell and many more. Funny and heartbreaking and beautifully animated. Just a great movie.

3. 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016):
13_hours_posterFascinated by the 2014 book of the same title detailing the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012, I was curious about the film adaptation from the master of subtlety, Michael Bay. The joke was on me. I loved it, a horrifying, unsettling story about 6 American operatives forced to make a life-and-death decision amidst a terrorist attack. John Krasinski and a scene-stealing James Badge Dale lead the cast. Uncomfortable watching, but one I’m glad I watched.

2. Spotlight (2015):
spotlight_28film29_posterAs a proud alum of Indiana University’s journalism school, this was my superhero movie. A team of investigative reporters spends months on a potential story about priests and clergy molesting young boys and girls. An ensemble cast — Ruffalo, Keaton, McAdams, Schreiber, Slattery, Tucci, Crudup — steals one scene after another in a journalism story that ranks up there with All the President’s Men as one of journalism’s best. The 2015 Best Picture winner, it deserved to take home the Oscar.

1. Creed (2015):
creed_posterSee No. 12 (Read: Underdog sports story). A spin-off of the Rocky universe was a gem as Michael B. Jordan plays Adonis, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, now all grown up and pursuing his dream of being an elite boxer. Who to seek out? Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone returning in epic scene-stealing form, a performance he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. A movie that is equal parts exciting and emotional, I absolutely loved this movie. By the end, I was cheering along with Adonis. So great.

Other movies in consideration: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Deadpool, The Edge, Hail, Caesar!, Jane Got a Gun, The Magnificent Seven (2016), Neighbors 2 (don’t judge me, it was hilarious), The Siege of Jadotville (a Netflix original), and Wish I Was Here.

Don’t miss my other Top 10s back at Blogger: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.

Here’s to a better 2017!