Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Duke Toils: "The Star Packer" (1934)

The Duke is U.S. Marshal John Travers in this odd western written by director Robert N. Bradbury.

Travers (John Wayne) travels to a small town in order to investigate a crime wave instigated by "The Shadow," an easily identified villain. With his trusty sidekick Yak (Yakima Canutt), Travers also finds himself smitten with Anita (Verna Hillie), the niece of town elder/ranch baron Matlock (George Gabby Hayes, before he became so ornery and Gabbyish). Travers works his way into the job of sheriff after his predecessor serves the shortest term in history, and eventually saves the day.

While the plot is standard B-movie fare, Bradbury creates two giant leaps of bad screenwriting in the film. In some of the opening scenes, for some unknown reason, Travers robs a stagecoach before the real villains get a chance at it. When the villains do come along and find out someone beat them to it, they end up shooting the driver and his shotgun-toting companion, killing one of them. This little plot point is not brought up for the rest of the film, making you wonder if Travers knew what he was doing when he held the thing up. The Shadow's identity is pretty well-known, but I won't spoil it for you. Although, the cook at the Matlock ranch holds onto some pretty important information, letting Anita in on the secret in one scene. The problem is, why did the cook never speak up before, considering his role on the ranch?

The messy screenplay aside, "The Star Packer" serves as a showcase for Yakima Canutt's amazing stuntwork, although his portrayal of Yak, Travers' Native American sidekick, is a little embarrassing. This is a poverty row pic, but Canutt makes it watchable, as does Wayne's earnest performance. Slightly recommended. (* * *) out of five stars.

UnTaken: "A Walk Among the Tombstones" (2014)

I imagine in Liam Neeson's offscreen life, he cannot talk on a telephone without someone with him breaking out in laughter. In his newest film, he again threatens some bad guys, spitting profanity into the receiver, but this time his performance will make you care a little more.

Set in 1999, Neeson is Matthew Scudder, an alcoholic former cop who now makes ends meet as an unlicensed private investigator. He is approached by a revenge seeking drug trafficker (an uneven Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and raped. Even after a ransom was delivered, the abductors (the chilling duo of David Harbour and Adam David Thompson) murdered the woman and left the body for him to find. After balking at the case, Scudder takes it on, and begins to investigate similar cases that the police were not able to connect. Scattered amongst his investigation are false leads and a lovely sense of paranoia thanks to Y2K fears (remember that?) and some fantastic shots of the killer duo stalking their next target.

Writer/director Scott Frank adapts Lawrence Block's novel and turns it into an interesting flick. It is violent and bloody, with plenty of twists, and Neeson does a great job in the main lead. The cocky expression on his face in the opening gun fight is great, and Frank's ability to lead a character through an actual arc with actual growth and change is almost stunning considering the cookie cutter screenwriting that passes today. The supporting cast is very good, with Olafur Darri Olafsson a standout as a cemetery groundskeeper who once helped the killers. His scenes, and exit from the film, are memorable and I hope the Academy Awards voters remember him early next year.

A few people have taken issue with Scudder's friendship with a homeless kid played by Brian Astro Bradley. I, too. rolled my eyes at their first scene together, but screenwriter/director Frank never takes the relationship between the hero and the boy who emulates him to the annoying heights that brought the excitement of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" to a full stop in between action set pieces. T.J. is a tough kid, never precocious, and I eventually accepted him. Although Scudder is an alcoholic eight years sober, we thankfully never get the old chestnut scene of him sitting alone in a dive contemplating a cheap drink sitting in front of him. His Alcoholics Anonymous recovery is not just a plot device, it works for him and he dutifully goes to the meetings, repeating his story and weak little joke about why he quit while internalizing the real reason he stopped.

The NYC setting hearkens back to the bleak urban mysteries of the 1970's, Scudder's grasp of 1999 technology is tenuous, but Frank doesn't make it a punchline. Frank also doesn't let Scudder become a superhero. He investigates, playing some witnesses in order to get the information he needs. The two villains are creepy and evil, their scenes reminded me of Fincher's "Zodiac," until their identities are learned (or at least until they come out into the light). There is no conspiracy that finds its way to mayor's mansion or anything- sometimes movie mysteries are allowed to be self-contained.

We have seen Scudder before, played by Jeff Bridges in "8 Million Ways to Die" (now that would have been some interesting casting, over two decades after the now-infamous film!), and Lawrence Block has a number of Scudder novels I imagine are ready to get adapted. Neeson may have found his new franchise, and I wouldn't mind seeing more of this character. "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is Neeson's strongest work in years, and one of the best films I have seen all year. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

He's a Lumberjack, But He's Not Okay: "Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan" (2013)

You know your film is in trouble when the best performance from your cast is thanks to Joe Estevez.

A group of non-descript first-time criminal offenders are shipped off to a week-long boot camp in Minnesota (being portrayed by Ohio and California for this film). It is run by a Sgt. Hoke (Thomas Downey) and sympathetic counselor Ms. K (Kristina Kopf). The five criminals can avoid jail time if they make it through the tough program...and survive a twenty foot tall monster that is wandering around in the woods murdering bears and such. According to a very long expository speech from Meeks (Joe Estevez, who took all his crazy pills before cameras rolled), the monster is Paul Bunyan. The tall tale books got it wrong, this incarnation of Bunyan is bloodthirsty, overreacting to the death of his beloved ox, and seeks vengeance when one of the young criminals (don't worry about their specific characters, they are all dispatched without making any sort of impression on the viewer) steals Babe's horn from a makeshift shrine.

The fact that special effects guru Robert Kurtzman is involved with this silliness is surprising. The film is very violent, very gory, and very awful. The most successful aspect of it are the practical gore effects, but these diamonds in the rough are negated by amateurish acting and some of the silliest computer generated special effects I have ever seen. The film almost had me in the beginning, with Dan Haggerty still trying to be a horror film star (anyone ever seen "Elves"?), but then it quickly slid downhill. So many scenes had me laughing out loud, but the dead seriousness of the script made me realize this wasn't supposed to be "Sharknado"-type awfulness.

The end credits promise us that Bunyan will return (as soon as they go down to Best Buy and get some more of that special effects software). Here's hoping that is a promise the film makers cannot keep. "Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan" is tiny when it comes to entertainment value. (*) out of five stars.