April 11th, 2014

LEGENDS OF THE SILVER SCREEN: DENNIS QUAID

Ever since I saw Jaws 3-D in the theater as a kid, Dennis Quaid has been my boy. And from there, Quaid went on to star in some of my favorite movies of all time like Dreamscape and Innerspace. He’s worked with such directors as Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh and even starred in a few guilty pleasures along the way (G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Legion, and Movie 43, just to name a few). Today, we’ll take a look at three of Quaid’s films.

First up is…

BREAKING AWAY (1979) ** ½

Dennis Christopher stars as a teenage bicycle racer who acts like he’s an Italian. His parents (Paul Dooley and Barbara Barrie) don’t understand his weird behavior and try to come to terms with his eccentric personality. He hangs out with his best friends (Dennis Quaid, Jackie Earle Haley, and Daniel Stern) and tries to win the affection of a cute girl (Robyn Douglass). Along the way, Christopher gets a chance to go against his college rivals in a big race, all the while finding his true identity.

Christopher isn’t bad as the oddball kid obsessed with all things Italian. Eventually though, he wears out his welcome and becomes almost as annoying to the audience as he is to his parents. But it is Dennis Quaid who steals the movie as his sullen, brooding buddy. He is excellent and easily outshines the rest of the younger stars. Hart (Supergirl) Bochner is also quite good as the main college douchebag.

The scenes of Christopher and his friends running around town and butting heads with the asshole college guys have kind of an Outsiders vibe to them. (The bowling alley brawl is pretty sweet.) And the climatic race is decent enough, but director Peter (Krull) Yates never really makes it work. That’s mostly because the result of the race is already a foregone conclusion, but there’s still enough goodwill earned by the characters to make Breaking Away worth a look.

Our next Quaid flick is…

UNDERCOVER BLUES (1993) **

Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner are two secret agents who take time off to raise their baby. They get coaxed back into action by their boss (Richard Jenkins) to retrieve a stolen nuclear weapon. They also have to contend with a mugger (Stanley Tucci) who is looking to get revenge on Quaid for kicking his ass.

The sitcom-y premise aside, the performances by the two leads makes Undercover Blues work up to a point. Dennis Quaid is great, creating another one of his patented loveable goofball characters. Kathleen is also really good and she and Quaid have a lot of chemistry together. And while some of their banter is pretty funny, you still wish the script was a bit crisper. (The original title was “Cloak and Diaper”; if that gives you any indication of the level of humor we’re talking about.)

The supporting performances are a bit all over the place. The usually funny Stanley Tucci and Larry Miller are hamstrung by some painfully annoying accents. Again, maybe with a better script, they would’ve been able to generate some laughs. And overall, there are just too many side characters that get in the way of the fun.

Undercover Blues could’ve been a complete misfire, since nearly the whole movie revolves around a child constantly being put into peril. But the whole thing is so goofy, you never really notice. And while director Herbert (Footloose) Ross doesn’t always find the right tone, when he does, Undercover Blues is good for a few laughs. However, the laughs dry up in the second half of the film and the whole thing runs out of steam before the end.

Naturally, Quaid gets all the best lines in the flick. When a guy pulls a gun on Quaid and tells him, “Don’t make any sudden moves!”, he drolly replies: “Why is there a bee on me?”

And our final Quaid film is…

THE ALAMO (2004) **

Davy Crocket (Billy Bob Thornton), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and William Travis (Patrick Wilson) go to the Alamo to fight off the Mexican army. Bowie and Travis butt heads almost instantly, but they eventually gain each other’s respect, despite their radically different methods. Meanwhile, Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) spends time gathering his forces and denies the Alamo reinforcements, which leads to their eventual defeat.

Wilson plays Travis as more a snobbish prick and Patric’s Jim Bowie; with his tubercular cough, is like a subdued Doc Holliday. Neither man really brings their characters to life, so it’s hard to root for them. At least Thornton’s Davy Crockett is fun to watch. He’s full of quiet dignity and grace, and when he talks, people listen. He brings a lot of gravitas to an otherwise ho-hum historical epic. (I liked his “pass the taters” speech.) Dennis Quaid is pretty good as Sam Houston, although he isn’t really given a whole lot to do.

The film is guilty of running on too long. Sure, I know that the final scenes of Houston leading his raid on Santa Anna were only there to show that the men’s sacrifice at the Alamo was not in vain. However, these extemporaneous scenes drag the movie down.

Director John Lee (Saving Mr. Banks) Hancock tries so hard to be historically accurate to the actual events that it sucks the life out of the movie. I mean you have a movie about Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and you stick them in what amounts to nothing more than a typical costume drama; albeit one with some intermittent battle scenes. I know Hancock was trying to separate the men from the legend, but honestly, sometimes the legend is more fun.

Next week’s Legend is someone who’s also been to the Alamo: John Wayne!

THE GLENN MILLER STORY (1954) ***

James Stewart gives a heartfelt and likeable performance as big band leader Glenn Miller in this saccharine, but enjoyable biopic. Glenn gets his start playing trombone in big bands, while working on arrangements on the side. He hears a certain sound in his head and he figures the only way he can duplicate it is by forming his own band. Glenn marries his sweetheart (June Allyson) who encourages his dream. After a lot of hard work and some lucky breaks, Glenn becomes the biggest name in the business.

The Glenn Miller Story is lightweight to a fault. All great biopics usually have the subject facing some great adversity, and Miller’s great adversity just seems to be paying his rent and keeping his musical instruments out of the pawn shop window (these scenes admittedly, are pretty fun). Because of that, there aren’t any real stakes. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

In fact, Stewart and Allyson are so good together you hardly notice the flimsy script. (Her final scene is particularly memorable.) And director Anthony Mann (who previously worked with Stewart on the excellent Winchester ’73) keeps things moving at a steady clip. Plus, you get to hear a lot of Glenn Miller’s best stuff, lovingly recreated. (The third act almost plays like a greatest hits compilation.) And I thought it was cool seeing how Miller found the inspiration for some of his songs. And as an added bonus, you get to see a pretty cool jam session between Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa.

AKA: Moonlight Serenade.

Next week at The Clayton: The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

ZATOICHI ON THE ROAD (1963) ***

After roughing up some gamblers for trying to cheat him, Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) heads out on the road. He finds a dying man who pleads with him to return a young girl named Omitsu (Shiho Fujimura) to her home. A woman (Reiko Fujiwara) out to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of Zatoichi, tells Omitsu that Zatoichi is a killer, causing her to run off. It’s then up to Zatoichi to rescue Omitsu from the clutches of a lecherous samurai clan.

Zatoichi on the Road offers up some fine samurai action right from the get-go. There are a couple of great swordfights in the beginning, which should tide you over during the plot-heavy second act. But while the middle section of the flick is light on action, it’s still pretty entertaining thanks to the rapport between Shintaro Katsu and Shiho Fujimura.

And the strong female performances are one of the best things about the film. Fujimura is quite good as the innocent damsel in distress and Reiko Fujiwara is excellent as the femme fatale with a score to settle with Zatoichi. However, the flick does have a tendency to bog down whenever they aren’t on screen. Katsu’s typically fun performance helps keep it afloat, and the finale is pretty sweet, but ultimately Zatoichi on the Road is a notch below some of its predecessors.

AKA: Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Fighting Journey. AKA: Zatoichi’s Fighting Journey.

ZATOICHI AND THE CHEST OF GOLD (1964) ***

The title sequence to Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold is pretty awesome. It’s just Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) standing in front of a black background and randomly getting into several swordfights. Naturally, he mops the floor with everyone dumb enough to draw a sword with him. Then the plot begins.

A group of farmers work hard to scrape together enough money to pay their taxes. When they finally get the gold ready, it is stolen by a scarred samurai brandishing a deadly whip (Tomisaburo Wakayama, from the Lone Wolf and Cub movies). Blind Swordsman Zatoichi is blamed from the crime and he sets out the clear his name.

The fight scenes in Zatoichi and the Chest of Gold are a bit bloodier than usual and have more urgency than some of the previous entries in the series. (There’s a good swordfight where Zatoichi fights off several bad guys while clutching a child under his arm.) And unlike the other films that came before, it even dares to show a little skin too (not much, but still).

The flick also benefits from a good villainous turn by Wakayama. His run-ins with Katsu are tense and help liven up the movie whenever the pacing starts to slow down. (The two were brothers in real-life.) And slow down it does, I’m afraid. Still, there’s enough good stuff here to make this a solid entry in the Zatoichi series.

AKA: Zatoichi’s Thousand-Ryo Neck. AKA: Zatoichi: A Wanted Criminal for Stealing 1,000 Ryo.

ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (2013) **

Mandy Lane is the hottest girl in school. All the guys want to get into her pants. Since she’s played by Amber Heard, it’s easy to see why. Some of the guys invite the sheltered Mandy to a house party in the middle of nowhere. Naturally, there’s someone on the premises who is bumping off the teeners one by one.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane’s released was held up for several years, supposedly due to its subject matter. I’m not sure why though. The film plays like your average slasher movie, but the killer uses a shotgun instead of a knife. I guess it reminded distributors too much of Columbine, so they were hesitant to put it out.

Or maybe the reason why it had a hard time being released was because it just wasn’t very good.

Despite the fact that most of the victims die of gunshot wounds, we do get a decent dislocated jaw scene and an OK knife across the eyes. However, you have to wait an awfully long time for the film to ever get into gear. There’s a Scream-inspired twist ending too, but it’s fairly predictable.

The reason to watch the flick is for Amber Heard. She doesn’t get naked or anything, but she does wear an array of tight-fitting clothes. Oh, and her performance isn’t too bad either.

SHAKE, RATTLE AND ROCK! (1994) ** ½

Renee Zellweger is a teenager in the ‘50s who just wants to rock n’ roll. Her mother (Nora Dunn) is concerned that she’s playing in a rock n’ roll band and she has their venue shut down. With the help of a DJ (Howie Mandel), Renee organizes a TV special to put rock n’ roll “on trial”.

Shake, Rattle and Rock was one of those “Rebel Highway” movies on Showtime that remade old AIP movies. I never saw the original flick, but this was OK. There’s not a lot to it (it plays mostly like a rehashing of Hairspray), but at least the music is pretty good. And you get to hear “C’mon Everybody” by Eddie Cochran (played here by Riki Rachtman) a bunch of times. (As well as Iggy Pop’s cover version; which plays over the end credits.)

Director Allan (Rock n’ Roll High School) Arkush gets a lot of mileage out of his cast. Renee Zellweger’s performance is energetic and you can tell she would become a star with her work in this flick. And Howie Mandel actually gives a really good performance as the DJ. John Doe plays the oldest juvenile delinquent in screen history. He’s pretty good though and has some chemistry with Zellweger. And it was kinda cool seeing Rock n’ Roll High School’s Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles, Dey Young, and Dick Miller reunited.

AKA: Glory Days.

ZATOICHI’S FLASHING SWORD (1964) *** ½

The opening sequence of Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword contains one of my favorite moments from the entire series. It’s a long POV shot of a fly buzzing around the Blind Swordsman, Zatoichi’s head. He finally gets tired of the pesky pest and uses his sword to kill it. This scene is a lot of fun and perfectly sets the tone for the film.

Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) is shot and wounded by a young pipsqueak looking to make a name for himself. He gets patched up by a mysterious benefactor and once he is healed, Zatoichi goes out looking for him to thank him for his generosity. As it turns out, the Good Samaritan is a beautiful woman named Okuni (Naoko Kubo), whose father is a yakuza boss. And before long, Zatoichi winds up getting embroiled in yet another yakuza clan war.

Like many Zatoichi films, Zatoichi’s Flashing Sword sometimes gets a little overburdened with plot. But it’s easily worth sitting through some of the pokey-paced dialogue scenes to get to the many highpoints. There are some really good action bits here, the highlight being a terrific underwater swordfight. The comedic scenes are pretty great too. There’s a funny bit where Zatoichi buys some candy for a kid and his friends, but can’t see that he has like fifteen friends around him. Throw in another fine turn by Shintaro Katsu as Zatoichi, and you have the makings for another solid entry in the series.

AKA: The Blind Swordsman’s Flashing Sword. AKA: The Sword of Zatoichi. AKA: Zatoichi: A Tough Kite.

FIGHT, ZATOICHI, FIGHT (1964) ***

Some hooligans mistake a carriage carrying a sick woman for Zatoichi (Shintaro Katsu) and murder her. Feeling somewhat responsible for her death, Zatoichi offers to take her baby back to its father. The gang learns that Zatoichi will be transporting the baby, and thinking his defenses will be down, organize another attack. Along the way, Zatoichi gets a reluctant female pickpocket to help him with the baby on his long journey.

Because a baby figures so heavily into the plot, there’s some overly cutesy things here (like the baby pissing in Zatoichi’s face). They don’t necessarily detract from the film, but they don’t exactly help either. Although I could’ve done without the scene where Zatoichi tries to breastfeed the baby, I did like the montage of discarded diapers that showed Zatoichi’s progress across the land.

Despite the presence of a baby, Zatoichi still finds time to do some of his usual shtick. In one scene, he fights a bunch of gamblers who try to cheat him. There’s also a cool scene where Zatoichi asks a would-be assassin for a piece of paper and he slices it up in a blink of an eye; prompting the killer to reconsider.

These moments aside, the film still bogs down; more so than the previous films. The berth between action sequences feels a lot longer this time around and the flick is lacking the punch the best films in the series have. And the bickering relationship between Zatoichi and the pickpocket is a bit annoying at times. At least the finale where Zatoichi fights a bunch of guys brandishing torches is pretty kick-ass, and caps an otherwise uneven outing in fine fashion.

AKA: Blind Swordsman: Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) ***

During the publicity rounds before Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s release, the directors, screenwriters, producers, and stars went out of their way to pat themselves on the back for making a ‘70s-style political thriller in the guise of a superhero movie. And I must admit that the film accurately measures up to the filmmakers’ intentions. So in that regard, Captain America: The Winter Soldier works.

But next time guys, do you think you could just, you know… settle on making a kick-ass Captain America movie?

After an attempted assassination on Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), S.H.I.E.L.D becomes compromised. Captain America (Chris Evans) is pegged as a traitor and goes on the run with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to clear his name. Eventually, he uncovers a plot that could shake up the whole Marvel Movie Universe as we know it. (Or at least set it up for the next Avengers movie.)

I don’t want you to think I’m going to spend the whole review harping about this whole “70s-style political thriller” thing. I was just hoping for, I don’t know, more. I mean, you have Steve Rogers, Captain America; a man who missed the past seven decades because he was frozen in ice. And what do you do with him? You put him into some Parallax View-Three Days of the Condor scenario? Don’t get me wrong, I liked the scenes of Cap finding his place in his new surroundings. I liked that he had a little “To Do” book of things to check out during the time he missed. And the scene with Agent Carter was sweet and showed some heart. However, these scenes are more the exception than the rule. I would’ve love to have seen more of this kind of stuff.

Captain America: The First Avenger was awesome for about ¾ of its running time and gave us what is looking like the best representation of the character. The final act of that flick though was severely rushed and just served to shoehorn Cap into the Avengers movie. Maybe it’s me. Maybe I just want Cap to stay in the ‘40s fighting Nazis. But while The First Avenger was great and then took a nosedive late in the game, The Winter Soldier is fairly consistent all the way through.

The film does suffer from Dark Knight Syndrome, an affliction where the filmmakers think that “gritty” and “dark” equal “better”. I’m sure with a guy like Batman, it’s okay to do that. With someone like Captain America, that’s not exactly the case. They even muted the colors of his costume down on this one to fit the “gritty” and “dark” tone. I know, I know, you’re gonna tell me, “but the values Captain America fought for in the ‘40s no longer exist”. I get that, but what’s wrong with a guy dressed all up in the red, white, and blue kicking ass, especially in a comic book movie? (He does don the old school costume for the finale, but it’s a long time coming.)

The action is solid for the most part. The opening action sequences did not inspire confidence as they suffered from a bit of hold-the-camera-still-itis. Thankfully, the filmmakers get that out of their system fairly quickly and the flick settles down with some pretty good action sequences. (My favorite was the scene where Nick Fury had to dodge dozens of assassins on a crowded street.) And Cap gets to do some cool stuff with his shield in this one. He uses it as a battering ram to go through doors and windows, digs it into the side of a heli-carrier to hitch a ride, and uses it as a landing pad when falling out of moving vehicles.

Chris Evans once again gives a great performance as Captain America. He knows that Cap is a Boy Scout, not a dork, and finds the right balance of naiveté, wholesomeness, and bravado without making it all seem silly. He IS Captain America. And I liked the instant camaraderie between Cap and The Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

The presence of Robert Redford in the mix adds to the ‘70s-style political thriller vibe. And he gives it his all as Alexander Pierce. Samuel L. Jackson has a tendency to go on cruise control sometimes, but he ups his game considerably in his scenes with Redford. And the results are some of the best scenes in the movie.

For a movie with the subtitle, “The Winter Soldier”, we sure don’t see much of The Winter Soldier though. Sebastian Stan is more or less just a blank cypher, and his character is just a ruthless killing machine. If you’ve read a Captain America comic, you’ll already know his true identity, but even the big reveal doesn’t really give him much to work with. He does have a cool metal arm though.

And I thought Frank Grillo was pretty good as Pierce’s lapdog. He brings intensity to what could’ve been just a forgettable henchman role. If Marvel HAS TO (and by “HAS TO”, I mean MUST) recast The Punisher again, they could do a lot worse than Grillo.

But the movie belongs to Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. She steals the movie, just like she did with Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. If you can’t give us a good and proper Captain America movie next time, I’d gladly settle on a Black Widow solo flick.

In short, I liked the movie. I really did. I just hope that now Marvel has gotten the whole “Look at us, we made a ‘70s-style political thriller in the guise of a comic book movie” thing out of their system. Hopefully, we’ll never have to see a Ms. Marvel movie done in the style of a ‘30s screwball comedy. Or a Power Pack movie done in the style of an ‘80s John Hughes flick. Or a Ghost Rider sequel done in the style of a ‘50s Juvenile Delinquent movie. (Okay, maybe that last one would be cool.)

Marvel Studios Scorecard:

The Incredible Hulk: ****
Iron Man: ****
Iron Man 3: ****
The Avengers: ***
Captain America: The First Avenger: ***
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: ***
Thor: ***
Thor: The Dark World: ***
Iron Man 2: ***