About This Blog

A place to find my reviews not featured on epinions.com or horror-asylum.com, as well as opinions and lists on everything from movies to TV to music. It's all about me! Send hate mail to vegie18th@hotmail.com or just leave a comment beneath the posts. Review grading system assumes C+ is somewhere in the vicinity of a Passing grade or minor fail.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Review: American Gangster


The true story of enterprising Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and the too-honest cop on his tail, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Lucas, who began as driver for kingpin Bumpy Johnson (an excellent cameo by Clarence Williams III), took over when his boss died, and came up with an idea of importing drugs directly from the source in Vietnam, thus cutting out the middle-man (this is in the late 60s through the 70s, by the way, during the Vietnam War). Considering himself a smart businessman, he sells a high quality drug called Blue Magic at a relatively cheap price, and has a strict code of business and behaviour that involves he and his people, keeping a relatively low-profile. He even gets himself a gorgeous and exotic Puerto Rican wife (Lymari Nadal). Roberts, meanwhile, is hated by his colleagues for turning in $1 million in drug money intended for payoffs. His partner, meanwhile, becomes addicted to drugs. So, professionally, he’s a saint, but he’s going through a bitter custody battle with ex Carla Gugino over the kid he seems to have barely any time for. He’s given the plum job of heading up a narcotics squad and picking his own men (John Hawkes among them), with Richie aiming to target the top drug lord they can get evidence on. And gee, wonder who that’ll be. Aside from these two opposing figures, we have Josh Brolin (in top form) as an aggressive, corrupt cop, Chiwetel, Ejiofor as Lucas’ brother and right-hand man, rappers Common and T.I. as other family members (father and son!), and the legendary Dee as Lucas’ beloved mother (Lucas is a devout family man, at least in his mind), whilst Ric Young and Roger Guenveur Smith as Lucas’ sinister contacts in Vietnam, Armand Assante as a rich Mafioso whom Lucas has tentative dealings with (You probably didn’t even need to know what Assante plays, such is his reputation), the well-cast Jon Polito as another Italian crook, and a very solid Cuba Gooding Jr. (charisma personified here) plays flashy-dressing, reckless pimpified dealer Nicky Barnes, who tries to sell a knock-off version of ‘Blue Magic’. That doesn’t go down too well with Lucas. Not. At. All.

 

Solid 2007 Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”, “Alien”, “Black Rain”, “Black Hawk Down”) cop vs. gangster pic does not really bring anything new to the table plot-wise (“The Godfather”, “Goodfellas”, “Scarface”, and especially “Serpico”, and many others are pilfered here), but it is a pretty persuasive film nonetheless, and never boring. In fact, it might have been an even better film if it weren’t trying so hard to convince us it’s a great film.

 

I had a few problems with the two lead characters to be honest, particularly Denzel’s character and performance. Of the two main characters’ stories, I found that Lucas’ had the most potential for interest, but that Roberts’ character won me over in the end. Sure, it was just “Serpico” all over again, but that was a great film, and it’s still interesting stuff (particularly the sad plight of his partner and all the fascinating procedural stuff as Roberts attempts to nail Lucas- this stuff may be old hat, but it still works), with Crowe excellent in the part, a much less showy performance than usual from him. I liked all the stuff with Crowe’s Roberts balancing his police work with legal aspirations, as it’s something you don’t often see in a cop movie. His marital woes are much less interesting, however, this subplot goes nowhere, and true or not, it’s actually not very necessary. Sure, it gives a contrast with Lucas being that Roberts is a stand-up cop and a shitty husband, and Denzel is a devout family man…and a shitbag ruthless criminal, but that point gets made pretty early.

 

As for Lucas, I felt Denzel, although committed to the part (and really quite excellent when displaying the few violent tendencies afforded to the otherwise ice-cold Lucas), wasn’t the right guy, or at least not the best choice. Playing Lucas as not so much a good guy or bad guy as an ‘Average Joe’ (Yet this is a guy whom we first see setting a guy on fire for fuck’s sake!), he gives a low-key, glum performance whereas a fiery/volcanic actor, say Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne, Terrence Howard (who would’ve had an edginess to him, if not a weight/presence), or Samuel L. Jackson might’ve really nailed the part. It would also have helped sell what I think is the most fascinating, but least developed idea in the film; How much more interesting would it have been if the film had focussed on the notion that this African-American man is attempting to claim his part of the capitalistic American Dream by selling drugs, and selling them indeed to his own ‘people’ (working-class African-Americans)? And how much more interesting would it have been if this man were seen as an outwardly super-cool, showy, but essentially morally bankrupt guy, somewhat like Gooding’s Barnes character? Had the film spent more time on this notion, recast the Lucas role, removed Roberts’ family woes, it might’ve been dynamite stuff (if a little “New Jack City”).

 

I’m only going into detail about the sore points to clarify its status as solid but not as great as it thinks it is. Truth be told, I actually understand Denzel’s casting, as an actor with less presence might’ve gotten swallowed up by Crowe. As it stands, it’s never boring, but only truly effective in fits and starts. Josh Brolin, in particular is a standout in the cast. Looking like Nick Nolte in Sidney Lumet’s “Q&A” he perhaps gives the film’s best and liveliest performance, even if the film ultimately manages to waste his effort, despite the mammoth 2 ½ hour length. In his few scenes, he has the presence and intimidation that Denzel’s ‘Average Joe’ approach denies himself of. Best Denzel gets is occasional violence and a whole lotta ice-cold demeanour. John Ortiz is a close second, as Roberts’ troubled partner, looking a tad like Ron O’Neal in “Superfly”. He’s particularly excellent and troubling. And let’s face it, any film could use a little more Ruby Dee, couldn’t it? Typically cool soundtrack features the requisite hits ‘Across 110th Street’ by Bobby Womack and ‘Pusherman’ by Curtis Mayfield among others. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (“Gangs of New York”, Oscar-nominee for “Awakenings” and Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List”), from the amusingly titled Mark Jacobson article “The Return of Superfly” (this is anything but a blaxploitation film). Terrific final scene, giving you a bit of food for thought mostly through a musical cue (It works better than the awkward final shot of the otherwise superior “Gangs of New York”, if you ask me). Oh, and the award for Worst Fake Moustache of All-Time goes to Joe Morton, a very fine character actor who here looks like a skinny Keenan Thompson as Al Sharpton, but with Scatman Crothers’ toupee from “Black Belt Jones”. He looks completely ridiculous.

 

Rating: B-

Review: Boys Town


Spencer Tracy plays Father Flanagan, who in an attempt to stop kids from turning into the death row inmates he visits in their final moments, decides to set up the title home for wayward young boys. He believes reform schools will only lead to the kids turning to crime and gangs. They need more than such harsh environments, they need a nurturing home. Mickey Rooney plays Whitey Marsh, a wannabe tough young hooligan who will prove to be one of Father Flanagan’s toughest assignments, as Father Flanagan attempts to prove that ‘there’s no such thing as a bad boy’. Henry Hull plays Flanagan’s slightly stuffy and sceptical business partner, whilst Bobs Watson turns up as the cute-as-a-button Pee Wee, a young boy who has a thing for the sweet stuff.

 

This is a nice, harmless, and enjoyable movie from 1938. It’s also a showcase for the talent and frankly unbeatable screen presence of Spencer Tracy, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of real-life Father Flanagan. Directed by Norman Taurog (“Skippy”, “Sooky”, “Blue Hawaii”), obviously the problem kids of 2015-16 are probably a lot more troubled than these juvenile delinquents, but this is basically a family movie when you get right down to it. A pretty good one at that. At under 90 minutes, it’s a tad slight and nearly torpedoed by the most cornball finale you’re likely to ever see in a film. It’s a real eye-roller, and the preceding film deserves a lot better. But honestly, while this is dated, it’s not been rendered useless (the idea that kids aren’t inherently bad and that parental responsibility is key still holds pretty true), though some might cry ‘blackface!’ at one supposedly comic moment.

 

Young Bobs Watson grabs the film and takes it out of the grasp of sturdy Tracy (you’re always in safe hands with him) and hammy but enjoyable Mickey Rooney (well-cast as a little smart-arse who isn’t as smart or tough as he thinks he is). Watson really goes for broke in the best hammy, weepie, near-cloying child actor fashion. He probably deserved an Oscar himself for all the effort (Apparently he turned to serving God as an adult, ironically enough, becoming a minister!). The Oscar-nominated screenplay is by John Meehan (“The Valley of Decision”, “The Painted Veil”) and Dore Schary (“Lonelyhearts”, “It’s a Big Country”), based on an Oscar-winning story by Schary and Eleanore Griffin (“Imitation of Life”, “Third Man on the Mountain”).

 

An easy watch, so long as your tolerance for The Mick and weepie children is pretty high. It’s nice, Oscar-winning Tracy is truly iconic, and Bobs Watson will steal your heart. It’s just a shame about that schmaltzy ending, it could’ve been even better. Absolutely not for the unsentimental.

 

Rating: B-

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: Jimi: All is By My Side


The early days in the musical career of blues-rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (played by Andre Benjamin, AKA Andre 3.17- what? Oh alright, Andre 3000) as he makes the move to London in 1966-67, and also dealing with the women in his life as he is just on the verge of riding the meteoric wave of success. Imogen Poots plays Linda Keith, the posh former girlfriend of Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards (played in the film by Ashley Charles), who shacks up with Jimi. That is, until he leaves her for Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell, better than this film), and a far more volatile relationship begins. Ruth Negga turns up as a pot-stirrer of a temptress, who is the third woman in Jimi’s life depicted during this brief period.

 

Even if this 2014 biopic had been wonderfully well-made, interesting, and exceptionally acted, it’s still founded on at least one piece of bullshit according to one of the real-life figures depicted in the film. With that one piece of bullshit (that really, the person involved would have no reason to lie about), it throws the accuracy and authenticity of everything else into question. I call bullshit on a lot of this film, written and directed by John Ridley (the Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave”), I barely believed a word of it, and probably still wouldn’t have believed very much of it had the real-life Kathy Etchingham not come out to publicly deride the film. But let’s start with Etchingham. The film claims that Jimi was a violent, moody drug user who beat Etchingham on more than one occasion. One cannot really get away from the idea that Jimi might not have been an entirely nice guy all the time (there’s plenty of stories about him being abusive to women, not sure how accurate but they’re out there), however Etchingham says that he was never once violent towards her and was indeed a sweet, gentle person. How can you not take her word for it? Why would she lie about being beaten by a guy she was only with for a brief time? The thing is, she wasn’t consulted by the filmmakers here, and when you add to that the fact that the filmmakers weren’t allowed to use any of Jimi’s own music unless his estate had full control of the film…this whole thing really starts to smell, and smell really bad.

 

I also think the film ridiculously misappropriates Jimi’s drug use for what is a film set in a fairly early time in his career. This isn’t the story of his final days or his death. However, it depicts Jimi as a moody, somewhat cold-hearted drug addict that goes quite against what I’ve always heard and read about him as being gentle, funny, a bit of a hippy-dippy type. That doesn’t make my beliefs true (and given his fatal overdose, one can’t deny he was a drug abuser, of course), but given how wildly inaccurate Etchingham (whose offer to assist the filmmakers was rejected) believes it to be, and given the issue of the music, I have a hard time accepting much of this as true, especially for the rather early period specifically depicted in the film. And if those in control of Jimi’s estate think this thing is garbage (and that is apparently the case), that means something to me. Sure, film’s chop and change and bullshit all the time in the name of drama, but usually I’m ignorant to it. Here, I was pretty sure I was watching almost total BS and that made it hard to watch, let alone endorse. I mean, the most significant moment of violence takes place in a pretty public arena (a pub), pretty sure if that really happened, Etchingham couldn’t credibly deny it. Yet, she does. I will admit that Jimi is my all-time favourite guitarist, but there’s no fanboy denial going on here. I’ve accepted that he might not entirely have been the laidback, peace and love guy, but this specific portrayal of him? Factually BS. It seems to equate being quiet with being moody and volatile, which is really unfair.

 

The film is incredibly boring, too, in addition to being poorly written and choppy. It’s glum and portrays Jimi as somewhat glum, too, which doesn’t feel right. Occasionally you’ll come across a line of dialogue that seems somewhat believable, but that’s a rarity. It’s not just Jimi and Kathy who suffer here, in one brief bit we see Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who as played by Ashley Charles, sounds like an upper class ponce! Keith with a posh accent? Really? Have you ever heard the guy (even when the Stones were starting out)? The most hilarious thing is that Keith complains that Jimi is a drug addict! Fucking what now? It’s an utterly absurd portrayal, so I’m glad it’s only a cameo. This movie, like Jon Snow knows nothing. It’s rambling as fuck too, with an appearance by Michael X (played by Adrian Lester), who was like England’s Z-grade Malcolm X, I think (My only previous exposure to the character was in the based on a true story heist flick “The Bank Job”). I have no idea what the hell that was all about, and I have absolutely no clue what overall point this film was making about Jimi. I got nothing useful from it. What was Ridley trying to say here, beyond Jimi being a druggie and spousal abuser? He comes across more like Ike Freaking Turner than Jimi Hendrix!

 

The one and only thing it seems to get truly right is that it shows how Jimi was too much of an ‘outside the box’ kinda guy to play the blues the traditional way back in the US, and perhaps the UK was thus more receptive and open to his space alien slant on the blues. Jimi may have played the blues, but the man was an alien from outer space, I swear. There was never anyone like him before, and has never been anyone like him since (No, not even you, Lenny Kravitz. Sorry). I’m not sure if the story depicted is entirely accurate, but Eric Clapton’s stunned look at seeing Jimi play for the first time is priceless (Clapton was ‘God’, but God wasn’t comparable to Jimi!), and the actors playing him and fellow Cream member Ginger Baker are alright.

 

Even without hearing Etchingham’s denials and anger towards this film, I don’t think I would’ve bought any of this nonsense. Andre Benjamin doesn’t look like Jimi (they’re not even the same skin complexion!) and at 39 years old is way too old to play a guy who died at age 27. However, he does a fair enough job in the lead, and he gets the hushed, hesitant speaking voice down rather well. It’s not his fault that this film sucks. It’s Ridley’s, it’s all on the writer-director (his debut in the latter field), no matter how you slice it. This is so wrong and disrespectful. And seriously boring! Can Oscars be revoked for later cinematic crimes? Just a thought…

 

Rating: D

Review: American Sniper


 The true story of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), said to be the most lethal sniper in American military history, with a confirmed 150+ kills during his four stints in Iraq. Sienna Miller is Taya, Chris’ wife back home, Keir O’Donnell plays Chris’ younger brother Jeff, who also enlists and becomes quite shaken by his experiences.

 
Firstly, a little semi-tangential context about the filmmaker at the helm here, and all the political hype surrounding this film. I think it’s relevant, as the film, its source and its director often seem to cause political debate. Despite foolishly debating an empty chair at a RNC for cheap laughs, and previously starring in a bunch of right-wing cop flicks in the 70s and 80s, director Clint Eastwood (“Play Misty For Me”, “Mystic River”, “Jersey Boys”) comes across as more of a Libertarian than a Republican or Conservative to me. I mean, I wonder if the folks at FOX News have heard his views on Gay Marriage or Climate Change? However, he claims that this 2014 true story mostly adapted from Chris Kyle’s own memoir (even though the writing of the film started before the book was even finished), is actually ‘anti-war’. It’s not the biggest right-wing, flag-waver out there (and I’ve never believed that an anti-war film needed to be anti-American military, by the way), but I would hardly call this one anti-war, even if you start from the position that any accurate depiction of war will end up being anti-war as a result. For instance, I’d even put the underrated Vietnam War film “We Were Soldiers” in that category, even though it might not seem anti-Vietnam War specifically. Having said that, I’ve enjoyed plenty of war movies over the years, and not all of them have been anti-war films that lined up perfectly with my own beliefs (And for the record, I do not support the belief of a certain noted leftie filmmaker who calls snipers ‘cowards’. That person should be ashamed of himself, Kyle still has living children for crying out loud. I won’t name the jerk, he knows who he is, and although we occupy the same side of the political fence, I find myself less of a fan of his with every passing year).

 

I feel like I needed to get all of this political stuff out of the way, so that you know where both the filmmaker and also myself are coming from. However, at the end of the day, this is a movie review. Therefore, the only thing that truly matters here is whether the film is any good or not. It’s all well and good to be based on the real guy’s memoir, and for him to be a decorated soldier and all. Yet, that in and of itself does not constitute a great film. I’m sad to say that this didn’t do much for me. As scripted by Jason Hall (the lame-o techno-thriller “Paranoia”), it’s no right-wing, modern day “Green Berets” turkey, it’s simply respectful to the troops and refuses to really delve into the ‘bigger picture’ issues at all. That’s fine. What’s not fine, is that the film is not very interesting or fresh. In fact, there’s a helluva lot of “The Hurt Locker” in this, only dealing with a sniper instead of an IED guy (Neither film bothers to make much of a political statement about the war. That’s not their aim).

 

The battle scenes are photographed a helluva lot better than in that film or “Zero Dark Thirty”, that’s for damn sure. It’s a rather well-made movie in many ways, but not one with anything remotely new to say, and the only time that the central character remotely interested me was in his post-war resistance to being called a ‘hero’. Otherwise, he’s not a very engaging or interesting guy, and Bradley Cooper, Oscar nomination or not, is mostly rather dull in the part, aside from those post-war scenes (where he seems shy, but also unable to cope with the fact that he’s at home while someone else is doing the job in Iraq instead. That’s well conveyed) If, as everyone involved seems to want to claim, the film was meant to be more character study than political statement, the character being studied isn’t overly compelling, except when at home. In fact, I think Eastwood missed the boat by not telling the seemingly more interesting story of Kyle’s younger brother. There seems to be more of a movie in that character, if you ask me. Or maybe Eastwood should’ve focused more on Kyle’s post-war work with fellow veterans suffering PTSD, not to mention his untimely and truly tragic murder at the hands of one of the troubled soldiers he was attempting to help. What we get instead is far too worn-out, two-dimensional and clich├ęd. Having said that, the more action-packed second half of the film is definitely an improvement. Also, the film does have one genuinely great moment and most of it is probably due to Cooper: It shows Kyle contemplating having to shoot a kid who has just picked up a rocket launcher. Wow. You can definitely see the turmoil there, though Cooper doesn’t overplay it (And, anti-war or not, I’m not sure I really want a terribly conflicted sniper, given the split-second decision nature of their frigging job!). It’s his and the film’s one shining moment. Meanwhile, after this and “Foxcatcher” the same year, I really have to ask how and why the perfectly bland Sienna Miller manages to continue getting roles in big films? She offers nothing. She’s practically wallpaper in every movie I’ve seen her in. How is she doing it? Why do directors seem to like her? I’m not even trolling, I’m genuinely curious. Is she just a super-nice person everyone wants to work with or something?

 

Not all true stories deserve to have a film made about them, and to suggest Chris Kyle’s is one of those stories that needn’t have been told, is meant with absolutely no disrespect for him, his family, nor his national service (However, if he really did call his wife whilst in the midst of battle, he was kind of a dick. If he didn’t, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall are giant dicks for suggesting he did it on two occasions. Seriously, who would do that? It’s cruel, and probably against military protocol, though I’m not qualified to confirm that one). Whether or not you agree with war itself (I’m strongly against it, but somewhat resigned to its inevitability), Kyle deserves respect. He clearly served his country on the battlefield, performed duties that I’m sure none of us would ever like to do (even those who are pro-war), and I feel just plain awful about the sad fate that eventually befell him. However, that does not in any way change how I feel about this story as has been told in this film (And I also hear Kyle comes off a lot worse in his autobiography than in the film. I haven’t read it, however, and won’t take that into consideration). Some people will love this film, and you’re welcome to feel that way. I wanted to see what you saw in the film, however I’m ultimately ambivalent about it. I hate feeling ambivalent about a film.

 

Clint Eastwood’s idea of being anti-war is a little more towards the right than my idea of anti-war, however, what really matters here is that this film just didn’t offer me much that I hadn’t seen before, and done better before. It’s a bit…meh, though the second half is better than the first, and it’s not the rah-rah flag-waver some of you might be dreading (or, perhaps hoping for, depending on your stance on the subject). I just wasn’t overly engaged or moved here.

 

Rating: C+ 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Review: Curse of the Golden Flower


Set in China’s Tang dynasty, where surface-level happiness within the royal household, hides a whole family of rotten apples. The Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat- a masterstroke of casting, the guy is 100% commanding screen presence) presents an image of integrity and majesty, but is secretly (and slowly) poisoning his estranged wife Empress Gong Li (who wears gold-tinged lipstick!), who in turn is carrying on an affair with stepson the Crown Prince (whom she sees as the heir to the throne), and is also slowly going mad from the poison. The easily-manipulated stepson, devoted to his mother (who might have devious plans of her own) is however, in love with the daughter (Li Man) of his mother’s doctor. And unlike his brothers, he has no designs on the throne whatsoever. Jay Chou (a pop idol, and really quite good here) is the middle child, a well-meaning sort, and dutiful soldier who has just returned from battle, attempting to prove his worthiness. Youngest child Qin Junjie, just sulks in the corner, largely forgotten by most everyone. Needless to say, the walls are gonna start crumbling big-time, as everyone also has to prepare for the upcoming Chrysanthemum Festival.

 

2006 Zhang Yimou (“Hero”, “House of Flying Daggers”) mixture of wuxia and Shakespearean tragedy is the best, most opulent, and most importantly, the most evenly-paced of all the recent operatic Asian martial-arts epics. It is, perhaps the most dramatically-oriented of the lot, but unlike “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, or “House of Flying Daggers” (all of which have their positives), there’s no sagging, romantically-inclined mid-section. At just about every moment, in just about every corner of the frame, something interesting or visually appealing is going on, and not always in terms of martial arts action. And these poisonous/cursed people don’t have much time for the romantic side of things (though there is still some of that, albeit with a bitter edge), and I absolutely loved that. These are some sick, twisted, and pathetic people with way too much power in their hands. How poisonous and fucked up are they? Gong Li knows she’s being poisoned but continues to drink the poison anyway! Now that right there is positively messed up!

 

And oh, what sights we have to show you! This is perhaps the most stunningly beautiful, mouth-watering colour film I have ever seen, with the mixture of gold and ultra-bright pinks and purples used to decorate the sets signifying the opulence, and richness of the film’s setting and royal characters. It’s the best and boldest use of colour I’ve seen in a film since 1964’s “Masque of the Red Death”. The whole thing is amazingly epic in visual scope for something set predominantly indoors! It’s fascinating watching all the pomp and ceremony and daily rituals being carried out with such rhythmic precision on screen here. The music score by Shigeru Umebayashi is terrific, and full of muscle and majesty. The performances are pretty good too, most notably Gong Li (whose character is almost likeable, and certainly pitiable) and an imperious-looking Yun-Fat (in easily the best performance I’ve ever seen him deliver). The major action set-piece with everyone either wearing gold or silver armour is an absolute stunner and fast-paced stuff, and only looks slightly enhanced by computers. The melodrama is also top-notch this time (especially if you’re even vaguely acquainted with the works of Shakespeare such as “King Lear”, “Hamlet” and “The Scottish Play”).

 

With a screenplay by Wu Nan, Bian Zhihong, and the director, from a play by Cao Yu, if Douglas Sirk had directed a wuxia epic, this would be the result, except it’s even better than that sounds. Must-see, this is a work of art that also manages to tell a compelling and stirring story. Highly and shamefully underrated.

 

Rating: B

Review: Shane


Farmers and homesteaders are being bullied by cattle baron Emile Meyer and his men. Coming to the aid of homesteader Van Heflin and his family (Jean Arthur, and son Brandon de Wilde) is mysterious stranger Shane (Alan Ladd). Accepting a gig as a handyman and a place to stay, Shane is an ex-gunfighter of some skill, and has little trouble defending the property against Meyer’s goons (including his brother, played by western veteran John Dierkes), and barroom bully Ben Johnson. This earns him the hero-worship of young de Wilde, much to his pacifist mother Arthur’s horror. Things get interesting when Meyer hires infamously dangerous gunslinger Wilson (Jack Palance), who quickly takes to intimidating homesteaders and farmers like Douglas Spencer, Edgar Buchanan, and brave, but foolish Elisha Cook Jr. A showdown between the two skilled gunfighters looks inevitable.

 

A favourite western of many, but I’m afraid I’m not the biggest fan of this 1953 George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) film. Scripted by A.B. Guthrie (“The Kentuckian”), it’s a good film with great moments, not a great film, and the story is as old as the hills (It’s based on a book by Jack Schaefer). Also not helping things is the singularly unpleasant Jean Arthur, who must surely rank as the whiniest female lead of any western ever made. It’s the Wild West, lady. It was a violent time, so quit ‘yer yammerin’ and let the men do what they do! And go make me some damn biscuits while ‘yer at it! (I swear I’m kidding). Alternating between boring and nauseating, Arthur is a constant pain in this film’s arse. Other than Arthur, the flaws here are pretty minor, but I just don’t see a classic here (I much prefer “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, “The Big Country”, etc.) Alan Ladd is just OK in the title role that really ought to have been played by Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster, someone with a more physical presence. Robert Mitchum would’ve been perfect, actually. Ladd isn’t what I’d call short, but he’s skinny and…well, a bit of a dandy, really. Yes, it fits the soda-drinking character to a degree, but I think we’re meant to think he’s much more of a credible tough guy than Ladd really is. The character itself is fascinating (kind of like a John Wayne character, but with a Gregory Peck sensitivity and paternal quality to him), but purdy-lookin’ Ladd is just a bit tough to take as a tough guy gunslinger, no matter how skilled Shane actually is. Ladd just hasn’t got the right presence, I’m afraid.

 

Thankfully, Stevens has surrounded Ladd with a pretty terrific supporting cast. The standouts are definitely Jack Palance and Van Heflin. Jack Palance’s performance here is one of the best western villain performances of all-time. As infamous gunslinger Wilson, an Oscar-nominated Palance has a real sadistic smirk in this. I’m more convinced than ever that Rattlesnake Jake from “Rango” was a reference to Palance’s Wilson than any Lee Van Cleef character, as many believe. They look very similar. Composer Victor Young (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “The Lost Weekend”, “Around the World in 80 Days”) does an excellent job throughout, but he really goes to town on Palance’s entrance, as does Stevens by showing that even dogs are scared shitless of this guy. Van Heflin could occasionally be a bit morose on screen, and was terrible in “The Three Musketeers”, but when he’s on, he can be a very sturdy presence. Here he plays a slightly surly character here, but he actually steals his every scene from Ladd. A really terrific performance. Elisha Cook Jr. once again puts in fine character work playing a guy who isn’t anywhere near as tough as he thinks he is. Poor guy is set for a showdown with a sadistic creep we know he just can’t beat. Jack Palance isn’t the guy you wanna be puffing your chest out at, Mr. Cook. Too brave, too dumb, too small. The shooting of Cook is one of the most chillingly cold-blooded scenes in cinematic history. Also worthy of a mention are Douglas Spencer in the immigrant homesteader role John Qualen usually got, and a rock-solid Ben Johnson as a barroom bully who proves a lot more complex than most, by the end of the film. Johnson, a versatile western player is more than up to the task. Brandon de Wilde is as corny as you can get, and might get on your nerves with his constant blubbering and yammering about Shane. Nominated for an Oscar, he’s not quite as wet-mouthed and dorky as Claude Jarman in “The Yearling”, but he’s also not as charismatic an actor as Jarman was, either. The cinematography by Loyal Griggs (“The Ten Commandments”, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”) is a definite highlight of the film, and won an Oscar. If you pay close attention, not only does the film seem to get thematically darker as it goes along, but the cinematography matches it. It’s really evocative, moody stuff.

 

With an awkward-looking hero, an irritating leading lady, and a kid that just won’t shut the hell up, this western just isn’t my thing. The story is as old as time, which doesn’t help, though the title character is an interestingly mysterious and iconic one. However, it has been expertly shot, scored, and Jack Palance is evil incarnate. It’s a good film, but not a great one. I found it a bit corny, really, and I’m not remotely against sensitive or thoughtful films (“The Big Country” is essentially a pacifist western, for instance and near-brilliant).

 

Rating: B-

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review: This is Where I Leave You


After finding his wife in bed with his douchebag boss (Dax Shepard, natch), Jason Bateman gets even worse news the next morning. His sister (Tina Fey) calls him to inform him that their father has died, and that the family are to gather together to sit Shiva, the week-long Jewish mourning ritual. Never mind that dad was largely an atheist and surgically-enhanced mum (Jane Fonda) isn’t even Jewish, this was what the old man apparently wanted. Along for the week are somewhat straight-laced oldest son Corey Stoll (who stayed in the home town to work for the family business), and the baby of the group Adam Driver, an immature idiot who likes to stir shit at extremely inappropriate times and is engaged to his older psychologist (Connie Britton). Kathryn Hahn plays Stoll’s wife, who desperately wants to get pregnant, Timothy Olyphant plays the next door neighbour and Fey’s ex-boyfriend, whose slight brain injury was caused by a car accident years ago. Seeing him again brings up all kinds of emotions for Fey, who is also not terribly happily married. Speaking of old flames, Rose Byrne plays Bateman’s, now running the local ice rink, though with his situation back home, his emotions, like Fey’s are also kinda confused and complicated. Ben Schwartz turns up as a former neighbourhood kid who is now an inexperienced rabbi, who gets seriously annoyed with Driver’s ribbing and usage of an unflattering old nickname.

 

Directed by Shawn Levy (“Big Fat Liar”, “Date Night”, “Night at the Museum”), this 2014 family-centric comedy/drama gets off to a pretty rank start. Jane Fonda and her fake boobs seem too caricatured, Tina Fey isn’t an actress and is clearly just reading her lines out loud, and seriously, this plot again? How many more times do we need to see a film about a dysfunctional family being forced to come together due to the death of a patriarch? Ugh, there’s even a parent who wrote a tell-all book about her own kids’ problems! Didn’t we already see that in “A.C.O.D.”? The funny thing is, this film eventually sneaks up on you. Yes, the plot is still eye-rollingly ancient, and yes I found myself wishing Tina Fey (who is smart and comes across as absolutely lovely in interviews) were replaced by a genuine actress, but…by the end I have to say I ended up enjoying this one. Hell, Jane Fonda’s performance seemed a lot looser and maternally warmer by the end of the film as well. There’s a real human being in there behind the fake boobs and TMI confessions. I’ll admit that Bateman’s awkwardness around his mother’s enhancements was actually hilarious at times. In fact, despite my initial resistance, I ended up liking these dysfunctional characters for the most part.

 

Scripted by Jonathan Tropper (and based on his own 2009 novel), the film won’t win any awards for originality, and the gross-out gags involving the potty are just plain dumb. However, lead actor Jason Bateman lends the film an authenticity, and a seemingly innate decency that really does give it a lift. In fact, for a film that is mostly a comedy, Bateman gives one of his most mature, and best dramatic (or at least semi-dramatic) performances to date. I actually found myself a little moved by him in this, though it took me some time to be won over. Some of his best dramatic moments are those in which Bateman doesn’t even speak. He doesn’t have to, we can read what he is thinking from his face. It’s called subtlety, and a bloody good demonstration of it from Bateman. It’s like we’ve been watching the maturity of Jason Bateman over the years in film and on TV, and this is a very interesting point in that trajectory. I mean, if someone had told me 25 years ago that Jason Freaking Bateman would be headlining cinematically-released films in 2014, I’d have laughed in their face. Justine Bateman’s brother? Really? Yes, really. Should we forgive him for “Teen Wolf Too” now? Maybe not (It’s a fucking serious crime against cinema, after all!), but boy has he become a reliable actor, almost always the best thing in any movie he appears in (his cameo in “Smokin’ Aces” was a sleazy riot!). He’s far and away the best thing here, that’s for sure.

 

Bateman is backed up by an interesting, eclectic group of actors here in theory, but they prove hit and miss. Fey’s a problem, no doubt about it, she’s not even really acting. I also think Kathryn Hahn really needs to get a new act soon, because her typecasting as a horny loser is getting to be a little hard to watch now. I’m starting to feel genuinely sorry for the actress herself. However, Adam Driver and Ben Schwartz steal their every scene as the douchebag youngest of the family, and the friend/nervous rabbi who is the constant butt of Driver’s jokes. Schwartz’s rabbi character is almost as hilarious as Rowan Atkinson in “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Connie Britton doesn’t get a whole lot to do, but I just plain like her and she does what she can here. Rose Byrne is alright as the potential love interest, but of all the things Byrne is, funny isn’t one of them. She’s trying really hard, and perhaps that’s the problem. You can’t try to be funny. In fact, despite my issues with Fey’s casting, she’s a part of the two most interesting relationships in the film, much more interesting than Bateman/Byrne: the sibling relationship between her and Bateman, and the love-that-could-never-be between Fey and Timothy Olyphant. Olyphant is a better actor than the amount of time he has allows him to be here, it’s a real shame that the most interesting character is also the least developed.

 

This one grew on me. It’s not great, but I liked that these characters are dysfunctional without being unlikeable stereotypes. There’s some caricature, but not to the point where it’s un-relatable. I just wish the central premise weren’t so ancient and played out. Still, it’s a pretty easy watch, despite my initial misgivings. Bateman is excellent, the film’s solid…ish.

 

Rating: B-