Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Hello all! Today, I introduce a new feature entitled Short Film Smorgasbord. Each time one of these posts goes up, it’s three short film reviews for three short films.

The entire smorgasbord will count as one (1) review, and this time, they also happen to be (especially important) silents.

Oh and I’ll have a witty title for each smorgasbord (thanks a bunch to Committed to Celluloid for that inspiration).

Enjoy!

Sherlock Holmes, Baffled that the Kelly Gang Made It into the Sealed Room

Movie Review #712

“Sherlock Holmes, Baffled”

American Mutoscope & Biograph. Distributor: American Mutoscope & Biograph. Country: USA. Directed by Arthur Marvin. Character by Arthur Conan Doyle. Runs 1 minute. Wide release in the USA in May 1900. Starring Anonymous as Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock Holmes Baffled” is a simple but clever little short. The premise: Sherlock walks into a room to find a burglar. There seems to be a fantasy element to this movie—a humorous surprise that I dare not spoil—and as far as special effects, this 1900 motion picture is waaay ahead of its time. An effort that cracked a smile on my face, a reaction many modern comedies can only wish for. For the first movie to actually feature Holmes, this is quite a nice effort.

“The Sealed Room”

Biograph Company. Distributor: Biograph Company – Reel Media International – American Mutoscope & Biograph. Country: USA. Languages: English intertitles. Directed by D.W. Griffith. Writer: Frank E. Woods. Based on the novel “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe and the story “La Grande Breteche” by Honoré de Balzac. Runs 11 minutes. Wide release in the USA on September 2, 1909. Starring Arthur V. Johnson as the Count, Marion Leonard as the Countess, and Henry B. Walthall as the Minstrel. Also starring Linda Arvidson, William J. Butler, Verner Clarges, Owen Moore, George Nichols, Anthony O’Sullivan, Mary Pickford, Gertrude, Mack Sennett, and George Siegmann.

It’s interesting to think that while epics of the last half-century emphasize hope in their respective stories, the epic film actually began with overwhelming tragedy. At eleven minutes, “The Sealed Room” isn’t long enough to stand as a part of this genre, but elongate it and it most certainly is. This isn’t as good as D.W. Griffith can get, but it feels like a considerable (and adequately gripping) precursor to his two best-known epics: “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Intolerance” (1916).

“The Story of the Kelly Gang”

J. & N. Tait. Johnson and Gibson. Country: Australia. Directed by Charles Tait. Produced by W.A. Gibson, Millard Johnson, John Tait, and Nevin Tait. Writer: Charles Tait. Runs 70 minutes (remaining footage runs 21 minutes). Wide release in Australia on December 26, 1906. Starring Elizabeth Tait and John Tait. Also starring Frank Mills, Norman Campbell, Will Coyne, Sam Crewes, Jack Ennis, John Forde, Mr. Marshall, Mr. McKenzie, Bella Cola, Vera Linden, and Ollie Wilson. With uncredited cameo appearances from E.J. Tait and Frank Tait.

Fun fact: 70% of all silent footage that was ever produced, has been lost. Technically, “The Story of the Kelly Gang” was the first feature film. Reports vacillate between time lengths of 60 and 70 minutes; the established minimum for a feature film is 40 minutes. 21 minutes of the movie remain, and not a bit of story can be discerned from it. It’s just violence, violence, and more violence. None of it’s graphic, morbid, or off-putting in anyway other than that it’s pointless. If I had to guess, I’d say this is a “Bonnie and Clyde” precursor, but what good does guessing do? What good is it when the movie forces you to guess? Perhaps there was an actual plot when this film (which ironically has “Story” in its title) was issued at feature length. But if I were to watch any random 21 minutes of a decent movie, I’m sure I would be able to make out at least half the plot.

Tomorrow’s Review

The English Patient

ALL TITLES AVAILABLE IN THE PUBLIC DOMAIN.

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo

Review No. 575

“Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo” is really “Il classico, il bello, il cazzuto”.

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A-PLUS

DIRECTED BY SERGIO LEONE. PRODUCED BY ALBERTO GRIMALDI. SCREENPLAY BY LEONE, AGE & SCARPELLI, AND LUCIANO VINCENZONI. STORY BY LEONE AND VINCENZONI. DISTRIBUTED BY UNITED ARTISTS IN ITALY ON DECEMBER 15, 1966; AND IN THE UNITED STATES ON DECEMBER 29, 1967. PRODUCED IN ITALIAN AND ENGLISH BY ITALY. RUNS 2 HOURS, 42 MINUTES (INTERNATIONAL VERSION RUNS 2 HOURS, 57 MINUTES). NOT FOR CHILDREN, DUE TO INTENSE WESTERN VIOLENCE.

CREW:
Director — Sergio Leone
Producer — Alberto Grimaldi
Screenplay — Mr. Leone, Age & Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni
Story — Mr. Leone & Mr. Vincenzoni

CAST:
Clint Eastwood — The Man with No Name aka “Blondie” (The Good)
Lee van Cleef — Angel Eyes (The Bad)
Eli Wallach — Tuco (The Ugly)

OTHER:
Distributor — United Artists
Release Date — December 29, 1967 (USA)
Language — Italian & English
Country — Italy
Running Time — 2 hours, 42 minutes (international version: 2 hours, 57 minutes)
MPAA Rating — R (re-rating from M)
Flags (allmovie.com) — adult situations; not for children; western violence

IL BUONO, IL BRUTTO, IL CATTIVO WAS WATCHED ON AUGUST 15, 2013.

“[INSERT NAME HERE] has been found guilty by the third district circuit court of the following crimes … For all these crimes the accused has made a full and spontaneous confession. Therefore we condemn him to be hung by the neck until dead. May the lord have mercy on his soul. Proceed.”

So I hear Best Western hotels were initially Good Bad & Ugly hotels, but they thought the Sergio Leone reference wouldn’t take in too many customers.  I’m joking, of course, but it’d take a hypnotist to convince me that Leone’s Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (that’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for English speakers) isn’t the greatest western movie ever made.  Every minute is breathtaking.  As if that isn’t enough, it’s been almost five decades since the rise and fall of the Italian phenomenon that is the Dollars trilogy, and not one trilogy of the same caliber has come through.  Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) and Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More) had me wondering, but this third round has me utterly convinced.

This one was budgeted at $1.2 million–more than the combined budgets of the first two Dollars movies–yet not a “dollar” more goes into the look or sound of it.  Nonetheless, this is set apart from the low-budget antecedents by a brilliant screenplay and Leone’s fearless directorial style.  Clearly, he loved the story in Per un pugno, but that was a shallow addiction of his as opposed to Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, which is much more a religion.  Not a word is spoken until ten minutes have been spent for the intensity to build.  This is him praying on behalf of his audience.  The answer is a clever miracle: a staring contest that almost seems hostile.  It’s equally amusing and thrilling.  This happens once again at the height of the climax.  Except it’s not a staring contest, it’s a Mexican standoff.  It was a smiling adrenaline rush for me.

Top to bottom: The Good, the Ugly, the Bad.

It’s not just the masterful direction that makes Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo work.  Ennio Morricone’s score does much service to the movie.  In fact, it’s the paragon for any way to handle a spaghetti western.  In fact, Il buono is thoroughly at the top of its game, because so is everybody involved.  The best here is Clint Eastwood, the star himself.  In fact, he gives a name to Clint Eastwood, his own name.  They’re in great actor-character bondage here, so much that they’re one person, not an actor in a different role than himself.  Eastwood has perfected this personality as a grinning cross between Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson.  He’s known as “Blondie,” though he’s actually the befearèd Man with No Name who has been previously nicknamed “Joe” and “Manco.”  All three names function as in-jokes for fans of Leone’s work, but the “Blondie” understatement is clearly the wittiest.

I haven’t said what Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is about.  But that’s for you to find out.  To steal a quote from the great Roger Ebert: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about.”  Oh and “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”  Thank god for moviemakers like Sergio Leone who improve not just with time, but with running time.  If the title was intended to express quality, may I suggest, in rough Italian, Il classico, il bello, il cazzuto. (That’s The Classic, the Badass and the Beautiful.)

NOTE: The literal translation is Good, Ugly, Bad, not The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  Similarly, the literal translation of Il classico, il bello, il cazzuto is Classic, Beautiful, Badass, not The Classic, the Badass and the Beautiful.  Just a matter of order, unless I was given a wrong translation.

Later

The Wild Ride

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The Wild Bunch

Review No. 552

Damn straight, it’s “Wild”!

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A

NOTE: This review regards the “Original Director’s Cut” of The Wild Bunch. Research says that while this cut is just as controversial as the American cut from back in 1969, it heightens Peckinpah’s cinematic intents.

CREW:
Director — Sam Peckinpah
Producer — Sam Feldman
Screenplay — Mr. Peckinpah & Walon Green
Story — Mr. Green & Roy N. Sickner

CAST:
William Holden — Pike Bishop
Ernest Borgnine — Dutch Engstrom
Robert Ryan — Deke Thornton
Edmond O’Brien — Freddie Sykes
Warren Oates — Lyle Gorch
Jaime Sánchez — Angel
Ben Johnson — Tector Gorch

OTHER:
Distributor — Warner Bros.-Seven Arts
Release Date — March 3, 1995 (1969 cut: June 18, 1969)
Language — English
Country — USA
Running Time — 145 minutes (1969 cut: 135 minutes; 1969 premiere cut: 143 minutes)
MPAA Rating — R on appeal (1969 cut: R)

THE WILD BUNCH WAS WATCHED ON JULY 29, 2013.

I’d like to propose the following theory:

A filmmaker may be accurately dubbed as “great,” if and only if he or she has made an oeuvre in which more than half the films are, or will eventually be, universally considered “classics” by critics and movie buffs alike.  The universal understanding of a film as a “classic” can be accurately predicted, if and only if the filmmaker is enamored with every shot of the film, as much as the ideal audience.

It’s been nearly 120 years since the five-second Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze became the first successful “movie,” and since then, films have become more and more defined by the egos of the men and women who make them happen. It’s true that where cinema most differs from real life is that when a fearless ego makes its domineering way to celluloid, it’s far more entertaining, not to mention artful, than watching movies made of a fearful/deficient/nonexistent ego.  If I fail to make sense, then let me put it this way: the most palatable movies feature style and substance as inseparable.  It’s a rule of thumb that made auteurs out of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese, Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen.  And, as I have more recently discovered, Sam Peckinpah.

The Wild Bunch was Peckinpah’s fifth movie; it’s preferable to look at this as the movie that transformed this writer-director into a sensation.  This man seems to give movies a signature correlation between controversy and lifespan.  Straw Dogs (1971), Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) each remain as controversial as when they were issued to theaters, while regarded as classics as avidly as when they earned their respective “tenth anniversary re-evaluations.”  Yet The Wild Bunch earned a renewed controversy: In 1993, slightly prior to a 25th anniversary re-release, Warner Bros. handed the film over to the MPAA with ten minutes’ additional footage.  While not a second of this had any of the graphic, violent material that made the movie warrant a 1969 R rating (which still rings of a low R, more than four decades later) was added to the new cut, the rating system’s appeal board was needed to intervene to bump the movie from an NC-17 to the more commercial R.

While this didn’t help the movie’s second chance at commerce (the domestic box office receipts, when adjusted for inflation, total to less than $980 grand), the “controversy-to-class” correlation is still a shoe sized to perfection.  If I spent as much as a second wallowing in boredom, that second is gone from my memory as I write this review.  As far as cinematography, it has been reported that the average late-’60s movie contains 600 cuts.  The Wild Bunch boasts a whopping 3,600.  Without disregarding the accuracy in the Oscar nominations for music and original screenwriting: why the hell didn’t this earn any nominations, let alone Oscar runaways, for its visuals?  The story here is simple, but when this influential shootout and a half, both a western and a witty deconstruction of the western, is over, you can’t help but want to watch more of Sam Peckinpah.  The man’s got style.  He’s got substance, too, and I mention that because I could never distinguish between the two.  That’s a compliment of immeasurable praise.

POSTSCRIPT: I wasn’t sure where and/or how to put it in my review, but The Wild Bunch is by no means a movie deserving of an NC-17.  The MPAA barely considered an equivalent X rating for the original release.  Had they given it an X rating, A Clockwork Orange, two years later, would have been labeled “violent pornography” and earned the first official MPAA endorsement of the satirical “XXX” rating, no matter how much was cut out.

STAY TUNED FOR MY “NATURAL BORN KILLERS” REVIEW @ 4:30

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The Gold Rush

Review No. 539

Chaplin done struck some mighty fine comic “Gold”.

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B

WRITTEN, PRODUCED & DIRECTED BY CHARLIE CHAPLIN. 1942 RE-RELEASE NARRATED BY CHAPLIN. STARRING CHAPLIN (THE TRAMP – LISTED AS “THE LONE PROSPECTOR”), MACK SWAIN (BIG JIM McKAY), AND TOM MURRAY (BLACK LARSEN). ALSO STARRING GEORGIA HALE, MALCOLM WAITE, AND HENRY BERGMAN. DISTRIBUTED BY UNITED ARTISTS ON APRIL 18, 1942; ORIGINAL SILENT DISTRIBUTED ON JUNE 26, 1925. PRODUCED IN ENGLISH BY THE UNITED STATES; ORIGINAL SILENT PRODUCED IN ENGLISH INTERTITLES. RUNS 1 HOUR, 9 MINUTES; ORIGINAL SILENT RUNS 1 HOUR, 36 MINUTES. SUITABLE FOR ALL AGES.

THE GOLD RUSH WAS WATCHED ON JULY 23, 2013.

I’d like to start off by stating that this review is, to a slightly greater degree than my other critiques, a personal reaction. That being said, if you strongly disagree with my points in the paragraphs that follow, you’re likely to enjoy The Gold Rush significantly more/less than I did.

Please do note that while I have nothing against “silent films,” I find them overrated. Maybe that’s not the correct word, since I have the utmost respect for the way they have shaped films and, in some cases, culture. But if going to the movies in 2013 meant that I was going to travel thirty minutes to see a black-and-white flick that relies on facial expressions and “intertitles” to tell a story, featuring a guest musician or two to cover up an awkward silence, I wouldn’t love movies nearly as much as I do.

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My expectations.

I was expecting something mediocre of The Gold Rush. This was my first time facing Charlie Chaplin, a filmmaker who loved the silent era like no one else. I was, instead, taken aback by how much appreciation I suddenly felt for the sort of film. The 1942 re-release features Chaplin’s narration in the place of intertitles. The narration is presented much more like an audiobook than a radio show performance. It’s a remodeling that affects the movie’s pace, but most importantly, the candid delivery puts the silent era on a forefront in a way that is far more convincing than it deserves to be.

The story in The Gold Rush is as if it were a Jack London novella told through the eyes of a farce writer. As you might guess, Chaplin features as his signature character, “the Tramp,” as he makes his way through the titular events. Chaplin has so much fun writing and directing himself around the Yukon, particularly when it means his persona gets into a mess. Yes, the film drags on an unintended length eventually, but it’s much more interesting than it is without the petite “sound era” adjustment. I now feel determined to watch more of Chaplin. Most of it’s because The Gold Rush feels like a thankfully extended sketch. You can say that one of them is enough, but that’s like turning on Saturday Night Live (a much more recent example, but spiritually similar) and only sticking around for one of the send-ups. You can do that, but only until you feel the guilt of not committing to the welcoming plethora of laughs.

STAY TUNED FOR MY “FROM DUSK TILL DAWN” REVIEW @ 4:30

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Per qualche dollaro in più

Review No. 515

Worth even more than “A Fistful of Dollars”.

For-a-Few-Dollars-More-1967-movie-poster

A

DIRECTED BY SERGIO LEONE. PRODUCED BY ALBERTO GRIMALDI. SCREENPLAY BY LEONE AND LUCIANO VINCENZONI. STORY BY LEONE AND FULVIO MORSELLA. STARRING CLINT EASTWOOD (THE MAN WITH NO NAME), LEE VAN CLIFF (COLONEL DOUGLAS MORTIMER), AND GIAN MARIA VOLONTÉ (EL INDIO). ALSO STARRING MARIO BREGA, LUIGI PISTILLI, ALDO SAMBRELL, KLAUS KINSKI, BENITO STEFANELLI, LUIS RODRÍGUEZ, PANOS PAPADOPULOS, DANTE MAGGIO, DIANA RABITO, GIOVANNI TARALLO, JOSEPH EGGER, LORENZO ROBLEDO, MARA KRUPP, MARIO MENICONI, ROBERTO CAMARDIEL, SERGIO MENDIZÁBAL, AND TOMÁS BLANCO. DISTRIBUTED BY UNITED ARTISTS IN ITALY ON NOVEMBER 18, 1965, AND IN THE UNITED STATES ON MAY 10, 1967. PRODUCED IN ITALIAN BY ITALY, WEST GERMANY, AND SPAIN. RUNS 2 HOURS, 12 MINUTES. NOT FOR CHILDREN, DUE TO INTENSE WESTERN VIOLENCE.

PER QUALCHE DOLLARO IN PIÚ WAS WATCHED ON JULY 4, 2013.

“Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price.  That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

Clint Eastwood has never failed to impress me.  All right, I won’t lie: he has, but when I see something as noteworthy as Per qualche dollaro in più, I’m ready to forgive him for other disappointments.

Per qualche dollaro in più is a powerful continuation on his 1964 western Per un pugno di dollari (“A Fistful of Dollars”).  The sequel is known to English-speakers as “For a Few Dollars More,” and fittingly, it’s more robust in its storytelling attitude.  As the sophomore component in the “Man with No Name” trilogy, Eastwood brings more definition to that moniker.  His character was a ruthless, hotheaded S.O.B. when we first met him, yet we still loved him; he was an antihero at best, and Per qualche dollaro in più, expounds upon that characteristic.

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Name’s Clint.

Pair Eastwood with a well executed plot, and you have a Spaghetti western that is equal parts exciting and amusing.  Barely anything happens in Per qualche dollaro in più.  Essentially, it’s an encapsulation of one single adventure the mysterious protagonist sets out for.  Any way one repeats the plot makes it sound utterly generic for a western flick: First he finds a “Wanted” ad, then he partakes in a gunfight, etc.  What’s amazing is that this is all cached away during the viewing, as are other sporadic flukes, such as the low-budget attire.  It would have been rather obvious, if only we weren’t so immersed in the story.  Sergio Leone crafted the film in a way that grabs our attention and builds it at all costs.

I’d like to pin a word such as “flawless” on the surface of Per qualche dollaro in più, but it isn’t.  A perfect score would make a difference.  I watched Per un pugno di dollari almost a whole year ago, and it’s only within the last few days that I’ve felt inclined to watch the sequel.  Now that I’ve seen Per qualche dollaro in più, I’m dying to finish up the “Man with No Name” trilogy.

FOOTNOTE: As I had mentioned in my review of Per un pugno di dollari, the English dubbing is as if the movie were filmed in English.  That being said, stick to the dubbed version of this movie, unless, of course, you prefer over two straight hours of reading subtitles.

What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

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Django Unchained

Review No. 514

Tarantino “Unchained”.

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A

WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY QUENTIN TARANTINO. PRODUCED BY STACEY SHER, REGINALD HUDLIN, AND PILAR SAVONE. STARRING JAMIE FOXX (DJANGO FREEMAN), CHRISTOPH WALTZ (DR. KING SCHULTZ), LEONARD DiCAPRIO (“MONSIEUR” CALVIN J. CANDIE), KERRY WASHINGTON (BROOMHILDA VON SHAFT), SAMUEL L. JACKSON (STEPHEN), WALTON GOGGINS (BILLY CRASH), DENNIS CHRISTOPHER (LEONIDE “LEO” MOGUY), AND JAMES REMAR (BUTCH POOCH / ACE SPECK). ALSO STARRING DON JOHNSON, DAVID STEEN, DANA MICHELLE GOURRIER, NICHOLE GALICIA, LAURA CAYOUETTE, ATO ESSANDOH, SAMMI ROTIBI, CLAY DONAHUE, SCALANTE LUNDY, MIRIAM F. GLOVER, OMAR J. DORSEY, FRANCO NERO, JAMES RUSSO, TOM WOPAT, DON STROUD, RUSS TAMBLYN, AMBER TAMBLYN, BRUCE DERN, M. C. GAINEY, COOPER HUCKABEE, DOC DUHAME, JONAH HILL, LEE HORSLEY, ZOË BELL, MICHAEL BOWEN, ROBERT CARRADINE, JAKE GARBER, TED NEELEY, JAMES PARKS, TOM SAVINI, MICHAEL PARKS, JOHN JARRATT, AND TARANTINO. DISTRIBUTED BY THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY & COLUMBIA PICTURES ON DECEMBER 25, 2012. PRODUCED IN ENGLISH BY THE UNITED STATES. RUNS 2 HOURS, 45 MINUTES. INTENDED FOR MATURE AUDIENCES, DUE TO GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, NUDITY, AND PROFANITY.

DJANGO UNCHAINED WAS WATCHED ON JULY 3, 2013.

“Django. The ‘D’ is silent.” –Django (Jamie Foxx)

In the Golden Age of Westerns, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained would simply be too violent to believe. In the modern day, it’s just too good to believe. Tarantino’s genius is all over here. The story is involving, set off by a premise that is simple, but completely original and involving. The year is 1858, and Django (Jamie Foxx) has missed his wife (Kerry Washington) ever since they were sold to two different slaveowners. As soon as a former dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), comes to free him, Django has only one thing on his mind: to get back to his wife. But this would involve crossing paths with the avaricious, ruthless aristocrat Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

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You don’t mess with this guy.

Django is a colander full of great performances, leaking out slowly and subtly to compliment a quixotic screenplay. With the exception of the “outback” cameo from the director himself, everyone here delivers a strong performance. Christoph Waltz becomes his character here. He’s a charming, witty fella, humbly disguising himself as a bumbling dentist in order to deceive other slaveowners. Tarantino’s love for dialogue runs all throughout Django, but if there’s any performer who presents it most memorably, it’s Waltz. Leonardo DiCaprio is another worth noting. His performance as Candie is outstanding, funny, and nearly unforgettable. He has Samuel L. Jackson on the side for even further amusement. Is this truly DiCaprio’s first villain role? Of course, the hero himself is worth noting. As soon as Jamie Foxx has taken charge of Django’s persona, he’s controlling that role to no end. He’s equal parts gritty and hilarious, and he makes the last fifteen minutes his own. Could Jamie Foxx be the new Clint Eastwood?

Django is an outstanding tour de force and a half. The story is engrossing and brilliant, with a decided ability to amuse greatly when beset by racism and graphic violence. Better yet, these qualities are heightened by Tarantino’s anachronistic style, which features tunes from old westerns, as well as a few modern-day appropriations from the rap genre. The movie is two hours, forty-five minutes long, but it doesn’t waste a single minute. The whole thing flies by in what feels like no more than an hour; by the time it’s over, you’re eager to go for seconds.

For a Few Dollars More

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Wild Wild West

Day Five of the Two-Week Torturefest

As lame as that horse Mongo punched in the face in “Blazing Saddles”.

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Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld
Written by: S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock & Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Based on: “The Wild Wild West” (1965-1969 TV series)
Captain James West: Will Smith
U.S. Marshal Artemus Gordon: Kevin Kline
Ulysses S. Grant: Kevin Kline
Dr. Arliss Loveless: Kenneth Branagh
Rita Escobar: Salma Hayek
Also Starring: Bai Ling, Frederique van der Wal, M. Emmet Walsh, Musetta Vander, Sofia Eng, Ted Levine

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures on June 30, 1999. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 107 minutes. Rated PG-13 by the MPAA–western violence, sexual situations, infrequent/brief nudity.

Wild Wild West was watched on Sunday, December 23, 2012.

“Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.” –Will Smith
THE IMPLICATION: “Wild Wild West cost a hundred seventy million to make. Director didn’t like it, so instead of revising it, he released it to theaters, tortured theatergoers that way, and earned a profit.”

Poor Will Smith! He’s an increasingly talented actor, regardless of what genre is at hand. I have yet to see him fail, but on several occasions, he has been sorely miscast.

Wild Wild West is not such a case. Yes, Smith is the standout in this otherwise un-watchable film, especially for a role he, himself, picked out. He was initially offered the role of Neo in The Matrix, but turned that film—now considered a modern classic—down for a rather insulting rendition of classic television. Considering that, I guess Wild Wild West does offer one mildly genuine surprise: it didn’t liquidate Smith’s career.

In most cases, it’s pretty bad when a movie wants to be completely serious and ends up failing miserably. There’s essentially only one worse concept: a film that masquerades as a “comedy,” yet the few gags that evoke the most nervous of laughter are thanks to pure luck.

All too many times, Wild Wild West has the strange, pretentious idea that it is playing out humorously. One-liners, double entendres, puns, and sight gags are shot left and right in this highly forgettable excuse for a “steampunk western.” But the film’s frame of mind is so self-confident, it’s a wonder none of the four writers ever came to realize their script was only firing blanks. Occasionally, there’s a goofy joke that manages to crack a smile. But halfway through, the film has worn itself so abusively thin, gunfire has been used more frequently as a wakeup call.

Wild Wild West bears not one kind regard to the art of subtlety. It’s an overly straightforward, loudly exaggerated, completely recycled landfill protruding with tiresome anachronisms. To call this Mission: Impossible meets Blazing Saddles would be one of the most unlawful offenses one could ever commit at the expense of either film. During the 19th century, two men are sent by President Grant to track down a criminal from New Orleans. Something—perhaps everything—about that premise reeks in a lack of originality. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has baked a turducken, but he has forgotten both the chicken and the duck. Wild Wild West is a turkey.

Footnote: With regard to the “Bottom-of-the-Barrel Line,” I’m not sure if the horse in Blazing Saddles was lame. On the other hand, my eleven-year-old sister LOVES horses to death, so I’ll make an effort to have her leave a comment either affirming or negating that speculation.

D

Crossroads – it’s Britney, b__ch, and she’s valedictorian.

This review was brought to you by…
TWTF

Review No. 421

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The Bottom Line: A landmark with “unforgettable” written all over it.

Directed by: George Roy Hill
Written by: William Goldman
Butch Cassidy: Paul Newman
The Sundance Kid: Robert Redford
Etta Place: Katharine Ross
Also Starring: Jeff Corey, Strother Martin, Ted Cassidy

Distributed by 20th Century Fox on October 24, 1969. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 112 mins. Rated PG by the MPAA (mature themes; profanity; Western violence).

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was watched on February 17, 2013.

“For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.” –Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman)

I could rattle off countless movies like this right off the top of my head. Die Hard 3. 21 Jump Street. Lethal Weapon. Thelma & Louise. The common bond is a hard focus on crime, with two leads and varying levels of comedy. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is essentially no different, and I’m sure there were “buddy flicks” before it for even further inspiration. But when the film’s venerability is taken into consideration, it’s still something we’d love to see more often.

Butch and Sundance are the archetype of the “buddy flick.” Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis–they all innovated from the iconic powerhouse starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid blares 1969. The technical efforts aren’t so much as standard, with low-quality sound mixing, cinematography, and photo vignettes (save for the one powerfully used to make the ending unforgettable). On one hand, you could look at this as a trashy low-budget film with no sense of style.

On the other hand, it’s nice to venture back to crime films that entertained without being visceral or explosive. In fact, the film can be bittersweet at times. Just within the first half-hour, we hear B.J. Thomas’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”. The scene is emotional like no other crime movie could ever dream to be.

The style is all dissolved as part of the storytelling regime. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and a man known only as “the Sundance Kid” (Robert Redford) are outlaws. They pass time with secretive criminal affairs, specifically armed robberies. When they find “business” will be more successful for them in Bolivia, they find that a chance to flee from the authorities in the United States. But how long will it be before the Bolivian deputies discover these two are outlaws?

The tale is almost as simple as a knock-knock joke. We’ve heard it so many times before. This is compensated for, however, with characters we have absolutely no familiarity with; characters we enjoy. Butch is an arrogant fellow. He’s a belligerent, pugnacious guy who often times fails to tolerate “the Sundance Kid.” Sundance, on the other hand, is an inattentive, tall, broad fellow. Most of the film’s humor–not that it’s a full-fledged comedy–derives from Sundance’s inclination to stand as a nimrod.

And now, as I describe Butch and Sundance, I begin to wonder why the characters struck me as so likeable. In any other film, these characters would be detestable protagonists. But this isn’t any other film. This, if I may end on a corny note, is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Postscript: I wasn’t sure where to mention it in my review, but this is a Western. It’s often difficult to tell, especially when it impressively departs from the clichés we know of the genre.

A MINUS

Hoosiers

Review No. 394

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The Bottom Line: Like an endless “Pitt.”

Directed by: Andrew Dominik
Screenplay by: Andrew Dominik
Based on: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” by Ron Hansen
Narrated by: Hugh Ross
Jesse James: Brad Pitt
Robert Ford: Casey Affleck
Also Starring: Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Rockwell, Sam Shepard, Ted Levine, Zooey Deschanel

Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures on September 21, 2007. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 160 mins. Rated R by the MPAA for some strong violence and brief sexual references.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was watched on January 19, 2013.

“I had hope, however; I had been wounded seven times during the war, and once before in this same lung; and I did not believe I was going to die.” –Jesse James

Crime has been famed all throughout history. Off the top of my head, Lizzy Borden, Ed Gein, Jeffery Dahmer, Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper, and the “Zodiac killer” have all undergone this strange transformation from criminals into something of macabre pop culture icons.

Jesse James is a name that hasn’t ceased to accumulate talk. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that far more people know of him than of any of the aforementioned. There is most likely a vastly lower number of individuals, however, who know about him behind the umpteen urban legends that have spawned.

If you watch The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford expecting a drama accounting the killing itself, you’ll be sorely disappointed. That isn’t to say the title is a misnomer. There’s a reason The Assassination of Jesse James clocks in at two hours, forty minutes.

Jesse James (Brad Pitt) is assassinated shortly after the two hour mark. What precedes this is two hours of character development. We are shown his savage lifestyle, in 1881 Missouri, and how despicable Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) sees him after joining the Missouri outlaw, despite idolizing him since childhood. The film sets up and, for two hours, tricks its audience into believing James is the hero of the story, or rather the anti hero. The development on Ford is so subtle, so carefully handled, the inevitable climax is almost a twist ending.

What follows this scene is over a half hour of easily expendable content. This is composed of what seems like epilogue after epilogue. The only necessary conclusion is a five-minute segment that appears directly before the credits begin rolling.

Most biopics enjoy a certain tradition during the closing credits, in which we see images and videos, depicting the likeness between the cast and those they portrayed. The Assassination of Jesse James does not reciprocate to history in this way, and the reason why is quite possibly because Brad Pitt does not visually disappear into James’s figure. In fact, he looks little more than Brad Pitt in 19th century costume.

This disservice is forgivable, though, simply because the historical figure is flawlessly pitched. Who knows if Jesse James was as carefree, relaxed, and calm as he was fittingly portrayed by Pitt. He was also a mysterious man, one whose family never knew how he brought home so much bacon–or even knew his first name. Surprisingly enough, Pitt nails this side of James, as well.

The Assassination of Jesse James is well written, well acted, well done. It often feels like something that would tell its tale much more elaborately as an HBO mini series. The film is phenomenally paced, but also very slowly paced. I respect that this is as much a Western as it is a biography; at that level, it can be too appreciative of dialogue.

Perhaps an intermission right before the assassination scene would bring more ultimate satisfaction.

B MINUS

Unforgiven

Review No. 393

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The Bottom Line: Unforgotten.

Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: David Webb Peoples
Will Munny: Clint Eastwood
Little Bill Daggett: Gene Hackman
Ned Logan: Morgan Freeman
English Bob: Richard Harris
Also Starring: Anna Thomson, Anthony James, David Mucci, Frances Fisher, Jaimz Woolvett, Saul Rubinek

Distributed by Warner Bros. on August 7, 1992. Produced in English by the United States. Runs 131 minutes. Rated R by the MPAA for language, and violence, and for a scene of sexuality.

Unforgiven was watched on January 17, 2013.

“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man. Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” –Will Munny (Clint Eastwood)

Once upon a time, I considered Clint Eastwood one of Hollywood’s most overrated icons. When we think of Eastwood’s early roles, the first to come to mind are most likely the titular character in Dirty Harry (1971) or Frank Morris in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). It’s grossly far from the truth.

Clint Eastwood began his acting career in 1955. For a few years, his résumé ran prolifically, despite the fact that he was struggling in obscurity: the very genesis of his career was conglomerated by very small roles—whether on film or television—or roles for which he wasn’t at all credited. His first look at so much as a supporting character was as Keith Williams in Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958). The film was a Western.

Incidentally, it was not Hollywood, but low-budget Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone who gave Eastwood his first starring credit: A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Another Western. He reprised the character in the film’s two sequels. Western, Western. Then in 1968, Eastwood went Hollywood with his first American starring role: Marshal Jed Cooper in Hang ‘Em High. Western.

Unforgiven is a throwback to Eastwood’s roots. We know very well that he had a gunslinger side infused in his actor blood early on. It’s up in the air, however, as to whether or not Eastwood can tackle the genre behind the camera just as well.

We don’t recognize Eastwood as a “cowboy” mainly because as soon as he made his 1971 directorial debut, he abandoned the genre. This film is a brave attempt, not only because it was released over two decades later, but because the Western genre is so confined and territorial. You tell me you don’t like dramas, and you could be telling me any number of things. You tell me you don’t like Westerns, it’s easy to understand. All you can really find in a traditional Western is a 19th century, Western United States setting; and themes structurally limited to lyin’, cheatin’, stealin’, and certain permutations, such as gunslingin’, revenge, and retribution.

Unforgiven, therefore, can’t help its natural flaw of being slightly formulaic. To contradict it all, though, Clint Eastwood directs this into a surprising, unexpected, exciting, and often emotional revenge film.

Unforgiven isn’t an upbeat escapade for John Wayne aficionados. Had it been produced during his Golden Age, it may not have even made it to public theaters. This is a rather dark look at the Old West legends, set in 1881 Wyoming.

The scene that sets the film into action occurs almost immediately after the opening titles. We see a woman being cut repeatedly, gruesomely. Her name is Deborah Fitzgerald, we are told, and she is a member of an entire group of prostitutes. She survives the assault, but only in a disfigured state. Distraught, one of Deborah’s friends issues a thousand-dollar reward to anyone who can seek and kill the two men. Shortly after, a retired, out-of-town gunslinger by the name of Will Munny (Eastwood) is hired for the task. But when he comes to town, he discovers it’s not nearly as simple as taking a single shot.

Unforgiven is an impressive display of performances. I’ve been a fan of Morgan Freeman for as long as I can remember. The man has played numerous roles. Despite most of his roles being either supportive to the plot (Glory) or to other characters (Driving Miss Daisy), Freeman is usually the ultimate highlight of his films. Freeman’s chemistry as a supporter of Clint Eastwood’s in Unforgiven is absolutely impeccable. Alone, the two are acting powerhouses. Combined, they’re the apex of the film.

I mean not say that David Webb Peoples’ script was poorly written, but there were several cheesy lines it could have done without. I’ve heard, for instance, the lines “I’m dying” and “I’ll see you in hell” used as fillers in countless films, and it only sounds as if the screenwriter has been plagued by writer’s block mid-scene. It just doesn’t stand out as well when delivered through a believable medium like Eastwood and Freeman.

All right, you want jokes? Let’s discuss the Academy. The first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture was Cimarron in 1931. Strangely enough, the Western genre was at its greatest and, by the Academy, most virtually unappreciated for the near six decades that followed.

John Wayne, often considered the leading icon in the Western genre, starred in 185(!) films during this time. He died in 1979 with one Oscar statuette (for 1969’s True Grit) and one nomination for leading in a non-Western. Few of his films were so much as nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Italian innovator Sergio Leone directed seven Western classics between 1961 and 1984. When he died in 1989, his prestige had not once been honored by the Academy.

Fast-forward one year. All of a sudden, Dances with Wolves had been crowned Best Picture of 1990, becoming the second Western (and first in fifty-nine years) to win the high honor. The third to receive this honor was only two years later–Unforgiven. On one hand, it’s not exactly fair that the Academy kept the Western genre in its blind spot for so long. On the other hand, Unforgiven deserved almost every form of recognition it could possibly get.

A MINUS




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