Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Quick and the Dead

Year 4, Day 245 - 9/1/12 - Movie #1,235

BEFORE: Since yesterday's film featured a gunslinger in a pivotal role (though the main gunfight happened off camera, but that's another story...) I'm following it with a movie that's all about gunfights.  Linking from "Cat Ballou",  Lee Marvin was also in a film called "Prime Cut" with Gene Hackman (last seen in "Hoosiers").

I finally recorded a film set in Australia, so the complete itinerary for the Movie World Tour is now locked.  I was willing to go ahead with it even though it only passed through 5 continents, but now it will pass through 6.  I can't wait to get started.   Tonight's film didn't make it into the tour, because the location of the town was not given - it takes place in a basic, indistinct, unnamed Western town.

THE PLOT: A female avenger returns to western town owned by a ruthless gunslinger hosting an elimination tournament.

AFTER: The problem with Western movies, as I see it, particularly with the more modern ones, is that they're treated as genre films.  By that I mean there are certain elements that people expect to see in them, so the filmmakers try to put all those elements in there, and what you end up with is a film that has the same stereotypical characters and plot devices as the last Western, and the one before that.  (case in point, a noose showed up in tonight's film - that's 6 out of the last 7 films!) Once in a while someone steps outside the box and makes a film like, say, "Back to the Future III", which still touches on many of those tropes but finds a way to put its own spin on things.  

That feels like what someone was trying to do with this film - by treating gunslinging like it's a sport, by showing something akin to the U.S. Open of gunfighting, in a single-elimination format.  And when I say "elimination", I mean just that - the players are eliminated.  Permanently.  I'm fairly sure that people in the Old West resorted to gunplay as a last resort, and even then, it was all random and chaotic.  The scenario where everyone in town hides, and two gunmen face off in a desolate street, each drawing their guns simultaneously in a true test of speed and skill - probably never went down like that, except in the movies.  

In the movies, the hero wears white and the villains wear black, the truth and honesty of the sheriff gives him the super-drawing speed he needs to take down the bad guy, or even to shoot the gun right out of his hand.  OK, this film isn't that cornball, but it hedges on it.  There's no mistaking which characters we're supposed to root for, the ones whose causes are just, or who oppose violence for violence's sake.  

Hackman plays the stereotypical Western-movie "rich guy", which means he owns half of the town (and he's probably working on getting the other half to sell to the railroads after they invent trains) but the original twist is, in addition to sponsoring the tournament, he's also a player.  And evidently the golden rule is that he who has the gold makes the rules - so naturally he wins every year.  

NITPICK POINT #1: If the tournament is rigged by the rich guy, and he wins time and time again, presumably creating a pile of competitors' bodies each year - what's the motivation for others to enter the contest again?  Oh, yeah, a pile of money, but what good is that when you're too dead to spend it?

NITPICK POINT #2: The rules of the gunfight state that the one who's less injured (or less dead) wins the fight.  But if these truly are the top 8, or 12, or 16 gunfighters in the country, then there's probably a very small difference in their skill levels.  I could easily imagine a scenario where BOTH shooters kill or mortally wound each other.  But I guess the makers of this movie didn't.  Probably because having a clear winner in each fight creates a more distinct story - but that means that the seams of the script are showing.  The results the screenplay needed determined the story, instead of the other way around.  

NITPICK POINT #3: If our heroine enters the tournament just to get revenge on its sponsor, she could have shot him at ANY TIME, like right after a match with another opponent, where he served as referee.  You've got the gun, the bullets, and he's like RIGHT THERE.  Nope, she follows the rules of the tournament - well, which is it?  Is she hell-bent on revenge, or not?  

Although wildly ridiculous, the film was still entertaining, and that's what gives it a higher rating on my scale than "Cat Ballou", though connoisseurs of classic cinema may disagree.  As always, this is my scale and your mileage may vary.

Also starring Sharon Stone (last seen in "Total Recall"), Russell Crowe (last seen in "Robin Hood"), Leonardo DiCaprio (last seen in "Inception"), Pat Hingle (last seen in "Baby Boom"), with cameos from Keith David (last seen in "Reality Bites"), Lance Henriksen (last seen in "The Slammin' Salmon"), Gary Sinise (last seen in "Mission to Mars").  

RATING: 6 out of 10 dolly zooms

Friday, August 31, 2012

Cat Ballou

Year 4, Day 244 - 8/31/12 - Movie #1,234

BEFORE: I like the way my trip to Massachusetts worked out, since I ended up coming back into New York City on a day when most folks were thinking about getting OUT of the city for the long holiday weekend.  But I love it when most folks clear out, and I'm planning to work on Friday and Saturday with very few interruptions - which means I may be able to get a few things done for once.  Plus there are fewer people on the subway, walking around, eating in restaurants - it's a wonderful thing.

Sticking with the Western theme, since a lot of these movies take place over vast expanses of territory, or in some cases inexact locations in the West, they were a lot more difficult to work into the cinematic World Tour.  But we're getting close to it now.  Linking from "Cannibal! The Musical", Trey Parker was also in "Baseketball" with Ernest Borgnine, who of course was also in "The Dirty Dozen" with Lee Marvin (last seen in, umm, "The Dirty Dozen".  Funny how that works out.)

THE PLOT: A woman seeking revenge for her murdered father hires a famous gunman, but he's very different from what she expects.

AFTER: This film ended up sharing a few things in common with "Cannibal! The Musical" - both relate the story of a criminally accused main character, mostly through flashback, and both have characters who break into song - here it's a pair of strolling balladeers, but the concept is equally as ridiculous.  Also, there have been quite a few references to hanging this week, going back to "The Crucible" - it's an obvious staple of Westerns and other films set in the 1700's/1800's, but to have gallows used as a plot point in 4 out of the last 5 films seems like a very odd coincidence.  

This movie has quite a reputation, some even refer to it as one of the greatest Westerns ever, but I'm not inclined to agree - not when compared with, say, "Unforgiven" or "The Magnificent Seven", to name just two.  The tone here is a little too comedic, not that any movie should take itself too seriously, but I think a movie should take itself somewhat seriously.  This one treats the entire genre almost like a cartoon would, using the same stereotypes that I'd expect to see in a Yosemite Sam cartoon.  

The music doesn't help - by that I mean the incidental music and stings, not the balladeers' songs.  Almost every action is punctuated by a music cue, letting us know when the villain has arrived on the scene, or when the chase scene has begun - all of which we already know through the visuals.  So the help we get from the music is not necessary - instead the sped-up chase music creates a tone more conducive to a "Benny Hill" routine in Western form.   

Examining the story, I found quite a few gaps - places where the movie seemed to go from Point A to Point C, without giving any nod to Point B.  Cat Ballou's relationship with a wanted man seems to happen in fast-forward - before you know it, they're an item, but what happened to good old courtship?  OK, she helped him escape from the law, does that mean they're automatically meant for each other?  In the same way, it felt like the movie skipped a step by turning our heroes into thieves - I didn't follow the logic of "Someone's trying to run my father off his land - so let's go rob a train."  Huh?  I didn't see how one leads to the other.

Lee Marvin's role as the aging, drunk, out-of-practice gunfighter is probably the most fleshed-out, but since the character is drunk for most of the movie, we really only see him at the top of his game for a fraction of the time.  Perhaps it rings true for the Old West, but cinematically I didn't find it all that entertaining.  He did provide the requisite "training" montage, though - and at least showed something like personal development.  But still, he's a walking stereotype - I wonder how much of Gene Wilder's gunslinger character in "Blazing Saddles" was riffing off of him.  

Come to think of it, most everything in this film is a stereotype - the European land baron, the crusty old farmer who won't give up his land, the bad guy wearing black, etc.  And the problem with dealing only in well-worn stereotypes is that it makes me feel like no new ground was broken here, like the film just recycled bits and pieces of earlier Westerns.  Compared to something like, say, the first "Star Wars" film, which did borrow liberally from Westerns, as well as Japanese films, old sci-fi serials and WWII dogfight sequences, but managed to put those elements together in a new way, distributing them into a new setting, and created something timeless. 

Also starring Jane Fonda (last seen in "The Electric Horseman"), Michael Callan (last seen in "The Magnificent Seven Ride!"), Dwayne Hickman (last seen in "A Night at the Roxbury"), Nat "King" Cole and Stubby Kaye.

RATING: 4 out of 10 square dances

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cannibal! The Musical

Year 4, Day 243 - 8/30/12 - Movie #1,233

BEFORE: I got lucky for, what is this, the 587th time?  Last night's film name-checked the infamous Donner Party, which makes for a great transition to this film about Alfred (or is it Alferd?) Packer.  The creators of "South Park", Trey Parker & Matt Stone, love pointing out that the dining hall at the University of Colorado was named after the famed frontiersman & cannibal.

Linking's going to be tough tonight - but Ethan Phillips from "Wagons East" was also in "Star Trek: First Contact", and so was Brent Spiner, who did a voice in "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" with Trey Parker.  That's the best I can do.

THE PLOT: The sole survivor of an ill-fated mining expedition tells how his taste for gold was replaced by that of human flesh.

AFTER: I watch most of my films after midnight, and sometimes I have trouble finishing a movie - either because I'm very tired, or the movie doesn't interest me, or both.  My rule is that if I fall asleep, I'll rewind and try again, but if I fall asleep a second time, I'll give up and go to bed, and finish it later in the day. In this case, that meant I had to wake up, catch a train all the way back to New York and watch the 2nd half at my office while trying to do a week's work in just a few hours.

I made it through half of this film early this morning before dozing off, and I don't think I was that tired, so I'm left with the conclusion that this is largely unwatchable.  I'm not sure if I should cut it some slack, since essentially it's a glorified student film.  And one shouldn't expect much in production values or special effects from such a project.  This one has it all - bad sound, bad acting, low-rent effects, cheezy music.  Really, it was never meant for general release, and I assume it only found distribution after the gigantic success of "South Park".

Which is the reason this film has been on the list since before there even was a list - but without the list, I might never have gotten around to watching it at all.  I bought it because of my great respect for the makers of films like "Baseketball" and "Team America: World Police".  I met Trey Parker at the Toronto Film Festival years ago, at one of the first screenings of "Orgazmo".  This was after just a few episode of "South Park" had aired, and it helped that I was able to introduce him to my boss, who he really wanted to meet.  He drew me a picture of Eric Cartman and autographed it, which was very cool.

Oh, yeah, back to the film.  Packer's story is ambitiously told in flashbacks, but you know how I feel about those.  There's just not enough comedy here to overcome the bargain-basement production values.  And what comedy does exist gets killed by bad timing and mumbled lines. The only glimmer of future greatness comes in the songs, especially "Let's Build a Snowman".  It shows a flair for the ridiculousness that later permeated every aspect of "South Park" and "Team America".  But it was made at a time where greatness was still beyond its creator's reach.

Starring Trey Parker (here credited as "Juan Schwartz" for some reason), Matt Stone, Dian Bachar, with a cameo from Stan Brakhage (!).

RATING: 2 out of 10 musical keys

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wagons East

Year 4, Day 242 - 8/29/12 - Movie #1,232

BEFORE: From Chris Farley's next-to-last film to John Candy's next-to-last film.  And the theme of pioneers continues, though this one puts another twist on it.  Linking from "Almost Heroes", character actor Don Lake carries over and appears tonight as well.

THE PLOT: In the 1860's, a ragged bunch of misfit settlers hire a grizzled cowboy to take them on a journey back East.

AFTER: This has a slightly better concept than last night's film - if you believe that the Wild West was a tough place, you've got to figure that there must have been people who couldn't make it work.  So a wagon train headed east should be a vehicle for high comedy.  (Emphasis on "should")

Unfortunately, the result is more slapstick - nut-shots, punch-outs and people falling off horses - and more low comedy.  There are a few attempts at "Airplane"-style wordplay, but they don't really work very well.  If anything, this film might have taken itself too seriously, because it pales by comparison to "Blazing Saddles", a film that didn't take itself seriously at all, and worked with many of the same elements.  Sometimes, tone is everything.

There are a couple of glimmers of inspiration here - the gay librarian-turned-gunslinger was a very interesting character, but he's mostly under-utilized.  The neurotic frontier doctor also showed some promise, but also came off like a poor man's Woody Allen.  And John Candy's wagonmaster - I felt that maybe Candy himself didn't know what to do with the character, since he didn't show the same depth as Candy's characters in films like "Only the Lonely" or even "Uncle Buck". 

I feel like I'm sort of at a low point, these are definitely the type of films that I would expect to have left on the list after almost four full years of working through my collection.  But I'm hoping that some real classic films will perk up the World Tour and help me end the year on more of a high note.

Also starring Richard Lewis, Ellen Greene (last seen in "Talk Radio"), Robert Picardo (last heard in "Total Recall"), John C. McGinley (last seen in "Nixon"), Ethan Phillips (last heard in "The Wild Thornberrys Movie"), Ed Lauter, Charles Rocket (last seen in "Dumb & Dumber").

RATING: 3 out of 10 Fergusons

Almost Heroes

Year 4, Day 241 - 8/28/12 - Movie #1,231

BEFORE: I'm up in Massachusetts today, because my mother's having a medical procedure done to correct her heart rate.  I won't get into the details, because it's her medical business, not mine.  But I'm here standing by for moral support, or in case anyone needs a transfusion or something.  That's how I roll, sometimes I just hang out at the hospital in case anyone needs a transfusion or one of those organs I've got two of. 

Thematically I'm still in colonial America, though I'm headed west with the trailblazers and pioneers.  Linking from "The Crucible", Winona Ryder was also in "The Darwin Awards" with Kevin Dunn (last seen in "Unstoppable").

THE PLOT: A road comedy about two guys whose mission is to beat Lewis and Clark.

AFTER: Well, this was pretty disappointing, and not just because I expect better from a director like Christopher Guest.  This film was made after "This Is Spinal Tap", but before his other mockumentaries like "Best in Show" and "A Mighty Wind", so maybe the best thing I can say about it is that it possibly prompted him to return to that genre, where his improv comedy troupe's humor works a lot better. 
Instead, in the absence of freeform improv, the film resorts to common slapstick.  You can almost guarantee that in every scene someone will fall out of a tree, or get hit on the head with a rock, or just plain fall down drunk.  It's humor of the lowest common denominator.  OK, some of the injuries are a little inventive, but the situations are all just so forced - a man is very protective of his wife/slave girl, and threatens to kill any man that looks at her.  Gee, I wonder if that very same situation will come up later in the film? 

The national parks make for nice scenery, but the special effects, and I use the term very loosely, do not.  The rapids scene in particular - there's not even much of an attempt to hide the fact that the main actors were filmed in fake canoes, nowhere near water, with scenes of rapids matted in behind them.  I'm not saying the actors should have been put in jeopardy on a raging river, but some better solution should have been proposed.

This film wanted to have tone similar to a Mel Brooks film, but no one really captures that tone like the Brooks-meister himself.  Of course there were other explorers, besides Lewis and Clark - but didn't we already know that?  The film wants to put the main characters on a par with the famous ones, but it should have had a title card at the end to tell the audience what "happened" to these characters, why they never became famous. 

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for a silly comedy today - but Mom's surgery went well, so that's something.  Now I've got some time to kill tonight, fortunately I brought tons of stuff to read on the train and at the hospital, plus I've got a tape full of "Storage Wars" episodes, so maybe it's time for me to meet the cast of "Storage Wars: Texas". 

Starring Chris Farley (last seen in "Black Sheep"), Matthew Perry, Eugene Levy (last heard in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Kevin Dunn (last seen in "Unstoppable"), Bokeem Woodbine (last seen in "3000 Miles to Graceland"), Christian Clemenson (last seen in "Legal Eagles"), with cameos from Don Lake and the voice of Harry Shearer (last heard in "The Simpsons Movie").

RATING: 2 out of 10 canoes

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Crucible

Year 4, Day 240 - 8/27/12 - Movie #1,230

BEFORE: Last night's film added a witchcraft-related subplot to the original novel's story, and "ParaNorman" also mentioned witches last week, so it's a perfect opportunity to follow up with this one.  Also like last night's film, this is set in colonial Massachusetts, and that's where I'll be heading after work today (to modern Massachusetts, not the old colony) to visit my parents for a couple of days.

Linking is once again very obvious, as Gary Oldman from "The Scarlet Letter" was also in "Bram Stoker's Dracula" with Winona Ryder (last seen in "Black Swan"), who's featured tonight.

THE PLOT: A 17th-century Salem woman accuses an ex-lover's wife of witchery in an adaptation of the Arthur Miller play.

AFTER: Ah, the 1600's - what a terrible time to be alive.  When science was trumped by religion, and people came to America for a new life, only to be killed by one disease or another.  Problem was, since people didn't understand what a coma or a fever dream was, it was easy for people to believe that evil spirits had taken over someone's body.  

It was also a time when religion and government were apparently intertwined (any attempts at separating them came later), so if the government officially recognized the Providence of the Lord, then by default it also had to recognize the tempations of the Devil.  Although neither entity had any legal standing, real world events could be attributed to the work of one or the other.  Thankfully, we live in modern times, when our legislators are more enlightened, and none of them could possibly make policy decisions that affect the public based on outdated folklore and a woeful misunderstanding about how the human body works, especially with regards to female reproduction.  Because that would be a damn shame.  

Problem #2, once someone was accused of being a witch, or being in league with Satan, it was up to them to offer proof that this was not the case - and how does one prove a negative?  Again, this must have been before the legal system established that the burden of proof was on the state - here everyone seemed to be guilty until proven innocent.  Really, it's best not to second-guess the man upstairs on these things - kill 'em all, and God will sort them out.  

So the accused here are given a choice - confess to being in league with dark forces and live, or deny it and be put to death.  Really not much of a choice at all, but what kind of life would someone have in colonial America after admitting in print that they snuggled with Satan?  I suppose this system was something of an improvement when compared with the Dark Ages, when accused witches were thrown in the river, and if they drowned they were innocent, but if they floated, they were fished out and burned.    

And yet the Puritans seemed to have learned nothing from the days of the Inquisitors - using torture to make people confess sort of sullies the deal.  People will confess to anything to save their necks or stop the pain, and that's how the game gets rigged.   

My understanding of this story, based on a play by Arthur Miller, was that it was written as a thinly-veiled allegory for the McCarthy hearings of the 1950's, when witnesses were given a similar choice.  They could either name people that they new had Communist leanings, or be labeled as a Communist sympathizer themselves, and blacklisted from working in Hollywood.  When you take away this subtext, however, and let the Colonial story stand on its own, I'm not sure it holds up.  

Did the Salem Witch trials go down like this?  Or is this based on the way someone thinks they happened?  Worse yet, did someone use what we KNOW happened in the 1950's to infer what happened in the 1600's?  

Also starring Daniel Day-Lewis (last seen in "In the Name of the Father"), Joan Allen (last seen in "Searching for Bobby Fischer"), Paul Scofield, Bruce Davison (last seen in "Spies Like Us"), George Gaynes, Rob Campbell, with cameos from Jeffrey Jones (last seen in "Stuart Little"), Frances Conroy (last seen in "The Aviator")

RATING: 5 out of 10 Commandments

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Scarlet Letter (1995)

Year 4, Day 239 - 8/26/12 - Movie #1,229

BEFORE: Because "Easy A" name-checked it, specifically citing Demi Moore's fake accent and her affinity for showing skin, this is the most obvious follow-up - I could have gone in a number of different directions next, but this enables me to watch a few films set in colonial America, and then the Old West.  Though this week's films are somewhat location specific, this is NOT the world tour, this week is the lead-in to the world tour, which will start and end in San Francisco and run from Labor Day to mid-November.

Linking from "Easy A", Malcolm McDowell was also in "The Book of Eli" with Gary Oldman, which is where I last saw him. 

THE PLOT:  In 1666 in the Massachusetts Bay colony, Puritans and Algonquian have an uneasy truce. Hester arrives from England, awaiting her husband, she establishes a house. Passion draws her to a young pastor.

AFTER: As referenced in "Easy A", English teachers across this country probably all hate this movie, and not just because kids are watching it instead of reading the book.  No, it's because the movie radically changed the story, most notably the last few plot points and the ultimate fate of the main characters.  How does a movie studio get away with something like that?  Do they have a pitch meeting where they briefly consider the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and then realize that a realistic but downbeat ending won't put asses in the theater seats?  Turns out there's no governing body over film adaptations, so if you want to film a version of "Hamlet" where no one dies, and Hamlet marries Ophelia, who's to stop you?

I've reviewed the original plot summary on Wikipedia to refresh my memory, and though this is not meant as a justification for changing it, it does seem rather unfilmable.  For starters, there is no narrative of Hester's relationship with Arthur Dimmesdale - the story starts after the birth of her daughter, and we're left to imagine the details of how the two lovers came together.  The film does fill in the story gaps by starting with Hester's arrival in America, and proceeding from there.  It's a much better starting point for a story, though starting at her trial is somewhat splashier.

There are other major differences between the book and this movie, but I think the main themes about sin and guilt are essentially the same.  But I'm not sure if Hawthorne meant to call out the colonists for their hypocrisies the way the film does.  Also, one of the added subplots really pays off at the end, when all hope seems lost and there's no way out for our heroes - an amazing case of "Deus ex Machina" saves the day. Jeez, they might as well have had a freak snowstorm roll into town, sending everyone back to their homes and quieting the angry mob.

The film made me wish I could take high-school history class again, because I think as an adult I'd have a different view, and be able to ask some tougher questions.  Like, isn't it strange that the colonists who fled religious persecution in Europe didn't seem to extend religious freedom to others in America?  I think it's more correct to say that the Puritans were kicked out of Europe because they were such prudes, and nobody there wanted to deal with them.

The concept of freedom itself seemed a little skewed in the colonies - you could practice any religion you wanted, as long as it was Christian.  And people came to the colonies to be free - free to own property and slaves.  And then we've got the whole Native American issue to deal with, as the colonists were free to take land away from the people who were already here.  They apparently didn't notice these little inconsistencies - maybe irony wasn't invented until the 18th century or something.

The colonists came to America to establish a "New Jerusalem" - but considering that city's been at the center of religious conflict for the last 2,000 years, maybe they should have aimed a little higher.  Instead we've got a country today where we're supposed to have a separation of church and state, yet we can't have any discussion on any political issue where religious nuts haven't taken over the conversation. If you think anything's changed since the 1600's, just attend an abortion rally - pro or con, you'll get an angry mob either way.

NITPICK POINT: How come when Hester takes a bath, her tub is the size of a small barrel, with the water coming up to her ankles, forcing her to stand up in it - but when her slave takes a bath, she's able to submerge her whole body in the water?  I suppose I know WHY this happens, but I just don't see HOW.

Also starring Demi Moore (last seen in "The Juror"), Robert Duvall (last seen in "The Road"), Joan Plowright (last seen in "Avalon"), Robert Prosky (last seen in "Thief"), Roy Dotrice.

RATING: 4 out of 10 sermons