Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Passion of the Christ

Year 9, Day 105 - 4/15/17 - Movie #2,599

BEFORE: It would have been incredibly easy to just drop in another 5 Richard Burton films here, like "The Sandpiper" and "The Night of the Iguana", but those wouldn't acknowledge the Easter story, which I'm finally going to reference in my ninth year of doing this...whatever this is.  I can get back to Richard Burton in a couple of days, instead I'm going to invoke the rule change I initiated back at the start of this year, which is to allow myself to link between two films that feature the same character, and for my purposes, I'm counting Jesus as a character.  (Peter, Judas and Pontius Pilate also carry over...)

I've (deliberately?) avoided this film for quite some time, because of the publicity, reception and/or scandals that surrounded it when it was released, but enough time has passed that I finally decided I should give it a go and see what all the fuss was about.  Patton Oswalt even joked about it in one of his stand-up specials, pointing out that making a film about Jesus on his last day seemed a bit like making a biopic about Albert Einstein, but choosing to focus only on some week when he had the stomach flu and just spent all his time in bed or on the toilet.  Now at least I'll see how close this analogy is.

THE PLOT: Depicts the final twelve hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, on the day of his crucifixion in Jerusalem.

AFTER: This film was very difficult for me to watch, and not just because all the dialogue was in Aramaic with English subtitles.  It's because it brings me back in touch with the story of Jesus and all the mythology around it, which is something that I've tried to distance myself from over the last thirty years, since I stopped drinking the Catholic Kool-Aid.  I was raised in a very Catholic family (the son of the parish deacon and the organist) and did my time as an altar boy until aging out of the program - went through Communion and Confirmation and even took the Pre-cana course the first time I got married, even though it was to a Presbyterian.  When I got divorced I was told that if I ever wanted to get back into the church I'd have to seek an annulment, but decided at that point that if the Church didn't want me as I was, then it was time for us to part ways.

In college I studied a bunch of Greek mythology, which was a bit like comparative religion, I got to see where the early stuff came from, and why it was attractive to ancient humans.  Over time I came to regard the Bible's God on the same level as Santa Claus - it's a great story that helps tell people how to behave, but when I start thinking about the mechanics of it, like, where is heaven and how do people's souls get there, and if you lose an arm in life, do they give it back to you with your wings and harp, well the whole system starts to unravel.  While I'm not a full-on atheist, I think of myself as an agnostic - I don't want to believe in nothing, but if there's a higher power in the universe, I admit it's probably beyond any human power to understand or explain.

I acknowledge that many people DO believe in Jesus (or Buddha, or Mohammed...) as being the son of God, or god-like, or a Demi-god, and once you believe in the story, then you believe in the water turning into wine, the loaves and the fishes, the healing of the sick, and the walking on the water.  But  my rational brain also believes in the human's power to tell stories and exaggerate things over time, and when I combine this with the fact that the Gospels were written decades or even centuries after any real events, well, it's caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about what might have really gone down, before being blown out of proportion.

I do believe that there was a Jesus, or Jeshua, but exactly who he was - prophet, rebel, teacher - is what I regard as a sticking point.  Maybe he was just a guy who heard voices in his head, because we know there are a lot of people like that - and he felt it was the voice of God.  Maybe Jesus said that he was the "Son of God" as a way of saying that we are ALL sons of God - I don't know, I wasn't there.  And anyone who says that they KNOW what he meant is a damn liar, because they weren't there either, and it's all hearsay or exaggeration.  And you can't just quote the Gospel verses to me as proof, because of the storytelling factor mentioned above.  For the believers, it's a circular argument - how do we know Jesus did what he did in the Bible?  "Because the Bible tells us so."  Faulty logic.   I mean, don't stop believin' if that's what gets you through the day, but at the same time, don't sell me a line of B.S. either.

So I rationalize that there may have been a Jesus, and he may have preached some things that got him in trouble with the Pharisees, and he might have overturned some tables at the temple and that got him in trouble with the Romans.  It probably didn't help him that there were all sort of prophesies about the Messiah, and he seemed to fit the profile.  So let's say that he was crucified, for the sake of argument, but you know what?  So were a lot of people back then - what made this one special, what turned him into a movement that changed people's lives, and more importantly, their calendars?

Here's where this film and I seem to be on the same page, because they managed to keep the miracle-working (magic tricks) down to a minimum, and tried to focus on the mechanics of the crucifixion, the stuff that seems believable, like how difficult it would have been to drag a cross through the streets of Jerusalem, and how gruesome the nailing of flesh to wood would have been.  It's torture porn, sure, but at least it's honest in its brutality.  But there's the irony for Catholics, in that the crucifixion got spun into a positive event, one that absolved the sins of all believers, so that's why it's called "Good" Friday instead of "Terrible Gruesome" Friday.

The two concessions to portraying "miracles" take place at the beginning, when Jesus restores the ear of a Roman soldier in the garden of Gethsemane (I'd forgotten about that bit...) and at the end (umm, no spoilers, but it doesn't end well for J.C.) when the skies darken and the earth splits open - because God apparently had a flair for the dramatic as well as a terrible sense of timing.  You see, God, the time to express your dissatisfaction with the actions of humans is BEFORE they do something, not after...

But it's ridiculous, right?  To look at a natural event, like an earthquake or an eclipse, and think, "Boy, God sure is angry!"  That's the way ancient people thought, when they didn't understand the weather and the workings of the solar system, and aren't we more advanced than that now?  So even if you believe that there was an earthquake and/or a darkening of the sky when Jesus died, there's a perfectly natural explanation that doesn't involve him being divine.  I mean, if we allow this plot point then we also have to give credence to those fundamentalist preachers who blamed Hurricane Katrina on all the gay fornication and sinning that took place in New Orleans, and I just won't do that.

If you think about it, there could have been a hundred or so prophet crucifixions going on every week during the Roman occupation of Judea, so if an earthquake were to take place, there's a good chance that it would happen during a random crucifixion, which would then lead people to the conclusion that THIS guy must have been someone special.  I'm sorry if that sounds like heresy to you, but to me it's just logic.

Since this is a story that's been told before in films, the approach here seems to have two things going for it to make it unique - focus and juxtaposition.  But those two forces are at odds with each other, because if you focus on just 12 hours in Jesus' story, then you ignore the other important things that happened to him.  But juxtaposing key moments from his past with pieces of the Passion story, while being interesting, also serves to take away from the focus.  And in the end you can't have it both ways - because with so many flashbacks to the Last Supper, Jesus as a child, Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount, all of that adds to the story, but dilutes the concentration at the same time.

But OK, I made it through this very graphic crucifixion film, the one that seemed to let Pontius Pilate off the hook, and blamed the Jews instead.  Can I have some egg- and bunny-shaped chocolate now?

Starring Jim Caviezel (last seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo"), Maia Morgenstern, Monica Bellucci (last seen in "Spectre"), Francesco De Vito, Christo Jivkov, Mattia Sbragia, Luca Lionello, Jarreth Merz, Toni Bertorelli, Hristo Shopov, Rosalinda Celentano, Fabio Sartor, Luca De Dominicis, Pietro Sarubbi, Giovanni Capalbo, Giacinto Ferro, Aleksander Mincer.

RATING: 5 out of 10 temple guards

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Robe

Year 9, Day 104 - 4/14/17 - Movie #2,598

BEFORE: This will really be my first crack at an Easter chain - not the secular Easter, like with bunnies delivering baskets of chocolate, because I watched "Hop" a few years ago (and TCM's doing the same tomorrow, by running a bunch of rabbit-themed films like "Harvey") but I'm talking about the old school, religious Easter.  But I did watch "Exodus: Gods & Kings" last year, which was a Passover film, so it's equal time this year, with Richard Burton carrying over from "The Taming of the Shrew".

I was indoctrinated into the Catholic religion at a young age, and for the first 16-17 years of my life, I didn't even question it, that was reality, Jesus was the son of God and he walked the Earth and performed miracles.  Then when I went to college I stopped going to church regularly, and started to think for myself.  There were a lot of things about the Jesus story that just didn't add up, and slowly I transitioned out of the faith, to the extent that I could.  I really empathize with the people who have left Scientology, because it's only slightly harder to leave Catholicism, at least if you have parents like mine.  But I digress.

I'll probably get more into the myth of Jesus vs. my take on the reality of Jesus this weekend, but Easter to me has generally just become an excuse to eat egg-shaped chocolates.  But this year I'll be doing something special for today, Good Friday - I've got this poster of Da Vinci's famous "Last Supper" that I've had for years, and I finally bought a frame to hang it in the living room.  Of course, it's not just the "Last Supper", it's sort of a mash-up with the famous image of those dogs playing poker, so it's Jesus and his disciples playing poker.  That should give you some idea about my attitude toward religion these days.  So this weekend should be fun...

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Cleopatra" (Movie #2,544)

THE PLOT: In 1st Century Judea, Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio is ordered to crucify Jesus of Nazareth but is tormented by his guilty conscience afterwards.

AFTER: Marcellus Gallio is a fictional character of course - and we learn what we need to know about him in the first scene, where he encounters his childhood love at a slave auction, and after unsuccessfully bidding on a pair of female twins, he instead purchases a burly male slave named Demetrius - just to stick it to his rival, Caligula (who's portrayed very fey, so we can imagine why Caligula wanted that male slave...).  Marcellus then frees Demetrius, but Demetrius feels indebted to him, so shows up to work at the Gallio estate anyway.  (Note to the author, you can't have it both ways, Marcellus just can't be a benevolent slave owner.  That's not a thing.)

His path to becoming a Christian puts him in touch with two Roman emperors (Tiberius and Caligula) and then later he meets Judas and Peter, so this becomes a bit like Forrest Gump living through the New Testament. But notably he never meets the resurrected Jesus himself, probably because that would be genuine proof of that story, and proof denies faith, so that would make his conversion less powerful. After touching Jesus' robe right after the crucifixion, Gallio is beseiged by guilt, to the point of madness, and the "men of science" in Rome suggest that he return to touch the robe again, because only that can undo the "bewitching" that it's done to him. 

Right, sure, he finds the exact slave in all of Judea, and Demetrius still has Jesus's robe - this reminds me of the story of the "True Cross", when Emperor Constantine's mother, now known as Saint Helena, went on a personal crusade to the Holy Land to recover the cross that Jesus was crucified on, even though she started looking about three hundred years later.  The locals probably had a wonderful time, and racked up quite an expense account, dragging her all over town before bringing her to some place where they'd buried three big pieces of wood the week before.  And after finding these three "crosses", what sort of testing did they perform to figure out which one Jesus was hung on?  A sick person "felt better" when she held it - that's hardly scientific.  What a bunch of bunk.  Helena supposedly found Jesus' tunic, too, and I bet she had to pay a pretty penny to get it.  How hard could it have been to phony up some religious relics?

The author of "The Robe" similarly chose to attribute superhuman powers to Jesus' clothing, after the fact - like it was Superman's cape or something.  It seems he set out to answer a question that absolutely nobody was asking.  People don't read the Gospels and then say, "But wait, what happened to the clothes Jesus was wearing?  They never told us!"  Because that would mean they missed the point of the story.  I know, there's a passage that says that Roman soldiers cast lots to divide up Jesus' clothing, but that never really made sense, either.  Why would these soldiers, who dressed pretty well, made a nice living for themselves, one assumes, be interested in a dead man's bloody clothes?

Even worse is this mistaken belief that as soon as Jesus died, whether it was the first or the second time (and I've got my own thoughts on that, which I'll probably relate over the weekend...) everything was different.  That's not the case at all - except for the odd instantaneous conversion, it was really business as usual for the Roman Empire.  It took hundreds of years for Christianity to gain any kind of foothold as a respectable religion, and the Roman Empire was particularly resistant, as they had plenty of Gods of their own (which they borrowed from Greece) and no need of a new one.

Also, it's ridiculous to think that the Roman tribune who oversaw Jesus' crucifixion (assuming it went down like the Bible says, which is debatable...) would suddenly be wracked with guilt and seek out the Robe as a cure for his madness.  He was trained as a soldier, and taught to regard the Jews as slaves or enemies, and he probably witnessed a few dozen crucifixions every week - that was just the way things were being done.  "Rebel prophet" was a real occupation back then, and the Romans probably regarded them the way our society does "drug kingpin" or "ISIS terrorist".

I was reading about this ex-Navy seal who claims he was the one that shot Osama Bin Laden as part of that raid on Abbottabad back in 2011.  He's got no remorse for what happened, why would he? Because it's what he was trained to do - infiltrate, dispatch and then return.  The mission clearly stated that this man was an enemy combatant who needed to be killed - now, if this soldier were suddenly to be wracked with guilt for putting a bullet in Bin Laden's head, and convert to Islam as a sign of his remorse, it would make about as much sense as Marcellus Gallio becoming a Christian.  In other words, it's extremely unlikely to happen - for "The Robe" it's a clear case of revisionist history. 

This film attempts to tell the big story of the Passion and its aftermath by concentrating on a small piece of it, but in the end, that just isn't possible, not without straining the bounds of believability.  It's like a footnote to the New Testament, but as a work of fiction, it just ends up casting more doubt on the believability of the original story.  But maybe that's just me, your mileage may vary.

Also starring Jean Simmons (last seen in "Hamlet" (1948)), Victor Mature, Michael Rennie, Jay Robinson (last seen in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"), Ernest Thesiger (last seen in "Henry V"), Dean Jagger (last seen in "Elmer Gantry"), Torin Thatcher (last seen in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro"), Richard Boone (last seen in "Ocean's 11"), Betta St. John, Jeff Morrow, Dawn Addams, Leon Askin, Michael Ansara (last seen in "Julius Caesar"), Helen Beverly, Sally Corner (last seen in "Harvey"), Rosalind Ivan, Jay Novello, Frank Pulaski, Pamela Robinson.

RATING: 3 out of 10 palm fronds

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Taming of the Shrew (1967)

Year 9, Day 103 - 4/13/17 - Movie #2,597

BEFORE: Back in February, I worked in the movie "Cleopatra" between a Liz Taylor movie ("The Flinstones") and a Richard Burton movie ("1984") and boy, did I think I was being clever.  But then Turner Classic Movies went ahead and made Richard Burton their "Artist of the Month" for March, and I was swamped with many more of his films, some made with Liz and some without.  I was suddenly a bit regretful that I hadn't saved "Cleopatra", because I could have possibly assembled a 10-film chain with Richard Burton, and now that's not going to happen.

I can't even watch the remaining 8 together, because this one's going to provide the much-needed outro link from "Start the Revolution Without Me", with Victor Spinetti carrying over, and it also sets up the Easter-themed chain, which starts tomorrow.  (Oddly, a Richard Burton film is also going to be the outro from the Easter chain, but it's a one-off.). So, three Richard Burton films on the docket this week, why not 8?  Well, even though there must be a way to work them all in this week, if I did it now then I wouldn't hit Easter on time, and if I did it after Easter, then I wouldn't hit my Mother's Day film on time.

As much as it pains me to split them up, it's three Richard Burton films this week, and then the other five will have to come later, possibly next February since they're all sort of relationship-y.  Those are the breaks.  I try to make the best decisions that I can at all times, to somehow justify both the actor linking and a respect for the calendar.

THE PLOT: Brutish, fortune-hunting scoundrel Petruchio tames his wealthy, shrewish wife, Katharina.

AFTER: Hey, teens, I'm back to get you in trouble with...I mean, to help you impress your English teachers...

I bet this is one of the toughest Shakespeare plays to stage for a modern audience, because it automatically snaps us back to the time it represents, where women had the legal standing of being the property of their husbands, without being able to vote or be employed (except housework, of course) and basically were second-class citizens all around.  Oh, sure, once in a while one would get lucky and be born into a royal family and maybe have a chance of being queen, but that would only be after all the male members of that family had their turn on the throne.  And don't get me started on dowries, which were basically payoffs from the groom's father to make sure that their daughters would have husbands and the family line would continue.

On second thought, let's talk about dowries, because they figure prominently here.  Petruchio's main motivation in wooing Katharina, "The Shrew", is probably largely affected by her huge dowry.  Her father is adamant that he won't allow his younger daughter, Bianca, to get married until the older one is married - but it seems that Katharina's temperament won't allow it.  "Shrew" was apparently 16th Century code for "raging bitch".  What other possible motivation could Petruchio have, other than the money?  Friendship or camaraderie, I suppose, if he's willing to "take one for the team" so some other man can wed Bianca and be happy - or maybe he's interested in the extra challenge involved?

(I admit I'm kind of flying blind here, most of what I know about "The Taming of the Shrew" comes from that time that the TV show "Moonlighting" did a parody episode of it...but I think that was mostly an excuse to put Cybill Shepherd in an Elizabethan gown to show off her cleavage...)

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, feminism.  Which didn't even exist back then, so Petruchio is allowed to do whatever he wants to his wife, which includes psychological torture, depriving her of food and sleep, all in the interests of "taming" her.  What is she supposed to be, Billy Shakes, a dog?  Some kind of wild animal?  Because that's who you "tame", right?  So a strong woman who expresses her own opinions and has a bit of an attitude, we just can't have that, right?  It would be bad for society if women had even just a little taste of power or the ability to express an opinion.  Give me a break.

Maybe I'm being too harsh here, because perhaps it was all played for comic effect.  Nobody dies here, so it can't be a Shakespearean tragedy, so by default it's one of his comedies.  The director here seemed to pick up on that, because he went quite slapstick-y with it all, having Petruchio dumping the trays of food on the floor because they weren't cooked well enough for his wife, and then having Liz Taylor take a few pratfalls into giant rain puddles when they're traveling to his castle.  Hey, if I wanted to watch Liz Taylor and Richard Burton argue for two hours, I'd rewatch "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf", right?

But there's more to the story, it turns out, and Old Willy S. must have been in one of his "mistaken identity" trends, because there's quite a few instances of people disguising themselves and pretending to be who they're not.  Lucentio wants to get close to Bianca to woo her, so he disguises himself as a Latin teacher, and forces his manservant to masquerade as Lucentio.  (Wouldn't it have been easier to make the manservant pretend to be the teacher, and then Lucentio could just be himself?  Just sayin'.) Petruchio's friend, Hortensio, has a similar idea, and disguises himself as a music tutor, just so he can get close to Bianca, too.  But why are any of these disguises necessary, if they've also got the plan of Petruchio wooing Katharina - are the teacher masquerades a back-up plan, or is it that the horny young men can't wait another week for Bianca to be eligible?

Then once Petruchio marries Katharina, and Bianca is able to be courted, the pretenses continue - even when Lucentio is clear to woo Bianca, and Bianca's father wants to talk about the dowry, Lucentio (still the manservant in disguise, I think...) recruits a passerby to play the role of his father in the dowry discussion, which would only be a problem if Lucentio's real father were to show up in Padua.  Umm, guess what....

Did Lucentio even have an end-game?  What was he going to do when he could no longer keep up the disguises and the deceptions?  At some point, the whole thing's going to fall apart like a house of cards, you've got to figure.  But Lucentio elopes with Bianca, and reveals all before his real father can be thrown in jail for impersonating...umm, himself?  Ha ha, all is forgiven, because we all know that the strict fathers of the 16th Century also had quite a sense of humor about things.

But it's at the wedding feast for Lucentio and Bianca that Petruchio, Lucentio and Hortensio (who somehow married a rich widow very suddenly, off stage...) decide to test which of them has more control over their new wife by summoning them, via servant, from the other room.  The ultimate message - which admittedly, is a bit of a tough sell in the 21st century - seems to be "It's better for a woman to obey her husband at all costs, even if he's clearly wrong, because that's just easier for everyone, and it will enable him to win bar bets."  Yeah, nice play there, Shakespeare.

Some, however, seem to interpret the ending of this film as an ironic show of female power, because of how quickly Katharina storms out of the ballroom after her husband wins his bet.  But I maintain that she DID come when he asked her to, and she even dragged those other two wives with her, which sure seems like she believes that any wife SHOULD come when her husband calls her.  I heard that they performed an all-female version of this play last year in Central Park, and I'm kind of intrigued by that.  At least it would seem to be more in tune with the sexual politics of THIS century.  Considering that in Shakespeare's time, even the female roles were played by men, it at least seems fair to do it the other way.

Also starring Richard Burton (last seen in "1984"), Elizabeth Taylor (last seen in "The Flintstones"), Cyril Cusack (also last seen in "1984"), Michael Hordern (last seen in "Cleopatra"), Michael York, Alfred Lynch, Alan Webb (last seen in "King Lear"), Natasha Pyne, Mark Dignam (last seen in "Tom Jones"), Roy Holder (last seen in "Pride & Prejudice"), Vernon Dobtcheff (last seen in "The Spy Who Loved Me"), Bice Valori.

RATING: 4 out of 10 piles of feathers

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Start the Revolution Without Me

Year 9, Day 102 - 4/12/17 - Movie #2,596

BEFORE: From the Old West, we're going to jump into the WABAC machine and go back further, to another turbulent time, the French Revolution tonight.  It's really sneaky of me to use actors like Donald Sutherland, who's had a very long career, to toggle between a chain of recent films and go back to one from the 1970's, which will help set me up for my Easter films.  This is another take on the "actors playing two roles in the same film", as I saw last week in "Legend" and last month in "Now You See Me 2".  The conceit here is that two sets of twins got scrambled together, creating two very different pairs of brothers that look exactly the same.

THE PLOT: Two mismatched sets of identical twins - one aristocrat, one peasant - mistakenly exchange identities on the eve of the French Revolution.

AFTER: It doesn't really matter which set of twins was "supposed" to be aristocrat (my guess would be on the Sutherland twins, because he's better at acting all stuck-up, plus the aristocratic father was a very tall man...) because this is really a study in nature vs. nurture.  The sets get mixed up at the doctor's office, and the doctor intentionally scrambles the babies, because this way "we'll at least be HALF right...".  Yeah, take away that doctor's license - but it's true, they had no DNA testing back then, so if you brought home the wrong baby from the hospital, that was now YOUR baby to raise.

So the pair of brothers that are raised in poverty end up drafted into the cause of the Revolution as cannon fodder, and the pair of brothers that are raised wealthy in Corsica get dragged into the fight to STOP the revolutionaries, and are promised half of France if they succeed.   They should know, however, that no king ever gives up half of his kingdom, because he wouldn't really stay a king of anything for very long if he carved up his territory like that.  No worries, they come running because they figure if they can get half of France, then with a little more effort, they can get the whole thing.  Philippe dreams of being king of France, while his brother Pierre just wants to be queen, if you know what I mean.

Naturally, everything goes wrong as the Revolution approaches - Philippe and Pierre come to town disguised as commoners, arriving on the same boat that lowly Claude and Charles have been told to attack, and in the confusion, the two pairs essentially switch places.  The rich, connected De Sisi brothers fight so well that they are arrested and thrown in jail, while the peasant Coupe brothers flee the scene in the carriage that was supposed to pick up the rich ones, so they're taken to serve the king.

Unfortunately, the whole Revolution thing seems to get forgotten once the peasant brothers get a taste of the luxury life in the palace, and the film devolves into a sort of bedroom farce instead, with a lot of hidden passages and secret walls allowing access to various rooms, with the queen able to command all of the soldiers by promising them sexual favors, and making King Louis dress up in a lot of silly costumes.  It's hard to keep track of whether they're working for the Duke, or in conflict with him, and then the whole thing builds up to that inevitable moment when the rich twins escape from jail, and the two pairs of twins finally meet -

And that's where the film stops dead, the story just sort of ends without anything being resolved.  Clearly it seems like the writers didn't have an endgame planned, because when you mash up elements of "A Tale of Two Cities", "The Corsican Brothers" and "The Man in the Iron Mask", then how do you even pick an appropriate ending?  Someone here didn't even bother to try, because the film cuts back to the narrator, and then we see the actors try to resolve things, not the characters.  What a cop-out.

Also starring Gene Wilder (last seen in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex"), Hugh Griffith (last seen in "How to Steal a Million"), Jack MacGowran (last seen in "King Lear"), Billie Whitelaw (last seen in "Frenzy"), Victor Spinetti, Ewa Aulin, Helen Fraser, Murray Melvin (last seen in "Alfie"), Rosalind Knight, Maxwell Shaw, Graham Stark, and Orson Welles (last seen in "Macbeth").

RATING: 3 out of 10 suits of armor

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Forsaken (2015)

Year 9, Day 101 - 4/11/17 - Movie #2,595

BEFORE: I suppose "The Revenant" really counts as a Western, because it took place in the American territories, but it was a bit closer to colonial times, before there were really cowboys - though there were Native Americans, obviously.  So here's another Western, one that I put on the same DVD as "The Revenant", because that film was long and this one was short, and they were made in the same year, 2015, though one got a LOT more attention than the other one.  And to make me happy, they happen to share two actors - Christopher Rosamond and Chris Ippolito carry over.

THE PLOT: An embittered gunslinger attempts to make amends with his estranged father while their community is besieged by ruthless land-grabbers.

AFTER: You usually know where you stand with a Western, it's generally pretty easy to know who to root for, even if they're not wearing white hats.  Or maybe this one just looks simple compared with "The Revenant" - heck, what wouldn't look simple compared to "The Revenant", with its fur trappers, French fur trappers, trackers, helpful Indians, deadly Indians, and a deadlier bear.  All you need to know about "Forsaken" is that the bad guys are forcing people to sell their land.  They never say what they want it for, but I've seen enough Westerns to know that this probably means the railroad's coming to town soon.

Kiefer Sutherland, son of Donald, plays John Henry Clayton, son of Rev. William Clayton, conveniently played by his father, Donald.  Well, sure, and they already look like father and son, right? John Henry finally returns home after a notorious career as a gunslinger to find that his mother is dead, and his father's still as crotchety as ever.  The woman he loved has married another man, and then we've got these people buying up all the farms, whether the people want to sell them or not.  (Those who don't want to sell seem to end up shot dead.)  So John Henry's not really having a good week, though I guess it could be worse if he also got mauled by a bear.

He's given up his quick-draw gun-toting, which would only be a problem if the bad guys kept tormenting him and his father.  But we know in Westerns you can only push a man so far before he fights back, so we spend most of this comparatively short feature waiting for him to pick up his gun and join the fight.  Turns out he's rather good at it, killing only the bad people, even though it draws him back to a life on the run, which he thought he'd put behind him.  But hey, find what you're good at, and if you enjoy it, then it's really not work, right?

Reportedly, the first cut of this film was over three hours long, and it got trimmed back to about 90 minutes.  I think that was a good call, because they reduced the role of a lot of minor characters to just focus on the father-son relationship.  And because the father's a preacher and the son's a former killer, well this raises a lot of questions about the existence of God and the nature of good and evil.  Like, when is it OK to fight back?  Some would say that "an eye for an eye" leaves the whole world blind, but The Bible would have people turning the other cheek, and that's only good if you like being hit twice.  Somewhere in between, maybe there's a reasonable medium.

I'm reminded of that old Meat Loaf/Jim Steinman song, "Rock 'N Roll Dreams Come Through", that went: "You can't run away forever, but there's nothing wrong with getting a good head start."  

Also starring Kiefer Sutherland (last seen in "Zoolander 2"), Donald Sutherland (last seen in a cameo in "Billion Dollar Brain"), Demi Moore (last seen in "About Last Night..."), Brian Cox (last seen in "Pixels"), Aaron Poole, Michael Wincott (last seen in "The Count of Monte Cristo"), Greg Ellis (last seen in "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"), Siobhan Williams, Dylan Smith, Landon Liboiron, Wesley Morgan (last seen in "Kick-Ass 2"), Michael Therriault (last seen in "Total Recall" (2012)).

RATING: 5 out of 10 tree stumps

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Revenant

Year 9, Day 100 - 4/10/17 - Movie #2,594

BEFORE: I just added two films to the watchlist - usually no big deal, because I'm always adding films to the list, about as quickly as I remove them - but this time it was the film "Snow White and the Huntsman" and its sequel, "The Huntsman: Winter War", both of which star Charlize Theron (who I just watched in "Mad Max: Fury Road") and Chris Hemsworth (who I just watched in "Doctor Strange", "Blackhat" and "In the Heart of the Sea").  In addition to being enormously frustrating that I just freakin' cleared both of these actors, it makes me feel like I might have missed something somehow, as if had I only added these two films a week earlier (not even possible, considering when the first one aired) then my linking would have been "better" or more elegant, somehow.  But I can't change the chain now, not when it's arranged to get me to Easter and Mother's Day in the right number of steps.  My sole consolation is that I'll want to watch the new "Thor: Ragnarok" film when it gets released in November, and maybe I'll need these films to link to it, or away from it?  Arrgh, I hate not knowing, because maintaining the chain is really a frustrating, inexact science.

Tom Hardy carries over for his third film in a row (and last in my current chain).  I'm finally getting to some of the biggest films from 2015 that probably came on to my list during 2016 - it's just taken me this long to find the best way to link to them.  I pretty much put all the films I didn't get to last year together, review all the cast lists, and then link them as best as I can.  I could theoretically get to all of them in calendar 2017, if only I could stop adding more.

THE PLOT: A frontiersman on a fur trading expedition in the 1820's fights for survival after being mauled by a bear and left for dead by members of his own hunting team.

AFTER: Man, it was something of a stressful weekend, what with films about British gangsters and Australian gang lords, and everybody beating each other up or blowing up their own vehicles - and to cap it all off, here comes "The Revenant", with another very stressful film. Leo DiCaprio plays a man who has a really bad day, and this is followed by an incredibly terrible week (month?) of both recovery and revenge.  I said after watching the movie "Wild" that I'm glad that I don't go camping any more, I'm doubly glad that

At least this time there was plenty of exposition, I didn't have to guess much at what was taking place, like I did with "Mad Max: Fury Road".  See, screenwriter of "Fury Road", there are these things called characters, and they can talk to each other about what's taking place, and this also tells the audience watching the film what's going on.  It's a generally accepted movie technique, maybe give it a try?  I mean, don't be blatant about it, but slip a few things in there every once in a while, like "Hey, did you hear about Immortan Joe?"  "Yeah, someone stole his breeding wives and drove off in a truck!"  You get the idea.

But yes, this is the film where DiCaprio's character gets attacked by a bear.  I forget whether it was a CGI bear, or a trained bear, or if DiCaprio was so method that he insisted on getting injured by a real, untrained bear.  Hey, if you want the Oscar, you have to be prepared to work for it.  OK, I'm guessing that last method just can't be used, I'll do some research later about whether the bear was real or CGI.

With DiCaprio spending so much time either healing, sleeping or in a coma-like state, it's hard for me to grasp the "acting" part of this performance.  He also doesn't say very much, partially due to his injuries, and then when he recovers, it's difficult for his character to speak - so again, where's the "acting" part?  It seems like the Oscar voters rewarded him for being on a difficult shoot, rather than doing the things that are normally associated with great acting, like saying lines well, interacting with other characters, displaying emotions, etc.  So I'm at a bit of a loss to understand the awards process here, like I was scratching my head when they gave it to Eddie Redmayne for basically sitting in a wheelchair and not moving when he played Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything".

I also wonder about the veracity of the original story, the story of the real Hugh Glass - because they did enhance his story here, by giving him a dead wife and a living son.  How else did they change his story?  For that matter, how true is his original account, of surviving the bear attack and the other things that befell him in the woods, if he was by himself most of the time?  Did his tale grow taller over time, as he told it again and again?  How can we know if any of it is true?  And the ending here was so ambiguous that I had to read the plot on Wikipedia just to find out if Glass lived past his ordeal or not.

But I can see how masterful the directing and cinematography is here - particularly the long tracking shot through the battlefield, which keeps focusing on different participants.  It's very reminiscent of those long tracking shots through the backstage of the theater in "Birdman", from the same director.  It's wild, the director Alejandor Inarritu wanted to make "The Revenant" first, but DiCaprio was busy filming "The Wolf of Wall Street", so he waited for him to be available, and while waiting, he directed the film "Birdman", a little placeholder film on his schedule that ended up winning "Best Picture".

Also starring Leonardo DiCaprio (last seen in "The Wolf of Wall Street"), Domhnall Gleeson (last seen in "Brooklyn"), Will Poulter (last seen in "We're the Millers"), Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson (last seen in "Legend"), Kristoffer Joner, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard (last seen in "The Scarlet Letter"), Melaw Nakehk'o, Fabrice Adde, Arthur RedCloud, Christopher Rosamond, Robert Moloney (last seen in "The Age of Adaline"), Lukas Haas (last seen in "Jobs"), Brendan Fletcher, McCaleb Burnett, Tyson Wood, Grace Dove, Chris Ippolito.

RATING: 7 out of 10 bison livers

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Mad Max: Fury Road

Year 9, Day 99 - 4/9/17 - Movie #2,593

BEFORE: Congratulations if you predicted where I was going with the Tom Hardy link.  I've had this one on the books for a while - but I had a chance to link out of "X-Men: Apocalypse" to it via Nicholas Hoult last year, but then the plan changed, so it was relegated down to the unsinkable portion of the watchlist for a while, but then along came two other Tom Hardy movies to rescue it, allowing me to sandwich it in-between them.  If it wasn't going to be Tom Hardy, it could have been Charlize Theron I suppose, but beyond that, the chances weren't good, with a largely Australian cast.

Just 7 days until Easter, and a future-desolation picture like this seems about as far as one can get from the topic of the Bible, but there is a way there, back through time, illogically as it sounds, that path goes through the Old West, the French Revolution and Shakespeare.  That will all make sense by the time I get to Movie #2,600.

FOLLOW-UP TO: "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" (Movie #487)

THE PLOT: A woman rebels against a tyrannical ruler in post-apocalyptic Australia, in search of her homeland with the help of a group of female prisoners, a psychotic worshipper and a drifter named Max.

AFTER: First off, this film is action-packed, which I guess is something you want out of an action movie, but I guess I would have preferred a little bit more exposition, they didn't really explain everything that was going on in this future-world.  And it's been a LONG time since "Beyond Thunderdome", was there something I was expected to remember?  I couldn't wait for the film to end so I could read the whole plot on Wikipedia to figure out what happened.

Most of the action also seems to be repeated from the first two "Mad Max" films, especially "The Road Warrior", which was also mainly about getting a tanker truck past a large gang of marauders, who all have these souped-up patchwork car/tank vehicles, and are willing to do anything to stop the truck.  In this film, that seems to include the drivers blowing themselves up, or driving into or under the truck, sacrificing themselves for the cause.  The drivers mostly seem to be these sickly albino guys, who might be the descendants of their leader, Immortan Joe - again, so much is unclear so I'm speculating.

The title character doesn't fare so well for the first half of the film - he's drafted into being a "blood bag", a constant blood donor for a sick albino named Nux, and then when the truck chase starts, Nux has to bring him along in his car/tank just to be supplied with fresh blood.  But then, of course you know that once Max gets dragged into the fight, he's going to do whatever he can to end it, once he sorts out which side he wants to be on.

There's also a lot of that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" stuff, as character switch allegiances, based on which side they think can offer them the best deal in the end.  Because this is the outback after the Apocalypse, it's not just water that's a precious commodity, it's also blood and other things I won't mention for fear of spoilers.  But life itself is a valuable commodity, Immortan Joe obviously has a way to make a lot of little albino versions of himself, and that process hasn't changed much over the decades, it's only become industrialized.

There are a lot of very cool stunts, especially the biker gang that drops grenades from their high jumps, and a part where the bad guys sway back and forth on these long poles extending from their vehicles, which allows them to transfer between one vehicle and another.  And then there's the stuff that looks cool but just seems very impractical, like bringing a vehicle with them on a high-speed chase that just has four guys playing big drums and another guy on a bungee cord with an electric guitar that shoots flames.  And I know a lot of people in the geek community went ga-ga for this film, I just would have preferred a little more insight into what was going on at the time.

Also starring Charlize Theron (last seen in "The Astronaut's Wife"), Nicholas Hoult (last seen in "X-Men: Apocalypse"), Josh Helman (ditto), Hugh Keays-Byrne, Nathan Jones (last seen in "Troy"), Zoƫ Kravitz (last seen in "After Earth"), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter (last seen in "The Great Gatsby"), Angus Sampson, Iota, Jennifer Hagan (last seen in "Jack"), Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Quentin Kenihan, Jon Iles.

RATING: 6 out of 10 steering wheels