Sunday, July 31, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger / ***½ (PG-13)

Steve Rogers/Captain America: Chris Evans
Peggy Carter: Hayley Atwell
Colonel Chester Phillips: Tommy Lee Jones
Johann Schmidt/Red Skull: Hugo Weaving
Howard Stark: Dominic Cooper
James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes: Sebastian Stan
Dr. Arnim Zola: Toby Jones
Dr. Abraham Erskine: Stanley Tucci

Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment present a film directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. Based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action).

After the cacophony of images, noises, and explosions of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is a bold reassurance that there are still filmmakers out there who know how to make a good entertaining action fantasy. Joe Johnston’s “Captain America” is a return to what’s great in summer movies. It has the explosions, but it doesn’t depend upon them.

Heralding from the Spielberg school of filmmaking, Johnston has made a stylish, witty, thrilling comic book hero movie that wears the influence of Spielberg’s own Indiana Jones on its sleeve. It even throws in a quick jab at his mentor’s popular film series for one of this movie’s great referential laughs. But, what Johnston really gets right is the development of the characters. Instead of typical straight to action tactics, Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) and his screenwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the team behind “The Chronicles of Narnia” movies), give the characters their due. Through many scenes of dialogue, they establish both sides of the playing field and paint a solid picture of the hero, Steve Rogers, and how he becomes Captain America.

We meet the spindly little weakling, Rogers, played, with the help of a lot of CGI, by Chris Evans (“The Losers”). It’s 1942 and Rogers is determined to do his duty for the war effort. He’s not satisfied working in a factory, despite continued rejections from the war department because of his poor health qualifications. His best friend, “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Shaw, “Hot Tub Time Machine”), is about to be shipped to the European Theater and Rogers makes a last ditch effort to make the cut. He’s singled out by a scientist (Stanley Tucci, “The Devil Wears Prada”) for a special program headed by Colonel Chester Phillips, a typically hard talking Tommy Lee Jones (“No Country for Old Men”). The scientist has developed a serum to produce a super soldier and Rogers will be the test subject.

All of this is preposterous, yet Johnston sells it with stylish recreation of a 40s era wartime atmosphere, including newsreels. The set decoration by John Bush (“Vera Drake”) is impeccable. After his transformation, Rogers engages in a footrace against a New York City Yellow Cab that evokes the thrill of 1940s swashbucklers. We are also given the first great female love interest in a comic book movie with Hayley Atwell (“The Duchess”) as British Agent, Peggy Carter. Carter is a classic woman, not some supermodel stick figure. She’s bucksome and bodacious, and the filmmakers don’t let the pitter-pats of the hero’s heart get in the way of the story.

The filmmakers put just as much effort into the movie’s villain, the uber-Nazi Johann Schmidt, played by Hugo Weaving (“The Matrix”), in full teeth-gnashing mode. Despite his near cartoonish nature, the screenwriters wisely ground their villain with a nervy sidekick, Dr. Arnim Zola, played with wonder and amazement by Toby Jones (“W.”). Weaving’s expert German accent adds the right amount of reality to his over-the-top portrayal of the Nazi-est Nazi of them all.

Schmidt commands his own elite division of the Reich, the scientific development division known as Hydra. Oddly, only he and Zola seem to be involved in the development of anything, while the rest of Hydra falls into the expendable henchman category. While Cap has been relegated to publicity work for the war effort because he was the only super soldier produced from the program, Hydra captures Bucky’s division, the 107th. Cap goes AWOL to rescue his fellow grunts, and the Army realizes that one super soldier is better than none. We meet the Howling Commandos, led by Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, “Flags of Our Fathers”); a special military team that finds it’s way into many of the Marvel Universe storylines.

 “Captain America: The First Avenger” successfully introduces a superhero who, in the past, has come across as too much of a boyscout for some fans to take seriously. The movie is an incredible throwback to a time when filmmaking wasn’t filled with cuts and edits, but also included dialogue and plotting. It also resurrects many of the values of the time period it depicts. The filmmakers wisely don’t cling to this atmosphere they’ve so wonderfully reproduced here, however; they’re willing to sacrifice the foundational elements they’ve used to establish the character for his future as a player in the entire Marvel universe of movies, clearing the way for next summer’s superhero team film “The Avengers”. If you stay on through the credits, you’ll also get a little sneak peek at that movie. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 15-21

The Last Airbender (2010) **
Director/Writer: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Noah Ringer, Dev Patel, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, Shaun Toub, Aasif Mandvi, Cliff Curtis, Seychelle Gabriel

About a year ago, four other people above the age of ten enjoyed M.Night Shyamalan’s adaptation of the American anime series “The Last Airbender”. Most people hated it. I could see where they were coming from, but having seen it with my 8 year-old, I was surprised to find I enjoyed it. Since then, I’ve wondered just how badly my perception of the movie was skewed during that first screening.

I’ve finally gotten around to viewing the movie again, and I have to admit, I was wrong. This is not a good movie, not by any stretch of the word ‘good.’ I still say that the backlash against it was more a reaction to the poor 3D transfer and the ongoing back turning the critics and public seem to be engaging in against Shyamalan. But, “The Last Airbender” is certainly a major misstep for the filmmaker.

The movie is an editing mess. I don’t know if Shyamalan didn’t have much say in the final cut or what, but big glaring chunks of this film seem to be missing. The acting is subpar; and the dialogue seems to be aimed at sixth graders, maybe a little younger. It does get a little better as it goes along, but this movie is beneath Shyamalan and his considerable talents. It’s out of his particular niche, but that hardly accounts for the disparity in quality between this movie and his others.

Perhaps, I was just determined to see something in this movie that everyone else was missing the first time around. I apologize to my readers for my initial mistake in recommending this movie. Here is my original misguided review.

Jaws (1975) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Carl Gottlieb, Peter Benchley (novel)
Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb

Why wouldn’t you watch “Jaws” while on a beach vacation? I spent the last week on Emerald Isle in North Carolina in a beach house with my extended family. We planned this trip because when my brother and I were little, we had spent three summers in the same area. That was not long after “Jaws” had created a huge stir in theaters and minor paranoia at the beaches. I remember several shark scares during our time on Emerald Isle as children. This time Steven Spielberg and his famously accidental masterpiece delivered the only shark scares.

During the screening I couldn’t help myself from elucidating the production details on my family as we watched. I believe I got more out of this than they did, since at about the halfway point my sister-in-law had had enough and asked my wife, “does he always talk this much during movies?”

I don’t usually talk too much during movies, but “Jaws” represents a small selection of movies that I’ve seen so many times that the details of how they was made are as amazing to me as the movie itself. This only happens with movies that are so masterfully made that I’ve seen them so many times I can’t help but wondering, how did they do that? The funny thing about “Jaws” is it wasn’t the way they had planned to do it at all.

I would’ve hated to see the movie Spielberg tried to make but couldn’t because his mechanical shark wouldn’t work. It never would’ve been as good as the compromised vision he ended up with. If the audience had seen the shark as early in the film as Spielberg planned, all the magic would’ve been spent too early. “Jaws” as it was completed proves Hitchcock’s theory that having a bomb explode under a table in a restaurant is action, but letting the audience know there’s a bomb under the table that might explode is suspense. Knowing the shark was out there was much more frightening than seeing it would’ve been. And, of course, it had everyone on a beach wondering if there was a shark out there.

Interesting note: we planned a non-beach day following our screening.

Minority Report (2002) ****
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Scott Frank, Jon Cohen, Philip K. Dick (short story)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Max Von Sydow, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Kathryn Morris, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Lois Smith, Daniel London, Tim Blake Nelson, Mike Binder, Peter Stromare

It’s always nice to follow up a Spielberg masterpiece with a Spielberg masterpiece. “Minority Report” has got to be one of the greatest film noirs ever made. Just like all the classic noirs, the story’s focus on its hero is unwavering, relentless, and unflinching. Tom Cruise is an unlikely yet wonderful choice for a flawed noir hero. Combine it all with Spielberg’s witty action style and you get one damn entertaining movie.

Now, let’s talk about Max Von Sydow, that Scandinavian master class actor who can be so warm and so cold. It seems he can switch from one to the other with a push button. Have you ever noticed how large he is? There’s a scene in this movie with him and Cruise sitting having a conversation together that it just a mess of perspective because Sydow’s head is so much larger than Cruise’s. The scene has always stuck out to me, and I always felt that it was just coincidence that it was difficult to tell which actor was in the foreground. I thought it was something they just couldn’t get around. But, isn’t Spielberg better than that? Perhaps the looming Sydow is just foreshadowing the film’s conclusion. Perhaps it is meant to show how Cruise is caught in his web. I don’t know, but that scene always grabs my attention.

Skyline (2010) **
Directors: The Brothers Strause
Writers: Joshua Cordes, Liam O’Donnell
Starring: Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed, Neil Hopkins, David Zayas, Donald Faison

“Skyline” takes the unique alien invasion perspective of that of some of the nameless victims. Oh, well, it gives them names, but these aren’t people that are going to save the world. They aren’t likely to affect the invasion one way or the other. And surprisingly, they eventually just end up as a few of the countless victims. I’m sorry if that gives away the ending, but it’s one of the film’s appealing parts.

Despite the fact that it doesn’t squelch on it’s unique take on the alien invasion. The film doesn’t quite work. Unfortunately, I think that’s because these people don’t win. In order for them to be one of the countless rabble that perishes, they aren’t allowed to have the character flourishes we crave in our sci-fi action heroes. They don’t have qualities we can aspire to. And they don’t require that we root for them. That’s basically the failing point right there. I just couldn’t help wondering, why should I care about these people?

There are other messy storytelling elements here, but I think the uniqueness of the idea could overcome those. It just couldn’t overcome itself. Still, “Skyline” is a masterpiece compared to the Brothers Strause last alien invasion movie “Aliens vs. Predators-Requiem”. I’m not even sure why it might be called “Skyline”? Yeah, the title makes no sense. They could just as reasonably called it “Bright Light”. In fact, that would make more sense. Anyway, unique does not always equal good.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 8-14

Frankenstein Unbound (1990) ½*
Director: Roger Corman
Writers: Roger Corman, F.X. Feeney, Brian Aldiss (novel)
Starring: John Hurt, Raul Julia, Nick Brimble, Bridget Fonda, Catherine Rabett

This movie was so bad that I put it so far out of my mind I forgot to review it last week. I watched it between “Rubber” and “The Deathly Hallows”, but I forgot to even mention it in last week’s Penny Thoughts. At the point when John Hurt’s scientist from the future is shuttling Mary Shelley around the Transylvanian countryside in his convertible Knight Rider wannabe talking car from the future, I must’ve deleted it from my immediate memory.

Retelling Shelley’s Modern Prometheus tale through the eyes of a scientist that has traveled back through time because of his own monstrous creation, this strange take on the classic “Frankenstein” adds little to the tale beyond having some distractingly out of place character in the middle of all the events. Despite their best efforts, John Hurt, as the future scientist, and Raul Julia, as Dr. Frankenstein, can do little to save this shoddy material from itself.

While watching this debacle, I was struck by the thought of what Hurt was doing only a decade before this movie in the great David Lynch film “The Elephant Man”, a story similar to “Frankenstein”. How far actors can fall in their careers to go from one of the greatest real life portrayals as that film’s titular character to finding themselves as a surrogate Dr. Frankenstein in a movie that contains an actual representation of the misguided literary figure. I guess Brian Aldiss thought that was a good idea for his book. Maybe it was, but it certainly wasn’t for this movie.

Arrested Development, Season 3 (2005-06) ****
Creator: Mitchell Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard, Jeff Garlin, Charlize Theron, Dave Thomas, Scott Baio, John Michael Higgins, Bob Einstein

The third season of the incredibly funny and groundbreaking sitcom “Arrested Development” brings it’s bittersweet end. It’s always sad to finish watching a cherished television show, even one as off the wall absurd as this one. The third season is the briefest, the strangest, and the most innovative of the series as the writers shamelessly refer to the show’s imminent cancelation throughout the season, with a big push during the last few episodes to encourage people to tell their friends to watch. The benefit episode where the family holds a benefit to save their company, yet every line has a double meaning referring to the shows own ratings, should go down in history as one of the best classic sitcom episodes in history. This isn’t just situational comedy, but satire of the highest level.

Favorite part of the third season: Bob Loblaw, Attorney at Law. Say his name out loud. It brings me joy every time I say it.

I Love You Phillip Morris (2010) ***
Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writers: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, Steve McVicker (book “I Love You Phillip Morris: A True Story of Life, Love, and Prison Breaks”)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Ewan McGregor, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Antoni Corone, Brennan Brown

This is certainly the most interesting movie I’ve seen in a while. It’s good too. It’s lighthearted even though it’s a true story about a repeat convict and con man. It’s a gay love story without all the heartbreak of “Brokeback Mountain”. But the makers are really insistent that it is a true story. That’s the fascinating part.

Jim Carrey is Steven Russell. I’m guessing that’s an alter ego for the book’s author Steven McVicker. Steven is a gay man who lives the straight life as a police officer, father, churchgoer, and happily married man until one day he has a car accident and vows to live the life he wants to live. Not only does that life involve being the gay man he always knew he was, but it also involves such an extravagant lifestyle that he must turn to crime to pay for it. Once his confidence schemes get the best of him, he winds up in jail and meets the “love of his life”, Phillip Morris, portrayed with typical understated perfection by Ewan McGregor.

The details of Steven’s life from that point on make the build up seem average. He gets himself and Phillips out of their sentences early by studying the law, and then cons himself into a job as a CFO of a big Texas business, where he proceeds to bilk the company for millions. He’s eventually caught and spends every incarcerated minute developing escape plans. Some of them work, but the law always catches up to him. Then he creates his most amazing escape yet. I won’t spoil what it is, but I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about this guy earlier, if he really did this that is.

The film’s lighthearted tone makes everything fun, although I doubt very much that it was. There are some weaknesses. Sometimes the Carrey-isms get him a little carried away from the reality of what’s going on. Nor do I feel we ever learn enough about the two people in his life who love him so much—his ex-wife, played by Leslie Mann, and Phillip. However, the movie is entertaining and fascinating enough that those missing elements don’t really matter that much.

Made in Dagenham (2010) ***
Director: Nigel Cole
Writer: William Ivory
Starring: Sally Hawkins, Geraldine James, Jaime Winstone, Andrea Riseborough, Bob Hoskins, Daniel Mays, Rosamund Pike, Rupert Graves, Miranda Richardson, Richard Schiff

“Made in Dagenham” makes the second fascinating true story that I’ve seen this week that I’m amazed not to have known anything about before now. This British charmer tells the story of the 1968 female workforce strike at the Ford manufacturing plant in Dagenham, England that was responsible for worldwide pay reform for female workers.

We meet Rita O’Grady, a happy and unassuming woman played by Sally Hawkins. I’ve seen Hawkins in just a handful of movies at this point and can’t get enough of her. Rita will somehow find herself at the center of the labor debates that were grinding England’s workforce to a halt at the time, and eventually she will be responsible for the first worldwide shift towards equal pay for women.

The filmmakers surround Hawkins with a large cast of characters that are typical in these British feel good flicks. If anything, the monumental influence this woman had on the world of labor is downplayed here in favor of good characters that you want to root for. Even the villains here are sympathetic because of the unreasonable positions their employers insist they take.

Harry Brown (2009) ***
Director: Daniel Barber
Writer: Gary Young
Starring: Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Ben Drew, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Sean Harris, Iain Glen, Liam Cunningham

“Harry Brown” is a British “Death Wish” that, like so many British versions of American commodities, actually thinks about what it’s doing. Michael Caine stars as an elderly gentleman living in a crime-ridden housing project. When some gang members kill his friend, he uses his special forces training from years before to take his revenge. This isn’t just some old man running around killing a bunch of moral deprived punks, however. Well, actually, that’s how it really thinks about it. He is old. Going around just shooting kids isn’t as easy as one might believe it is for a retiree.

I like the way this movie really contemplates the lives of these aging men, who have sacrificed for their country only to watch it fall apart in their final years. Caine is as brilliant as ever at conveying thoughts and emotions well beyond the dialogue he’s given. I didn’t like the casting of Emily Mortimer as the detective investigating the killing of Caine’s friend. In the environment she is in, she needs to be tough as nails, but Mortimer plays her with the typical fragility she usually finds herself cast in. I believe Mortimer is capable of playing the role well, so I don’t blame her as much as the director, who should’ve pushed her to be harder, not softer.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) ***
Director: Jean-François Richet
Writers: Abdel Raouf Dafri, Jean-François Richet, Jacques Mesrine (book “L’instinct de mort”)
Starring: Vincent Cassel, Cécile de France, Gérard Depardieu, Gilles Lellouche, Roy Dupuis, Elena Anaya, Florence Thomassin

In “Mesrine: Killer Instinct” we get the story of real life French criminal Jacques Mesrine. It looks at Mesrine’s evolution to the criminal he will eventually become. French superstar Vincent Cassel (known to many Americans for his role as the artistic director of the dance company in “Black Swan”) plays Mesrine. We see the way his service in the French Army helps to form the killer he will become. Cassel is at once charming and ferocious as the gangster.

The movie takes us from his service to his introduction to the mob, through his reckless bank robberies, to his exile in Canada, where he made not only a daring prison escape, but attempted to return to break out the friends he left behind. The fact that he survived these prison breaks is amazing in and of itself.  

Despite how detailed this two-part biopic is about this elusive criminal, much of it feels episodic, which takes away from its power to a slight degree. He was known as both Public Enemy #1 and The Man of a Thousand Faces. The later might explain why it is hard for the filmmakers to pin down just who this man was, but I would’ve liked to see more about what made him tick to go along with all his astonishing feats.

I Am Cuba  (1964) ****
Director: Mikhail Kalatozov
Writers: Enrique Pineda Barnet, Yevgeni Yectushenko
Starring: Sergio Corrieri, Salvador Wood, José Gallardo, Raúl García, Luz Maria Collazo, Jean Buisse, Alberto Morgan, Celia Rodriguez

Roger Ebert often recounts the idiom that the success of a movie has nothing to do with what it is about, but rather how it is about it. I can think of few better representations of this credo than Mikhail Kalatozov’s “I Am Cuba”. Kalatozov’s blatantly propaganda driven film has no right to be as good as it is. Made at the height of Castro’s revolution to depose dictator Fulgencio Batista, “I Am Cuba” is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen.

The movie consists of four vignettes about four different areas of Cuban culture. The first shows an escort in a club who must suffer decadent American clientele to make a living that only allows her to live in a hovel in the city’s shantytown. The second shows us a farmer who tries to provide a future for his family with his sugar cane crop, but is undermined by greedy landlords. The third gives us a revolutionary protester who wants to assassinate a general who cruelly deals with peaceful protesters, but he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction eventually costs him everything. The final segment shows a soldier of Castro’s revolutionary army. The movie doesn’t shy away from how tough the life of a revolutionary soldier is, but preaches the communist ideals that the revolutionaries are trying to achieve.

Sadly, Castro’s revolution did not change life for the little people in the way this film suggests it will. Kalatozov’s representation of Cuba shows it as beautiful land with people who deserve the spoils of war and have something worth fighting for. There are shots in this film that are nearly inexplicable in how they were achieved. And, if I didn’t know better, it’d make me a believer.

Black Panther: The Animated Series (2010) **
Director: Mark Brooks
Writer: Reginald Hudlin (comics)
Starring: Stephen Stanton, Djimon Hounsou, Carl Lumbly, JB Blanc, David Busch, Peter Laurie, Kerry Washington, Rick D. Wasserman, Alfre Woodard, Jill Scott

Black Panther was always one of my favorite Marvel superheroes. He was always slightly isolated from the rest of the Marvel superheroes, because he was the king of his own small African nation. His adventures tended toward political espionage, more than super powered mayhem. His enemies were men in suits with teams of Special Forces troops, and much of the conflict came from real issues that the world was facing, like environmental abuse and energy power mongering.

When I discovered that BET had produced an animated series based on the comic book, I was intrigued. It made sense to me that a black network recognized the importance of such a superhero. Unfortunately, the series treats Panther all too much like a typical superhero. He’s still the king of the fictional African country of Wakanda, and they’ve attempted to frame this particular adventure on a global scale, but the filmmakers succumb to the pressures of place more popular superheroes throughout Black Panther’s story. Captain America shows up in the first episode and eventually many of the more popular X-Men make an appearance.

The villains he faces seem culled from all over the Marvel universe, although maybe they have historically tread on Panther’s path. I don’t know for sure. For the most part these villains are more silly than they are serious, and it seems as if the writers had more ideas than they had time for in the ten-minute episodes. It isn’t a terrible comic book animation, but it isn’t great either. It’s also important to note that this cartoon is not aimed at children. It contains bloody and disturbing images.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Tree of Life / **** (PG-13)

Mr. O’Brien: Brad Pitt
Mrs. O’Brien: Jessica Chastain
Jack: Sean Penn
Young Jack: Hunter McCracken
R.L.: Laramie Eppler
Steve: Tye Sheridan

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Terrence Malick. Running time: 132 min. Rated PG-13 (for some thematic material).

The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
                                                                                        —Mrs. O’Brien, “The Tree of Life”

I’m a dad. I’m a son. I’m not from the generation depicted in Terrence Malick’s possibly autobiographical new movie “The Tree of Life”. I have put much thought into some of the practices portrayed by Brad Pitt as the father of three boys in this movie. I often wonder, am I too easy on my boys? I know my dad was not too strict on me, but I think he probably was stricter than I am. As a child, I might’ve felt hurt by his level lessons of respect and responsibility. Today, I understand he was only doing his best.

Of course, as young children we don’t have the slightest concept of the entire scope of our parents’ lives. We don’t understand what fuels their love or their restrictions against us. As parents we’ve lost touch with some of the freedoms of childhood. We’ve made sacrifices that have changed some of our plans and priorities. Nor do we have a concept of the full scope of the world and what made it what it is.

Malick’s Palme d’Or winning movie isn’t really about being a parent or a child, although those are important details that he tries to come to terms with in it. His movie is much grander in scale. It is about the foundations of life, both on a cosmic scale and on a personal one. It focuses on a family in the same town that Malick grew up in, Waco, Texas, during the same time period. Yet, it goes back to the beginning of time. It depicts what could be interpreted as the birth of the Earth itself. It progresses through the beginnings of life on the planet through to when dinosaurs roamed the planet. Yes, it shows us dinosaurs.

The dinosaur sequence is brief and may be baffling to some, but it was the point in the movie where I first felt that I was beginning to see what Malick was getting at. This sequence plays in some ways like one of those Discovery channel reconstruction documentaries, without their useless narration telling us that these creatures are thinking things of which they couldn’t possibly even be aware. Instead the dinosaurs operate without the imposition of human speculation, acting on their own nature as we see one dinosaur possibly show mercy on another. Or, perhaps it isn’t a natural predator of the other, and it’s just being a bully. Malick doesn’t spell that out for us. It’s for the audience to contemplate.

The meat of the film is about the Texas family. Delivered in Malick’s trademark disjointed and dreamlike style, we meet the O’Briens. The father (Pitt, “Burn After Reading”) is at once a loving father and a cruel one. He doesn’t intend his cruelty, but he struggles with teaching his boys life lessons in a way that doesn’t demean them or exploit their weaknesses. He loves his children dearly, but he has given up on a career as a musician to work a job with respectable pay. The job often keeps him away from home and presents pressures he can’t help but bring home on occasion.

The wife (Jessica Chastain, the upcoming “The Help”) is more of a free spirit who contains herself when her husband is around. They argue about his treatment of the boys sometimes, but mostly she just falls into line. When the mister is away, however, she is a sprite who feeds off the boys’ energy and penchant for fantasy. We only see either parent through the eyes of the oldest boy, Jack. His brothers infrequently factor into his view of his parents, although the middle boy, R.L., does become the focus for Jack’s own alternate abuse and love.

We also see Jack in the present day. Played by Sean Penn (“Milk”), these scenes are the most dreamlike and intentionally least cohesive of the movie. Many of these scenes consist of Penn walking through cityscapes, stone landscapes, and along the beach. I don’t think any of Penn’s scenes actually happen in the story. They may represent some form of purgatory or dream, but I’d have to see the movie again to be sure. Even then, I’m not sure I’d want to fully understand them.

You will hear about the amazing performance by Pitt, who breaks away from some of the quirky mannerisms that have defined most of his better roles in the past. Here he portrays a fairly uptight man, rigidly conforming to what he thinks his role is as a man for his family. The real lead of the movie though is Young Jack, who stirs childhood nostalgia and memory for its trials and triumphs. Hunter McCracken moves emotions with his performance by embodying the darkness and dependence of a child searching for the meaning of all the contradicting information he’s fed by his environment.

If my description seems hard to follow, that is reflective of Malick’s style. I’ve probably given more solid meaning to Malick’s montage of images and impressions here than I should. Malick’s impressionistic style leaves much of the work in the audience’s minds. Because of this, “The Tree of Life” is one of the more rewarding film experiences you will find. Malick pushes the limits of what other directors will even consider is possible for the art form. He uses film—every aspect of it—to its greatest extent. The editing, photography, sound, and dialogue all mix together to make what can best be described as a cinemascape of impressions to immerse the audience into the feel of a movie rather than hitting them over the head with plots and words. In short, “The Tree of Life” is nothing short of exquisite film art. This is the best film of the year, so far.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 1-7

High Risk (1981) ***
Director/Writer: Stawart Raffill
Starring: James Brolin, Bruce Davidson, Cleavon Little, Chick Vennera, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn, Ernest Borgnine

Way back when cable first came to Maine, my best friend had it and I didn’t. I lived outside the area where it was provided, while he lived in town. Going over to spend the night at his house was always a treat. We watched one of MTV’s earliest broadcasts and often were able to stay up and watch movies we probably shouldn’t have considering our age.

One of those movies was the B-grade adventure “High Risk” about a group of four friends who decide to go down to South America and rob a big time drug lord. These are just four ordinary guys, fed up with the poor economy in America, doing something that even a group of professional thieves would think twice about. That makes it absurd and yet opens it up for lines of entertainment you don’t normally find in a heist movie, like the little white dog with the bows on its ears.

Before noticing it was streaming on Netflix, thanks to that same friend who screened it and posted it to his Facebook wall, I really didn’t remember much of the movie, but I never forgot watching it with my friend that evening. What made it so memorable is that while we were watching the movie we held an ongoing conversation where we recast the movie with him and I and our best friends in the roles. We would shuffle everybody around as it seemed appropriate to the types of characters that were in the movie. My friend was almost consistently the James Brolin role, although I think in the end we ended up casting another friend in that role while he took the Cleavon Little role. I think I pretty much retained the Bruce Davidson role throughout our casting process, although I secretly wished for one of the more macho leads. I think I even landed the Little role for a while, but Davidson was probably accurate for me.

Anyway, in revisiting the movie some thirty years later, I expected a really bad flick that would’ve embarrassed me for even watching it. Surprisingly, it was all right. Not a great movie, but a fun low budget flick with some scene chewing cameos by such Hollywood legends as Ernest Borgnine, James Coburn, and Anthony Quinn. I don’t think we really understood much of what we were seeing thirty years ago. I hadn’t remembered it as being so involved with drugs. It was really more about our own imaginations at that first screening.

Swamp Thing (1982) *
Director: Wes Craven
Writers: Wes Craven, Len Wein (comic book), Bernie Wrightson (comic book)
Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Louis Jordan, Ray Wise, David Hess, Nicolas Worth, Don Knight, Al Ruban, Dick Durock

It was Adrienne Barbeau’s birthday last week, and film critic Roger Ebert enthusiastically posted his original review of “Swamp Thing” on his Twitter and Facebook feeds. I was surprised to read how much he enjoyed this movie at the time of its release in 1982. I remembered it as a pretty sad low budget account of a cherished comic book hero of mine—a bad B-movie that marred the name of one of DC Comics’ most intelligent monsters. Ebert relished its B-movie excess, so I decided to give it another shot now that I could better appreciate what the filmmakers were going for, without clouding my judgment with my own affection for the seriousness of the comic book.

Turns out, I was right and Ebert is wrong about this one. It’s a terrible movie. He found the movie comical in its over the top mad scientist approach to its absurd subject matter. I found it just deficient. I’m not sure Wes Craven did know just how shlocky a film he was making. Surely, he had been able to make serious movies with low budgets without having to worry about make up and scope. He must’ve realized that his budget here wouldn’t allow him to make a serious movie about a swamp monster, but the camp contained here all seems to be circumstantial rather than intentional.

The story is preposterously bad, but the dialogue isn’t over the top enough to suggest that the filmmakers aren’t taking it entirely seriously. Maybe the music by Harry Manfredini is meant to be drippingly sappy, and it is, but not in such a way as to suggest that you’re supposed to be laughing at it. I dunno. Maybe I was in too much of a serious mood. I don’t think so, though. This movie still doesn’t work for me.

Rubber (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Quentin Dupieux
Starring: Stephen Spinella, Jack Plotnick, Roxane Mesquida, Wings Hauser

I think “Rubber” is the proof that I wasn’t in too serious a mood for “Swamp Thing” however. Watching this immediately following that early eighties debacle, “Rubber” is a joke I get. It’s a movie about a tire that comes to life and exacts revenge on those who do it wrong. Yes, a tire.

The movie opens with the strangest character entrance you’ve ever seen, a policeman who precedes to explain that the movie you are about to watch is an homage to the great movie characteristic of things happening for no reason whatsoever. He lists examples of great movies that have things happen for no reason, including “E.T.”, “Love Story”, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and “The Pianist”. His logic might have a few holes in it, but the point is that it doesn’t matter.

It’s a short movie, as it must be considering the limitations of what you can do with a tire as a protagonist. It also involves an audience that watches the movie through binoculars as it happens. They comment on the tire’s story as it develops and eventually become a part of the tire’s story. I can’t say what their purpose is. I suppose there is no reason.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) ***½
Director: David Yates
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton, Timothy Spall, Peter Mullan, Robbie Coltrane, Evanna Lynch, Rhys Ifans, Imelda Staunton, Toby Jones

With the end looming (just a week away at the time of this posting), I had to go back and revisit Part 1. I was more impressed by this film the second time around. It’s long and slow for the franchise, but the way it takes it’s time with the darkest material to come from the Harry Potter universe is where it gains its strength. This is by far the most mature of the Potters. I really enjoy the way it doesn’t let itself get sidetracked with all the subplots that have always run likes strands through Harry Potter’s world. It’s focus on Harry, Hermione and Ron in their search for the horcrux and the means to destroy it is sharp and makes for a fascinating story of friendship through the hardest of times. As always I’ve allowed my cast list to represent the vast span of British actors that always populate the Potter films, but really I probably should’ve only listed Radcliffe, Watson and Grint, since this episode is theirs and theirs alone.

Read my original review here.

Western of the Week

The Bravados (1958) **
Director: Henry King
Writers: Philip Yordan, Frank O’Rourke (novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Joan Collins, Henry Silva, Stephen Boyd, Albert Salmi, Lee Van Cleef, Kathleen Gallant, Andrew Duggan

“The Bravados” presents an interesting moral dilemma. What if you exacted revenge on bad people for the wrong reason? They were still bad people, but your own personal reasons were incorrect. Have you done wrong? Even if the punishment was just in the eyes of the law? The movie posses this question, but gives a mixed message in its answer.

It isn’t a bad western. It has all the right details. In some ways it seems a precursor to the spaghetti westerns of the late 60s. The hero is reclusive, an outsider. The villains are very bad. One of them is even the great Lee Van Cleef. He was still in henchmen territory, yet to become the perfect western villain. It shows in his performance. He acts bad, rather than just being bad. But, we know he’ll get there.

This western, on the other hand, never quite does get there. It’s almost good. Gregory Peck is possibly too stiff to play the tall dark and brooding hero here. He’s not the always laid back western anti-hero that Clint Eastwood would later embody. Peck is a little too tense to pull off his rather vicious revenge. But, then Eastwood would never question the morality of his actions.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon / zero stars (PG-13)

Sam Witwicky: Shia LeBeouf
Carly: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Lennox: Josh Duhamel
Simmons: John Turturro
Epps: Tyrese Gibson
Dylan: Patrick Dempsey
Mearing: Frances McDormand
Bruce Brazos: John Malkovich

Featuring the voices of:
Optimus Prime: Peter Cullen
Megatron: Hugo Weaving
Starscream: Charles Adler
Sentinel Prime: Leonard Nimoy

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Michael Bay. Written by Ehren Kruger. Based on the Hasbro toys. Running time: 157 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense prolonged sequences of sci-fi action violence, mayhem and destruction, and for language, some sexuality and innuendo).

Since I’ve been writing reviews, people have asked me about my star rating scale. I use a standard four-star scale, with four being the best rating a movie can be awarded. The most frequent question I’ve fielded about this scale, however, is, do I ever award no stars to a bad movie? I did only in theory until the day I saw “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”.

The latest in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise is the worst movie I’ve ever reviewed. Certainly I’ve seen worse movies, but never to review and never in the cinema. I’ll admit I haven’t been a fan of the franchise. I’ll even admit I wasn’t expecting to like this movie, but I never could’ve guessed that it could be as bad as it is. This isn’t just a matter of this being a movie that wasn’t made for me. It isn’t just some predisposition against the idea of the Earth being invaded by an alien race of giant robots that can turn into the machinery that we use in our everyday lives. Yes, that could be enough for a negative review, but zero stars is another category of bad all together. No, this movie is like a class in filmmaking ineptitude.

I won’t go into the plot of the movie, because there’s really no point. Not only is it ridiculous and nearly indecipherable to anyone who doesn’t spend their days debating over what makes these transforming toys and their movie franchise so awesome, but it’s all just an excuse to blow things up real good. I will say that I could for once in the franchise actually follow the story, but that only highlighted the weaknesses of the filmmaking.

What I’m going to try instead is list some of the film’s faulty elements:

1. The casting. Like with every “Transformers” movie, the Spielberg name on the producing credits allows the filmmakers to attract A-list character actors to give the movies a little punch between scenes of metal robots grating against each other. The third installment recruits John Malkovich (“Red”) and Frances McDormand (“Fargo”). Malkovich plays the boss of hero, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”). His sole purpose is to be an eccentric John Malkovich character. Other than that there is no reason for his character to exist.

McDormand is totally wasted in the role of Secretary of Defense Charlotte Mearing, in charge of everything to do with the Autobot, or good, Transformers. However, her real purpose seems to be to prevent anyone from submitting any sort of positive input and action against the impending doom that will surely befall the world if the Decepticon, or bad, Transformers should blah, blah, blah… Why hire such an intelligent actress to play such a dufuss who could never have achieved her position without being smart?

Then there’s the new girlfriend. Sam’s original girlfriend was played by Megan Fox, who was fired from this production after she made disparaging comments against Bay publicly. Since her breasts were one of the major reasons of the first two films’ success, I guess Bay felt he had to top Fox physically with her replacement and chose former Victoria’s Secret underwear model Rosie Huntington-Whitely for this movie. I’m not one to heavily criticize anyone’s acting, because I’ve been there. I know it’s much harder than it looks. But, if there’s one thing Miss Huntington-Whiteley proves, it’s that Fox has at least a margin of acting talent. Bay would’ve been just as well off to blow up one of her sexiest Victoria’s Secret pictures into a cardboard standup and tie it to LaBeouf to follow him around.

2. The editing. The editing in the “Transformers” franchise has always been atrocious. Action scenes always look like a muddy mess where huge balls of indiscernible metal creatures hit each other and you can’t tell one from the other. You’ve got that here as well, but now even the primary human characters get lost in the mix. There’s one shot during a highway chase that shows the character played by John Turturro (“The Taking of Pelham 123”) thrown from his vehicle by a giant robot. You’d expect the next shot to show what happens to him since he’s a major character that has been in every “Trensformers” movie to date. No. The editing follows the rest of the highway chase with no reference back to Turturro until the battle is over. That reference is a brief shot of him lying on the concrete. Is he dead? How did he land? How could he possibly be alive after what happened to him? None of these questions are answered immediately. A little later on he wheels in on a wheel chair with casts and a neck brace with no mention of what happened on the highway. That’s just sloppy storytelling.

In another sequence, the Decepticons are preparing to take over the planet in Chicago. Their leader announces to no one in particular that the people of Earth are about to meet their new rulers and instead of some montage sequence that shows the Decepticon army marching and flying into Chicago while the people go into a panic, the editing just skips ahead to after the invasion has begun and the Decepticons are gunning down the people that they’re supposed to be turning into slave labor. The robots are big enough and indestructible enough to unarmed civilians that I would think it just wasteful for them to be gunning anyone down that they could use for their labor force. Plus, the editing suggests that they ran out of time to get all the build up shots of the invasion that they wanted. Instead they just skipped ahead to the middle of the invasion. The result, Chicago goes from a city to a war zone in the course of one editing splice.

3. The dialogue is below asinine. Lines like “Today we take the battle to them!” “The enemy’s return is certain,” and “You may lose faith in us, but never in yourselves,” might make good introductions to speeches, but here they’re used as full statements, entire thoughts. There is never enough time between explosions for any speeches, so screenwriter Ehren Kruger (“The Ring”) makes do with an entire script of speech introductions and little else.

4. My list of shame. Shame on Steven Spielberg for placing his name as a stamp of approval for an inferior science fiction fantasy that he essentially has no other connection to.  Shame on Buzz Aldrin for appearing as himself in a movie that diminishes and subverts his achievements in our space program.  Shame on Bill O’Reilly for appearing as himself to lend legitimacy to the ridiculous events depicted in this movie. Shame on Leonard Nimoy for making this film his final contribution to the film genre he’s had so much to do with popularizing and for uttering one of his most famous Spock lines here in a way that turns it into a joke. And, shame on me for continuing to give lip service to a film franchise I neither enjoy nor respect and which deserves no respect from anyone else.

I’m sure fanboys will send me notes about how I’m wrong and ignorant of the intricacies of the Transformers mythology. This isn’t about Transformers, however. It’s about the shamefully low bar in filmmaking set by Michael Bay and the rest of the filmmakers involved in producing an entertainment like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”. If audiences just stand by and accept that this is the way movies are made today, soon there will be nothing produced by Hollywood that will be worth watching. It will all involve nonsensical action scenes where no discernable story can be understood beneath all the teeth gnashing and explosions. Acting and character development will go the way of the dodo and we’ll have no level on which to relate to anything that happens on screen. “Dark of the Moon” is the worst example of filmmaking as an art form and as a storytelling format. I hang my head to think that I should ever have to pay for something of this poor quality again.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: June 24-30

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) **
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Writers: Ulf Rayberg, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nykvist, Lena Endre, Annika Hallin, Anders Ahlbom Rosendhal, Mikael Spreitz

The first thing that comes to mind after finishing the Millennium Trilogy, based on the best selling novels by Stieg Larsson, is that I hope the Hollywood adaptations stop with the first one. I loved “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, and the David Fincher directed Hollywood version scheduled to hit theaters in December looks even better than the original Swedish version. I am amazed at how bad the sequels are. They utilize the same cast, but under the direction of Daniel Alfredson it all goes terribly wrong. I don’t know if he was unable to key in on those winning elements that the first film’s director Niels Arden Oplev was able to highlight in order to turn that one into a pulpy but compelling thriller.

Perhaps the problem is the source material itself. Unread by me, I’ve heard that the novels aren’t really that good. Story wise “Tattoo” seems as if it could easily stand alone as a self-contained story about justice for a couple of sexually deviant predators. The second two follow a couple of small strands from the first story that lead to a government conspiracy about a Russian defector who was protected by the state from blame for his heinous crimes because the information he gave them was so invaluable. Since we never learn anything about the information he provided, the trouble to cover up his crimes seems unwarranted. His crimes don’t reach a scale that seems to warrant such protection. It seems it would’ve been easier to let his accusers convict him and give him a cushy punishment. I don’t mean to imply that rape and spousal abuse are not horrendous crimes, but they are hardly the high crimes against the state that a government cover up is.

In truth, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” isn’t as poorly made as “The Girl Who Played with Fire”. It doesn’t have all the ridiculously underwhelming plot twists of that movie. It’s a bore. The big criminals are a bunch of dying men, and the final confrontation the girl has with the albino beast from the second film is contrived for the sole purpose of having a little action thrown into the story’s climax. I’d rather just remember the juicy pulp of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and try to imagine how much more rich it will be with the moodiness and style that Fincher will bring to the story.

I Saw the Devil (2011) ***½
Director: Jee-woon Kim
Writer: Hoon-jung Park
Starring: Byung-hun Lee, Min-sik Choi, Gook-hwan Jeon, Ho-jin Jeon, San-ha Ho, Yoon-seo Kim

Does justice even exist? This is the question at the center of the Korean crime thriller “I Saw the Devil”. It is a dark look at a sexual predator and the policeman turned vigilante that tries to exact vengeance when his fiancé becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Told with the stark visual frankness and subtle brilliance that has come to distinguish Korean cinema as one of the best cinematic producing countries in the world, “I Saw the Devil” is harsh and bloody and certainly not a movie that people with weak stomachs should have to endure. It had me cringing. It also had me wondering just where the line between entertainment and perverse voyeurism falls exactly. This is particularly discomforting since there are several depraved voyeurs depicted in this film.

The conclusion that “I Saw the Devil” draws is grim, and that could be considered an understatement. The killer declares that he had won their contest the moment it started. Nothing that could be done to him could ever replace the lives he took away from the policeman. His fiancé confessed before her death that she was pregnant. It doesn’t matter how harsh his punishment, how much his pain. He’s a bad man, so the death or suffering of a good person will always be worse than his own.

Despite it’s bleak outlook, it’s hard to look away from “I Saw the Devil”. The destruction these men are able to wreck upon each other is devastating and incredibly inventive. They are both compelling characters on top of their crimes against each other. It’s not really about what drives them, but their drive is unrelenting and infectious.

The film could also be an argument against typical revenge movies as well. Typically, by the end of the confrontation the two forces find themselves sharing a strange sort of mutual respect for each other. There is no respect claimed by either combatant here, only frustration and despair.

Love & Other Drugs (2010) **½
Director: Edward Zwick
Writers: Charles Randolph, Edward Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, Jamie Reidy (“Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Josh Gad, Oliver Platt, Hand Azaria, Gabriel Macht, Judy Greer

There’s something more charming than it deserves about “Love & Other Drugs”. Perhaps that charm factor is due to its stars Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal. They’ve played a couple before, but were never really able to explore their charming screen personalities so well, since he was a cowboy in love with another cowboy that time. Here we get full-on heterosexual charm from these two powerful screen presences, with an extra helping of the sexuality.

These two are naked a lot in this movie. But then, it is about one of the salesmen who helped Viagra become one of the biggest phenomena of the pharmaceutical world in the late 90s. It doesn’t seem either of these two needed it, however. The movie focuses more on the love affair than the pharmaceutical side. I don’t know if this makes the movie better or worse, though.

The trick is that she has early onset Parkinson’s disease. Again, I don’t know if this makes the movie better or not. I don’t think so. Despite her illness there’s more comedy than drama to this romance, which marginalizes her illness. The heavier focus on their relationship also marginalizes the sales life of Jamie Reily, upon whose memoir, “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”, the film is based.

The big problem with all these margin notes is that although Gyllenhaal and Hathaway are impossibly charming, the movie losses fizzle at about the beginning of its third act. The Hollywood machinations of the typical romance set in and we’re beginning to wonder just what happened to the pharmaceutical sales angle that set all these events into motion. I would’ve liked to have learned more specific details about Jamie’s brother as well, who got rich with an IPO and just seems to exist here as a comedic prop rather than a real person. But hey, it is fun to watch two of Hollywood’s hottest young actors having sex with witty banter for a while.

Arrested Development, Season 2 (2004-2005) ****
Creator: Mitchell Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Mae Whitman, Liza Minnelli, Judy Greer, Jeff Garlin

In its second season, “Arrested Development” keeps consistent with its peculiar comedy based on the eccentric and often absurd antics of the dysfunctional Bluth family.  The most amazing feat the writers accomplish in this brilliant series is to continually come up with new ways for Michael’s family to make his task of righting the Bluth ship impossible. Michael doesn’t always help himself either. I like the way the writers are able to allow all the Bluth dysfunction to pop up in its sanest member at just the wrong times.

There’s a bit of the impression that this is all one long sustained and repeated joke, but it’s such a good joke, you can’t really fault the series for it. The dynamic never really changes in the Bluth family, but the details make them indelible.

Favorite aspect of season two: Martin Short as the uncle who really isn’t an uncle and must be carried around because his legs gave out on him during a weightlifting stunt.

Live Flesh (1997) ****
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Writers: Pedro Almodovar, Jorge Guerricaechevarría, Ray Loriga, Ruth Rendell (novel)
Starring: Liberto Rabal, Javier Bardem, Francesca Neri, Angela Molina, Jose Sancho, Penelope Cruz

There’s so much to say about this classic Spanish language film by auteur Pedro Almodovar. But, that’s really a way of saying I’m not going to say them. I’ll try. What immediately comes to mind.

The colors. So rich. So involving. Nothing like the dark murky Hollywood fare that populates the metroplex.

Hitchcock. Many compare Almodovar’s style to Hitch’s. I’ve certainly seen that, but this one was the least Hitchcockian to me. I think that’s because each of the three characters in the love triangle get equal time. The crime, while evoking Hitchcock’s favorite theme of the man wrongly accused, isn’t one of those large conspiracy types that had Cary Grant gallivanting with blondes. I suppose Javier Bardem is a sort of Spanish equivalent of Grant.

The sex. The sex in Almodovar’s films is hot and sensual. You can see the same amount of skin in an American film, but it doesn’t have the same impact.

I can’t do this movie justice, and these little blurps are a sad attempt. I’m sorry for that. But if you watch this movie, you will find yourself swept up in the lives of these people that go places you’ll never expect, with results you haven’t seen before. You will see people fighting against what’s served to them, but eventually accepting what they can’t control. Two supporting characters aren’t so lucky. They fight and never accept.

Western of the Week

Chisum (1970) ***
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Writer: Andrew J. Fenday
Starring: John Wayne, Geoffrey Deuel, Forrest Tucker, Ben Johnson, Pamela McMyler, Glenn Corbett, Patrick Knowles, Christopher George, Andrew Prine, Lynda Day, Richard Jaeckel, Bruce Cabot

“Chisum” is the second western I’ve seen lately that places Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid into a story that isn’t really about them and imagines them as friends before Garrett is commissioned out to hunt down Billy Bonney. But, like I said this isn’t really their story. In this version it’s John Chisum’s. If you can get past the ridiculous theme song, it turns out to be a pretty good western. Not a great one, but good.

Billy actually factors pretty heavily into John Chisum’s story of fighting the Lincoln County land war, a subject that was also featured in the 1988 western “Young Guns”. I don’t remember Billy and Pat being such buddies in that one, but it’s been a while. The story of the land war is actually fairly fascinating. It’s one of those areas in history where the history books just kind of say we went west and the notions of land rights and political manipulation of the power that went with the land is fairly well ignored.

As a John Wayne flick, you don’t really see the Duke do too much heavy lifting until the final shoot out. Rumor has it Wayne complained that his stunt double in the final fight was too obvious. I wasn’t really thinking about it as I watched and didn’t notice. What I did notice was how much of an action flick this movie that had opened on pretty mellow notes had turned out to be. This is a pretty good example of a classic western in the way it features a big name star, dealt with the land and scenery, and has plenty of bullets flying to keep people interested.