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3 Stars Movies

Billy Bob Thornton’s doomed All the Pretty Horses

The doomed All the Pretty Horses should have, by all rights, been a golden ticket for all involved. Let’s run through its pedigree and prestige factors:

  • based on an acclaimed novel with popular name recognition
  • directed by an indie darling
  • screenplay by a proven specialist in adapting novels to film
  • starring beautiful young up-and-comers
  • score by a notable musician/producer
  • distributed by a household-name movie company known for boffo box office and landing major awards

Instead, a heavily compromised version underperformed and was widely panned, demoralizing director Billy Bob Thornton, alienating musician Daniel Lanois, and generally disappointing everyone. Thornton’s presence in the tabloids at the time may have contributed to audiences not taking him seriously. But the key to understanding what what went wrong is, unsurprisingly, Miramax and — trigger warning! — Harvey Weinstein. Yuck.

Peter Biskind’s book Down and Dirty Pictures is an essential history of the indie boomlet within the 1990s movie industry. Particular attention is paid to the illustrative saga of Miramax, for whom Thornton had made a tremendous splash as writer, director, and star of Sling Blade in 1996. Studio cofounder Harvey Weinstein was riding high at the time for his marketing acumen, but was simultaneously loathed for interfering in the artistic process — to the point where he was known within the industry as “Harvey Scissorhands”.

Matt Damon and Henry Thomas in All the Pretty Horses
Matt Damon and Henry Thomas wonder what went wrong.

Biskind relates how Weinstein forced Thornton to excise more than an hour from his initial 3-4 hour assembly cut, partly out of understandable practicality (a shorter running time would allow theaters to run more screenings per day) but also petty retaliation for Thornton’s refusal years before to similarly abbreviate Sling Blade. Thornton has since asserted that the assembly cut was just that, and distinct from his intended 2 hour and 42 minute cut. However unjust the butchery may have been, it’s hard to imagine how Thorton thought he could possibly get a nearly three-hour-long film into theaters without having a contractual right to final cut, even under a hypothetical producer less ruthless than Weinstein.

After Orson Welles met similar obstacles during the making of The Magnificent Ambersons, he struggled for the rest of his life to continue making movies his way. Biskind heartbreakingly describes Thornton as beaten down and defeated, to the point where he suffered health issues. In the coming years, Weinstein’s far worse abuses of power would become more widely known. In light of how he abused and exploited women, the stifling of a few movies may seem rather unimportant. But it is a pity that this particular one is so compromised.

Penélope Cruz in All the Pretty Horses
Penélope Cruz has more chemistry with this hat than she does with Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses. Seriously though, she looks fantastic in this hat.

It’s difficult to judge how I might have experienced the film if I had not known ahead of time that it was so heavily edited, but it does feel off somehow. It has notably uneven pacing; weirdly accelerating through some plot developments with choppy montages, especially in the opening sequence when Cole (Matt Damon) is forced to leave his family ranch, but slows down to a pensive crawl for others. The romance between Cole and Alejandra (Penélope Cruz) feels inert, and the looming threat from her powerful, overprotective father (Rubén Blades) never materializes. It’s hard to guess whether the full film fleshed any of this out.

Miramax was not averse to letting finished films sit on the shelf if deemed not of box office or award value — or, perversely, if insurance incentivized them to strategically not release them. Miramax also doesn’t have much of a history of releasing special editions for the home entertainment market, even for their biggest pictures. So for a movie that was not a success in its ostensibly more commercial Scissorhands incarnation, it’s interesting to note that Miramax did entertain the release of the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses on DVD, but Thornton and Lanois refused.

Matt Damon in All the Pretty Horses
From the movie’s brief foray into a ruthlessly bleak world more characteristic of Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre.

Weinstein had disliked Lanois’ unconventional guitar-based score, despite his fame and proven success with Sling Blade, and commissioned an entirely new, more conventional one from Marty Stuart. Lanois now proudly refuses to license his original score in any form, and Thornton will not release his director’s cut without it. Thornton and Lanois are still close friends, as evidenced by his appearance in the documentary Here Is What Is, so it’s safe to say the conflict is not between them. Hopefully now that Weinstein split from Miramax in 2005, the company folded in 2010, and Weinstein is finally incarcerated, cooler heads might allow the proper release of the definitive film and score.

Another ray of hope is that Cormac McCarthy has since become an even bigger literary superstar — having been selected for Oprah’s Book Club and enjoyed successful film adaptations of his novels No Country for Old Men and The Road — and perhaps his hard-earned Hollywood clout might help a definitive version of All the Pretty Horses see the light of day. The counterargument is that his collaboration with Ridley Scott, The Counselor, was itself a bizarre fiasco.

All the Pretty Horses is probably one of McCarthy’s most palatable works, which I don’t intend as a backhanded compliment; it is more accessible in comparison to his more characteristic poetically bleak tone. Its back half (the protagonist’s imprisonment and an extended chase sequence) is closer in spirit and tone to the likes of Blood Meridian, but its core elements of friendship and romance provide some relief from the brutality of his resolutely cruel literary universe. As the first volume in a loose trilogy called The Border Trilogy, Thornton’s film could very well have kicked off a motion picture franchise. Revisiting or continuing this saga is unlikely to say the least, but it would be welcome.

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3 Stars Movies

Michael Haneke’s Funny Games confronts audiences with the violence they paid for

Director Michael Haneke has made Funny Games twice, a decade apart. They are essentially the same movie: nearly shot-for-shot, with the same title, similar music and location, and at least one of the actors physically resembling one of the original cast.

The few adjustments include the spoken language, updated telephone technology, and added Americanisms. So this is not a case of a filmmaker completing a rough draft (as Michael Mann’s L.A. Takedown was to Heat), or reimagining a film (as Alfred Hitchcock did with The Man Who Knew Too Much). So why recreate an earlier work in a fashion that hews so closely to the original?

The marketing images created for the 1997 and 2007 versions both utilize the stylistic fetishization of violence in popular entertainment.

Haneke has frankly stated that both Funny Games are his commentary upon violence in cinema, particularly American. His particular depiction of violence here is deliberately senseless, cruel, and unmotivated. The cyclical nature of the attacks is reflected in the very existence of the two films themselves. The remake is a sequel, or the sequel is a remake, just like the unimaginative popular entertainments that Haneke is satirizing.

Perhaps the 2007 version, featuring internationally bankable stars Naomi Watts (also a producer), Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt, allowed him to more directly confront English-speaking audiences with his cynical thesis. As if prophetic, the American home-invasion themed The Strangers would be a box office success the very next year.

Funny Games introduces us to a happily carefree family, immediately signaled as affluent and cultured. They own a vacation home, boat, and listen to classical music. Even their neighbors have refined taste; they are heard enjoying the downtown New York avant-garde musician John Zorn. The family is not unlikeable, but Haneke’s depiction of their easy privilege seems designed to invite either envy or eat-the-rich distaste.

Class envy is certainly implied when they are shortly terrorized by home intruders: unsurprisingly a pair of young white men. Their choice of golf whites and equipment is no accident; perhaps only fencing accoutrement would have been more apt. Had either Funny Games been made a mere few years later, critics would be analyzing these characters in the distressing language of today — disaffected male incel rage — and compared their appearance to the preppy white supremacists that rallied in Charlottesville, VA in 2017 with the fascistic Donald Trump’s open approval.

The obscurely-motivated home intruders from the 1997 (left) and 2007 (right) versions of the film.

Haneke, already known for employing the mechanics of cinema to indict or confront the audience in Caché (Hidden), does so here as well, albeit significantly less subtly. One character breaks the fourth wall five times:

  1. He winks at the camera during a childish yet sadistic hot/cold game.
  2. He bets the family they will be dead in 12 hours, then turns to the camera and asks how the audience would bet, and whose side it’s on.
  3. As the husband pleads for it to be over, he whines “But we’re not up to feature film length yet” and says the audience wants a “real ending”.
  4. He literally rewinds the film to alter events to a manner more satisfying to him.
  5. In the very last shot, he gazes directly at the camera again.

All suggesting one possible theory for his motive: his performative concern that audiences are suitably entertained and get their money’s worth — traditionally the role of the filmmaking, distribution, and marketing teams. Indeed, he seems at times to be directing and editing the action.

Even the marketing for each movie seems designed to comment upon the visual fetishization of violence in popular entertainment. The original poster depicts a child in bonds, and the latter a beautiful woman in distress, with her anguish and tears presented in a fetchingly artistic manner.

The intruders behave dispassionately and ritualistically, and when they are through with this family, they immediately move on to another. We never learn for sure what motivates them, if anything, so we are left to wonder about the film itself, and our culpability for paying to watch it — and other violent delights that the entertainment industry offers.

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3 Stars Movies

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was always out of step with the times

With a release history more tangled than a TNG time travel plot, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is now finally available in its most complete form yet: a 2022 4K remaster of the 2001 Director’s Edition of the 1979 film. Got that?

Engadget has the full details, but in short, don’t call it a “restoration”. The original elements have been fully rescanned and regraded, with effects recreated, all suitable for contemporary screens. Thankfully for the Trek completist, the basic edit has not changed — so there is no “new” canonical material to trigger a warp core meltdown as Memory Alpha is updated. After more than 40 years, the movie finally no longer has a “yeah, but…” asterisk attached to it.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The cast of Star Trek: The Motion Picture model their jumpsuits and miniskirts.

But I still just can’t get behind it. While it has many of the typical Trek trappings (cosmic alien first contacts, tension between workplace hierarchies and personal relationships, and an overemphasis on Spock — more on that later), it lacks the core spirit of Star Trek, which for my latinum, is gee-whiz model UN nerds in space.

It was also always fatally out of step with the times. It borrowed all the wrong things from prior landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (the ponderous psychedelia, conflict with artificial intelligence, the too-tight jumpsuits and too-short skirts), but not the Flash Gordon adventurism that Lucas and Spielberg would employ to define action and sci-fi in the coming decade.

Leonard Nimoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Spock’s voyage beyond the infinite.

Back to Spock: The character is the most overused aspect of Trek, appearing in the original series, the animated series, The Next Generation, Discovery, Strange New Worlds, and almost every movie (including the J.J. Abrams reboots). It’s not fair of me to complain about Spock oversaturation when talking about the very first movie, long before the character was run into the ground. But even so, it all just feels so tedious and simplistic. I understand the character appeals to people on the autism spectrum, but doesn’t the concept of a neurotypical person consciously electing to suppress emotion, out of a cultural/religious impulse, undercut the life experiences of those born that way, without that choice?

The character of Spock may be a challenging exercise for any actor, but on the evidence here, I’m not sure that Leonard Nimoy did much more than simply gaze at everything and everyone impassively. And he’s not the only one who seems emotionless: Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is already an alien ice queen when we meet her, so it isn’t much of a transformation when she is reborn as a walking Siri/Alexa device. And Decker (Stephen Collins) never seems too perturbed when the woman he loves is abducted and assimilated.

Drinking game: down a Romulan ale every time someone says “Spock!” or “orifice”.

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3 Stars Movies TV

The Many Saints of Newark is Sopranos fanfic

As Solo and Rogue One were to Star Wars, The Many Saints of Newark is to The Sopranos: mere fanfic dressed up as a prequel. We did not need to learn how Uncle Junior hurt his back.

Unpopular pop culture opinion: The Sopranos is overrated. Yes, it opened the floodgates for what came to be called “prestige TV”, but so much of what followed is better. Tony Soprano may be the archetypal male sociopath character that rationalizes his behavior to himself and to his TV audience, but I would argue that Walter White, Al Swearengen, Jimmy McNulty, and Don Draper are all more complex and interesting figures.

It’s a more common problem for a movie to fail from not having enough substance, but if anything, Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark has too much material for a two-hour movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Sopranos that it took me ages to untangle the complex family tree in my head. I couldn’t remember which characters we were expected to remember from the series, and which were new.

Some intriguing coloration is given to Tony’s mother, one of the series’ biggest unalloyed villains (not to mention the most Freudian), but she is barely a footnote in this overstuffed mess. I can’t help but think it would have been a better movie if it had focused on her, and perhaps also Janice and Carmela, both of whom merely cameo.

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3 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t bargain or negotiate in The Fugitive

Everyone remembers Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive for Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones’ chemistry (despite rarely sharing the screen) and its iconic action pieces (especially the train and dam sequences). But all of this must hang upon a plot framework, and the lopsided movie’s momentum dissipates as it gets bogged down in the details. The first half is so singularly focused on thrills, that it fails to set up the unexciting pharmaceutical company corruption details introduced too late in the game. For a movie like this, the conspiracy should be as interesting as the action.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that the Marshal’s (Jones) most defining character trait, that the audience is clearly expected to admire, is that he proudly does not bargain or negotiate. Faced with a hostage situation involving a person of color, his solution is to summarily execute. I suppose this is to raise the stakes for the titular fugitive — you’ll be shot dead before you’re arrested — but even to early ’90s audiences, it’s impossible to imagine a U.S. Marshal treating an affluent white felon the same way as a poor black felon. Seems awkward now that this role earned Jones an Academy Award and a sequel.

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3 Stars Movies

The sour overpowers the sweet in About Last Night…

Even though I think I have to casually give Edward Zwick’s About Last Night… only three stars here, there’s a lot to commend it. There’s no high concept or clever hook to slap on the poster: no one falls in love with their maid or the magnate destroying their small business, no one gets amnesia and falls in love with the wrong sibling from the wrong side of the tracks.

“Get me a gin & tonic or I’ll kill you.”

As a sincere romantic dramedy built on top of a David Mamet play, About Last Night… can’t help but fight its schizophrenic nature. Mamet’s trademark macho aggression keeps piercing through, and the sourness often overpowers the sweet. Several Letterboxd reviews note that the film hasn’t aged well, and while I don’t disagree, I think it’s pretty clear that Bernie (Jim Belushi) is telegraphed as a pig, and if not a virgin, then at least a pathetically insecure liar. That the ostensibly more evolved Danny (Rob Lowe) entertains Bernie’s boasting is a sign of his naïveté, and Bernie’s bad influence is part of what causes his relationship with Debbie (Demi Moore) to fail.

But just when you think this is a unicorn amongst donkeys — a rare non-H.E.A. — the coda in which Danny and Debbie reconcile, while still keeping everything else in their lives that led to their breakup, feels inauthentic. About Last Night… does not compare favorably to Marty (1955), where the protagonist rejects his toxic friends in favor of a healthy relationship with a woman he loves and respects.

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3 Stars Movies

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is Terry Gilliam’s 8½

If I hadn’t seen The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with my own eyes, I’d have trouble believing it exists. So Terry Gilliam has finally made his Quixote; but it might be more accurate to say that he finally made his .

In a way, Gilliam has been making this movie over and over for years. Longtime fans will recognize his longtime themes of guilt, unhealthy fantasy, escape, and delusion. His infamous, years-long struggle is cleverly written into the story. Adam Driver plays a film director reflexively hailed as a genius, but for a work so obscure that it is remarkable for it to surface in a bootleg copy — but yet somehow also so well-known that he is asked to superficially replicate it for a television commercial. I wonder if it was ever contemplated to incorporate the small amount of footage shot in 1998 with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp, but I suspect the last thing anybody involved with this cursed project wanted was more legal issues.

I appreciate that while The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is extremely Gilliamesque in its themes, it is rarely egregiously so in its art direction. In the 1996 documentary The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam observed that by that point in his career, craftspeople were so aware of and influenced by his work that he found they could deliver Gilliamesque costumes, props, and sets without his input. Things escalated to the point of self-parody in The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus‘ woozy digital phantasmagoria, but thankfully things here are once again mostly practical.

Trivial perhaps, but if I may add a heartfelt complaint: a pox on Screen Media Films for authoring a blu-ray specifically designed to not remember where you stopped, and to disable the FFWD, NEXT, or MENU buttons during the trailers. I will never understand this kind of consumer hostility. Why punish the movie lovers who have paid to own or rent your film?

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3 Stars Movies TV

L.A. Takedown is the rough draft for Michael Mann’s masterpiece Heat

I finally, finally, finally had the opportunity to cross L.A. Takedown off my movie watchlist — a largely unavailable holy grail that I’ve been desperately curious to see for years.

If director Michael Mann had not reworked this material into the masterpiece Heat, L.A. Takedown would probably be pushed so far down his IMDB or Letterboxd listings that it would get lost behind his more readily available TV work like Crime Story and Miami Vice. But for students of his work, L.A. Takedown is an incredibly fascinating relic; like reading a rough first draft of a well-known novel.

It’s amazing to see how virtually the same material (plot, structure, character, and even exact dialogue) in the same order — including the deafening downtown LA shootout — can comprise the ingredients to both this and the polished near-perfection of Heat. There can’t be many precedents for this; maybe Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much?

Aside from everything it shares with Heat, it’s just as interesting to consider what L.A. Takedown lacks:

  • 100% less Henry Rollins & Tone Loc, and it’s the poorer for it.
  • What I consider one of the key moments in Heat: Hanna (Al Pacino) spotting a sad woman alone in a car, and deducing that Neil (Robert De Niro) has seen the heat around the corner.
  • Acting. I know, ouch, right? The main cast is pretty blah (and hard to tell apart, to be honest), but in supporting roles: Michael Rooker! Xander Berkeley (who’s also in Heat)!
  • Another of Heat‘s unfair advantages: a killer soundtrack. But this does have the then-contemporary Jane’s Addiction live on stage, and an exclusive Billy Idol song, which isn’t too shabby for a TV movie.

It’s also difficult to imagine a time when US TV networks would finance and produce a violent, handheld, and hard boiled movie like this — any movie at all, really, even if it was originally intended as a backdoor series pilot episode. I’m not even sure what the hook or selling point would be for a casual 1980s TV audience, but I’m sure it’s no accident that L.A. Takedown has more of a “just deserts” moralistic ending than Heat.

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3 Stars Movies

Motherless Brooklyn is a civics lesson wrapped in an actorly exercise

I understand the generally negative reception that Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn encountered, but I didn’t dislike it for two very mundane reasons:

1. I happened to watch it in the middle of binging HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries (with which it coincidentally happens to have a great deal in common), and frankly, Motherless Brooklyn comes out on top. Perry Mason‘s unrelenting dour tone and gruesome violence could have used a dose of Motherless Brooklyn‘s lightness and humor.

2. I recognized at least one location as being just a few blocks from my apartment. Funny how a few simple props like a vintage phone booth and some old newspapers can zap a Brooklyn street decades into the past.

But yes, Motherless Brooklyn is not great in and of itself. Ed Norton’s performance is little more than an actorly exercise, and it’s bewildering how many other characters his character Lionel meets are so patient and understanding of his tics. Alec Baldwin’s growly performance is more The Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns than Glengarry Glen Ross. And for a movie about racist civic policies, it’s awkward for it to feature Michael K. Williams as the apparently unnamed “Trumpet Man”, a character dangerously close to magical black person cliche.

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3 Stars Movies

A time twisty scenario: Interstellar

Interstellar‘s torturously complex premise requires a constant stream of exposition throughout, something I don’t recall being a problem in Christopher Nolan’s other time twisty scenarios like The Prestige and Inception. It’s also less emotionally urgent than either, perhaps indicating that the premise and structure overwhelmed everything else.

If Coop (Matthew McConaughey) — and by proxy, the audience — needs to have everything constantly explained to him (before, during, and after anything happens), maybe he’s not the right person for the job. I know, I know, he’s the pilot, and realistically each member of such a crew would have their area of expertise. But perhaps the protagonist of the film, and the one that is most lauded by humanity at the end, should have been either Murph (Jessica Chastain) or Amelia (Anne Hathaway).

And I think maybe we were supposed to feel sentimental affection for the robots? I couldn’t even tell you how many there were.

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