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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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4 Stars Movies TV

Modern America is born out of lawlessness and chaos in David Milch’s Deadwood: The Movie

What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.

The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.

Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.

Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane in Deadwood: The Movie

There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.

The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos.

But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.

The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).

Robin Weigert and Kim Dickinson in Deadwood: The Movie

The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.

When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.

Molly Parker in Deadwood: The Movie

One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.

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2 Stars Movies

The Vacation of the Future, Today: Westworld

The late Michael Crichton is primarily known as a bestselling novelist, but somewhat less so as a screenwriter, feature film director, and television producer (he was one of the co-creators of the blockbuster series E.R.). Characteristic novels Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain are built upon fascinating speculative science with thrilling story potential, spoiled by wafer-thin characters and simplistic plots.

His 1973 thriller Westworld suffers from the same syndrome. Despite its high-minded origins in speculative science, the movie is simple in structure and theme. It’s not unusual for science fiction films to be overtly based on Western tropes (the best example that comes to mind is Outland), but Westworld is a hybrid with equal parts of each. The second half is basically an extended chase sequence, punctuated by a few classic horror movie tropes.

Yul Brynner in Westworld
There’s a face off in the corner.

Westworld posits a future in which robotics and artificial intelligence have advanced enough to enable a new market for entertainment and leisure. The futuristic vacation resort Delos is a forerunner to Jurassic Park: an experience adventure for the affluent, powered by untested advanced technology. Imagine Disney World-like animatronics taken to the next level: semiautonomous robots roam an immersive environment to serve as interactive servants, sex toys, and target practice.

Crichton skips over the entire issue of how these machines achieve consciousness, making the common movie fallacy that robots = artificial intelligence. If they are basically animatronic machines, how did they evolve an instinct for self-preservation? If these droids are not feeling actual rebellion and murderous vindictiveness, is it a virus or malfunction? On a more practical level, there appears to be a plot hole in how all robots but The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) appear to completely vanish after murdering the Delos’ staff and visitors.

Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in Westworld
James Brolin & Richard Benjamin take the vacation of the future, today.

Brynner may wear the same costume as in The Magnificent Seven, but The Gunslinger’s true analog is closer to Jaws and Moby Dick. He pops up again and again, seemingly unkillable, possessed of an unexpressed, inexplicable motivation to hunt one single man. He fixates on tourist John Blane (James Brolin) and remorselessly pursues him to the death, not unlike the implacable demons that haunt Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian. Brynner isn’t given much in the way of dialog or character, but you can see he worked very hard on his physical performance. His bearing, posture, gait, and gaze are all unsettling. Far from a cartoonish robot figure, The Gunslinger is really inhuman, weird, and creepy.

Westworld, like Jurassic Park, seems to be a vague cautionary tale against toying with advanced science. The famously science-minded Crichton (an M.D.) is not simply demonizing science itself, but rather its arrogant misuse. If the first mistake is to build machines more complex than the human mind can understand, the second is to bet our lives upon them.

Delos is a fantasy world where people can kill or fuck anything they want. In other words, a recipe for disaster. Later science fiction stories like Tron, The Matrix, and Caprica would typically stage similar morality plays in virtual reality. But I don’t get the sense that Westworld is criticizing the indulgence of humanity’s worst tendencies. Is it instead focusing on the mistreatment of semi-sentient beings as slaves?

When the park is in working condition, the robots are prostituted and murdered over and over for humans’ entertainment. After they become conscious, we see one “female” robot reject a human’s sexual advances, while another is cruelly chained up in a dungeon. Neither seems to be expressing much in the way of grief or resentment. Instead, we are perhaps meant to see them as innocents that are simply seeking a little dignity.

Stray observations:

  • The sequel movie Futureworld (1976) and TV series Beyond Westworld (1980) are not available on DVD or online at this time of writing.
  • Young James Brolin looks so much at times like Christian Bale does today that it’s almost creepy.
  • Even Delos’ animals are robotic, perhaps alluding to the moral tests regarding the treatment of animals (robotic or real) in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Even more on the nose, Blane finds a robot snake in the desert, foreshadowing the ones we see for sale in Blade Runner.
Categories
2 Stars Movies

John Sturges honors Kurosawa honoring Ford in The Magnificent Seven

John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s hugely popular Seven Samurai. It suffers in comparison, especially if, like this blogger, one watches them in quick succession. The remake is quaint, chaste, and dated in ways the fairly frank original isn’t. To put it another way, Seven Samurai is a period piece of its 16th Century setting, while The Magnificent Seven is a period piece of its 1960 production.

A remake was inevitable considering the dizzying circle of influence. Kurosawa was a fan of the Hollywood western and especially of director John Ford, all of which directly informed Seven Samurai. Hollywood’s transposition of the story to the American West for The Magnificent Seven was fairly straightforward. Its great success led to three motion picture sequels, a television series, and is reportedly set to be remade again in 2009.

The original eponymous seven samurai were actually ronin, masterless mercenaries akin to the Western outlaw: morally ambivalent drifters, killers with a personal code of honor. The Western genre is usually about outlaws, for the simple reason that they’re more dramatically interesting than regular plain folk. In both versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007), for example, the villain Ben Wade (Glen Ford and Russell Crowe) is a far more appealing and seductive character than the good guy Dan Evans (Can Heflin and Christian Bale).

The Magnificent Seven
The meeting of the Badass Society is adjourned

An exception to the rule is the classic High Noon, in which Gary Cooper plays an honest lawman who prevails under extreme duress. The biggest clue the magnificent seven are not classic good guys: Yul Brynner appropriately sports his trademark black hat. Upping the badass quotient and testosterone levels are no less than Steve McQueen (here getting to drive a real mustang on screen), Charles Bronson, and the very lanky James Coburn.

The basic scenario is similar: seven American gunslingers accept a pittance in order to defend a Mexican village besieged by bandits. But the many alterations beyond this all reflect some very “Hollywood” thinking. In the original, it is enough for the samurai that there be an injustice they are capable of addressing. But in a Hollywood film, there must be individual motivations, which interestingly have the side effect of rendering some characters less heroic. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is convinced Chris (Brynner) has an ulterior motive, such as pilfering a non-existent gold mine. The dandy bounty hunter Lee (Robert Vaughn) is also along for selfish reasons; he’s on the lam for an unspecified transgression, and needs to disappear for a while.

The original Seven Samurai is actually technically comprised of only five actual samurai plus two pretenders. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant posing as a samurai, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is an earnestly romantic young boy seeking samurai training and adventure. Perhaps to economize the story, The Magnificent Seven combines these two characters into one: Chico (Horst Buchholz), a former farmer that worships the outlaws and attaches himself to them in order to become one.

Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven
Go ahead and make our day

So that leaves Chris, Bernardo (Bronson), and Vin (McQueen). In this remake’s best sleight-of-hand, we’re in the dark as to their motivations until near the very end. None of them are young men, and what drives them turns out to be the fantasy of settling down into an agricultural lifestyle. The gruff Bernardo befriends a batch of scrappy kids, becoming a kind of protective older brother if not a father figure. Chris and Vin seal their friendship with the mutual confession that they both hanker for a simpler life (a sort of admission very difficult for two very macho men).

But many poor changes outweigh these aforementioned interesting ones. Being a product of Hollywood, it’s actually less violent, profane, and sexy than the original Japanese film. The Mexican villagers are wise and saintly, compared to the more realistically flawed farmers in Seven Samurai. The threat of sexual violence is whitewashed away; the bandits are not interested in the Mexican women. We see too much of the villains, and the chief bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is practically a featured character.

James Coburn in The Magnificent Seven

But just as I was beginning to dismiss the remake as inferior to the original in every way, and of historical interest only, the movie darkens and becomes interesting again. The Mexican villagers, like their ancient Japanese counterparts, do reveal a dark side after all. Despite their initial success in beating back the bandits with the outlaws’ help, they have a crisis of faith and betray the outlaws in order to return to the comfort zone of their parasitic relationship with the bandits.

In the old west, an outlaw may very well find a home in a frontier town where no one knows his past deeds (a core theme of the HBO series Deadwood and the situation in which Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven opens). But in ancient feudal Japan’s caste system, a ronin could never take a step down and live among farmers. This also proves to be the case in The Magnificent Seven: Chris and Vin mosey on out of town and Chico stays behind, rejecting his pretensions to being a rebel outlaw, and reverting to his destined life as a farmer.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Roger Deakins is the true star of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Had I seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford earlier, I might have included it among my Most Disappointing Films of 2007. Certainly not because it’s “bad,” for could I make a better movie myself? Could I make a movie at all? And who appointed me a critic, anyway? But this blog is about my personal reactions to movies, so here goes.

Assassination was praised to the high heavens by publications including Sight & Sound, so I had expected it to be one of the year’s gems. And indeed, the acting is excellent and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is breathtaking. But I would describe the movie as “novelistic,” not necessarily a good thing with cinema, as opposed to, you know, novels.

Assassination no doubt inherited its notably slow pace (not in and of itself a problem for me) from its source material, the novel by Ron Hansen. I haven’t read it, but I suspect my own chief complaint likewise derives from the book: the omniscient narration. I’m not one that thinks voiceover narration is a screenwriter’s crutch to be avoided at all costs, but there are two extremes in which it can be misused: to redundantly explicate the action seen on screen or to impart information better shown that told. The Assassination of Jesse James does both.

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Through amber fields of grain

I wish I had made a note of an example or two, but there are numerous instances of narration that could simply have been cut for not adding anything to what we’re watching onscreen at the moment. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, one of the most significant events of the story, Ford’s ultimate disillusionment with James and decision to betray him to the law, happens offscreen and is offhandedly recounted by the narrator. Ford approaching the authorities to become a criminal informant would have made for a dramatic scene.

Although the comparison is not quite fair, I am I huge fan of the HBO series Deadwood and couldn’t help but contrast the two in my head. Please set aside for a moment the only roughly related settings (Deadwood is set in 1870s South Dakota, and Assassination in 1882 Missouri) and bear with me for a moment.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The James Gang in happier days

Most obviously, actor Garret Dillahunt appears in both. Dillahunt may have been typecast as a 19th Century sort, but his characters could not be more different. The Francis Wolcott of Deadwood is an educated, urbane, and yet dangerously perverted proto Master of the Universe, a far cry from the suicidally ignorant Ed Miller in Assassination. But where the two diverge, and Deadwood certainly prevails, is the dialogue. David Milch’s scripting is the kind of astonishingly profane poetry that might result when characters with Victorian educations find themselves living in the ass-end of the world. I found myself spoiled by my memories of the prematurely-cancelled Deadwood, and wished Assassination had a little more of its poetry.

But enough griping – time for the praise! Roger Deakins‘ cinematography is delicious, full of warm oranges and deep unbroken fields of black. A notable visual effect used to open new chapters in the story is a narrow field of focus with a blurry halo, suggesting old daguerrotypes (similar to what I’ve seen recently in The Illusionist). Guest critic Snarkbait christened the effect “Ye Old Timey Filter No. 4,” but according to an interview with Deakins in American Cinematographer (no longer online: theasc.com/ac_magazine/October2007/QAWithDeakins/page1.html), the filter is his own invention and appropriately called the Deakinizer.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
One of Roger Deakins’ many striking silhouette images throughout The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

There is fine acting all around, and two fun cameos from James Carville and Nick Cave (who cowrote the film’s music). Casey Affleck rounds out an excellent year in his career after Gone Baby Gone with a great performance as Robert Ford, obviously not billed above Brad Pitt but arguably the main character. Sam Rockwell (as Charley Ford) is especially great near the end of the film, as his simple-minded character tragically breaks down. Pitt makes a charming and earthy, yet plainly sociopathic Jesse James. James’ curse is that he’s always the smartest man in the room, but one need only witness the particularly unhinged laugh Pitt gives him to see how lunatic and criminal the man actually is.

I lied, one more complaint: Mary-Louise Parker & Zooey Deschanel, both fine, name actors, appear in miniature roles with minimal dialogue. Perhaps their characters were similarly minor in the original novel, but they seem underserved in the film. Perhaps the female presence in the actual lives of these historical figures was not significant, but to return to Deadwood for a moment, Deadwood repeatedly proved it is not historical revisionism to include women in a modern-day portrait of a bygone era.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Cleavon Little is the new sheriff in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles

On rewatch as an adult, Blazing Saddles didn’t quite live up to my childhood memories. For instance, I recall the infamous bean-induced fart sequnce being a veritable symphony of bad taste; alas, the real thing is just a minute or so long at most. But it turns wonderfully crazy near the end, finally becoming funny as the cast crashes postmodern-style into another movie set and an actor shouts “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!”

Gene Wilder proves his range by gives the polar opposite performance than in Young Frankenstein and The Producers. Stoned mellow, he graciously supports star Cleavon Little. Still, Wilder gets to wrap up the picture by kicking up his heels (still munching the popcorn from their movie date) and confessing his longing to ride off into the sunset with Sheriff Bart.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Tommy Lee Jones’ almost unbearably gruesome The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Tommy Lee JonesThe Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada joins Jim Jarmusch‘s Dead Man as one of my few highly-rated westerns. Like Dead Man, its tone meanders from the darkly comic to the melodramatic, and is at times almost unwatchably gruesome. Which does nothing to explain why I liked it, I know.

Special mention to Barry Pepper for taking what must be one of the most thankless roles in movie history: his character is a onanistic, racist brute; he is beaten, dragged by a horse, forced at gunpoint to disinter a corpse, bitten by a rattlesnake, and not the least of which, spends a good part of the movie with his pants down (come to think of it, so does Dwight Yoakam).

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