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Assassination in Lincoln's Shadow
Call it post Civil War void, but my history studies always seemed to jump over President Garfield's assassination, and worse, I knew almost nothing about him or what a rise from poverty he had made. This well ordered docudrama portrays him as exactly the right person - a good person - at the perfect time for our Country. Historians agree that he was very likely destined to be a great President.
President Garfield served and lived in Lincoln's historical shadow. In Office only 200 days, his death was a lingering agony - from July 2 until September 19, 1881, and clearly his doctor killed him. By today's medical standards, he would have been back at work in the White House in three months, tops. He died of sepsis . . . from massively unclean wound care. V.P. Arthur was the weasel puppet of a New York aristocratic and wealthy corruption baron. The assassin was clearly demented, yet allowed easy access - repeatedly - to Garfield and many of the Washington politicians.
Give this presentation very high marks . . . history come alive, and well acted.
Live by Night (2016)
Gangster Eye Candy
Despite a number of "professional" critics being very unkind to this movie (they've always loved to pound on Ben Affleck), we found some things to enjoy, e.g., crystal clear and interesting photography (without the obligatory stumbling and fumbling in the dark), terrific costumes and wardrobes, great looking and sounding guns, especially the Thompson submachine gun and the "chunk-chunk-chunk" of the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), interesting and beautiful sets/locations, and handsome guys and gorgeous gals.
The movie is true to its "R" rating with some steamy sex without being overly graphic, certainly not pornographic. The story is especially intriguing although some critics are determined to pan it for being predictable . . . hey! it's a gangster movie, it is what it is, with very little pretense at trying to be more or something that it isn't. At times the plot was more implied than explained, e.g., are the gangsters running rum, making cigars, robbing banks, building casinos, or just killing people? Speaking of preposterous, some of the shootouts even for a gangster movie border on video game impossible, for example, car chase scenes at close range with cops bristling with submachine guns unable to hit the driver despite hundreds of bullet holes all over the fleeing vehicle.
Some of the characters are interesting, some not so much so. Ben's sidekick, Chris Messina is humorous, the bad guys are bad guys, and Zoe Zaldana grabs our hearts and minds, the viewer just knows she is something special. Forever a Chris Cooper fan, I found his role a bit far fetched, and his very young daughter (Elle Fanning) was actually a distraction, impossible to believe. Brendan Gleeson as Ben's cop father is almost a cameo, but Matthew Maher puts a defining stamp on "Southern redneck". Ben's own character is stoic, showing almost no emotion despite dominating the movie minutes; maybe it really is time for Ben to decide, actor or director, but not both at the same time.
In our particular theater, which usually blasts the sound, we struggled to actually HEAR much of the (interesting) dialogue, but no points have been deducted from the rating because this certainly SEEMED a theater problem and not the fault of the movie; however, Affleck's character resorts to mumbling many of his lines. This movie should transfer well to DVD and home flat panel TVs; at 128 minutes, settle in, there is a lot to absorb.
Ben Affleck acting, directing and writing.
Outlaws and Angels (2016)
As an aging Western fan, just consider me a lone sentinel standing watch against this current spate of other movie genres masquerading as Westerns. THIS MOVIE IS NOT A WESTERN.
This movie contains a purely pornographic plot and script, even if the visuals might somehow escape an XXX-rating . . . its R-rating makes a joke of the MPAA film rating system.
It is almost impossible to find a shred of redeeming value in this movie . . . perhaps it was the oddity of finding the beautiful daughter of Clint Eastwood, Francesca Eastwood, appearing on screen with her mother in a cameo role, Frances Fisher "Unforgiven" (1992). Well, the dialog was so mumbled, so garbled, so poorly delivered and edited that much of it was unintelligible . . . and that is a good thing.
This movie works diligently to destroy everything we Americans regard as sacred, e.g., parenthood, Christianity, family, home, and childhood. Retribution? There is none.
Director J. T. Mollner's first full-length movie, and maybe his last?
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Not since Mel Gibson's 2006 "Apocalypto" have I seen this much savage blood and gore on the screen; no, worse, this time wannabe Mouseketeer Kurt Russell is involved. Who could have imagined a Western . . . with Kurt . . . could contain scenes that are, frankly, disturbing . . . one in particular so bad that the viewer immediately wants to un-see it! Maybe I keep looking for Kurt's Wyatt Earp to re-appear, but not in "The Hateful Eight", also in 2015, and certainly not in "Bone Tomahawk" (2015) . . . what's with this 2015 beard thing? Kurt has no reason to hide behind a beard, it does nothing for his looks or his acting.
Notwithstanding this awful prelude, and some other nags, the movie has some absolutely charming dialogue, with actor Richard Jenkins literally stealing the show as "backup deputy" Chicory. Not since Pea Eye Parker and Gus McCrae bantered back and forth in "Lonesome Dove" (1989) have I enjoyed so much the casual often totally out of place and humorous back and forth. In fact, the entire movie with B-list actors (except Russell) - is well acted and a pleasure to watch from an acting standpoint.
A 6-rating because one point is deducted for bleak, dusty and boring photography, another point off for sound that is sometimes so mumbled that the wonderful lines are lost, and two whole points off for nearly senseless gore no wonder the movie is not rated in the USA it should be X-rated for the depravity and graphic gore alone! Some reviewers pan this movie for its slow and plodding pace . . . maybe so, but not for a true Western. Fans of the genre have come to revere Westerns for that very thing, the lingering looks at the Old West. Trouble is, this is not a Western, it is a horror movie set in the West.
You've been warned. At least shut one eye and peek through your fingers.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Magnanimous 7, my rating, maybe even overly generous 7.
It gets 3 points for just BEING a Western, 1 more for great photography, 1 for sets and costumes, 1 for the guns & gun play, and 1 more for cast/acting (and that's a stretch). Deductions 1 for just BEING a remake of a remake, 1 deduction for plot/screenplay preposterous enough to make the original actually look plausible, and 1 deduction for using precisely the same trading post/cabin set used in another remake, "True Grit (2010)" . . . aw c'mon, that was distracting for any Western aficionado, e.g., I kept waiting for Rooster Cogburn to kick the Indian kids off the porch! :-)
This movie reminded me of the 1950s serial Westerns, then modernized to the absolute extreme of ludicrous, over-the-top, CGI'd, special effected, shoot-em-up, you can only die three times movies. Gimme a break. Real Western movies take nearly insignificant moments and turn them into legend, Will Munny did it when he walked into that Wyoming bar on a dreary rainy night, Augustus McCray did it when he decided to chase some buffalo. But this movie ends with a shooting war so immense it would be in every history book if factual, so full of shooting deaths that the real Johnson County Range War (1892) depicted in "Heaven's Gate" (1980) looks like a mere street scuffle. Gimme a break.
Denzel Washington is a fine actor and he brings his A-game (as he always does) to his first Western, but despite a Doc Holliday-like performance by the always brooding Ethan Hawke the remaining marvelous 5 bring little to the ubiquitous poker table, not even the take-any-goofy-role Vincent D'Onofrio.
The rest of the cast, including the one obligatory female, are totally and completely forgettable, most particularly the little, trumped up weasel of a bad guy, Peter Sarsgaard . . . his character seemingly commanding an army of 100s would not scare anything larger than a Pomeranian. Don't think all of this matters? At 2-1/4 hours run time, trust me, it matters.
Most of all the movie breaks down on plausibility, i.e., it has none whatsoever. From the Army of the Bad to the shoot anyone looking like a bad guy theme running throughout, this is Star Wars set in the American West.
Note to anyone not a fan of Westerns even remotely thinking of watching a (real) Western, try this list first:
Lonesome Dove (1989), Open Range (2003), The Proposition (2005), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Missouri Breaks (1976), Dances With Wolves (1990), Unforgiven (1992), Quigley Down Under (1990), Tombstone (1993), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), The Shootist (1976), Last of the Mohicans (1992), McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, (1969) Hang 'Em High (1968), One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Heaven's Gate (1980).
The Salvation (2014)
Western Withdrawal Remedy
If you are suffering from not having seen a good (new) Western movie since "Open Range", maybe even "Unforgiven", here's a bottle of elixir currently being served up - late at night - by your friendly cable provider. Very late at night - it's violent.
Obviously this 2014 (2015, depending upon release dates) movie once played at theaters somewhere . . . but it got by me. It's interesting for several reasons, mostly the unusual lead actors . . . or maybe it's weird enough to just say it's a Danish production filmed in South Africa, reminiscent of another very violent Western filmed in Australia with an Australian cast and production crew, "The Proposition". Sorry to digress.
Two of the main cast members were plucked from another fine movie, "Casino Royale", Mads Mikkelsen, the blood-teared bad guy, Le Chiffre, and Eva Green, the dark-eyed vixen, Vesper Lynd . . . she is no less dark-eyed or ravishing in this Western. It was interesting to see Mikkelsen, a high-cheek-boned Chuck Connors look alike, play the ultimate good guy role in this movie, albeit with all the vengeance of a grieving father and husband.
Photography, sets, and action are riveting . . . well, some of the CGI-vistas are a bit too-perfect. There are other fine performances, Jonathan Pryce as a creepy undertaker/businessman, and Douglas Henshall (new to me) as an equally creepy sheriff/preacher (be quiet Clint).
The movie falters (for me) with the ultimate bad guy, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Oh, he walks the walk and talks the talk, and from his hat to his spurs looks every bit the part . . . but when you set out to brutally terrorize an entire town, you better not turn your back quite so often on even the mousey of mouses. In other words, it's a little over the top.
All in all, it's a Western. Fair enuff.
Free State of Jones (2016)
Intense and Absorbing, So Much to Like
139 minutes, rated R, mostly for intense violence, murder, brutality, disturbing graphic scenes, many of Civil War killed and wounded. Undoubtedly the real thing was still a million times worse. Very little sex or nudity.
Whether it is his acting or TV commercials, McConaughey is intense and brooding. Acting highlights are delivered by many of the cast with most unknown to me. Stand out performances are given by McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and especially Mahershala Ali as "Moses". Photography, sets, costumes, weapons and landscapes are meticulous and a visual joy.
At times the dialogue is sparse, and although I like movies with a slow and deliberate pace, there are a few times when scenes especially in the swamp were protracted for reasons difficult to grasp. Numerous flash forwards by about 100 years are at first jarring and difficult to absorb. As they continue they become more understandable, but no less out of place, even obtrusive.
Basis in historical facts makes the movie believable and realistic; the list of historical consultants in the ending credits is impressive. The movie struggled for a conclusive ending, any ending, and finally just stopped after a couple post scripts.
The movie wallows in helplessness and hopelessness, it is forever depressing. Very difficult for the audience to find a bright moment, a hero, or even a belief that things will get better. Whether re-visited once or often, the ability of our Nation to survive the Civil War and Reconstruction remains truly astounding. Anything focusing on this momentous period of our history can never be regarded lightly.
Notwithstanding my somewhat lengthy list of nits, I found the movie intensely and personally enjoyable, absorbing . . . maybe somewhat due to the new, reclining leather lounge seats at our favorite theater.
Hail, Caesar! (2016)
O Movie, Where Art Thou?
Clooney has the uncanny ability to become associated with awful movies. "Hail, Caesar!" is a mess that smacks of five guys plotting over dinner how to make some spending money.
Let's tick off what's good, that's easy and quick: Crystal clear photography (a Coen trademark), and interesting sets & costumes. The bad & ugly are endless.
The few laughs are strained and forever in coming. The movie is less than two hours but it seems endless with dialogue that just drags, scenes that last forever with no point, and actors who listlessly read their lines - FOR REAL, NOT JUST FOR THE SARCASM. There is no plot, no point, no meaningful conclusion to the stitched together vignettes.
Spoof I understand. "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" is a spoof, a parody. "Hail, Caesar!" is a spoof of audiences stupid enough to cough up their money and time.
This movie seems to be appealing to a narrow band of reviewers and critics knowledgeable of Hollywood's Golden Age, with some pointing out how stupid the rest of us are for not understanding. That's nice. It doesn't work on any other level.
The Revenant (2015)
The Sound of Snow
I expected more.
This movie tries, it really does, but in 2 hours and 36 minutes I began to long for the sound of the human voice, much like "Cast Away" (2000), not to mention that even mountain beauty begins to look like just so much more snow after awhile, especially when filmed in constant dreariness.
The actual, fact-based premise is virtually unbelievable; nevertheless, the director heaped on even more, e.g., from single-shot pistols firing more than once to 50 Indians unable to bring down one severely crippled man at 25 feet.
Little things begin to grate after a couple hours, e.g., long close-ups of Leo's snot-frozen beard, horses that were clearly malnourished, and grime and filth so constant that I wanted to take a shower. Character development is nonexistent, with only Captain Henry piquing our interest anyway. Jim Bridger, one of America's most famous mountain men, comes across mostly as a sniveling teenage murder accomplice.
In the final analysis perhaps I'm hardest on films I love the most, i.e., the Western genre, to which this qualifies, but instead of a lasting memorial chronicle of the West like "Dances With Wolves" (1990), we're left with yet another grimy, gory, outdoor thriller with a bear.
Too Big to Fail (2011)
Once Upon a Time In a Country Very, Very Close
The kind of movie I want to like, but the facts kept getting in the way.
So, it's fiction? No, not really, every real person is precisely identified, right down to using actual names and screen labels.
So, it's a docudrama? No, not really, otherwise Hank Paulson would not have been the central character, played by the fine actor William Hurt, nor cast in any role even faintly resembling the financial savior of our Country.
Don't believe me? Then watch the real Senate hearings with the real Paulson, and his constantly changing ready-fire-aim approach while still posturing for Wall Street after arriving late for his sworn job of bank regulator.
If the real facts interest you, watch "Inside Job", which tries to shine some light on this massive corruption at the highest levels and the looting of the American Treasury.
But if you want to see good actors re-enact just how close we came to rending forever the financial fabric of this Country, while playing high stakes "Let's Make a Deal", this movie will git er done.
Matter of fact, with real, official Washington openly throwing around terms at the time like "financial meltdown", one can only wonder what kept it from happening. Wait! I know! John Q. Taxpayer stepped up with $700 billion, later reduced to $475 billion, so that the Wall Street Wizards could continue funding golden parachutes and outrageous salaries. -------------------------------------------------------------------- From the movie, and in reality very close to what happened: "Michele Davis: They almost bring down the US economy as we know it but we can't put restrictions on how they spend the $125 billion we're giving them because... they might not take it!"
The Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs upon hearing that the nine bank CEOs may refuse to take free money from the federal government if they had to be held accountable for how they spent it". ------------------------------------------------------------------ BTW, the real Ms. Davis is now Global Head of Corporate Affairs for Morgan Stanley . . . you really can't make up stuff like this.