6 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Surprising Western Outpaces Expectations
2 May 2009
When one thinks of singers trying to act, the first culprits that come to mind are Frank Sinatra in "From Here to Eternity" and "The Manchurian Candidate", or Elvis Presley in anything. Usually, the crossover does not work because a particular kind of singer may just have too much personality (or "baggage") to fit himself into a particular role.

Here, though, the transfer works, and it is a result of the kind of singer Willie Nelson was, and always has been. His style of delivery as a musician is all understatement, quiet nuance, and behind-the-beat phrasing. There is a sort of conversational verisimilitude in his singing that crosses over into acting (screen acting, at least). His style of singing is almost the equivalent of the "method" school of acting -- it is all psychological and physiological recall.

So, Nelson is nearly perfect as Parson Shays, for that reason, and for another; the character was already fully-realized in the musical album version of "The Red-Headed Stranger." The screenplay is largely just a fleshing-out of Nelson's narrative vision. If you doubt that, give the album another listen; it has a surprisingly coherent, and direct storyline that connects all of the songs (even several not penned by Nelson himself, most particularly Hank Williams's "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain").

Now, of course, the question still remains: how good is the story itself, and how well has it been rendered on-screen? This is not a Western on par with Leone's, Ford's, or Eastwood's. Nor it is meant to be. It is, however, remarkably well-crafted bit of movie-making. For those who object to the seemingly amoral content (the murdering of women), the only response is that a piece of narrative fiction is not a sermon, and artistic judgment is not the same as moral judgment. Furthermore,the old-school, "white hat/black hat" type of Western was already on its way out around the time of "Shane."
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Juno (2007)
Weak Dialogue, Overcooked Performance from Page
4 May 2008
For all of its arm-waving, panting dialogue, and (mildly) controversial subject-matter, the adjective that springs to mind is "forgettable." First of all, Ellen Page, in full Janeane Garofalo mode, is not terribly likable in the title role. The pixie-haired angel of death from "Hard Candy" was an easier sell for an actress of Page's physical type and emotional brittleness. She tries to compensate for this with over-delivery of lines, and exaggerated facial expressions.

But before too much of the fault is laid on Page, the awfulness of the dialogue must be admitted. It pleads, rolls around on the floor, and kicks its heels for attention, and worse than this, it becomes fairly predictable about fifteen minutes in. At about the halfway mark, I found myself guessing the punchlines to jokes before the actors could deliver them. Case in point; when the pregnant Juno first meets prospective adopters Bateman and Garner, and is offered a drink, I actually said aloud, "She's going to ask for alcohol." Of course, Juno asks for a Maker's Mark. But in a cute-fest of PG-13 proportions, of course, she immediately corrects herself to a juice (or maybe a soda).

In sum, then, the dialogue is the principal undoing of this film -- no amount of decent acting (which is not entirely absent) can save it. Honorable mentions, therefore, for Alison Janney and J.K. Simmons in largely thankless and under-written roles as Juno's parents. Justin Bateman, usually a sly comic actor, here seems unable to find the via media between harmless unction and dangerous sleaziness. Jennifer Garner phones her performance in, and to be honest, probably not much more could be expected of someone like her.

Michael Cera, out-hammed by Page in every scene he appears, may or may not be good. It's impossible to tell.
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Those Wacky Hipsters
12 April 2007
Some of my best friends are hipsters. Nevertheless, the velvet-jacketed, argyle-sweatered, knit-scarved armies of ironists that comprise young white culture today are all bit too anemic and muddle-headed for me to even get upset about. That is, like the sort of people who must be its fan base, "Igby Goes Down" ultimately annoys in a vague, wheedling, sort of way, like a small insect stuck in your bedroom at night. It keeps making thrusts and feints at your ear, and you keep batting it away, hoping that it will find the crack under the door.

In the final analysis, there is nothing really objectionable about the film. It is not poorly written or acted (Kieran Culkin is wooden, but that seems to be called for in this part), but it seems to want to be thought of as erudite, or at least, clever and snarky. One of the other commentators on this site compared it favorably to "The Graduate". That person obviously watched the older film with the "mute" button on the entire time. The perversity and wackiness of "The Graduate" is of a degree and kind that people like Wes Anderson and Burr Steers only dream of attaining in their product.

Maybe part of the problem is a lack of identity with us "normal" or "average" folk (there are fewer hipsters of the Anderson stamp that you might think). That is, in order to subvert "white middle class culture" (whatever that means these days) you have to be a card-carrying member of it to begin with.

By comparison to Wes Anderson, people like John Hughes and Mike Nichols are Average Joes. That's why their efforts are going to outlast the Andersonian wackiness. By the way, don't misunderstand me; I'm not holding up Hughes or Nichols as examples of "great" or "profound" art or anything like that. Let's keep in mind that we are talking about 20th and 21st century American film, a debased form to begin with. Examined against that yardstick, "Igby" is not terrible -- it's just very, very forgettable.
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Saturn 3 (1980)
Martin Amis Gives Sci-Fi a Try
26 December 2006
All right -- first off, I'm going to recommend that you see this, even if just to satisfy your own curiosity (which I'm presuming on your behalf, I suppose). My own curiosity stems from the fact that Martin Amis was the screenwriter here. For those who don't know, Amis is the gold standard for modern literary fiction (although more recently, he has been off-form, c.f. the horrendous "Yellow Dog"). His narrative prose is too often described as "Mandarin"; that is, erudite, rife with classical allusion, and thoroughgoing familiarity with the major English writers and poets (particularly and most importantly Milton, whose "Paradise Lost" he basically cannibalizes for the plot and much of the language of his "The Information", and also P.G. Wodehouse, whose prose style his is most akin to). Amis, the son of novelist Kingsley Amis, claims to have read nothing but comic books as a boy.

There's nothing overtly Amis-ian about the dialogue itself -- one or two stillborn jokes about Saturn being the "place where they would insert the tube if the solar system needed an enema" (which sounds like the astro-physics stuff from The Info or London Fields, where sodomy is talked about in terms of "black holes," and Nicola herself is a "black hole of sex", right?). There are "erudite" elements like classical references to the Roman god Saturn (at least in the title itself, and not really developed in the screenplay) and naming of the robot "Hector", of "the Demigod III series" (one of the characters constantly reminds us of Hector's bad treatment at the hands of Achilles, to wit, "Hector's body was dragged around the walls of Troy by Achilles").

The acting by Douglas and Fawcett is just unbelievably bad. No way to get around it. As I think back on it, the screenplay may have been pretty good actually, but their delivery was ruining it, every time. Douglas's big, hammy face and shoulders filling up the screen and stepping all over what may have been witty little bits here and there. He was badly, badly mis-cast in this one -- it should've been someone like Jack Lemmon or Kevin Spacey. Farrah Fawcett (earning her paycheck as a set decoration, basically) was perfectly cast, in light of the fact that this is basically an "Adam and Eve In Space" story. Amis's females (c.f. "Other People," or "Success") tend to take Milton's Eve as their model.

Now, if the execution, in terms of acting or staging what-have-you, didn't come off, the overall structure of the thing was anagogically sound. There's no question that Amis's novelist's sense of architecture was at its high ebb at this part of his career (the contemporaneous book would be "Success", Amis's most cleanly and cleverly plotted). As I said, it's basically Adam and Eve "in space," and the ending, as with our first parents, is not a happy one.

Harvey Keitel is the intruder on Douglas's and Fawcett's Eden. And what's interesting is that his character is a forebear of the "Devil" character in Amis's later novel, "The Information", Scozzy. Keitel's character is, like Scozzy, a sort of cyborg, a series of pixellated surfaces, motivated only by desire for Fawcett. By the end of the movie, his person merges with the robot Hector.

The movie's coda was surprisingly strong, actually, almost unwarrantedly powerful, given the crappiness of what had led up to it.

Overall, you'd have to give Amis credit for trying to bring depth to a pretty shallow genre (references to Homer, Virgil, and Genesis, in a 90 minute sci-fi horror flick), and for knowing when to "get out of the way" for the visual aspect of the action.
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Che Disgrazia
5 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
* * May Contain Possible Spoilers * * Where to begin . . .

First of all, there is the architecture of the plot itself. It begins as a moderately maudlin tearjerker about a father-son relationship that has, like most, cooled over the years. Nothing special yet -- things start to warm up, however, with the random (and really not that usual in San Diego) killing of the son by a homeless guy. The father's reaction, and its depiction, descend through levels of Schwarzneggerian bravado cliché, eventually to arrive at a denouement of Keystone Cops-like farce. Were the ending intentionally comedic, the laugh-quotient could not be greater.

Further objections -- the lead role, Enzo, supposedly a retired opera star, is played by song-and-dance man Paul Michael. While Michael's voice is not completely unacceptable, it is thoroughly overmatched by the repertoire the Enzo character is supposed to be at home with. That is, French and Italian grand opera, stuff like Bizet's "The Pearl Fishers," Verdi, Donizetti, et alli. When Michael takes a stab at the Duet from Bizet's opera, the Enzo character loses nearly all credibility.

The acting, and writing, as a whole, are disastrous. Furthermore, the conceit of San Diego's "homeless" problem has completely lost any currency. The homeless were no longer living where James Hill thinks they were, even at the time he was making this movie.

Lastly, there is a bit of condescension toward and stereotyping of Italians, which is at its worst when the son character Joey, describing his father's passion for cheese, speaks the following lines: "My father really loves cheese. Cheese-a, cheese-a."

James Hill apparently is of Italian ancestry, although he must not be an Italian from San Diego. This is obvious from the fact that the son character's funeral is done at St. Joseph's Cathedral. Any San Diegan of Italian extract -- especially the son of the serious immigrant-type like Enzo -- would be buried out of Our Lady Of the Rosary, across town. That's a bit niggling, I realize, but artistic truth is an assemblage of just such detail.
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More than just camp value
24 April 2005
Although that is present as well, in some of the musical numbers. Altogether, this is a fine piece of entertainment, not just a Mexican curiosity.

Antonio Aguilar brings a fine, almost Old-World authority to the title role, and the honesty and eagerness to please of the rest of the cast smooths any rough, amateurish edges.

Of particular interest is the diversity of the soundtrack. I thought I heard a snippet of a Haydn Mass (either the "Lord Nelson" mass, or the "Heilig" mass) at the closing credits.

The film is perhaps less successful when it is trying to be a Mexican "Godfather." Quintero's character is more a distillation of Sam Spade, Gene Autry, and John Wayne than Vito Corleone. The outfits say it all -- he is a modern-day singing cowboy.
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