Savages


 

Savages

Blake Lively is jealous that Salma Hayek gets a meal and she gets a salad.

(2012) Drama (Universal) Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Johnson, Blake Lively, Benicio del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta, Emile Hirsch, Demian Bechir, Amber Dixon, Joel David Moore, Diego Catano, Shea Whigham, Joaquin Cosio, Antonio Jaramillo. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

When pushed to the wall, we all do what we have to in order to survive. We may be the most peaceable souls normally but that all changes in certain situations. Sometimes, we must become savages in order to make it through.

Chon (Kitsch) and Ben (Johnson) have a business together. Their business happens to be growing marijuana. Ben is a botanist and a businessman from Berkeley. He has managed to breed the most amazing weed on the planet and has put together a network of distributors that keeps costs down and quality high.

Chon is the big stick in the equation. Ben’s business model doesn’t call for violence often but when it’s needed Chon supplies it. He’s a vet fresh off of tour in Afghanistan who has a cynical outlook on life. He’s the yin to Ben’s yang….er, or vice versa.

What they have in common is O. Which stands for orgasm. Which stands for Ophelia (Lively). She is Ben’s girlfriend. She’s also Chon’s girlfriend. Sometimes all at the same time. She has orgasms. Ben has orgasms. Chon has wargasms. It all works out nicely for everyone. Life is kind of a stoner paradise from their beach house in the OC.

Then it becomes clear that the Baja cartels want to invade. Alex (Bechir), a slimy lawyer, puts what sounds like a reasonable proposition out to Chon and Ben. Chon is suspicious and Ben is more interested in getting out of the business entirely. However when they turn down the offer, Elena (Hayek), the head of the cartel, sics her vicious enforcer Lado (del Toro) on the boys. He discovers their weakness is O (not orgasms, Ophelia who provides them – she likes to be called O because she hates her name by the way) and kidnaps their weakness.

At first Chon and particularly Ben are so concerned with O’s safety that they’ll do literally anything to ensure it. But as they get their composure back it becomes clear that once the cartel gets what they want (their superb weed and their business model) all three of them will be disposed of so it’s all-out war – reluctantly on Ben’s side. And in any war, there are casualties.

Say what you want about Oliver Stone’s politics, his point of view, the man can direct – JFK is one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s just that sometimes he has a habit of inserting himself into a movie – the good ol’ “Look Ma I’m Directing” syndrome, or LMIDS.

Much of the problem is in the narration. Blake Lively is a fine actress but there is just far too much narration and what that is generally is the filmmaker inserting themselves into the story. Trust the story to tell itself – and trust the actors to convey what’s in their heads. If you have to narrate every scene, you’re selling your story and your cast short.

And part of the problem is also in the story itself. The main characters are a little narcissistic, a bit naive, and they do a lot of drugs. I mean Ben, O and Chon smoke a lot of their own product. That may make it seem like they’re just kids in paradise but in reality they’re criminals, selling illegal narcotics. They do some pretty bad things along the way which might be part of Stone’s message, but I’ve never been a fan of 70s movies that require you to root for the bad guy who’s less bad.

And there are some pretty impressive performances here, particularly from del Toro who’s as magnificent a villain as we’ve seen since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. He delights in inflicting pain and torment but he’s all business as well. He’s as frightening an enforcer as you’re ever likely to meet. Not that you meet a lot of enforcers.

For all intents and purposes this is a kind of Jules et Jim for stoners but done as a crime drama with a side of brutality. Does that really sound like an interesting film to you? Maybe it is and I’m just missing it but quite frankly I never connected to the movie and I usually do with Stone’s works. I haven’t even mentioned the ending which is really jump-the-shark bad. It’s definitely a LMIDS move that adds an additional unnecessary fifteen minutes onto the film and for no other reason than for the filmmakers to pull a fast one on their audience.

I’m not one for recommending this but this is the kind of movie that probably should best be experienced while bombed out of your gourd. It will help with the somewhat unlikely plot and the somewhat unlikable characters. But mostly, it will help with the directorial parlor tricks that serve to take you out of the film and remind you that this is an Oliver Stone Production. We only need the opening credits to remind us of that; anything else is just an overactive ego.

REASONS TO GO: Del Toro may well be the best screen baddie in the business at the moment.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly narrated and too many cutesie directorial moves. Very difficult to get invested in the main characters. The ending is really godawful.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of drug use – and I mean a lot. If that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, this isn’t the movie for you. There’s also a lot of violence, a bit of torture, plenty of sex, some gruesome images, nudity and pretty much constant cursing. This is what they call a “Hard R.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uma Thurman was cast to play Ophelia’s mother but her part was cut from the film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are fairly mixed, trending towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic

HACIENDA LOVERS: Elena lives in two homes; one in Mexico and one in California – both are hacienda-style villas that are excellent examples of the form of architecture so prevalent in the American Southwest and Mexico.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Father of Invention

Kill the Irishman


 

Kill the Irishman

Don’t get Ray Stevenson angry – he can fart flames!

(2008) Biodrama (Anchor Bay) Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, Fionnula Flanagan, Laura Ramsey, Steve Schirripa, Linda Cardellini, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh

 

Here, at last, is a movie for which the Irish lament “Danny Boy” is quite literally appropriate for – and the filmmakers showing restraint unheard-of in Hollywood actually don’t use it. That’s at least worth some respect.

Danny Greene (Stevenson) was an enforcer for the Cleveland Irish mob. In his heyday in the 70s, he and his partner John Nardi (D’Onofrio) fought a war against the Italian mob that was epic in its viciousness. In 1976 alone, 36 bombs exploded in the city as a direct result of the mob war.

He started off as a longshoreman rising up in the union. He eventually took over the leadership of the union (Merke) and would later be convicted of skimming funds from the membership. Once out of jail, he turned to crime as a full-time operation, working with Shondor Birns (Walken) but things go south. Greene requests a $75,000 loan to build a semi-legal drinking establishment; Birns entrusts the money to a runner who then proceeds to buy drugs with it, and is promptly caught by the police. Because Greene never received the cash, he refused to pay back the loan which had been paid for by the Gambino family, putting immense pressure on Birns.

Greene breaks away from the Italian mafia forming his own group mainly comprised of young guys of Irish descent, with Nardi as (kind of) their legitimizer. Greene is bombarded with several attempts on his life, including one where his home was hit by a bomb while he and his girlfriend were asleep. The house collapsed but Greene and his girlfriend survived, shielded by rubble.

Greene would attain legendary status in Cleveland. He often took care of those in need of cash in Cleveland’s Irish community and came out of every assassination attempt more or less unscathed. He became a darling in the Cleveland media and the bane of the Cleveland mafia’s existence. He also became an informant to the FBI.

This is based on a non-fiction book – loosely based I might add – that was written by a Cleveland police officer familiar with the case and with Greene (the fictionalized character based on the author is played by Val Kilmer in the film). That book was also turned into a documentary I haven’t seen yet, but the filmmakers here do a pretty credible job with it.

The cast is pretty spectacular for an indie, including Walken – curiously restrained as the racketeer who first came into conflict with Greene, and veterans Schirripa and Sorvino who have made careers out of playing Mafiosi doing stand-up jobs.

Stevenson, best known for his work on the HBO series “Rome” and for playing The Punisher in Punisher: War Zone (and doing both well) proves once again he is much more than an impressive physique. He catches both the larger than life aspect of Greene as well as his clever and sinister side. Greene was a complicated man as you can probably tell from the synopsis; he was equal parts folk hero, bullshit artist, criminal and killer. The movie tends to gloss over the killer part to focus on his folk hero standing; he is portrayed as a basically decent guy who just happened to kill people for a living.

This is an excellent cast top to bottom. Cardellini plays Greene’s wife and the mother of his kids in a role that could easily have been thankless but is given some sparkle by her performance, while Flanagan plays an old Irish woman who reminds Greene of his roots and isn’t afraid to stand up to the tough guy, to his amusement.

This takes a larger than life character and tries to compress him down into a two hour time frame which has its pros and cons. One of the cons is definitely that we really don’t see why Greene, who was so obviously bright and charismatic, went down the road of organized crime. It just kind of happens in the film and without any explanation. One scene depicting how he fell into it – or a montage if necessary – could have made for a bit more continuity.

Still, this is well worth watching. America has a fascination with criminals, from Jesse James to John Dillinger and Danny Greene could well end up having the same kind of cultural impact over time. He had a lot of blarney and a dark side as well, a combination that’s like catnip to our violence-obsessed culture. Although Greene considered himself as Irish first and foremost, he may well have been the perfect American anti-hero – living life on his own terms and by his own rules and the devil take the cost.

WHY RENT THIS: Surprisingly stellar cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Glosses over some of the motivations as to why Greene got into crime.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, quite a bit of bad language and a helping heaping of nudity and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production shot at Tiger Stadium (Navin Field) in Detroit shortly before it was demolished.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an hour-long documentary on the real Danny Greene.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget. The movie probably finished just a bit below breaking even.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wiseguys

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Savages

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Believe it or not, George Smiley IS smiling!!!!

(2011) Spy Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Arthur Nightingale. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

 

Some spies are meant to be shaken and not stirred. Others are more intellectual, preferring to think their way out of a situation by thoroughly researching. For them, the spy game is as complex and as action-packed as a game of chess.

George Smiley (Oldman) couldn’t have been given a worse surname. He rarely smiles, not even for a moment. He is a methodical man, emotionless. He worked as an analyst for MI6, the British counter-intelligence group that was made famous by James Bond. However, his life is much different than that of the dashing Ian Fleming creation. Smiley works for the Circus (it is unclear whether this is a group within MI6 or the directorate of the agency itself) as the right hand man for Control (Hurt). It is 1973 and the Cold War is in full swing.

A disastrous mission to Hungary leads to a purge in the Circus. Control and Smiley are out, and in are a cadre of four men – Percy Alleline (Jones) – the leader, Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik).  Control suspected one of them of being a double agent for the Soviets and had nicknamed them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man respectively, after a British nursery rhyme. When field agent Rikki Tarr (Hardy) turns up with information about the identity of the mole, minister Oliver Lacon (McBurney) pulls Smiley out of retirement to ferret out the traitor.

Aided by his protégé Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), Smiley attempts to quietly find the mole while keeping clear of the MI6 brass, any one of whom might be the culprit and all the while dealing with the estrangement from his beloved (but promiscuous) wife Ann.

Alfredson was the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This is his first English-language movie and given the cold exteriors of his previous film is the right choice for this one. The England of 1973 is a dreary looking one, with grey washed out skies, filthy buildings, dingy interiors and in general, just a depressing place to be. Truly a Cold War.

Oldman gives a performance that is surprisingly strong. Much of the movie he is spent repressing his emotions and has to show his feelings with his eyes. There is a great deal of sadness inside the spy; sadness at the failure of his marriage, sadness that among his trusted friends is a betrayer, sadness that he is growing into an uncomfortable middle age. There is a scene near the end of the film where Smiley tells Guillam about his one and only encounter with the Soviet spy Karla, who is behind the ole plot. As Smiley tells Guillam the story, you can see the regret; the emotions that have been repressed for so long are just aching to be let out. It’s one of the best single scenes that any actor has performed this year in any movie and it’s worth seeing the film just for that one scene. It’s so good that if Oldman gets a Best Actor nomination I’d be willing to bet that’s the clip that gets shown at the Oscars.

There is a bevy of fine English actors here to support him, including the aging Hurt (who mostly appears in flashback), the combed over McBurney and Hardy, who knows he has done some bad things and wants to do just one thing right. Still, it is Oldman who carries the movie in the palm of his hand – a tough gig when you have Oscar winner Colin Firth in the line-up and Firth is far from disappointing here.

This is a cerebral spy film, one which is more of a chess game than an action thriller. The pace of the movie is going to drive most Bondphiles absolutely batty. There are no car chases, no high tech gadgets and no henchmen. There are no bon mots delivered after the spy beats some thug up without so much as a hair going out of place;

This is spycraft in the real world circa 1973. This is listening devices with operators recording and then writing down the transcripts of the conversation. This is conferences in soundproof rooms. This is tired old men sending down orders to foolish young men. It’s trying to out-think your opponent, knowing that if you guess wrong that your country could wind up a smoking ruin of irradiated ash.

This is a very different kind of spy movie – it’s been made as a television miniseries back in the day with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley and his performance is still considered the definitive one for the role, although I’m sure in the years to come there will be plenty to take up Oldman’s side on the issue.  Alfredson does a great job of re-creating the era and the screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who passed away shortly after finishing the script) and Peter Staughan capture the soul of le Carre’s work. The movie does it justice to a certain extent but I only wish the movie wasn’t so damn glacial. I’m all for thoughtful but a little action is nice too.

REASONS TO GO: Very cerebral. A definite throwback to Cold War-era spy stories. Oldman gives an understated but terrific performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks action and inertia; can be very slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oldman based his performance as Smiley on some of the mannerisms that he observed from author John le Carre, who also has a cameo as a somewhat drunken partygoer at the Christmas party.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100. The reviews are extremely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American

SWINGING SIXTIES LOVERS: Plenty of smoking, drinking and shagging (by inference) – all things that are politically incorrect these days. What once were habits now are vices.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Hall Pass

True Grit (2010)


True Grit

Not bad for a one eyed fat man!

(2010) Western (Paramount) Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper, Dakin Matthews, Jarlath Conroy, Elizabeth Marvel, Leon Russom, Ed Corbin, Candyce Hinkle, Bruce Green, Peter Leung, Don Pirl. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

When you remake a movie that most would consider a classic, you had better know what you’re about. Not only must you retain the essence of the original, you need to add something significant to it; otherwise, what’s the point?

Maddie Ross (Steinfeld) has come to Ft. Smith, Arkansas from her farm in Yell County. Her father has been brutally gunned down by a hired hand, Tom Chaney (Brolin). Nobody in Ft. Smith seems particularly interested in pursuing Chaney who has fled into the Indian territories. The Sherriff (Russom) has no authority there and recommends a U.S. Marshal. There are several choices, but the Sherriff recommends Rooster Cogburn (Bridges).

Mattie tries to track down the Marshal but is unsuccessful at first. He’s obviously drunk and refuses to come out of the outhouse – and it’s not as if she’s about to go in after him. In the meantime she goes to Col. Stonehill (Matthews) to settle her father’s affairs with him. He’s a horse trader who meets his match in the 14-year-old girl. When after being bested in the first session she means to initiate a second, he moans “Oh God we’re not going to haggle, are we?” He knows a superior negotiator when he sees one.

Finally when she meets Marshall Cogburn he is at first unimpressed but when Mattie shows up with $50 he takes her a mite more seriously. She insists on accompanying him, not trusting him to do what he says he will. He is reluctant to allow it but at last gives in.

However, Mattie isn’t the only one looking for Chaney. There’s a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoeuf (Damon) who wants to collect the reward for a murdered State Senator and has been tracking Chaney (who was called Chelmsford in Texas) for months. He entreats Mattie to go home but she is obstinate. This won’t be the first time she displays that trait.

She wakes up to discover that Cogburn has already left. Nonplussed, Mattie follows on her pony Little Blackie who turns out to be a helluva horse. She is surprised to discover that LaBoeuf has thrown in with Cogburn but after LaBoeuf takes a switch to Mattie that partnership disintegrates. Truth be told, Cogburn admires the determined young girl deep down.

Cogburn believes that Chaney has taken up with Lucky Ned Pepper (Pepper, ironically enough) who is an outlaw operating out of the territories. He goes in search of information to confirm it and winds up deep in the Indian Territories, going up against hardened outlaws…and the frailty of his employer…of himself.

It is inevitable that the new version will be compared to the old. Let’s first establish that Jeff Bridges is no John Wayne. Quite intelligently, Bridges doesn’t even attempt to be Wayne. His Rooster Cogburn is allegedly closer to the character in the Charles Portis book both films are based on (I can’t say for certain because I haven’t read it). He’s a drunken reprobate with a past that for one or two wrong turns may have turned out just like Chaney or Pepper. He dances just this side of the angels and has one foot on the side of the devils.

This isn’t a typical Coen Brothers movie. Gone are the quirky characters, the off-kilter sense of humor that pervades. In that sense, this is more like No Country for Old Men; the storytelling is more linear, more direct. The Coens are very particular about the language they use; the language here is more authentic than the original True Grit. In that sense, again this is closer to the Portis novel which was known for utilizing authentic idioms of the era. The 1969 movie was made for audiences of that time who weren’t looking so much for authenticity as much as adventure, and to a certain degree, of the Duke although by that time he had fallen out of favor to a large extent, having grown old and less imposing than he once was; he was also battling cancer at the time which was less known.

Wayne and Bridges aside, this is Mattie’s story and once again we are left to compare Kim Darby, 20 when she filmed the 1969 movie and Steinfeld, 13 when she filmed this one. Darby is spunkier than anything and while she talks like a bookkeeper, she is less convincing as a 14 year old. Certainly Steinfeld gets points in that regard and she has the inner strength that the character possesses, as well as the intelligence and fortitude. She also has the singularity of focus; Steinfeld certainly is impressive in communicating all these things. She is a gifted young actress who may very well get a Best Actress Oscar nomination this February. 

Damon plays the Texas Ranger role that Glen Campbell played and here is where this movie gets better. Damon gives the Ranger much more depth than Campbell was able to deliver and to be fair Campbell was more or less stunt casting. Damon makes the Ranger much more dangerous than the Campbell version which was more or less comic relief. You can believe that LaBoeuf is quite capable of killing from distance and efficiently here.

One of the issues I have here is the ending and this is where the filmmakers teach us a valuable lesson; not everything that is in the book is necessarily as good as the first movie. This movie adds the epilogue that was in the book, showing Mattie 25 years later (Marvel) but the coda is a bit anti-climactic and really adds nothing to the story.

However, this really is a much different movie than the first one and in some ways judging one against the other isn’t real fair but is necessary – after all, the first won the Duke an Oscar and is a bit of a standard among westerns. This has already become the largest-grossing movie in the Coen Brothers 20 year career and comes about it honestly, without a 3D or IMAX upcharge to artificially inflate the numbers. This is serious entertainment and proof positive that even though Westerns are no longer a guaranteed box office draw that when done right they can still be big hits. This is deserving of the success and is one of the must-sees of the holiday season.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography adds to strong performances throughout. While Bridges is no Duke, he holds his own. Damon makes a great LaBoeuf.

REASONS TO STAY: While it is very good in its own right, this is still not as good as the John Wayne version. Much grittier than the original, sometimes too gritty in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a few disturbing images and some peril for 14-year-old Mattie.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Bridges and Brolin have portrayed Wild Bill Hickock, whose Wild West Show is the setting for the movie’s epilogue.

HOME OR THEATER: If you watch it at home at least you can get up and leave without bothering anybody.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Little Fockers

Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

September Dawn


September Dawn

You'd better be good or Jon Voight will go all Old Testament on your ass.

(Black Diamond) Jon Voight, Trent Ford, Tamara Hope, Jon Gries, Taylor Handley, Huntley Ritter, Daniel Libman, Dean Cain, Lolita Davidovich, Shaun Johnston, Terence Stamp. Directed by Christopher Cain

So much pain, so much bloodshed has been perpetrated in the name of God and Christ. Even today, religious fanaticism and intolerance has led to the most heinous of acts.

In the late summer and early fall of 1857, the Fancher-Baker wagon train, led by the redoubtable Captain Fancher (Johnston) reaches Utah territory and the land of Bishop Samuelson (Voight) of the Mormon church. They are exhausted, and need food, supplies and rest before pushing over the rest of the Rockies to make it to California, where they are bringing Kentucky racehorses for the purpose of gambling. Samuelson’s sons, Jonathan (Ford) and Micah (Handley) meet the party with unfriendly distrust.

The Mormons had good reason to mistrust. They were on the verge of being invaded by the U.S. Army, as the American government was not too pleased with the idea of a religious theocracy developing on American soil. The prophet of the Mormons, Joseph Smith (Dean Cain) had been murdered at the hands of an angry Missouri mob, an event witnessed by Samuelson himself. However, he is the voice of hospitality as he tones down the boys’ unwelcoming and bids the settlers stay and rest awhile.

What he really wants to do is keep them close by while he can keep an eye on them and find out what they’re up to. What he thinks they’re up to is to sneak guns in to help murder Mormon citizens of Utah and pave the way for the U.S. military to wipe them all out. He is further disturbed by the sight of a woman, Nancy Dunlap (Davidovich) wearing pants, a no-no in Mormon culture…well in American culture pretty much of the time as well.

He means to punish the infidels or Mericats as the Mormons called them and praises God for delivering them into his hands for punishment, or more accurately retribution. Simultaneously, the Fancher party’s Reverend Hudson (Libman) is giving thanks to God for the party’s deliverance into hospitable hands.

Jonathan has fallen for the good Reverend’s spirited daughter Emily (Hope) who challenges him on an intellectual level that none of the local girls is able to do. However, to his horror, his father has ordered that the party be wiped out with the complicit support of Mormon leader Brigham Young (Stamp). Mormon leaders approach the local Paiute tribe to do their dirty work, warning the Native Americans that the party is out to take their land.

When the Paiutes fail to carry out the Mormon’s plan, John Lee (Gries), a militia leader for the Mormon Church, offers to escort the Fancher party to safety if they lay down their arms, which would appease the hostiles. Instead, on the morning of September 11, 1857 he leads them to the Mountain Meadows where the party is ambushed and massacred, with only the small children being allowed to live, taken to be raised as Mormons by Mormon families.

Most of the events above actually happened; the massacre did take place 144 years before the World Trade Center fell. In all fairness, there is no historical evidence that confirms that Brigham Young condoned or even knew about the attack; his deposition, which is recreated here, took place nearly a decade after the events occurred (the Civil War kept the United States a little busy before they could return and properly investigate the massacre). Only Lee was ever charged or convicted for the crime, and his execution is shown at the movie’s conclusion, in fairly graphic but accurate detail.

The Mormon Church has decried the movie, saying it is anti-Mormon and historically inaccurate and certainly there are plenty of inaccuracies here. However, it is widely believed that Young’s strident teachings created an atmosphere that allowed the massacre to take place. Certainly that Mormons took part in the crime is beyond doubt.

One doesn’t look to Hollywood for history lessons, and if you do, you do so at your own peril. Director Cain has been accused of making the film in order to derail the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, a charge which is patently ridiculous (the writing and preparation for the film took place long before Romney announced his candidacy). Whether there is anti-Mormonism in the movie is a judgment call; I for one didn’t detect that it was particularly against the Church of Latter-Day Saints but certainly depicted individuals within that Church as fanatic and paranoid.

Voight is a tremendous actor, and he gets license to go over-the-top and he does so with a great deal of gusto. He wears his Old Testament beard like a genuine prophet, or at least a man believing himself to be. There are some nuances to his performance that I liked a great deal, as he portrays Bishop Samuelson as a man scarred by his own inability to save his wife or Joseph Smith, and a man enraged by the threat of the Gentiles, as the Mormons then referred non-Mormons as.

The romance between Jonathan and Emily simply doesn’t work for me. They get together mainly because the screenplay tells them to; I never got the impression that there was anything binding them together that was real or believable. Johnston is suitably heroic as Captain Fancher, and Handley suitably tormented as Micah. Most of the rest of the performances are of the movie-of-the-week variety.

I do like that a nearly-forgotten incident from American history has been brought to light for public debate. The details of the Massacre remain cloudy to this day. The crime remains a heinous one, even by modern standards; women and children were shot, sometimes at point-blank range. Their remains were left unburied to be consumed by animals and scattered by the elements. Witnesses who came to the site years later proclaimed it to be one of the most horrific things they’d ever seen.

This is a movie that may well have excited a certain amount of debate on the subject if only it had been a little bit better. Far too much emphasis was placed on the star-crossed romance that never occurred. A movie about the Massacre that focused on the people who were victimized by it as well as those who were complicit in its planning and execution might have made for far more gripping fare. Still, I was at least motivated to do further research on the event and learn a bit more, so some good did come of the movie as far as I’m concerned.

WHY RENT THIS: Brings to light a forgotten event in American history that shouldn’t be. Even though he’s chewing the scenery somewhat, Voight still manages to be compelling.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This certainly depicts the Mormons in a very unflattering light; some might be offended by it. The romance between Emily and Jonathan is less than scintillating.

FAMILY VALUES: The depiction of the massacre is pretty brutal and is not for the impressionable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Reverend Hudson and his daughter Emily actually left the wagon train before it reached Utah; also, Nancy Dunlap’s husband is said in the film to have died before the action takes place, but historically he perished in the massacre.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the historical aspects of the massacre which tend to support the theories of the filmmakers – take these with a grain of salt. Of more interest are interviews with the descendents of those who perished in the massacre, which lends some perspective on the events of the film. It may not be a bad idea to watch both of these features before viewing the actual film.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: How About You