5 Years Apart


In golf, four’s a game; five’s a crowd.

(2019) Comedy (GravitasChloe Bennet, Scott Michael Foster, Ally Maki, Michael Vlamis, Craig Low, Michelle Randolph, Malcolm Hatchett, Chandler Bailey, Samuel Elhindi, Kyle Anderson, Spencer Waldner, John Cahill, Becky Robinson, Christian Pierce, John McKay, Isiah Miller, Judah Miller, Arsenio Castellanos. Directed by Joe Angelo Menconi

 

If you are looking for the most vindictive, vitriolic and vicious blood feuds there are, look no further than the wars between siblings. It’s difficult to hide who you are from someone you grew up with. You know all the dirty secrets, the moments of shame, and the flaws and defects. There also tends to be rivalries, particularly between siblings of the same sex. Family breeds familiarity, after all, and familiarity breeds contempt.

Andrew (Foster) is about to turn 30. He is a successful businessman, the sort of meticulous man who has every moment of every day planned down to the minute. His wife Olivia (Maki) is much the same way. She and Andrew are thinking of starting a family, but it would entail Andrew taking a second job to offset the loss of income from Olivia and she’s not willing to see him overwork himself. They decide to take a birthday weekend at the house of Andrew’s parents in Arizona while the parents are on holiday in Italy.

His younger brother Sammy (Vlamis) is about to turn 25 – in fact, on the same day as Andrew as the two brothers were born five years apart on the same day. He works as a salesman for a bounce house rental company. He and Andrew haven’t spoken in five years after an incident at a Christmas family gathering led to a physical confrontation between the two. Sammy didn’t even show up at Andrew’s wedding and has never met Olivia. As meticulous as Andrew is, so Sammy is carefree and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. He had gone to Arizona State but had dropped out – just one of many instances of Sammy not finishing what he started.

Sammy decides to spend the weekend of his birthday at his parent’s house since they are in Italy. On his way there he meets Emma (Bennet) at a bar. The two hit it off and eventually win up doing the horizontal rumba on the living room couch. This brings out Andrew and Olivia who were doing their own wild thing in the bedroom. It also turns out that Emma had been coming out to visit with Olivia – her half-sister, ain’t coincidence a wonderful thing if you’re a screenwriter – so that she could be set up with Mark (Low), an outgoing Aussie who Andrew has a high opinion of. Unfortunately, as it soon turns out, Emma doesn’t.

The two brothers aren’t willing to budge so reluctantly they spend the weekend together in the same house. Sammy goes out of his way to irritate his staid older brother, while it turns out there is some tension between Olivia and Emma as well. Can the two sets of siblings figure out a way to get past their hurt feelings and pride and find a way to forge an actual relationship?

The plot has a sitcom-y element to it which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are some contrivances, sure, but not in a too-in-your-face way that sitcoms sometimes get. Dysfunctional family relationships are not, as we all know, unheard of and in an era where we are being forced to spend more time with our families than perhaps we would normally thanks to quarantine, it’s easy to relate to how horrible they can get.

The cast is young and attractive and they do a pretty decent job here. Some of you may recognize Bennet from the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and she is absolutely a lark here; the role plays very well to her strengths as an actress. Although her role on her TV show is more of an action heroine, she has some good comic timing and a flair for light comedy that should serve her well in her future career. She was my favorite part of 5 Years Apart.

For those who are cooped up with family, watching the brothers behave childishly towards each other may not be exactly what the doctor ordered; many of us are getting a heavy dose of that sort of thing in real life to want to watch much more than a smattering of it when we sit down to be entertained – in that sense, the film can be irritating. It is also, worse still, predictable, particularly in the last third.

This is a little bit better than I expected it to be in some ways; also, a little bit worse than I expected it to be in others. The performances are good, the characters are compelling and the chemistry is there. Unfortunately, there is also an abundance of sitcom tropes and a dearth of funny jokes. The comedy is mainly situational and I would have preferred if the filmmakers had gotten away from that a little bit. It gets a mild thumbs up at best, but if you’re looking for a diversion right now (and who isn’t) you could do worse.

REASONS TO SEE: A role tailor-made for Chloe Bennet’s talents.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and occasionally irritating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sex, brief nudity and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bennet and Maki are close friends in real life and have been for years, but this is the first time they’ve acted alongside each other.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Microsoft, Redbox
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rachel Getting Married
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
At the Video Store

Tombstone-Rashomon


You’re a daisy if you do.

(2017) Western (Tri-Coast) Adam Newberry, Jesse Lee Pacheco, Christine Dodge, Eric Schumacher, Benny Lee Kennedy, Richard Anderson, Jason Graham, Shayn Herndon, Michele Bauer, Haydn Winston, Bradford Trojan, James Miller, Callie Hutchinson, Rogelio Camarillo Brenda Jean Foley, Frank Gonzalez, Wade Everett, Pablo Kjolseth, Susan Sebanc. Directed by Alex Cox

 

One of the watershed moments in the Old West was the Gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory on October 26, 1881 has taken on mythic proportions in the annals of the American frontier.

What is not well-known is that a time-travelling film crew arrived in Tombstone to document the famous event. Unfortunately, they miscalculated and arrived in Tombstone on October 27. Although distraught at having missed the historic event, they chose to soldier on, interviewing the survivors and eyewitnesses.

Among the participants interviewed were Ike Clanton (Kennedy), J.W. “Doc” Holliday (Schumacher) and Wyatt Earp (Newberry). Also interviewed were Holliday’s common-law wife Mary “Big Nose Kate” Horony (Dodge), Sheriff Johnny Behan (Pacheco) and saloon keeper Col. John Hafford (Anderson). Each gave conflicting testimony as to what happened that day. We’ll never really know for certain what happened in those fateful 30 seconds on that cold, windy day but nobody will ever forget it.

Legendary cult film director Alex Cox comes up with an intriguing concept, but true to his ethos doesn’t really stick to it. Trying to put the events of one of the most famous events in the Old West through the same microscope as Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 samurai film Rashomon, we see footage of the events as told by the various interview subjects, although the title card at the beginning clearly states that the camera crew didn’t arrive until after that all happened. Cox might have been better served to either use animatics to illustrate the testimony (a fairly expensive proposition) or simply not state when the film crew arrived, although that might have messed with the whole Kurosawa angle.

I don’t know how much research was done into this – probably not a lot – but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies here. For example, the Hungarian-born Horony is confused as to grammar, referring to male subjects as “she” and “her” throughout. Although Horony had been in America for 21 years when the shootout took place. We also see the Earps arrive at the gunfight in a police SUV. I like goofy humor as much as the next guy, but I have a burr up my butt about anachronisms. It would have been just as bad if they had been singing a David Bowie song in the saloon.

The film was shot around Arizona although not in Tombstone itself, which is understandable since modern Tombstone is a tourist mecca and doesn’t really lend itself to filming movies anymore. The costuming is mostly authentic, although the clothes are much cleaner than they would have been in the 19th century.

The performances by mainly unknown actors are solid and believable. My one issue is with the interviewer (Sebanc) who speaks in a flat, emotionless and almost robotic voice. Something tells me that was the direction that Cox gave the actress, but it sounds like the interview is being conducted by Ciri or Alexa.

The movie is interesting enough to watch, but the little idiosyncrasies end up doing it in. Cox has a pretty legit resume and has continued to make flawed but fascinating movies since his heyday in the 80s, and this is another one of those.

REASONS TO SEE: Solid onscreen performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: The interviewer is robotic and stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Cox is best-known for his mid-80s cult hits Repo Man, Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Fandor
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tombstone
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Widows

Big Kill (2018)


You can always tell the bad guys by their eccentric taste in fashion.

(2018) Western (Cinedigm/Archstone) Christoph Sanders, Scott Martin, Clint Hummel, Jason Patric, Lou Diamond Phillips, Michael Parė, Danny Trejo, K.C. Clyde, Elizabeth McLaughlin, Audrey Walters, Jermaine Washington, Dennis LaValle, David Manzanares, Sarah Minnich, Paul Blott, Stephanie Beran, Toby Bronson, Bob Jesser, David Hight, Itzel Montelongo, Tsailii Rogers. Directed by Scott Martin

 

Part of the reason Westerns were so popular 50 and 60 years ago is that once upon a time, they were fun. The hero was always an easy-going sort with a code of honor not unlike a knight of old, the shopkeeper was as honest as the day was long, the villains were shoot first and don’t ask questions at all, and the saloon gals had hearts of gold.

Along came the ‘70s to turn the heroes into anti-heroes, the shopkeepers to be racists, the villains even more despicable than the heroes but only just so, and saloon gals who were hookers whose bustles came off at the drop of a cowboy hat.  The audience became somewhat more sophisticated and Westerns all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape.

They’ve begun to slowly come back only recently and there have been a few really good ones in and among the mix with even the occasional big budget Hollywood western making an appearance every so often. The hallowed B Western, once the province of actors like Dean Martin, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood, have remained in the background although from time to time an indie western surfaces, generally on the ultra-violent side (Bone Tomahawk).

Big Kill opens up with a pair of ne’er do well gunfighters – Travis (Hummel) who never met a woman he couldn’t seduce, and Jake (Martin), a gambler who if it weren’t for bad luck wouldn’t have any luck at all – being run out of Mexico by a general (Trejo) whose daughter Travis defiled. While under the protection of the U.S. Cavalry in an outpost so forlorn and isolated it can barely be called a fort, they meet up with Philadelphia accountant Jim Andrews (Sanders) who is on his way to the Silver mine boom town of Big Kill, Arizona to meet up with his brother who wrote Jim glowingly about the saloon he owns and how successful the town is.

When they get there, nobody has heard of Jim’s brother, the town is nearly deserted and those who have remained are intimidated by the nefarious Preacher (Patric) who believes in handing out his brand of justice on the end of a gun and salvation, as he administers the last rites to those he guns down, as well as the Preacher’s enforcer, sociopathic gunslinger Johnny Kane (Phillips) who looks like Wayne Newton playing a gaudy 50s cowboy in a red suit.

Travis and Jake are all for leaving while the leaving is good but Jim needs to find out what happened to his brother. He meets shopkeeper’s daughter Sophie (McLaughlin) who is sweet as pie but a real pistol. She gives Jim another reason to stick around; however, you know that a confrontation between the bad guys and the good guys for the soul of the town is just around the corner.

This is a fun little movie that has some really nice touches; the final gunfight between Jim and the Preacher involves the two mostly circling around each other and firing off wild shots that don’t hit anything except, maybe, a cameraman on the movie filming over at the next butte. Despite the fact that the Preacher was earlier shown to be a proficient gunfighter, Jim being an Eastern tenderfoot and proud of it likely would be hard pressed to hit the broad side of a barn door. Sanders, best known as lovable dim bulb Kyle in Last Man Standing, is perfectly cast for the role and does a pretty credible job of holding our interest.

Patric, a veteran of some really good movies back in the 90s, does a fine turn as the charismatic villain that makes me wonder why he doesn’t get cast more often. Phillips doesn’t play a mustache twirling villain all that often but he does a good job of it here, sans the mustache twirling.

Like most westerns, there are some beautifully photographed vistas and a soundtrack that mixes soaring themes with the occasional twang twang twang of the Jew’s harp to lend color. Where the movie falls down is in the editing; some of the exposition is drawn out too much and some of the scenes could have used some tightening up. Still, there is a lot to like here. This is the kind of Western I used to watch regularly on TV and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. A little nostalgia is good for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: This really isn’t half-bad. Sanders is inspired casting.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the exposition is excessive and would have benefited from tighter editing. It’s a little bit derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a good deal of violence, some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is an English-language remake of Lelio’s 2013 film Gloria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magnificent Seven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

Book Club


In any decade, nobody parties like Candice Bergen.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Paramount) Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Andy Garcia, Craig T. Nelson, Don Johnson, Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Wallace Shawn, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Mircea Monroe, Tommy Dewey, John Shartzer, Ravi Kapoor, Lili Bordán, Marisa Chen Moller, Amanda Martin. Directed by Bill Holderman

 

Four literate ladies have been friends for ages and have seen the curvature of their lives move towards the downward slope. One of the hallmarks of their friendship is their regular book club meetings in which the four women read a book and then discuss it the following week. The membership includes Vivian (Fonda) the somewhat oversexed owner of a boutique luxury hotel chain; Sharon (Bergen), a divorced judge who is notoriously career-driven; Diane (Keaton), a recent widow whose bossy daughters (Silverstone and Aselton interchangeably) want her to move to Scottsdale into a basement apartment even though she’s perfectly happy and capable of supporting herself in Los Angeles and finally restaurateur Carol (Steenburgen) whose husband (Nelson) has been notably absent in the bedroom of late – corresponding with his retirement. The reading of Fifty Shades of Grey inspires them to ramp up their love lives.

This is one of those films that perpetuates the myth that senior sexuality is at best cute and at worst a colossal punchline to a bad joke. Being that I’m climbing towards those rarefied age climes, perhaps I’m a little more sensitive to that sort of thing but with modern medicine allowing us to live longer than we used to, sex drives are correspondingly lasting well into our sixties and seventies, sometimes even into our eighties. While there may be those who still giggle at the thought of Granny and Grampy getting busy, it’s not realistic anymore to expect that they don’t.

At least Holderman, a veteran producer making his directing debut, doesn’t waste the talents of his cast. All of these pros deliver performances that range from strong to terrific. Bergen in particular brought to mind past glories as we’re reminded watching her that there has never been another Murphy Brown and there likely never will be.

The film suffers from having too many characters and not enough backstory; I would have been much happier with fewer but better developed characters in the mix. Still, I’m glad that these ladies are still drawing a paycheck and I would love to see much more of them, albeit in better films than this one. At least it has a killer soundtrack going for it.

REASONS TO SEE: The great cast also gets a great soundtrack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The myth that senior citizens having a sexual life is ridiculous is perpetuated here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity including sexual references as well as other sex-related content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bergen, Fonda and Keaton all dated Warren Beatty at one time or another.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Boynton Beach Club
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Patient 001

3100: Run and Become


One of the beautiful images from the film.

(2018) Documentary (Illumine) Ashprihanal Aalto, Shamita Achenbach-König, Yuri Trostenyuk, Shaun Martin, Gaolo, Rupantar LaRusso, Dohai König, Nirbhasa Magee, Ray “The K” Krolevicz, Jumanda Gakelbone, Sahishnu Szczesiul, Supan Tsekob, Ilgyasu Tervo, Ajari Misunaga, Isomura-san, Tess Thakara, Petra Aalto.  Directed by Sanjay Rawal

 

It is well known that physical exertion can lead to a feeling of well-being. It’s not just the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing a particularly difficult goal, but also the physical rush of endorphins one gets from such exercises as yoga, weight lifting and running.

Some even say that running can be used as a means of spiritual enlightenment. A particular proponent of that line of thought was Sri Chinmoy, an Indian sprinter, philosopher and running guru. He helped spread the philosophy throughout the world. One of those who picked up on it and ran with it (literally) is Finnish newspaper delivery man Ashprihanal Aalto. Aalto is what is known as an ultra long distance runner – someone who runs races of extraordinary lengths. He has been a dominant force in Chinmoy’s 3100 Mile Self-Transcendence race, running it 13 times and winning it five times, setting the course record in his most recent attempt.

He is 45 now and really has no mountains left to climb when it comes to the race. However his spiritual adviser Ilgyasu Tervo counsels him to give it one last shot – soon he will not have the physical stamina to run the race in the style he is used to. He elects to go to New York for one last run around the block.

That’s literally what the race is; it’s a grueling run taking over the course of 51 days. Runners go as fast and as far as they can each day, finishing only when they reach the magic 3100 mile mark. The course is one city block in the Bronx, one half mile in length. Runners circle the block over and over again, trying to make 120 laps each day. It’s not a particularly photogenic block but the repetition supposedly helps runners reach a trance-like state where they can focus in on their spiritual side.

Many of the runners are middle-aged; most are men and all are white – at least in the 2016 race. While they come from around the world and many have converted to the faith Chinmoy espoused, there is a homogeneity about the runners in the race that doesn’t particularly make for compelling filmmaking. It’s no surprise therefore that Rawal elects to add other stories that make the connection between running and spiritualism.

For example, Native American Shaun Martin of the Navajo tribe re-creates his father’s escape from a government-mandated boarding school back to his home (both buildings no longer exist) in order to plug in to his cultural and personal heritage. Buddhist monk Ajari Misunaga mentors Isomura-san on the rite of kaihgyo which involves running around Mount Hiei in Japan for one thousand consecutive days – just under three years. The distance is just over 60 miles and is done in robes with stops to pay devotion at various places. Misunaga also casually mentions that those that fail are required to commit suicide. Self-flagellation suddenly seems a whole lot less barbaric.

We also see the plight of a tribe in the Kalahari desert who for thousands of years have fed themselves by running down their prey during the hunt. When the government of Malawi (where the tribe is located) enacts a law forbidding the process, the tribe begins to fail, unable to subsist on the meager rations they are provided but also losing tribal identity. Tribesman Gaolo elects to defy the ban with serious consequences to him if he is caught.

The three additional stories are actually in many ways more compelling than the story of the Race which is grueling as New York City suffers through a murderous heat wave and triple digit temperatures, but seems to be more of an “inner self” kind of thing that doesn’t have much connection to a larger culture, at least not the way it is presented here.

The cinematography, particularly outside of New York – i.e. the Arizona and Kalahari deserts, the cold winter landscapes of Finland and the beautiful mountain landscapes of Japan – are often breathtaking. However, there feels like there is more than a little proselytizing here which made me feel uncomfortable. And after seeing some recent NYC DOC films that are about making the world a better place, watching white people try to find spiritual harmony doesn’t feel quite like it has the same urgency or importance.

Running is inherently a selfish sport. It is done solo and even if you are on a running team at the end of the day it is always the individual versus the course. The race finale, although extraordinarily close is ultimately anti-climactic – winning is almost beside the point when the reason the race exists is right there in the title of it: self-transcendence. Improving oneself is not a bad thing by any means but this feels like it falls in line with a self-absorbed generation that is making the world an increasingly harsh place to live in.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the cinematography is beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The stories of the two ultra-marathoners, the tribesman and the Native American don’t really mesh well together.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The race was founded in 1997 by Sri Chinmoy and is currently the longest certified road race in the world..
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hare Krishna!
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up and Away

John McCain: For Whom the Bell Tolls


Senator John McCain of Arizona; portrait of a maverick.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) John McCain, Joe Biden, John McCain IV, Henry Kissinger, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Carol McCain, Hilary Clinton, Grant Woods, David Brooks, Mark Salter, Doug McCain, Frank Gambaa, Joe McCain, Andy McCain, John Fer, Rick Davis, Bill McInturff, Cindy McCain. Directed by George Kunhardt, Peter W. Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt

 

Most people who follow American politics are pretty well familiar with the salient points of Arizona Senator John McCain’s life; the son of a four-star admiral (and also the grandson of one), he became a Navy flyer during the Vietnam War. Captured by the Viet Cong, he was held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, subjected to repeated torture and abuse. Finally weakened to the point where he could no longer take it, he signed a bogus confession – an act that has regretted ever since – and returned home to take on a political career. Running twice unsuccessfully for the Presidency, he won the Republican nomination in 2008 and unwisely selected then-Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, an act that changed the political landscape of the United States and not for the better. Last year, he was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer.

It is difficult to review a documentary about a man without reviewing the man himself. Those who read my reviews regularly should be aware that I am a progressive liberal so politically McCain and I disagree about a lot of things. I have never considered him anything less than an honorable man however; famously, he showed up for a vote that kept the Senate from passing  a bill that would have dismantled the Affordable Care Act and put in an absolute abomination of a replacement plan in its place, breaking ranks with his fellow Republicans and earning the wrath of President Trump who clearly dislikes the Arizona senator.

The movie utilizes a lot of archival footage, particularly from McCain’s Vietnam era, and a lot of interviews with political foes, allies, friends and family. Some of McCain’s closest friends come from the other side of the aisle; Joe Biden, for example and Joe Lieberman whom he toyed with asking to be his running mate in ’08 before settling on Palin. The movie also covers one of his more public blunders, his role in the Keating Five scandal which nearly marked the end of his political career. McCain is honest about his involvement and while he was exonerated of any wrongdoing, he admits freely to making an error in judgement which he was censured for.

Clearly the filmmakers admire McCain which I believe most Americans do; even the left respect his service and his willingness to vote his conscience, something few members of either party are willing to do these days. It’s not strictly speaking hagiographic but it is fawning in places and certainly admiring throughout. Then again, it’s hard not to admire a man like John McCain…oh, wait a minute, there I go reviewing the man rather than the movie. It’s a pretty decent documentary. HBO subscribers, particularly those of a political bent, should check it out.

REASONS TO GO: This doesn’t feel like a puff piece at all.
REASONS TO STAY: It seems to be a story that is still being written.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title refers to the book by Ernest Hemingway which is McCain’s favorite.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mitt
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Depths

Cassidy Red


Jo Cassidy gets the drop on her Dad and all of the rest of us as well.

(2017) Western (Vision) Abby Eiland, David Thomas Jenkins, Jason Grasi, Jessy Knudsen, Gregory Zaragoza, Rick Cramer, Lola Kelly, Alyssa Elle Steinacker, Hudson Bothwick, Lindsey-Anne Campbell, Lyle Kanouse, Bryan Harnden, Peter Fuller, Mercedes LeAnza, Annie Pace, Morgan Smith, Veronica Conran, Alicia Herder. Directed by Matt Knudsen

 

The Old West was no place for a woman. Life was hard, even for those who had husbands to protect and provide. For those that didn’t there weren’t many choices and often they found their way to the bordellos and cathouses of the time. Pregnancy was a way of life and those born of prostitutes back in the day had a very rough road ahead of them.

Josephine “Jo” Cassidy (Eiland) was one such daughter. Her mother (LeAnza) was a prostitute; her father, Cort Cassidy (Cramer) a bounty hunter. Jo grew up splitting time between her mother’s brothel and her father’s ranch. On the former she learned how to use her looks to her advantage; on the latter, how to defend herself thanks to her dad and dear old Colonel Samuel Colt – as the old Western saw goes, God didn’t make all men equal, Colonel Colt did.

A half-Apache squatter she names Jakob (Grasi) catches her eye but also causes a conflict with Tom Hayes (Jenkins) who has an eye for Jo and even gets her to agree to marry him. Jakob is adopted by Tom’s guilty dad and becomes a valued ranch hand but although Jo is engaged to Tom, her heart belongs to Jakob. One night, Tom catches the two as they plan to run away together. Tom’s pride won’t allow that to happen so he arranges for Rowena (Kelly), a prostitute that Jo trusts, to inform Jo that Jakob was shot down by Sheriff Tom.

Jo seeks out her father’s help in learning how to gun down the much more seasoned gunfighter Tom but although he’s reluctant, Cort eventually comes around. However, there are some revelations to be had – not everyone is telling the truth which shouldn’t be a surprise. The situation is a lot different than Jo has been led to believe but it doesn’t matter. A reckoning is coming and as the tagline says, Hell hath no fury – and throw in a redhead at that and you’ve got trouble that money won’t buy you out of.

The production design is really pretty high-end for a low-budget western like this one. Lauren Ivy is a name to remember in that department; clearly she’s someone who can make a lot out of a little. Julia Swain does a bang-up job of cinematography, with the requisite Western sunsets and dusty town vistas but also some meadows and brothels to boot. It’s a splendid looking feature in every regard.

The movie does abound with Western clichés but they are approached from more of a female point of view; for once in the love triangle the gunslinger is the woman. There are also a lot of women behind the camera in positions of importance (I’ve already mentioned two of them) and in this day and age where women have a hard time building up a resume, that’s pretty big.

The story is told mainly through flashbacks as a piano player named Cricket (Zaragoza) regales jaded and disillusioned hooker Quinn (J. Knudsen) with the story of the star-crossed lovers. It isn’t too hard to figure out what the big twist is here and all of the little ones as well for that matter. I would have liked to have seen a little more character development without the framing story but that’s just me. In any case the action breaks away to Cricket and Quinn every so often and it doesn’t do anything good for the flow of the story.

Even so, despite a lack of attention to detail (the upright piano clearly sounds like a grand piano and some of the expressions used are more 21st century than 19th) this is surprisingly entertaining for a movie that hasn’t received a whole lot of notice. Most of the issues can be overlooked so while it’s not going to bring back the Western genre all by itself, certainly fans of that underserved genre will likely welcome a pretty decent new one into the fold.

REASONS TO GO: It is admirable that there are a whole lot of women in major positions for the film. Eiland and Grasi are both effective leads.
REASONS TO STAY: A little more attention to detail could have been used in post. There are a whole lot of Western clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of sensuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally produced as a thesis film project for the UCLA Masters of Fine Arts directing program.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandidas
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Chamber

Cartel Land


Dominion over all he surveys.

Dominion over all he surveys.

(2015) Documentary (The Orchard) Jose Manuel Mireles, Tim “Nailer” Foley, Paco Valencia, Nicolas “El Gordo” Santana, Estanislao Beltran, Janet Fields, Ana Delia Valencia, Maria Imilse. Directed by Matthew Heineman

Florida Film Festival 2015

It is no secret that the drug wars on the Colombian cartels have led to the rise of the equally vicious Mexican cartels. They have become so arrogant and so untouchable in their own country that they have brought their violence and presence into ours. There are those on both sides of the border who would put a stop to them.

In Arizona, former Iraq War veteran Tim “Nailer” Foley leads a group of irregulars in nightly border patrols. Goaded into action when he lost his construction job during the economic collapse of 2008 and then watched as the same companies paid illegal aliens far less under the table for the work he had been doing, Foley’s mission was initially to assist the Border Patrol in rounding up illegals.

That changed when he began to witness firsthand the violence and incursions into U.S. territory of the Cartels. He speaks disparagingly of Mexican illegal aliens and one might guess that he is a racist in an area where that isn’t as uncommon as we might like. Nailer himself claims he’s not a racist, but there is a likelihood that there are those in his group that are; these sorts of vigilante groups tend to attract them. However, the more that his group is observed, they become less intolerant rednecks playing at toy soldier and more men who are frustrated by a situation that is spiraling out of control with the appearance that nothing is being done about it.

Nailer is plain-spoken and a bit rough around the edges but there’s no doubting his patriotism nor his resolve. He’s not out there shooting at anything brown-skinned that moves; he’s looking for scouts for the Cartels with the intention of holding them until the Border Patrol can arrive and arrest them. It is somewhat ingenious that Heineman sets up this segment for the audience to dislike Nailer and his group but eventually sympathize with them, and maybe even respect them the longer the film goes on.

On the other side of the border are the Autodefensas, a group of citizen vigilantes in the Michoacán state of Mexico where the Knights Templar cartel reigns supreme. Sick of their families, neighbors and friends being butchered with impunity as the corrupt police and political arms of the state do nothing to protect them, they form their own paramilitary group led by the charismatic doctor Jose Manuel Mireles. As he goes from town to town, garnering recruits and cleaning out elements of the cartel, he becomes something of a folk hero much like Pancho Villa.

Surrounded by a loyal inner circle, he seems poised to make a real difference in the life of his community but things go terribly, incredibly wrong. Mireles becomes something of a rock star and the fame begins to interfere with his ability to administrate his group. Soon they begin torturing suspected cartel members and when Mireles is shot and steps down to recuperate, it becomes clear that the agenda of the Autodefensas is not what it first appeared to be.

The movie is brilliantly edited, taking the audience places it doesn’t expect to go. It is also beautifully shot, with the desolation of the Altar Valley in Arizona contrasting with the poverty-stricken towns and villages of Michoacán. Likewise, the rough-hewn personality of Nailer contrasts mightily with the charismatic and flamboyant personality of Mireles, whose fall from grace is absolutely heartbreaking.

The movie begins with shots of masked cartel members cooking meth in the desert. One of them, surprisingly articulate, talks about how the recipe was learned from an American father and son, and that he is fully aware that the drugs going into the United States are doing damage there, but he shrugs off any sort of guilt. This is the way it is and he didn’t set things up that way; he’s just playing the cards he was dealt. Later on we return to that scene and the movie is tied together nicely as we learn the identity of the masked man.

The Michoacán portion of the movie with street battles, a more immediate sense of danger and maybe the most emotionally wrenching part of the movie, is far more effective on the surface than the Arizona segments which are less exciting, but the skillful way Heineman edits his film allows Arizona to have an equal amount of power, albeit much more subtle. However, the issue of racism in American border vigilante groups that I brought up earlier in the review really isn’t discussed in much more than an arbitrary fashion; I think the movie would have benefitted from a little more focus on the subject.

Nailer says early on that vigilantes are given a bad name by the press, but he’s not entirely accurate on that score. The fall of the Autodefensas shows why those who take the law into their own hands are liable to create their own laws – which subverts the good work they set out to do. The Arizona group, who changed from a group keeping illegal aliens out and unintentionally became crime fighters assisting the border patrol, show that the opposite can be true as well.

REASONS TO GO: About as intense as it gets. Changes direction unexpectedly. Michoacán segments far more effective than the ones shot in Arizona.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Doesn’t really explore the issue of racism in the Arizona segment.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of adult language and themes and some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Throughout the shoot, Heineman often acted as his own cinematographer and as a result came under fire several times.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocaine Cowboys
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Tomorrowland

A Million Ways to Die in the West


Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

Only Charlize Theron knows what to do with the hordes of film critics who have turned their venom loose on this movie.

(2014) Western Comedy (Universal) Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Giovanni Ribisi, Amanda Seyfried, Neil Patrick Harris, Sarah Silverman, Liam Neeson, Christopher Hagen, Wes Studi, Matt Clark, Evan Jones, Aaron McPherson, Rex Linn, Brett Rickaby, Alex Borstein, Ralph Garman, John Aylward, Gilbert Gottfried, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Lloyd, Ryan Reynolds. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

During the 1950s, Americans tended to idealize the Old West. Rugged cowboys rode the range, rescued pretty school marms from bandits and varmints, and generally saved the day with an “aw, shucks” modesty. Cowboys were real men, Indians were the enemy and things were pretty simple. Of course, it wasn’t really like that.

The Old West was in reality a brutal place where arguments were solved with guns, violence was rampant, sanitation was next to impossible and the only thing worse than contracting a disease was going to the doctor to get it cured. Albert (MacFarlane), a sheep farmer in hole-in-the-wall Old Stump, Arizona, knows it better than most. He is the sort of guy who would rather negotiate than fight, which makes him yellow in the Old West. That’s fine and dandy with Albert. He’d much rather be a live coward than a dead hero.

His girlfriend Louise (Seyfried) doesn’t necessarily agree with that philosophy. After a humiliation after being challenged to a gunfight, Louise decides she’s had enough and dumps Albert in favor of Foy (Harris), a successful shop owner who caters to moustache owners. Albert is devastated. Louise was one of the only things worth staying in the West for. San Francisco would be a much better place for him, much to the disdain of his father (Hagen). His close friends Edward (Ribisi) and Ruth (Silverman) commiserate but they have problems of their own. For one, they’ve been together and they want to have sex, but also want to wait until they get married and keep their purity. Until then, Ruth will continue working as a prostitute to help save up enough to get married. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie.

Into his life waltzes Anna (Theron), a gorgeous blonde who is new in town. She also happens to be a crack shot and when Albert loses his temper and challenges Foy to a gunfight, she offers to help Albert work on his marksmanship. Of course, they soon develop into something more than friends even though Albert still wants to win Louise back. However, Anna might have forgot to mention that she’s married – to Clinch Leatherwood (Neeson), one of the most vicious and deadliest gunfighters in the West.

The title is apt. MacFarlane’s character constantly grouses throughout about how dangerous it is out in the West and throughout the film people get killed by wild animals, shot by ornery bandits, crushed by blocks of ice and in a memorable sequence, fart themselves to death.

Fans of MacFarlane’s TV show Family Guy will no doubt feel right at home here. However, it should be said that the humor is pushes the envelope HARD and there are some things that you’re going to find offensive, like the shooting gallery gag that also serves as the fodder for an after-the-credits scene with a surprise cameo appearance. In fact, there are a ton of cameos to keep an eye out for.

Otherwise, this is one of those movies that throws as many jokes as it can into the mix and sees which ones you find funny and which ones you don’t. When the comedy works here, it’s sidesplitting. When it doesn’t, it’s groan-inducing. Fortunately, it works more than not.

MacFarlane is an appealing lead, although his character is a kind of neurotic nebbish, sort of like Woody Allen in chaps. MacFarlane, who co-wrote as well as directed and starred in this, has the characters act in fairly modern idioms, which allows 2014 audiences to relate better to the action in some ways while others might find this anachronistic and off-putting. It is part of the humor to hear someone from 1882 say “Oh, snap!” although again, there was some sniffing from critical quarters.

The supporting cast isn’t a bunch of straight men (and women) to MacFarlane as a lot of modern comedies tend to do; they all have their funny moments which you would want from a cast of talented actors like this. Only Neeson seems to be playing it straight, although he does give Clinch an outrageous Lucky Charms Irish accent which apparently he insisted upon before taking the part. I don’t know if a gunslinger with an Irish brogue rates laughs but okay.

MacFarlane references other Western comedies, notably Blazing Saddles and Django Unchained (which isn’t, strictly speaking, pure comedy) directly and otherwise. He makes use of Utah’s Monument Valley (subbing for Arizona) with some nifty cinematography, graphics and score right out of a 1950s epic screen Western. Visually speaking, he’s got the Western part down. However, the story doesn’t really support the length of the film and I got a little bit fidgety there towards the end.

This hasn’t been getting good reviews and I’ve also read some comments from non-reviewers that expressed how offended they were at this movie. There are those who tolerate offensive humor more than others and if you’re one of the others it wouldn’t be a good idea for you to check this out. I don’t think this is as good as MacFarlane’s previous movie Ted but that movie had its share of squirm-inducing moments. Use that as your guide as to whether you should see it or not. This isn’t for everybody, but the people that it is are going to love it.

REASONS TO GO: When it’s funny, it’s hysterical. Fun concept.

REASONS TO STAY: Overkill. Runs about 20 minutes too long. Those who don’t tolerate profanity and sex very well should stay the fuck away.

FAMILY VALUES: A cornucopia of profanity and sexual innuendo, some violence and drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Theron wore a wig throughout the shooting because she had shaved her head for the filming of Mad Max: Fury Road.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blazing Saddles

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Maleficent

Goats


 

Goats

This is what it looks like when David Duchovney loses a bet.

(2012) Drama (Image) David Duchovney, Vera Farmiga, Ty Burrell, Graham Phillips, Justin Kirk, Keri Russell, Anthony Anderson, Dakota Johnson, Adelaide Kane, Evan Boymel, Justin Wheelon, Timothy Gibbs, Olga Segura, Nicholas Lobue, Ricardo Andres, Caleb Dane Horst. Directed by Christopher Neil

 

As the saying goes, we can choose our friends but we don’t get to choose our family. We’re kind of stuck with them, regardless of how much (or how little) we like them. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing too.

Ellis (Phillips) would probably lean towards the former if you asked him. His parents are divorced, and are none too friendly with one another. His mom Wendy (Farmiga) is a trust fund hippie who never met a new age concept she didn’t become obsessed with. She’s self-centered and vindictive; not the best mom on Earth (as Ellis normally is the one who has to pay her bills because she’s so flighty) but she’s not the worst either.

How his dad (Burrell) wound up with her is something of a mystery. He went to an exclusive prep school in New England where he’s used his connections to get Ellis accepted into. Although a snooty prep school would seem to be a completely alien environment for Ellis, who’s used to the desert psychedelics of Arizona, he recognizes that it would be a boon for his future so he goes but not without much whining from his mother.

Ellis isn’t particularly upset at being separated by so many miles from his mom, but he does feel something for Goat Man (Duchovney) who goes by Javier but who’s real name is Steve. Goat Man is a herbologist and botanist who look like a cross between Jerry Garcia, Grizzly Adams and Moses with a Smith brother thrown in for good measure. He lives in the pool house with his goats, in exchange for tending the pool and landscape for Wendy. Their relationship is strictly platonic. Goat Man is most interested in botany so that he can grow some amazing marijuana, which he shares with Ellis. Goat Man takes Ellis on treks which are essentially walkabouts with no particular destination in mind – just an exploration of the land and its inhabitants.

Ellis is doing well in school but the pressure is getting to him. His roommate Barney (Lobue) is clearly not a good influence on him; his father is making overtures at reaching out and establishing a relationship with his estranged son. Goat Man, who promised to send Ellis weed hasn’t sent him anything and Wendy’s obnoxious lout of a boyfriend (Kirk) won’t let Ellis talk to his mother.

But Frank turns out to be a decent soul even though his impending marriage to Judy (Russell) is doing the fandango in Ellis’ brain, almost as much as the impending birth of his half-brother to the very pregnant Judy has. And he’s been coerced by the coach (Anderson) of the track team to run cross country, which he’s not really comfortable with at first. How can you run towards a future if you don’t even know which way you’re going?

Based on a novel by Mark Jude Poirier, this is one of those quirky indie movies that really wanders aimlessly through the plot the way a Deadhead might wander through a pot field, with a benevolent smile and a lack of purpose. Ellis doesn’t really have to much of a major crisis; sure he drinks too much for a15-year-old, and he does way too much pot, but he’s getting straight A’s and for the most part is a pretty well-adjusted kid given to bouts of douchebagness from time to time which is not out of line with the behavior of most real life 15-year-old boys.

Duchovney has always been a big draw for me. His easy-going laid-back charm meshes nicely with his intelligence. That the X-Files movies didn’t make him a major movie star has more to do with what was going on behind the camera rather than in front of it; both he and Gillian Anderson have all the tools to be big screen power players. In her case, I think it’s a choice not to go down that path; that also might be true of Duchovney.

I don’t think Farmiga really knew what to make of her character and in many ways that’s my main frustration with the movie. She’s quite the self-centered bitch throughout but there’s no doubt that Wendy really loves Ellis with all her heart and soul; Frank’s betrayal, whatever it might have been (and it’s not really explained why they split up, at least not that I can remember) really devastated her and has been in some ways the focal point of her life. She has certainly poisoned her son towards her father, making it impossible for Frank to see him. Early in the movie, Ellis believes his mother about the behavior of his dad, but as the movie progresses and he gets to know not just his dad but also his sweet-natured fiancé his attitude towards him changes.

There are no real epiphanies here other than that adults aren’t perfect and that there’s nothing wrong with life that a little toke can’t fix. Phillips plays Ellis like he’s living in an “Afterschool Special” and doesn’t do too bad a job of it, but I never really got to know Ellis all that well and found Goat Man far more interesting. Now, I’m wondering if there’s going to be a sequel all about Ellis’ discovery of peyote.

REASONS TO GO: Duchovney is interesting, even behind all that hair. Dynamic between Ellis and Frank works nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Too quirky for its own good. Meanders quite a bit. A movie for stoners.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of drug use, including teen pot smokers and alcohol drinkers. There is also plenty of bad language, some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers had to hire someone to teach Duchovney to roll a joint like an expert – the actor claims he’d never rolled one in his entire life..

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100. The reviews are pretty poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Dead Poets Society

NEW MEXICO LOVERS: Several of the “trek” scenes are shot in the beautiful New Mexico highlights, doubling for Arizona.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King