Blackthorn


Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

Butch Cassidy wants to make a withdrawal.

(2011) Western (Magnolia) Sam Shepard, Eduardo Noriega, Stephen Rea, Magaly Solier, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney, Dominique McElligott, Luis Bredow, Christian Mercado, Daniel Aguirre, Martin Proctor, Maria Luque, Raul Beltran, Luis Aduviri, Claudia Coronel, Erika Andia, Shirley Torres, Jorge Hidalgo, Daniel Acre, Fernando Gamarra, Delia Fabian. Directed by Mateo Gil

Westerns have been an important part of the movies ever since Thomas Edison invented the damn things. They have been iconic representations of America and the rugged individualism of Americans in general. They have fallen out of favor lately as we have changed as a nation and for better or for worse, our values are different now.

James Blackthorn (Shepard) is an American expatriate living in Bolivia, raising championship race horses. It is 1922 and he is an old man now although the name James Blackthorn is an invention and most people know him by a different name: Butch Cassidy. Yes, James Blackthorn is the famous outlaw who didn’t die in that notorious shoot-out but survived, although he is content to let the world think that Butch Cassidy is a corpse.

However when he receives word that his former lover Etta Place (McElligott) has passed away, he yearns to return home and visit her son Ryan who may or may not be his. He sells his horses and is returning back to his village, he is ambushed by Eduardo (Noriega), a Spanish mining engineer who insists he is shooting at men who are pursuing him, thinking that James was one. Unfortunately in the fracas, James’ horse Cinco bolts off with the money. Eduardo offers to share part of the $50,000 he stole from the mine owner Simon Patino, a Bolivian industrialist and mine operator (who actually existed, by the way) if Blackthorn can get him to the abandoned mine where the money is hidden. Needing the cash to get home, Blackthorn agrees.

The journey will take the two men across the high plains of Bolivia where they will be pursued by Patino’s relentless posse. Blackthorn will come face to face with old enemies and new lovers and more to the point, will be faced with a choice that will cut to the heart of who he always has been – and may change who he has become.

This is the English language debut of Spanish director Gil and it is somewhat fitting that he has chosen a Western to do it in. Westerns, many of which were shot in Spain during the 60s and 70s, have remained a favorite there more than here. Using one that has roots in the real American West is a note of gracia that those with Spanish souls will appreciate.

Shepard is perfectly cast as the grizzled, battle-hardened outlaw who wants nothing more than to live out the rest of his life in peace. He has the kind of face that hints at hard days and harder nights and Shepard uses his own persona as a kind of a springboard here. The ghost of Paul Newman and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hangs heavily over the production but while this is in a sense a sequel, it also is a completely different movie. This is kind of a what-if and I suppose that the original George Roy Hill movie was a little bit like that but while that movie was a product of a different time, so too is this movie a product of this time. It has kind of a somber disposition which some may find leaning too much in that direction. Caveat emptor.

Rea, who plays a former Pinkerton detective who always believed Butch was still alive, also is fine in support. Noriega is a decent enough actor but his chemistry with Shepard is a bit constrained; in many ways his character was a bit superfluous and while his robbery of the mine money is the catalyst of the events here, I can’t help but wonder if the filmmakers had concentrated on Butch/Blackthorn that this wouldn’t have been a better movie. It definitely would have been better if they’d eliminated the flashbacks to a younger Butch and Sundance which do nothing for the film other than interrupt what momentum it does achieve.

Mostly filmed in Bolivia, the scenery is absolutely gorgeous and for anyone thinking of traveling to Bolivia or who have fond memories of it, this is going to be a must-see. In fact, for those who just like Westerns or movies with magnificent scenery, this is one to keep an eye out for in general.

WHY RENT THIS: Shepard is terrific and perfectly cast. Rea is fine in support. Lovely Bolivian scenery.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Flashbacks bring the film to a grinding halt. Chemistry between Shepard and Noriega not up to snuff. A little too somber in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some rootin’, some tootin’ and some shootin’. There’s also a fair amount of cussin’.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The survival of Cassidy in the Bolivian shoot-out is based on actual rumors. The details on the supposed shoot-out are very vague and much of the evidence conflicts so it is entirely possible that the notorious outlaw survived.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of short films from Gil as well as an HD-Net special on the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $623,528 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE:
Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental/Streaming), Amazon (stream only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shootist
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Inherent Vice

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To the Wonder


Whispers on the mournful prairie.

Whispers on the mournful prairie.

(2012) Drama (Magnolia) Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, Javier Bardem, Tatiana Chilline, Romina Mondello, Tony O’Gans, Charles Baker, Marshall Bell, Casey Williams, Jack Hines, Paris Always, Samaria Folks, Francis Gardner, Jamie Conner, Gregg Elliott, Michael Bumpus, Lois Boston, Danyell Inman, Wigl-Black, Ashley Clark, Tamar Baruch. Directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is a true original and like most true originals, his work isn’t for everybody. His movies are visually arresting, epic and intimate at the same time. However, he tends not to tell his stories in the way that moviegoers are used to.

Neil (Affleck), an environmental engineer from Oklahoma, meets Marina (Kurylenko), a Ukrainian single mom ex-pat in Paris and the two fall deeply in love. So much so that Neil invites Marina and her daughter Tatiana (Chilline) to live with him in Oklahoma.

At first, everything is lovely but as reality sets in, Tatiana begins to miss her friends and Marina is disturbed by Neil’s unwillingness to commit although Marina wants very much to be married. She begins to get counsel from Father Quintana (Bardem), a priest who is having a crisis of faith of his own. Neil’s refusal to marry Marina leads to her visa expiring and her forced deportation back to France where Tatiana goes to live with her father in the Ukraine.

Neil begins a relationship with Jane (McAdams), a high school sweetheart of his who is recently divorced and having financial problems keeping her ranch afloat. When Neil’s commitment phobia submarines that relationship as well, he decides to bring Marina back with consequences that might just doom that relationship for good.

Like all of Malick’s films, this is simply exquisite from a visual aspect. Windswept prairie, picturesque small town downtown, suburban neighborhood, Parisian landmarks – all look epic and timeless under the watchful eye of Malick and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Even a common supermarket looks amazing and wonderful the way it is shot here.

There is no dialogue to speak of; almost everything that the characters say is done in a voice over in short bursts almost like poetry as their thoughts are what we hear rather than what they actually say. In a sense, it’s more honest than dialogue.

However, in an attempt to make cinematic poetry, the lines that the characters speak are often pretentious non-sequiturs that  have really sound much more thoughtful than they are. It goes through the whole film so really your tolerance for this sort of thing is going to determine how much you like the movie.

The actors are more or less props here. None of the lead performances are particularly memorable; they are made to convey moods and feelings so there are a lot of soulful expressions and child-like grins. Affleck has almost no dialogue; the voice-overs belong to both of the women in his life and Father Quintana and are done in three languages – Marina in French, Jane in English and Quintana in Spanish.

I get the sense that this is Malick’s take on a Bergman film; everyone in it is miserable and the stunning vistas reminded me of The Seventh Seal and other classics by the Swedish master. This is also in many ways one of Malick’s most spiritual films; much of the movie revolves around the loss of faith in something bigger than oneself whether that be God or love or the world. Nearly all of the characters undergo a crisis of faith in one form or another and the movie’s final shot of Mount Saint Michel in France may be as outright spiritual a shot as you’re likely to see in an American movie that isn’t faith-based to begin with.

Mention must be made of the score which is scintillating. Compose Hanan Townshend (who is apparently not related to the Who guitarist Pete Townshend) utilizes many classical works of the 19th and 20th century, particularly to the Prelude from Wagner’s Parsifal which is beautiful enough that you don’t get tired of its regular use. Also in the Oklahoma scenes, the sound of the wind blowing mournfully through the wheat fields is used to excellent effect. The Blu-Ray advises you to turn your sound up and I would concur with that; the sound is as important a part of the film as the visuals and picking up on the nuances will only add to the enhancement of the movie.

I get the sense that Malick is out to make the perfect film. He gets a little closer with each try but at the end of the day I think he ends up believing the next one will be the one. He isn’t very prolific except for lately; he made a movie two years ago, this one last year and another one is due out sometime this year or early the next. Considering that output would about triple what he had made in the previous dozen years before that and equal his output since 1978 (!) might give you an idea of how amazing his recent creative spurt has been.

As I said earlier, this isn’t for everybody. While the storytelling is linear, that is about all moviegoers will recognize about it. This is a series of images, some with thoughts attached to it, essentially like a memory of the events from years in the future. Not all about it is easy to digest and requires some thought. You can also just let the images wash over you and bask in their beauty, and that is a worthwhile endeavor also.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most beautiful visual cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the most frustrating cinematic experiences you’ll ever have.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie by Malick to be set entirely in the present day. It also has the distinction of being the last movie to be reviewed by Roger Ebert; the review was published posthumously.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Tree of Life

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: No-No: A Dockumentary

The Story of Us


You mean...Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

You mean…Bruce Willis once had hair?!?

(1999) Romance (Universal) Bruce Willis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tim Matheson, Rob Reiner, Julie Hagerty, Rita Wilson, Ken Lerner, Colleen Rennison, Jake Sandvig, Victor Raider-Wexler, Albert Hague, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston, Betty White, Red Buttons, Alan Zweibel, Art Evans, Lucy Webb, Paul Reiser, Marci Rosenberg, Bill Kirchenbauer, Jessie Nelson. Directed by Rob Reiner

Hollywood is a town built on ego. The stars, the producers, the directors, the studio execs all have heads so swelled they won’t fit into ordinary cars – that’s why they take limos everywhere. Hell, even the bicycle couriers got ‘tude.

Isn’t it funny, then, that with all that excess of self-worth, nobody will break Hollywood’s critical commandment: Thou Shalt End Happily (unless Thou Art Remaking Shakespeare). Sometimes, that formula gets in the way of a good movie.

The Story of Us chronicles a marriage in its final stages of dissolution, as Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer play a once-happy couple who can hardly be civil to one another for more than a few moments at a time. As their marriage crumbles, they try to figure out how they’re going to break it to their kids, who are away at camp. At the same time, they’re wondering where things went wrong.

Like so many Rob Reiner films (When Harry Met Sally most notably), both characters are likable enough to keep us interested, but flawed enough to be just like the people who surround us in Real Life. Although the focus here is on Willis, Pfeiffer’s character seemed more sympathetic to me. Thrust into the role of disciplinarian, pragmatist and organizer, Pfeiffer hates what she’s become (i.e. her own mother), but feels powerless to escape her situation. She takes out her rage on her husband, whom she blames for not lifting her burdens, or at least sharing them.

For his part he is bewildered by her behavior and is unable to sympathize, yearning for the happy-go-lucky woman he married. Neither one is able to see the other’s viewpoint, and therein lies their problem.

Willis followed one of his all-time career performance in The Sixth Sense with an outstanding effort here, his best romantic comedy work since his Moonlighting days. While Academy members have never really had Willis on their dance card, one wonders if they tended to view him as little more than Mr. Demi Moore, a label which hounded him when he was unable to match the success of the Die Hard film series throughout the ’90s. Then again, he’s generally played pretty much the same character with astonishing regularity with occasional diversions like The Jackal.

Viewers are bound to notice Rita Wilson, however. As Pfeiffer’s best friend (and wife to Willis’ best friend) she positively dominates the screen every time she’s on it. She is, as Da Queen put it, just like every woman’s best friend in real life. That is to say, brassy, catty, vulgar and supportive. It is no accident that most women who view the film howl at Wilson’s jokes while the men tend to squirm and scratched their receding hairlines perplexedly.

That Pfeiffer and Willis were both dealing with the breakup of their real-life relationships while The Story Of Us was filming undoubtedly gave both actors an additional wellspring of emotion from which to draw. A profound scene near the end of the movie when Willis at last sees himself through his wife’s eyes couldn’t help but get one wondering if he was thinking of Demi at that moment.

My biggest gripe with this movie is the denouement, which is forced and happens in such an unbelievable and predictable manner that it leaves you spitting out “Hollywood!” in a scornful tone at your empty popcorn bowl as you turn off your screen. We spend two hours exploring why the marriage is breaking up, but we never really understand what puts it back together again.

Pfeiffer and Willis are appealing, but it’s the realism of their characters that make this movie satisfying, until it’s shattered in the final reel. I still recommend it strongly, based on the performances and the depiction of a relationship that is not unlike those of friends and family. Not a bad date movie for a couple going through a bad patch.

WHY RENT THIS: Good chemistry between Willis and Pfeiffer. Extraordinary performance by Wilson. Realistic characters and situation.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE. Oh that Hollywood ending! Gaah!

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and some sexy stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The last full-length feature film for Red Buttons and Albert Hague.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A featurette on the locations the film was shot at.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $58.9M on a $50M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Jobs

Seabiscuit


Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

Tobey Maguire is dismayed that he has no web to swing from.

(2003) Biographical Drama (Universal) Jeff Bridges, Tobey Maguire, Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, William H. Macy, Michael Angarano, Ed Lauter, Gianni Russo, Sam Bottoms, Dyllan Christopher, Gary Stevens, Royce D. Applegate, Valerie Mahaffey, Michael O’Neill, Annie Corley, David McCullough (voice), Michelle Arthur. Directed by Gary Ross

There are true stories and then there is the truth. Hollywood has a habit of obscuring one for the other. I say this because upon first glance at this movie, one is going to believe that some of the men who are front and center in Seabiscuit were saints, or at least close to it. Be aware as you watch this, that it is more or less an idealized version of the true story that surrounded one of the most legendary racehorses of our time and don’t let that fact get in the way of a truly wonderful movie.

The Great Depression hit some men harder than others. For automobile dealer Charles Howard (Bridges), a car accident that took the life of his 15-year-old son was a forceful reminder that the sunny days of the ’20s were over. Although Howard was able to retain much of his fortune, he found himself searching to fill the empty void in his life, one that cost him his first wife (Mahaffey) although he would later find the spirited Marcela (Banks) while on a trip to Mexico.

For Tom Smith (Cooper), the end of a lifestyle that he loved and an era in American history came hand-in-hand. One of the last of the true range-riding cowboys, Smith found himself in an increasingly mechanized age where the once endless prairies had vanished into subdivisions, towns and fenced-off ranches. A man who had forgotten more about horses than most of the rest of the country combined actually knew, he found it difficult to find a good job utilizing the skills and knowledge he had accumulated over years in the saddle. Adjusting to the 20th century was proving difficult to a man who was born 50 years too late.

Red Pollard (McGuire) had gone through life fighting his way uphill for everything he had, literally. Forced into a foster home after financial difficulties had beset his family, he had a massive chip on his shoulder for most of the rest of his life. He had tried his hand at prizefighting, but wound up beaten, bloody and more often than not, alone. An excellent rider, he was considered to be too big to be a jockey and there were otherwise precious few jobs that involved riding horses.

These three men were united by an unlikely horse named Seabiscuit. Small, ungraceful and none too fast, Seabiscuit’s career on the racetrack had been less than spectacular. But then Howard bought the horse and hired Smith to train him, and Pollard to ride him. And it is this particular confluence of people, time and events that would create magic – and sports history.

At first, Seabiscuit was met with a certain amount of apathy. But as he began to win, the canny publicity hound Howard began to market his horse like no other sports figure in the country (except for maybe Babe Ruth). The right sort of people began to get behind the underdog horse, such as radio reporter Tick Tock McLaughlin (Macy). And Seabiscuit continued to win and win and win.

Off in the distance, coming from the east, War Admiral — thought of as the Perfect Racehorse — had won racing’s coveted Triple Crown. The snobbish Eastern bankers who own War Admiral think at first the undersized horse from the West Coast is beneath their notice. Howard pushes in the press for a match race, leading to an epic confrontation that pitted the two greatest horses of all time, who happened to be at their peaks simultaneously.

Of course, Seabiscuit plays with the heartstrings – unashamedly and sometimes unnecessarily. The story of the great horse is great movie material; it had been done before – in an godawful 1949 tearjerker The Story of Seabiscuit starring Shirley Temple – but the horse with a heart bigger than a nation’s pain deserved a much better biography and this is it. Bridges, Cooper and McGuire all handle their roles respectfully, trying not to succumb to the over-sentimentality of the script, and bringing the essence of the characters to life. They have a good chemistry together which is immensely important given that this is as much their story as Seabiscuit’s.

Director Gary Ross wisely lets the visuals speak for themselves; the racing scenes are well-executed. Although the story is Hollywoodized somewhat, the facts are actually stuck fairly closely to, which is to be commended. They also do a great job of recreating the gait and style of the legendary Seabiscuit.

The movie is inspiring, if occasionally treacly. The story itself lends itself to a big stage, and Ross provides it for his fine cast. Getting past the sentiment can be tricky, but this is a story about perhaps the ultimate underdog and the movie has in ten short years become a sports movie classic.

WHY RENT THIS: Great underdog story. Excellent chemistry among the leads. Inspiring. Terrific racing sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prone to over-sentimentality.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of sexuality and there is some violence within the context of the sport.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Sold 5.5 million DVD copies which at the time was a record for a drama.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a featurette on horse racing in the 1930s which includes not only the Seabiscuit-War Admiral rivalry but also other great horses of the era. The Blu-Ray includes newsreel footage of the actual race and an A&E channel special on the real Seabiscuit.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $148.3M on an $87M production budget; the film fell shy of recouping it’s production costs during its theatrical run although it turned a very tidy profit on home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miracle

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Now You See Me

 

Shrink


The party's over...

The party’s over…

(2009) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Spacey, Saffron Burrows, Jack Huston, Griffin Dunne, Robin Williams, Pell James, Robert Loggia, Keke Palmer, Gore Vidal, Dallas Roberts, Mark Webber, Jesse Plemmons, Laura Ramsey, Ashley Greene, Joel Gretsch, Mina Olivera. Directed by Jonas Pate

We look to our mental health professionals to help us see us through our problems, help us overcome our addictions and in general feel better about ourselves and our lives. Like any physician, they are also human beings, subject to issues and pain of their own.

Dr. Henry Carter (Spacey) is a bestselling author and psychiatrist to the stars. He has a gorgeous home in the hills, a clientele that reads like the “A” list and the respect of his peers. But that home is an empty one – his wife committed suicide in it. He can’t bring himself to go in his bedroom any more. He numbs himself out on alcohol and pot. In fact it can be said that Dr. Henry Carter is a stoner of epic proportions.

That’s not to say he isn’t functioning. He still manages to see patients and doles out advice that at least sounds good. His patients include a hard-charging talent manager (Roberts) who gives no quarter in business and has no regard for anyone, a fading comic actor (Williams) who is a raging alcoholic but refuses to acknowledge his problem – he attends his sessions to be treated for a sex addiction that he does acknowledge. There’s also an actress (Burrows) whose career is handled by the talent manager that is slowly spinning into oblivion as he believes her age is an obstacle. She is married to a philandering rock star (Gretsch).

Into this mix comes Jemma (Palmer), a teen whose mother recently committed suicide. She is seemingly losing interest in everything except the movies; Dr. Carter’s father (Loggia) – also a well-respected shrink – urged him to take her on as a pro bono case. At the same time, Dr. Carter’s “step-godbrother” Jeremy (Webber), a struggling screenwriter, becomes friendly with Jemma and realizes her story is the one he was born to tell.

Yes, this is one of those ensemble pieces where all the stories of all these different people are entwined. It’s just not done as well as those other movies like Babel or Crash. The writers rely far too much on coincidence. It’s lazy storytelling and it happens way often here.

Fortunately the movie has some strong performances to fall back on. Nobody in the business does cynical as well as Spacey does and he delivers once again here, despite material that really could have easily been rendered into a 2D caricature. To the actor’s credit, he gives the character nuances and layers that give him a fully realized personality that allows us to really get involved in his story.

He is well-supported, particularly by the manic Williams who has had problems with alcohol in his career and clearly channels those awful years in is performance; Palmer is sweet and cute and adorable and is a breath of fresh air in the movie and James who plays Roberts’ personal assistant who is the love interest for Jeremy.

The opening shot, a panoramic take of the City of Angels from behind the Hollywood sign, shows a great deal of promise but then it falls into cliché-ridden seen-it-all-before-ness that not only doesn’t add any real insight to addiction or life in L.A. but doesn’t really add anything to the genre either. The only thing it really has going for it is Spacey and you can certainly see him in plenty of much better films.

WHY RENT THIS: Spacey is always interesting. Supporting cast is first-rate.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit formulaic. Some lazy writing – too many coincidences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of alcohol and drug abuse in the film, and a whole lot of bad language. There’s some sexual content as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video for the Jackson Browne song “Here” from the film’s soundtrack.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $303,431 on an unreported production budget; chances are this wasn’t profitable during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crash

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Gangster Squad

The General’s Daughter


The General's Daughter

Madeline Stowe is tired of being taken to John Travolta's favorite cheap bar whenever they go out on a date.

(1999) Mystery (Paramount) John Travolta, Madeline Stowe, James Woods, James Cromwell, Timothy Hutton, Clarence Williams III, Leslie Stefanson, Daniel van Bargen, Peter Weireter, Mark Boone Junior, John Beasley, John Frankenheimer. Directed by Simon West

 

The United States Army is, in many ways, a cult in the eyes of us civilians. Think about it: People dress the same, address civilians with courtesy and respect (for the most part), engage in a life governed by a rigid code of morality and when threatened, protect their own. At least they don’t hand out flowers in airports.

The General’s Daughter looks at that code in a critical manner. Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is a member of the elite Criminal Investigation Division, a branch of the Army that investigates crimes committed on military property and/or by military personnel. He is brought into an investigation when a beautiful female officer (Stefanson) is raped and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion. Another investigator, Sara Sunhill (Stowe) who, as it so happens, used to be intimate with Brenner, is brought in to be a partner with her somewhat reluctant ex.

Also, as it turns out, the beautiful officer is the daughter of the base commander, Gen. Joseph Campbell (Cromwell). Campbell is getting ready to retire from the military, with an eye toward a political career. So the intrigue is sky-high, with a smarmy MP (Hutton), an edgy psych officer (the always-excellent Woods), and a guilty-looking assistant (Williams) lurking about the edges.

At the risk of giving away too much, two elements of the military are under the microscope here: the Army’s attitude towards women and the Army’s attitude towards cover-ups. I can kind of understand the latter; in order to be effective, an armed force must have the respect of not only those who potentially might oppose it but also of those it defends as well. The U.S. Army doesn’t like to appear vulnerable or mistaken. It takes steps to protect its reputation almost as vigorously as it takes steps to protect this nation.

Of course that can lead to several gray areas, morally-speaking. While instances as far out into the gray as The General’s Daughter are extremely rare (although the Navy’s Tailhook scandal comes to mind), the fact is that the potential for these kinds of shenanigans exist. Perhaps that’s why this movie is so effective.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that Travolta is actually a fine actor although he makes a pretty damn fine movie star as well. Here he plays a man walking through a moral minefield and is being forced to choose between what he knows is right and the good of the Army. It’s not an easy choice by any means and through Travolta we can see the character wrestling with his moral dilemma.

He has a spectacular supporting cast; Woods and Cromwell shine, and Stowe, Hutton and Williams are all excellent as well. All of them are among some of the finest actors in the business, now and almost 15 years ago when this was made. Still, this is definitely Travolta’s show and he’s at the top of his game here.

“The General’s Daughter” is not always an easy movie to watch, although as thrillers go, it’s top-notch. The solution is not what I expected, and it made me think long after the lights had come up in the theater. That’s a lot more than you can ask out of most thrillers – heck, most movies.

WHY RENT THIS: An entertaining thriller with unexpected twists. Travolta is in his best form here; he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Portrays the Army in a somewhat negative light. The murder/rape scene may be too disturbing for some.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very graphic and disturbing rape and murder scene, some perverse sexuality (as the MPAA so delicately puts it), plenty of strong language and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Fort MacCallum scenes were filmed at Savannah State University in Georgia and at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $149.7M on an estimated $95M production budget; the movie didn’t quite make enough to be profitable during it’s theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Promotion

 

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel


Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Sex in the early '60s: Hef and the Bunnies.

(2009) Documentary (Metaphor) Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Tony Bennett, George Lucas, Joan Baez, Jim Brown, James Caan, Jesse Jackson, Jenny McCarthy, Gene Simmons, Shannon Tweed, Pete Seeger, Mike Wallace, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis. Directed by Brigitte Berman

There have been many polarizing figures in the 20th century. Ronald Reagan, for example; conservatives look at him as a great president, one whose economic philosophy have shaped our economy for the past thirty years and have led us to unprecedented prosperity. Liberals look at him as the architect for our greed-dominated society and see his presidency as an American tragedy.

Hugh Hefner gets the same sort of reception. The publisher of Playboy magazine is responsible for the popularization of the centerfold. To the minds of the radical feminists, he has led to the objectification of women and is indirectly or directly responsible for the rape and abuse of women by men who have bought in to his philosophy. To conservatives, he is an immoral man, dedicated to the destruction of American society and the corruption of American morality.

Most people see the swinging lifestyle; the pajamas, the pipe, the smile and the 20-something women cavorting at the Shangri La-esque Playboy mansion. They see an octogenarian with seven girlfriends young enough to be his great-great granddaughters and yes, there is an element of the ridiculous to it. Overkill at the very least.

But there is more to Hef than meets the eye, and those who have followed his career will know that. Hef has been a crusader for First Amendment rights through his magazine, supporting the legal defense of those rights (often with cash donations) and during the Blacklisting era, printing pieces by Dalton Trumbo and other writers who could get no work elsewhere.

He has also been a champion for civil rights. His Playboy clubs and “Playboy After Dark” television show gave exposure to African-American performers who might never have gotten an audience. Sammy Davis Jr., Dizzy Gillespie and Dick Gregory all regularly worked in Hefner’s establishments. He supported Martin Luther King’s agenda both editorially and with contributions to his cause.

And he has also defended women’s reproductive rights as well as their civil rights as well. He has supported the “Equal Pay for Equal Work” theory as well as nurturing the careers of women into executive positions at his own company. He works tirelessly for the environment as well as for the preservation of jazz, an art form he’s passionate about.

Berman was given unprecedented access to the magazine’s archives and to Hefner’s own personal collection of letters and documents; she also was able to get her hands on footage from Hefner’s television shows which are some of the most fascinating moments of the film.

Hefner is often simply thought of as a pornographer and a fairly mild one at that; his pictorials tend to be much more artistic and less hardcore than those of, say, Larry Flynt or Bob Guccione. In some ways, he’s rather archaic – Playboy is essentially less of a factor in publishing the pictures of naked women than the Internet is. His legacy, however is far more complicated.

Hef didn’t invent sex but he brought it out of the recesses of puritanical dogma. He didn’t make it okay for women to like sex, but he supported the concept and helped popularize it. He didn’t objectify women – that’s been around far longer than Playboy – but he did help develop what the male ideal was for women physically (can we all say big boobs?) and make being a centerfold an aspiration for many women.

There is nothing wrong with sex. There is nothing wrong with being sexual. Pleasure doesn’t have to be a dirty word. But sex goes arm in arm with responsibility and Hef knew that. He used the prurient interest in his magazine to fund his social causes and there is some irony in that.

Tarring Hefner with the brush of a pornographer misses the point of what he’s done, and is rather simplistic and naive. I don’t always agree with his lifestyle and I wonder why he has rarely gone for women closer to his own age – I also wonder if there is too much emphasis on sex in his philosophy. Sex is, after all, only a part of life and while it is an important part, it’s not the most important part.

But that’s once again not all there is to Hefner. He has championed causes that have needed a champion, and has stood up for things that were unpopular back in the day. Most importantly, he has helped usher in a change of American values and hopefully, not all of it has to do with sex. Some of it has to do with compassion and the dignity of all people. Hugh Hefner may not be a hero to most, but in all honesty he deserves to be and this movie captures that largely unremarked upon aspect of him.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look inside the legend. Some great footage from the old “Playboy After Dark” television show. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really challenge much. Presents Hef as a bit of a saint.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity (of the Playboy centerfold variety) and a bit of sexual content as you might imagine.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10,000 on an unreported production budget; I suspect the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: J.Edgar