Lasso


Skyler Cooper gives an electric performance.

(2018) Horror (Epic) Sean Patrick Flanery, Lindsey Morgan, Andrew Jacobs, Benedita Pereira, Karen Grassle, Steven Anthony Jones, Molly Goode, Monique Bricca, Don Demico, Tony Vella, Zoe Swenson Graham, Joe Sobalo Jr., Thomas Cokenias, Travis Andre Ross, Halliny Ferreira, Todd Myers, Skyler Cooper, Seldor Helderman, Michael Gomes, Heather Mignon, Melissa Tracy. Directed by Evan Cecil

 

What could be more all-American than a rodeo? Although the name (and the concept) is derived from the Spanish, we have adopted it and turned it into something that represents what many believe is the epitome of being an American – the cowboy. But like all things American, there is a dark side to it.

An active seniors group is going on an outing to the Hackett Rodeo. Young and perky guide Kit (Morgan) and her less-enthusiastic assistant Simon (Jacobs) bring them to the faux Western town where there are games of chance and of course plenty of shopping. Then there’s the rodeo arena itself, where bronco busters, calf ropers and creepy clowns entertain the crowds.

But as the crowd thins out the senior group dally a bit too long and they witness a grisly murder by a dark cowboy with a barbed whip that rips out the innards of a young woman, and then the carotid artery of their driver. Panicked, Kit escapes with most of her charges but Simon – who had gone back to find a lost hairbrush for imperious Lillian (Grassle) – is left behind to be captured and thrown into a pen with one-armed cowboy Ennis (Flanery), muscle-bound African-American Trish (Cooper) and rodeo queen Rosheen (Mignon).

A mysterious rodeo clown (Gomes) helps them escape from their cell but they discover that Hackett (Cokenias) and his rodeo personnel are all tweaked on horse steroids that are not meant for human consumption and has not only made them muscular but also psychotic. The ‘roid ragers are putting on a show for their own amusement and are taking clues from Grand Guignol and Herschell Gordon Lewis, murdering strays in grisly ways having to do with the rodeo (as in one girl being roped by the feet and arms and being pulled apart by a couple of dark horsemen).

In the meantime, the seniors’ bus has overheated and stalled near the entrance of the ranch. Kit is desperately trying to fix the bus but her charges are decidedly unhelpful. What they don’t know is that they are being stalked by cowboys; while some of them are going to be set aside for the show, some of them won’t make it to the arena. Fame, she is fickle, no?

I actually really like the concept and to be honest, some of the murders are truly clever. If you like gore, you won’t leave this one disappointed. However, there is almost zero character development, Simon is one of the most annoying heroes ever as he botches plan after plan, and the most interesting characters tend to be killed early on. Poor Ennis is the most luckless character you’ll ever see; he survives some horrific injuries but like the Energizer bunny, he keeps on coming back for more. I like the idea that one of the good guys is unkillable instead of the maniac.

Having two separate groups being threatened by the cowboys is unnecessary and causes the movie to run a little longer than it should. Personally, I would have gone with the seniors – that would have made for a much more interesting movie, although Flanery as Ennis gets a gold star for his work. In fact, it is impressive that all the actors buy into the silliness with a straight face. There is some humor here but this is primarily and defiantly a horror film and it doesn’t apologize for being one. It doesn’t pander to horror fans either, which is unusual for a lot of horror films these days.

The last couple of years has seen an influx of really talented directors in the genre and movies that have pushed the envelope of scary. This isn’t necessarily one of those but Cecil shows a great deal of promise and there are a lot of things to like about Lasso. It misses a few too many opportunities to get a rave review, but it takes advantage of enough of them to be recommended.

REASONS TO GO: As far as I know, this is the only slasher film to ever be set at a rodeo.
REASONS TO STAY: Given the opportunity for doing something different, the movie is fairly cliché.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cecil is a veteran television director making his feature film debut.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trip With Teacher
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Pledge

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Dallas Buyers Club


A pair of Texas-sized performances.

A pair of Texas-sized performances.

(2013) True Life Drama (Focus) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Jared Leto, Denis O’Hare, Steve Zahn, Michael O’Neill, Dallas Roberts, Griffin Dunne, Kevin Rankin, Donna Duplantier, Deneen Tyler, J.D. Evermore, Ian Casselberry, Noelle Wilcox, Bradford Cox, Rick Espaillat, Lawrence Turner, Lucius Falick, James DuMont, Jane McNeill. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee

Waiting for Oscar

2014 OSCAR NOMINATIONS
Best Picture
Best Actor – Matthew McConaughey
Best Supporting Actor – Jared Leto
Best Editing – Martin Pensa & Jean-Marc Vallee
Best Hair/Make-up – Adruitha Lee & Robin Mathews
Best Original Screenplay – Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack
WINS – Pending

The AIDS epidemic has been a scourge on gay men, responsible for the deaths of an astonishing percentage of the total population since the 80s. At the same time, it became a rallying point for the gay community, forcing them to organize – literally to fight for their lives. What they learned from that fight has served them well more recently in the fight to legalize same sex marriage.

But before that, it was simple survival and not all of those fighting to live were gay. Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), an electrician in the Dallas area, should have been on the Texas state flag. A  hard-partying, homophobic, heavy-drinking SOB who loved the rodeo and lived his life on the edge, gets the dreaded diagnosis in 1985 – not only does he have the HIV virus but full-blown AIDS and has about 30 days to live. Given his gaunt, cadaverous frame, it’s a miracle he’s even alive at all.

But life is too important to Ron to give up on it so easily. He does research and finds a treatment, currently in the test phase, called AZT that might save him. Unable to qualify for testing, he takes matters into his own hands and buys illegally obtained drugs. When it turns out that AZT is extremely toxic, he goes to Mexico to find alternatives which are provided by an expatriate American doctor (Dunne). Bringing enough back to the United States for use but also some to sell catches the eye of the FDA in the form of a bureaucratic agent (O’Neill) who keeps a wary eye on Woodroof.

At first Ron is just interested in selling the stuff so he can afford to buy more for himself, but with the help of a transgender named Rayon (Leto) and a shady lawyer (Roberts) he figures out that selling memberships in a buyers’ club circumvents the law. However, despite the support of a sympathetic doctor (Garner), her officious boss (O’Hare) who sees his patients flocking away from his lucrative AZT study and towards Ron’s less toxic treatments teams up with the FDA to find a way to bring Ron down, which is a death sentence to him and those who rely on his drugs to survive.

It is unbelievable that a federal agency would take the attitude that dying people should just lay down and die and accept their fate rather than to fight to live, but that’s just what has happened and in many ways continues to happen today. It’s all in keeping with the American and Christian attitude that gays and lesbians are less than human and deserve what they get when it comes to AIDS. That kind of thinking made my blood boil then and does so now. Why is compassion so lacking when it comes to the gay community?

McConaughey has been building to this performance his entire career. He is magnificent, having lost a terrifying amount of weight for the role and looking so gaunt I imagine that there was some legitimate concern for his health. Beyond that he plays the curmudgeonly and homophobic Ron without his usual likable charm; Ron is something of a son-of-a-bitch. Still, he grows through the film and though he remains somewhat arrogant and a bit of a blowhard, he does soften around the edges.

Leto, long an acclaimed actor who has been absent from the screen of late, returns in triumph, making the fictional Rayon the conscience of the movie. Although she is quite flawed  – Ron basically browbeats her about her drug use, knowing that it destroys her immunity system faster than the treatment can repair it – she still has a heart as big as the Big D Metroplex and then some.

I can’t say that this is a movie that will make you feel great when you leave the theater but you do see the human spirit at its finest. Ron, given 30 days to live, survives seven years thanks in part for his refusal to just lie down and die and accept what his doctors told him. He found a way to extend his life and in doing so, helped extend the lives of many others. That is in my book the very definition of a hero.

REASONS TO GO: Jaw-dropping performances by McConaughey and Leto. Moving and brilliant.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too emotional for some.

FAMILY VALUES:  The language can be pretty rough. There’s also some sexuality and nudity, drug use and some pretty mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jared Leto hadn’t taken on an acting role in five years prior to this film, spending time concentrating on his band 30 Seconds to Mars and the legal problems they were embroiled in.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Philadelphia

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Watcher

Buck


Buck

Buck Brannaman surrounded by his friends.

(2011) Documentary (Sundance Selects) Buck Brannaman, Mary Brannaman, Reata Brannaman, Betsy Shirley, Robert Redford, Bibb Frazier, Betty Staley, Ali Cornish, Shayne Jackson, Smokie Brannaman, Ray Hunt. Directed by Cindy Meehl

We as Americans tend to think of ourselves as the strong silent types. We admire the archetype of the lone cowboy, masculine and kind, prone to doing the right thing and saying little to blow his own horn; he just gets on with things.

Buck Brannaman fits the ideal to a “T”. This documentary follows Brannaman while he goes on the road, which he does nine months of the year. He runs clinics in which he teaches horse owners to gently train their horses without abusing or breaking them. He is the inspiration for the character of Tom Booker in the Nicholas Evans novel “The Horse Whisperer” which later became a Robert Redford movie.

Brannaman has a droll sense of humor; he quips early on “I get called out for people with horse problems, but usually find horses with people problems.” He is self-deprecating but firm in his passions; from time to time he calls out his clients when their behavior is detrimental to the horse. His daughter Reata accompanies him for two months out of the year; she is described by her mother Mary as “her father’s daughter,” which Buck tends to agree with; “Fortunately she got her mother’s looks, but inside she’s more like me.”

There’s something about Buck that you just respond to, whether you’re a human being or a horse. It is his innate humanity, his gentle sense of humor and his empathy for both man and beast. He is a decent human being and that decency radiates from him like an aura.

Horse lovers will find many reasons to love this film; the animals have personalities and are treated with dignity and respect. So too are the people who love horses. Some are those who work with horses on ranches; others are those who use horses in other ways, as show horses and in dressage. Then there are just who just love horses and want to learn to ride.

The most remarkable thing about Buck is that he came from a background of extreme abuse as a child; his father was something of a drunken monster who’s own insecurities led him to beat his children (Buck and his brother Smokie) unmercifully. Buck and Smokie, who were trick ropers as children (Buck and Smokie remain in the Guinness Book of World Records to this day for achievements as children), had their injuries found out by a football coach who immediately reported it to the authorities, and the two boys were remanded to the care of Betsy Shirley, a foster mom who together with her husband raised the two as their own (some of the best moments in the movie come when Betsy comes to visit Buck).

Not all documentaries need to be about an issue. Some of the best ones are about people who are worth knowing more about. People who make the world a better place in their own way. You will be better for even a brief encounter with Buck than you were going in. If there’s a better reason to go see a movie, I can’t think of it.

REASONS TO GO: A wonderful portrayal of a real American archetype. Truly inspiring in places, Brannaman’s humanity and compassion shines.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the movie revolves around Brannaman’s clinics and might be a bit repetitive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some discussions of child abuse and one scene of an injury that might be too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buck Brannaman was not only the inspiration for the lead character in the novel The Horse Whisperer; he also was a technical advisor on the film of the novel.

HOME OR THEATER: Beautifully photographed, this should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Premonition

Did You Hear About the Morgans?


Did You Hear About the Morgans?

Sarah Jessica Parker takes aim at the screenwriter while Hugh Grant nervously checks for witnesses.

(Columbia) Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Jesse Liebman, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley, Gracie Bea Lawrence, Kim Shaw, David Call, Seth Gilliam, Sandor Tecsy, Steven Boyer, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Marc Lawrence

A relationship depends on trust in order to work. However, once the trust is gone, can a relationship still exist or is it doomed to fail?

The relationship between Manhattan lawyer Paul Morgan (Grant) and his wife, successful boutique realtor Meryl Morgan (Parker) is in crisis. They have been trying to have a baby without any success and now Paul’s infidelity has caused the couple to separate. Paul really wants to get back together again with his wife, but she can’t get past her own feeling of betrayal. Hey, it speaks volumes that in order for the couple to even plan dinner together, they have to resort to having their personal assistants – overbearing Jackie (Moss) and cojones-challenged Adam (Liebman) rework their schedules just so they can align their schedules.

The dinner goes surprisingly well and Meryl allows Paul to walk her around the corner to a late showing for a new client. However, in a bit of a buzzkill, the new client is murdered before their eyes. As luck would happen, it turns out the client was co-operating with the FBI in a case against an international arms dealer who had hired a professional hitman to do the job. Now the assassin knows who the Morgans are, so U.S. Marshall Lasky (Gilliam) puts the quarreling couple in a witness relocation program.

Meryl is aghast. Not only is she leaving behind her beloved New York and her booming business but they are being sent to Ray, Wyoming, a flyspeck of a town in the middle of the Rockies. They will be cared for by the town sheriff, Clay Wheeler (Elliott) and his gun-totin’ wife Emma (Steenburgen) who are also employed by the U.S. Marshall service for the purpose of witness relocation because their location is so remote.

Paul is a bit upset because he has a thing about bears, which virtually guarantees he is going to encounter one in a movie like this. Meryl is a bit upset because she has no cell phone, blackberry or internet, which means she is going to find a phone which will lead the killer right to them. Both are bemused by the big rodeo celebration complete with (and this we are told emphatically) bull riding, which means that the two of them will wind up in the ring with the bull. And, sure as shootin’, the two city slickers are going to be inspired by them kindly western sorts into getting back together. Ain’t love grand?

Director Marc Lawrence has written, directed and occasionally produced some nifty romantic comedies, such as Music and Lyrics but this won’t be remembered as one of his better movies. The script is a bit light on the laughs, which is not good news for a comedy. It is also incredibly predictable and you sit in the darkness of the theater, praying to whatever being you worship for some kind of swerve, anything. Sorry chum; your prayers won’t be answered.

I normally like Hugh Grant a lot, which is why I wanted to see this in the first place (Da Queen, who reacts to Sarah Jessica Parker much in the same way a dog reacts to a police siren, was much less eager). However, he has little to do but furrow his brow (which he does to the point you think his nose is going to pop right off his face), look dreadfully uncomfortable and generally apologize repeatedly to the point where you want Liz Hurley to walk onscreen and slam him over the head with a cast iron skillet and say with a smirk “apology accepted – now shut up!” Come to think of it, Hurley would have been a much better casting choice here.

The sad thing is that some great actors are wasted. Sam Elliott, the quintessence of the American western tough guy, is placed in the awkward position of acting as a marriage counselor to the Morgans. I really felt for the guy; he’s due a really good role right about now and quite frankly, he hasn’t gotten one. Steenburgen is one of my favorite actresses from the 80s and 90s and is still gorgeous to my eye; she’s also warm and charming. Here, she channels Sarah Palin quite nicely (as the script leadenly points out in a line that might have been funny if uttered at a better moment) and gamely gives her all in a poorly written role.

While this is a good looking movie (the rugged western vistas of the Wyoming mountain country and the star-filled night sky contrast with the lights and concrete canyons of Manhattan), I found little that grabbed my attention. At the public screening I attended, there was almost no laughing and little more than the occasional sounds of popcorn being munched and soda being slurped. I have rarely heard an audience so quiet in my entire career.

The filmmakers try to make this funny but they only succeed in making it awkward, with terrible silences filling the movie. The effect is similar to having invited guests get into a shouting match while staying over. I really wanted to like this movie but unfortunately for everyone involved, I simply cannot recommend it. If you’re in the mood for a romantic comedy, you’d do much better with It’s Complicated or having seen that, waiting for When in Rome, Leap Year and Valentine’s Day, all of which are coming down the pike in the next few months.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty views of the Wyoming mountain country.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is decidedly unfunny, and so very predictable. The actors all look uncomfortable, confused and undirected. Adds nothing to contrived fish-out-of-water premise.

FAMILY VALUES: Some violence and sexual situations and a scene of smoking but otherwise harmless.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gracie Bea Lawrence, who plays “American Idol”-wannabe Lucy, is director Marc Lawrence’s daughter.

HOME OR THEATER: You could be forgiven for waiting until it comes out on free cable, although some of the vistas in Big Sky country are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: It’s Complicated