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

The Autopsy of Jane Doe


The face of death.

The face of death.

(2016) Horror (IFC Midnight) Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Parker Sawyers, Jane Perry, Mary Duddy, Mark Phoenix, Sydney, Yves O’Hara. Directed by André Ǿvredal

 

When we die often the most reliable evidence for how we died is our actual bodies. The things scraped from under our fingernails, the DNA inside our mouths, the lesions in the skin and the damage to internal organs all tell a story. That story not only tells the coroner  how we died but also how we lived.

Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son Austin (Hirsch) run the Tilden mortuary (in the family for generations) in a small Virginia town. They also act as the town’s medical examiners. It’s just been the two men since Tommy’s wife passed on several years ago, but Austin has a pretty girlfriend named Emma (Lovibond) who unbeknownst to Dad has been urging Austin to follow his dreams which don’t include being a medical examiner in a small town. Austin has been trying to find a way to break the news to Tommy when Sheriff Sheldon (McElhatton) brings in a body that he needs autopsied right away, even though it’s well past business hours.

Jane Doe (Kelly) was discovered buried in the basement of a home where a brutal mass murder took place. What she was doing there is a mystery as is what relation she might have had to the killings; the Sheriff needs answers and is relying on Tommy to give them to him quickly. Tommy agrees to stay and even though Austin and Emma were about to leave on a date, Austin blows her off to help Dad out, not wanting him to be left holding the bag on what looks to be a rough autopsy.

For one thing, the body appears to be pristine – no evidence of external wounds or even a clue as to what the cause of death might be. Once the two open up the body though some unsettling facts begin to come to life; the victim’s tongue was severed, for one thing. Her lungs are black as if she had inhaled smoke. Also her wrists and ankles are broken even though there’s no external bruising.

As they perform the autopsy a bad storm hits town but now some odd things are happening. The radio changes stations on its own. The doors to the storage units for the bodies in the morgue open on their own. And there’s evidence that the dead may be walking around again and no Sheriff Andy to save the day. When things at last get to be too creepy, Tommy decides to get out (which Austin had been urging him to do for some time) but it’s far too late now. They are trapped inside the morgue with a supernatural entity who may have a bone or two to pick with them.

Ǿvredal is the Norwegian director best known for The Troll Hunter, a very different kind of horror film. This one has less of a sense of humor than his last movie and is his first English language film. It’s a whiz bang effort that relies much more on creepy atmosphere rather than over-the-top effects; like that film, there isn’t a ton of character development either.

One of his smarter moves was to cast Emile Hirsch as Austin. Hirsch is an often underrated actor who given some of his performances should at least be in the top echelon of actors but for whatever reason hasn’t gotten that kind of recognition. He plays Austin as a pretty decent guy who wants to do the right thing but has a bit of a backbone problem. Cox is one of the most respected character actors out there with such roles as Hannibal Lecter (he originated the role in Manhunter) and General William Stryker (from X-Men 2). His Tommy Tilden is very proud of his son, a pride that doesn’t allow him to see that his boy is moving down a different path than he. I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic between them but once the horror action starts basically that element is left behind.

Otherwise, the movie is extremely well-written and creates a mythology that is easy to follow and yet is original. The ending is a bit of a letdown but not much of one; it certainly leaves room for a sequel and I have to admit that there is some appeal in the possibility that this might become a horror movie franchise, although I’ll grant you that to my mind there aren’t a lot of places a franchise can go to with this concept. The concept here – following a corpse through the autopsy process with terrifying results – is a solid one that is unique so far as I know.

The scary stuff starts pretty quickly into the movie but it doesn’t feel rushed. It builds, rather, and it builds fast. Once it gets going even horror veterans are going to find their hearts pounding and their adrenaline rushing through their systems. It’s legitimately scary and those who are sensitive to gore and nudity (the corpse of Jane Doe is naked throughout) are well-advised to consider carefully whether this is the film for them.

There has been a renaissance in horror movies over the past decade or so and Ǿvredal is one of the leading lights of it. We have seen some movies that are sure to be classics of the genre over the past three or four years in particular and this one is likely to be one of them. It’s a great time to be a horror fan and movies like this one are the reason why.

REASONS TO GO: If you love scary movies, this is the one for you. Terrific performances by Cox and Hirsch drive the film.  Ǿvredal creates a terrifying atmosphere that doesn’t relent during the entire film. Ǿvredal doesn’t wait too long to get into the thick of the horror.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some extremely gruesome images, plenty of foul language, graphic nudity and some intense violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  After seeing The Conjuring, director Ǿvredal told his agent that he wanted to do a horror film for his next project and to find him a good script. This is the one that his agent brought to him and Ǿvredal was immediately taken by it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Chapter & Verse

Maggie (2015)


Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

Arnold Schwarzenegger revisits his political career.

(2015) Horror (Roadside Attractions) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Douglas M. Griffin, J.D. Evermore, Rachel Whitman Groves, Jodie Moore, Bryce Romero, Raeden Greer, Aiden Flowers, Carsen Flowers, Walter von Huene, Dana Gourrier, Amy Brassette, David Anthony Cole, Mattie Liptak, Liann Pattison, Maris Black, Jessy Hughes. Directed by Henry Hobson

sixdays2016-2

I have not been fortunate enough to raise a daughter. There is something very special about that father-daughter bond from what I’ve seen. While there are some dads who aren’t worth a counterfeit penny, most are quite willing to lay down their lives for their little girls if need be.

Maggie Vogel (Breslin) has a dad like that – Wade (Schwarzenegger) who owns a small farm in the Midwest. Disease has broken out – a pandemic that turns those that contract it into flesh-eating cannibals. They become mindless zombies, if you will. Maggie has been bitten by a zombie and now she has the disease. There is no cure. She will slowly die over a period of several months; the end is inexorable. She’s run away from home, to find herself in a hospital. That’s where Wade finds her.

There aren’t many options and none of them are real hopeful. She can be left in the hospital where she’ll be sent to quarantine, eventually to be given a very painful death. She can go home and stay there until she turns, in which case she’ll get a very painful death. Or she can go home and her father can end her existence in a more humane way. Wade chooses the last option.

Things are breaking down back at home. Wade’s second wife Caroline (Richardson) – Maggie’s mom passed when she was a little girl – and her two kids with Wade Bobby (A. Flowers) and Molly (C. Flowers) don’t really understand what’s going on, although Bobby sort of does. Eventually Caroline packs up the kids and sends them to live with an aunt, joining them herself. While she does understand what’s going on, she doesn’t get why Wade would put their two healthy children in harm’s way for the sake of a daughter who is dying. Wade doesn’t really have an answer for her that she understands.

Maggie hooks up with an old flame back at home, Trent (Romero) who also has the disease. He doesn’t want to go to quarantine – he’s heard that the conditions there are terrifying. He locks himself in his room and only Maggie can talk him out but the local sheriff (Griffin) and his mean-hearted deputy (Evermore) drag him away to quarantine anyway. Maggie knows that she doesn’t want a similar fate for herself.

But the signs are getting more unavoidable. She finds live maggots in her arm. When she cuts open a finger, she feels no pain – and oozes viscous black liquid instead of blood. She regularly vomits up horrifying liquids. She can feel her humanity slipping away. The question is, does Ray have the strength to let go of his daughter and spare her things even worse?

=Zombies are a hot commodity in terms of film and television, with The Walking Dead being the number one show on TV as this is written. However, Maggie really isn’t about zombies; they are barely part of the landscape here. We see little violence involving zombies, although on the few occasions where there is some it is sudden and horrifying. No, Maggie is about death and dying – and given the subject, yes the tone is bleak and grim.

Schwarzenegger is of course first and foremost an action hero but the man is not far from his 70th birthday and action roles don’t really suit him anymore. Given a chance to show his dramatic chops, Schwarzenegger actually shines and comes out with the best performance of his storied career. His Wade is gentle, honest and loyal but he is also very conflicted. He knows what’s best for his daughter, but finds it hard to even consider letting her go, even to the point of possibly letting her suffer. It makes the movie’s denouement even more poignant. I truly hope that Schwarzenegger gets more roles like this in the coming years; he can certainly handle them.

Breslin is already a known quality. She started out as a child actress and became one of the best juvenile actresses in history. As a young woman, she shows she can handle much more layered, complex roles. She has all the skills to be one of her generation’s most successful performers, with the kind of talent that wins Oscars and carries lead roles in important franchise films.

There are plenty of pastoral images that indicate a lifestyle that’s both rural and satisfying. Perhaps there are a few too many of those; at times the filmmaker seems a bit more in love with the style over the substance which is a bit of a shame because the substance here is pretty outstanding. Hobson has a background in making titles and graphic design and certainly his expertise shows here which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but hopefully for future films he’ll give a bit more emphasis to the story.

Oddly, the zombies here are some of the least effective ever seen onscreen. Even during the few attack scenes, they are never as menacing as they are in other presentations. The process of becoming a zombie is given more attention, which is proper and it IS fascinating, but we never get a sense of what the end result is. Becoming a zombie is bad here because it is in other movies for all we know. I would have preferred to see some graphic displays of why becoming a zombie is such a horrible fate. There is a whole lot of weeping over it though.

Also, for a zombie apocalypse, life is going on pretty well as it had before. We don’t get a sense of civilization breaking down whatsoever. But then again, why does it have to? An outbreak of zombie disease doesn’t have to signify an apocalypse, although the zombie inconvenience doesn’t sound nearly as interesting.

There is a lot to recommend this movie, particularly the acting (who’da thought) and the concept, but I think the movie could have been an absolute classic with surer hands at the helm. A little less rumination and a little more action would have benefitted the movie overall.

WHY RENT THIS: This is one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of his career if not THE best and Breslin is nearly as good.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The zombies aren’t used effectively and the film gets way too schmaltzy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of gore and some disturbing zombie-related images as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Schwarzenegger, who really loved the script, did the movie without taking any sort of payment. The film crew also used the same home and surrounding property of the house in Looper.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are some surprisingly lengthy interviews with members of the cast and crew, as well as an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film on the Blu-Ray edition.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.4 million on a $4.5M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life After Beth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

The Hateful Eight


A blizzard can be hateful.

A blizzard can be hateful.

(2015) Western (Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Quentin Tarantino (voice), Channing Tatum, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owina, Zoë Bell. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. Quentin Tarantino is a no-talent hack. Quentin Tarantino is the arbiter of style and cool. Quentin Tarantino is a racist and misogynist asshole. Whatever you believe Quentin Tarantino is, chances are it isn’t somewhere in the middle. Most people tend to have extreme view of his work.

His eighth film has gotten polarizing responses from critics and fans alike, not just for the occasionally brutal violence (which to be fair should be pretty much expected in a Tarantino film) to the gratuitous use of the “N” word and the occasionally over-the-top violence against a particular female character. I’ll be honest with you; I wasn’t particularly offended by any of it, but I’m neither African-American nor a woman so my perspective might be different if I were. However, I think your sensitivity to such things should determine whether you go out and see this film, or even read on in this review.

That said, I’m going to keep the story description to a bare minimum because much of what works about the movie is that you don’t see what’s coming all the time. Essentially, in post-Civil War Wyoming, a stagecoach carrying bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his bounty, accused killer Daisy Domergue (Leigh) and their driver O.B. Jackson (Parks) are trying to outrun an approaching blizzard to safety in a mountaintop stage stop known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. However, along the way they pick up two additional passengers; fellow bounty hunter and former Northern colored regiment commander Maj. Marquis Warren (Jackson) and former irregular Chris Mannix (Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock, the town that Ruth is taking Daisy to hang in.

Already at the Haberdashery are Bob (Bichir), a Mexican who is taking care of the horses; Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), an English dandy who is the local hangman; Joe Gage (Madsen) a taciturn cowboy writing a journal and General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers, a Confederate general (in uniform) who doesn’t seem much disposed to talk about anything to anybody, despite Mannix’ hero-worship.

In a sense, this is a typical Tarantino set-up; a lot of bad men put in a situation where they are enclosed and sort of trapped – a lot like his early film Reservoir Dogs although very different in execution. Bad men trapped in a confining space with each other is a formula for bad things happening, and they do in rather graphic fashion.

Russell, who was magnificent in Bone Tomahawk continues to personally revitalize the Western genre all by himself with another excellent performance here. John Ruth isn’t above giving a woman an elbow in the face to shut her up; he’s known for bringing his bounties in alive to be hung which isn’t what anyone would call merciful. He’s paranoid, testy and a bit of a loudmouth.

Jackson, a veteran of six of Tarantino’s eight films (including this one) is all Samuel L. Jackson here and all that it entails. He has a particularly nasty scene involving the relative of one of those in the Haberdashery that may or may not be true (everything all of the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt) that might be the most over-the-top thing he’s ever done cinematically and that’s saying something.

Goggins has been a supporting character actor for some time, and he steps up to the plate and delivers here. I’ve always liked him as an actor but he serves notice he’s ready for meatier roles and this one might just get him some. Dern, Madsen and Roth all give performances commensurate with their skills. Channing Tatum also shows up in a small but pivotal role.

Regular Tarantino DP Robert Richardson, already a multiple Oscar winner, outdoes himself here with the snow-covered Wyoming landscapes and the dark Haberdashery. Richardson may well be the greatest cinematographer working today but he rarely gets the respect he deserves other than from his peers. A lot of film buffs don’t know his name, but they should.

The legendary Ennio Morricone supplies the score, his first for a Western in 40 years (he is best known for his work for Sergio Leone and the Italian spaghetti western genre, among others) and it is a terrific score indeed. This is in every way a well crafted motion picture in every aspect.

Not everyone is going to love this. Some folks are going to focus on the racial slurs, the violence against Daisy and the sequence with Major Warren I referred to earlier and call this movie disgraceful, mean-spirited and racist, sexist, whatever else you can imagine. I will confess to being a huge fan of QT’s movies and so I might not be as objective here as perhaps I should, but I do think that this is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of his career and that’s saying something.

For the moment, the movie is available in a 70mm format at selected theaters around the country on a special roadshow edition. This is the first movie in 50 years to be filmed in 70mm Ultra Panavision, so it is highly recommended that if you can get to a theater presenting it this way that you take advantage of it. Otherwise it is just starting to hit regular 35mm theaters starting today. The roadshow will be available only until January 7, 2016 (unless extended) so don’t wait too long to go see it that way, the way it should be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous story. Well-acted and well-executed throughout. Gorgeous cinematography and soundtrack. The characters are well-developed for the most part.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence and racism may be too much for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of graphic violence, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nearly never made when the script was leaked online during pre-production and Tarantino elected to shelve it and rewrite it as a novel; however after Jackson advocated that the film be made anyway, Tarantino eventually relented.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Concussion

Bone Tomahawk


Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

Kurt Russell knows how to make an entrance.

(2015) Western (RLJ Entertainment) Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, Sean Young, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Morris, Michael Paré, James Tolkan, Geno Segers, Zahn McClarnon, Brandon Molale, Jamison Newlander, Omar Levya, Eddie Spears, David Midthunder, Raw Leiba, Marem Hassler. Directed by S. Craig Zahler

Love can be wonderful; a tender feeling of caring and compassion. But love can also be a terrible burden. If it requires us to go somewhere dangerous, then we go, heart heavy and maybe even terrified, but we go nonetheless.

Arthur O’Dwyer (Wilson) and his wife Sam (Simmons) are deeply in love. They live in the small town of Bright Hope, on the edge of the prairie near forbidding hills where even the cattle trails that Arthur uses as a cattle driver fail to go. She’s a bit of a nag, not letting him forget that she warned him not to go repair the roof in the middle of a storm. Per her warning, he fell off the roof and broke his leg, forcing him into essential confinement to bed. This is the Old West, after all, and men did what they had to do.

Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell) also does what he has to do and that might involve shooting a drifter (Arquette) in the leg when he acts a little squirrelly. Because the town doctor is in his cups, Sam is summoned to remove the bullet from the drifter’s leg (she evidently has some sort of medical training). When she doesn’t return home, Arthur becomes a bit concerned.

Deputy Chicory (Jenkins) returns to the Sheriff’s office to discover everyone missing, including Deputy Nick (Jonigkeit). The evidence of a struggle includes a strange bone arrow at the scene. The local expert on Native Americans (Midthunder) tells them that it is from a tribe that isn’t even a tribe – it is in fact not exactly human. He refers to them as troglodytes and asserts that they eat the flesh of humans. He only knows they reside in something called The Valley of the Hungry Men.

A posse is formed. Sheriff Hunt is obligated to go, and even a broken leg won’t keep Arthur away. Deputy Chicory is ordered to stay behind but he refuses to; someone else can watch over Bright Hope while the Sheriff is away. Finally, dapper gambler John Brooder (Fox) also offers to go; he had escorted Mrs. O’Dwyer to the jail and feels obligated to assist in her rescue.

&Even on horseback it will take three days to get to the Valley if they can find it. The way there will be anything but safe, as bandits and bushwackers lurk in the hills. And when they finally get there, the men will be up against something they’ve never seen before – and are woefully unprepared to fight.

Russell is also starring in another Western opening up this winter, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and has found success in other Westerns – Tombstone comes to mind immediately. The plot has a little bit of The Searchers in it, but the similarity ends there; this is more of a mash-up between horror and Western than the traditional John Wayne horse opera.

Russell is at his best here, rough and ready in the saddle and apt to shoot first and ask questions later. His is the iconic taciturn lawman whose moral compass steers towards what’s right rather than what’s convenient. Fox, who is a decent actor who hasn’t yet equaled his role on Lost, does some of his best work on the big screen here, as does Wilson who has found a career boost in horror films like The Conjuring and Insidious. Here, Wilson plays to type but not just that; there is an inner strength to the character that is absolutely unexpected and mesmerizing. Arthur’s dogged determination and refusal to give up despite having a broken leg speaks volumes of what it means to be a man in the West.

And lest we forget the horror element here, it is more or less an overtone, although there is an onscreen kill here that is as brutal and as shocking as any you’ll see in more overt horror films this year. There is plenty of blood and gore and brutality, and those who are on the squeamish side are well-advised to steer clear.

Zahler is better known as a novelist and a musician as he is as a director, but he does a bang-up job here. There isn’t really a false note in the movie and while some critics have sniped at the length of the movie (just over two hours), it never drags and it never feels long. He also has wonderful cinematography to fall back of thanks to Benji Bakshi whose name should be on a lot of rolodexes after this.

It is unlikely the Western will ever go back to its level of popularity that it enjoyed back in the 1950s but it will never completely die. Movies like this one insure that the Western will always be around as a genre, and remind us that there can always be something new made of a time-tested cinematic formula.

REASONS TO GO: Well-acted. Exceptional cinematography. Captures the frontier mentality.
REASONS TO STAY: Excessive gore might put some off.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal, bloody violence, sexuality, graphic nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Russell authored a testimonial for Zahler’s second novel before this was cast.
BEYOND THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cowboys and Aliens
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Chi-Raq

Darling Companion


Woman's best friend isn't necessarily a diamond.

Woman’s best friend isn’t necessarily a diamond.

(2012) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Diane Keaton, Kevin Kline, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, Elizabeth Moss, Mark Duplass, Ayelet Zurer, Sam Shepard, Lindsay Sloane, Jay Ali, Robert Bear, Casey, Paul Kiernan, Jericho Watson, Yolanda Wood, D.L. Walker, Dina Goldman, Ruben Barboza, Mark Robinette, Craig Miner, Anne Cullimore Decker, Aline Andrade. Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Dog lovers are, if you’ll forgive me, a unique breed. Being one myself, I know whereof I speak. Da Queen will tell you that I’m borderline obsessive and if you pressed, she’d probably even admit that I left the rational border behind years ago. That’s okay. Guilty as charged. From time to time in movies I have to witness bad things happening to dogs. Da Queen will also tell you that there’s no surer way to turn this rational, logical critic into a slobbering mess than seeing harm come to a dog. It’s not just my dogs I love but all dogs.

I tell you this because I was a bit concerned when I heard what the premise for this movie was. When Beth (Keaton) and her daughter Grace (Moss) find an abandoned dog at the side of a Colorado highway, Beth immediately takes to her four-legged friend. Naming the dog Freeway, she adopts the critter when nobody steps in to claim it.

Her husband Joseph (Kline), a back surgeon who invests much more into his career than he does into his marriage although he is to his own mind completely devoted to his family, is a bit annoyed by the presence of the dog but when his wife insists, he capitulates grudgingly. What he doesn’t get is that he spends a lot of time away from the home while she raised her daughters. With Grace getting married at their Rocky Mountain vacation home in the fall, her nest will be officially empty. She needs something to fill it and a dog is an excellent choice.

Beth grows very fond of Freeway and the two are virtually inseparable but things get kind of crazy as the wedding approaches and of course Joseph is of little help. As Beth is helping Grace with the final details at the vacation house, Joseph – about as useful as a cell phone on top of Mt. Everest – is given the task of walking the dog. He does so, forgetting to put Freeway on a leash and so busy talking into his cell phone he barely notices when Freeway runs off after a deer.

When Joseph returns home sans dog, Beth is understandably distraught and unleashes her wrath on Joseph who doesn’t understand what the fuss is all about. “It’s not like it’s a person,” he complains, “it’s just a dog” to which Beth retorts “Love is love. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or a dog.” She has a point but then again I am somewhat unreliable  when it comes to objectivity in this regard.

Of course, Joseph is in the literal dog house but he searches for the dog without success. Beth, frantic, enlists Joseph’s sister Penny (Wiest) and her new boyfriend Russell (Jenkins) as well as Penny’s son Bryan (Duplass). Neither Joseph nor Bryan trust Russell whom they think has ulterior motives when it comes to Penny but Penny appears happy enough.

For Bryan’s part, he takes a shine to Carmen (Zurer), the housemaid who claims to have psychic powers who is certain that Freeway is still alive. This only furthers Beth’s determination and as the adults travel the beautiful countryside of the Rockies in the fall, they are forced to deal with each other one on one – for the first time in a very long time in some cases.

Some may recall Kasdan as the director of Silverado and The Big Chill as well as the writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. He co-wrote this with his wife Meg so we do get both sides of the equation in most of the relationships without being overly committed to one point of view or the other. Kasdan has the wisdom to know that there are always more than one in any relationship and the case is generally that no one person is always right or always wrong.

However, you can never be wrong when you cast Kevin Kline and nobody knows that better than Kasdan who gave the actor his big break in The Big Chill. Kline is an everyman who can play just about any role and make it believable. He’s also so damn likable that even when he’s playing a character who is a bit of a dick we still end up relating to him which is quite the gift. I think that likability is why we so rarely see Kline in a villain’s role, although he can play those with aplomb as well (see A Fish Called Wanda).

His chemistry with Keaton is genuine and unforced. Keaton who sometimes can overdo the neurotic thing at least doesn’t make her character a complete ditz. She does have some legitimate grievances and while the way things work out is a bit contrived (but what Hollywood film is not?) the character itself isn’t. The acting in fact is terrific all around – the movie in fact suffers from an embarrassment of riches with so many great actors in the movie that you wish some of them got a little more screen time and you tend to leave that kind of film feeling a little cheated – and yet if they’d made the film longer it would have been too long. Catch-22 lives.

While the movie ends up using the dog as a uniting force and the search for him/her as a metaphor as our own search for love and acceptance, it gets to its destination after a few too many convenient coincidences. Other than that though this is a beautifully shot movie – you also can’t go wrong setting a movie in the Rockies in the autumn, although it is Utah subbing for Colorado here. It leaves one with the warm fuzzies which isn’t a bad thing and although a lot of critics grouse about it, this isn’t a dog movie in the same sense as Marley and Me nor is it a dog of a movie in the sense of a whole lot of forgettable exercises in cinema but it is a movie that might just stick with you like a loyal, loving dog and who doesn’t love that?

WHY RENT THIS: Because, you know, dogs. I’ll see Kline in anything, even when he plays a bit of a jerk.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many contrivances. Too many great actors, not enough time.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual content as well as a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Kasdan’s first time in the director chair since 2003’s Dreamcatcher.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Along with footage of the New York premiere there’s also a featurette on the casting of the dog Freeway.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $793,815 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Father of the Bride (1991)
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Red Baron

The Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!