Money Monster


Clooney busts a move.

Clooney busts a move.

(2016) Thriller (Tri-Star) George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo, Carsey Walker Jr., Grant Rosenmeyer, Jim Warden, Joseph D. Reitman, Olivia Luccardi. Directed by Jodie Foster

The American Experience

There are a lot of ways to get a person under your thumb. Economically is usually the best method and involves the least bloodshed. However, it must be said that people can only be pushed so far before bloodshed becomes inevitable.

Lee Gates (Clooney) is a financial expert who has a popular financial advice program on a cable network. It is somewhat wild and crazy like Lee himself; Lee has a tendency, much to the exasperation of his producer Patty Fenn (Roberts), to go off the reservation. So when a flustered young delivery man, carrying a couple of packages wanders onto the set, Lee is sure it’s his crew playing a practical joke on him while Patty thinks that it’s one of Lee’s improvisations.

It’s neither. It’s Kyle Budwell (O’Connell), a working class schmoe who was crazy enough to follow Lee’s investment advice – except that advice turned out to be tragically wrong. IBIS, the software company that Kyle invested in, had seen $800 million of its assets vanish overnight and its charismatic CEO Walt Camby (West) is nowhere to be seen. He was supposed to be a guest on Lee’s program but instead they were sending Diane Lester (Balfe), a publicity flack (whom Camby is  apparently sleeping with).

Kyle has loaded guns which he demonstrates by firing into the ceiling, getting everyone’s attention. He slaps on a bomb vest that he hid in one of the packages onto Lee and proceeds to demand to talk to the absent CEO. Patty manages to clear the studio, but it seems only a matter of time before Kyle loses complete control of the situation. What neither Patty nor Lee count on is that they too would be swept up in Kyle’s saga and want to find out the answers for their own peace of mind as well.

Given the somewhat negative view most people have regarding the shenanigans on Wall Street over the past few years, this movie plays into those feelings pretty much perfectly – almost to the point of cliché. The villain of this piece is too easily spotted and becomes almost laughable. We don’t get a real sense of depth to that person; it’s just greed, greed, greed and a sense that people deserve to get their life savings defrauded from them because they don’t have the kind of fortune that the villain has. It’s a bit of a cop-out in my opinion.

That said, this is the kind of movie that is going to give you a good idea of why people are angry at Wall Street. The Lee Gates character – who is clearly modeled on Jim Cramer and the show clearly Mad Money on steroids – is a bit buffoonish and certainly a paean to poor investment strategies which is something Cramer is sometimes accused of peddling in real life. Clooney gives the character a bit more depth than we might have otherwise. Would the film have worked better if Lee was the kind of insensitive douchebag that he appears to be at the beginning of the movie? I don’t think so, but at least one critic accused the filmmakers of “star saving” Clooney (i.e. making him appear nicer than he appears to be in order to maintain his likability) which is not something Clooney has indulged in over the years.

Roberts is seen far less frequently onscreen than I would like, but continues to be every inch the star she’s been for the past *mumble, mumble* years – has it really been that long? She has deepened into more of a solid actress over the past decade, not needing to rely quite as much on the wattage of her amazing smile and the glow of her incandescent personality that over the years has made her the ultimate girl next door. Here, she’s a working stiff trying to labor for the unappreciative and has been a little bit beaten down by her star’s lack of empathy. Still, she prides herself on her professionalism and when the rubber hits the road, responds with calm and decisive leadership. This is one of those roles that is slightly subversive without being obvious about it; perhaps Foster, certainly one of the strongest women in Hollywood, has something to do with it as well. To my mind, Patty is the real hero of this piece but not many will get that.

O’Connell is best known for his role in Unbroken but to my mind finally really shows what he’s capable of going back to small but memorable roles in films like Harry Brown. His performance as Kyle shows a man beaten down to the bone by a system that chews up and spits out people like Kyle. With nothing else to lose, he demands answers from those who aren’t willing to give them and this leads him to an act of desperation – and yes, stupidity – that becomes the crux of the film’s emotional center.

Foster has been the kind of director who makes magic even when the scripts she’s given to work with don’t necessarily have a lot of it in it. There’s a good deal that’s way too familiar here but Foster works with it well and gives us a credible film despite the predictability of the plot. There’s some sly satire here about America’s penchant for greed and making money without wanting to put in the work. It is counter to our Puritan heritage in which hard work is valued and indeed, rewarded. In this modern era, we seem to be more inclined to value cutting corners – and rewarding those who do inordinately. And maybe that’s at the center of why Main Street is so pissed off at Wall Street. Perhaps some of the captains of industry need to be reminded of those ethics that made this country great in the first place.

REASONS TO GO: Foster is a masterful director. Clooney and Roberts are always eye-catching. Dials in to the anger that a lot of people are feeling about Wall Street.
REASONS TO STAY: Pretty cliché storyline. The villain of the piece is a little too obvious.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of profanity, some sexuality and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Big Short
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Conjuring 2

Presenting Princess Shaw


A pop Princess in the making.

A pop Princess in the making.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Samantha Montgomery, Ophir Kutiel. Directed by Ido Haar

The American Experience

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral things, ideas that we vaguely like but really don’t do anything about so they remain formless. Others are those we work actively towards and put our hearts and souls into. Those are the ones more likely to come true.

Samantha Montgomery, whose stage name is Princess Shaw, has a dream of being a singer. And not for nothing; she has a legitimate voice, beautiful and evocative. She’s also a crackerjack songwriter, her songs filled with longing and emotion so much so that they reach out and grab the listener, take hold of them by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go until they feel the same thing Princess is feeling.

Samantha works by day in a New Orleans elderly care facility. She is upbeat and cheerful and seems to love working with her patients and caring for them. Some nights, she goes to Open Mike shows at local bars, and once in awhile sings at nightclubs and parties. She uploads a capella versions of her songs onto YouTube where she has a channel that several hundred subscribers check out from time to time. She labors in obscurity but still hopes that one day, she’ll be discovered.

What she doesn’t know is that she already has been. Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the name of Kutiman, has made some Internet fame for himself as a remixer, taking elements from YouTube music videos, cutting and pasting them together to make a cohesive song – all without the knowledge of the participants until the new video is posted. He has, against all odds, discovered the work of Princess Shaw and has been captivated by it. He takes one of her songs, “Give It Up,” and layers percussion, guitars, brass and piano – and creates a song that has a timeless urban pop feel to it, taking elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and a little bit of rock and roll to make something really tasty. You can see the results of his efforts here.

&Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar originally was going to look at all of the various components of the video but once he met Princess Shaw he knew he didn’t need any of the other musicians. Her story is compelling, with a background of being sexually abused as a young girl and continuing on into adulthood into an abusive romantic relationship, she has weathered some tough times. We find out most of this later on in the film; she’s really a blank slate as the film begins, which is a wise move. We only know the longing and loneliness she feels through her music.

We never find out what Samantha/Princess thinks is the reason she’s being followed by a camera crew. She was unaware of what Kutiman was up to although Haar was certainly in the know. I think that knowing what she thought was going on would have been beneficial to the film, but that’s really nit-picking. Then again, it would make some of what’s going on feel a little less staged.

Princess Shaw has an amazing voice but it is her heart that is at the center of this film. Not only is she upbeat despite the obstacles and difficulties she’s had to face, but she shows tenderness and appreciation for her patients, her family and those musicians she encounters around town (midway through the film, she moves to Atlanta to try and make her dream happen). One of the most special moments in the film is when Montgomery hears the Kutiman music video for the first time…and watches in absolute astonishment as the video approaches a million views.

The movie ends with Princess being flown to Tel Aviv to perform at a Kutiman concert there. She is absolutely delightful, hugging every musician like a long lost friend, taking delight in being somewhere she never thought she’d be. The concert is a bit anticlimactic, but it’s clear she’s a performer with a capital P. I don’t know what happened with her career after filming ended, but I’d like to think she’s getting representation and getting ready to record with musicians…and maybe touring. I’d pay to see her, and I don’t go to any concerts anymore.

It is stupid difficult making it in the music industry. People long to be stars but few are willing to put in the work to make it happen and fewer still have the talent to make it happen. Even if you have both of those qualities, that’s no guarantee you’ll make it in a business that’s as cutthroat and as insular as the music industry. As anyone who’s seen any episodes of shows like American Idol or The Voice can attest, the world is full of people with the dreams of pop stardom. It’s nice to see a movie about someone who actually deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Truly this is cinema of the heart. Montgomery has an amazing effervescent personality and a tremendous talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels a bit staged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Haar’s 2007 documentary 9 Star Hotel previously appeared on the acclaimed PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 2008.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Gone Baby Gone


Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

Amy Ryan and Casey Affleck look into the seedy side of South Boston.

(2007) Thriller (Miramax) Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, John Ashton, Amy Ryan, Amy Madigan, Titus Welliver, Michael Kenneth Williams, Edi Gathegi, Mark Margolis, Madeline O’Brien, Slaine, Trudi Goodman, Matthew Maher, Jill Quigg, Sean Malone, Brian Scannell, Jay Giannone, William Lee, James LeBlanc, Fanshen Cox. Directed by Ben Affleck

The American Experience 2015

There is no worse nightmare for a parent than the disappearance of a child other than that child’s death. In some ways, it’s more wrenching not to know – is the child alive? Is it dead? Is it suffering? Where could it be? A parent will do just about anything to get their child back.

South Boston is in an uproar when the baby of Helene McCready (Ryan) is discovered missing. Nothing will put together a neighborhood, particularly one as tight-knit as Southie as a kid in trouble. Like most of Boston, private detectives Patrick Kenzie (Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Monaghan) hear about the incident on the news, shake their heads and wonder about how bad times have turned, and move on.

That is, until they are awakened by a knock on the door. It’s Helene’s aunt and uncle, Bea (Madigan) and Lionel (Welliver). They’re desperate to get their nephew back and are willing to do whatever it takes. Being longtime residents of South Boston, they know that there are people who might talk to Kenzie and Gennaro who might not open up to the cops. The two private eyes protest; they’re reluctant to take the case on. They’re new at the game and most of their experience revolves around tracking down people who have skipped out on their payments for their jet skis. But Bea and Lionel have faith in them.

They approach the police and Captain Jack Doyle (Freeman), in charge of a task force devoted to crimes involving children, is sympathetic. He also knows that the McCready clan is right – it might not be a bad idea to have some guys helping out the cops that aren’t on the payroll. So he assigns the two inexperienced private eyes to Detectives Remy Bressant (Harris) and Nick Poole (Ashton).

Pretty soon, the addition of Gennaro and Kenzie pay dividends as they begin to get some of the area lowlifes to cough up information. However, the two are taken in directions they couldn’t possibly expect. They’re in way over their heads and they know it. The problem is that a child’s life is depending on them – and their own lives are hanging in the balance as well.

This is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and like all of Lehane’s novels, the plot is amazingly tight and well-constructed. Ben Affleck, who would go on to Oscar-worthy work and becoming one of Hollywood’s most promising directors, was working on his first feature here. He is remarkably self-assured in his direction; apparently all that time as a pretty boy actor paid off as he definitely seems to have made notes from the various directors he has worked for. Nothing here is extraneous, from the images to the dialogue.

It helps that Affleck has assembled a fantastic cast, beginning with his brother. Some eyebrows were raised when Casey was cast in the lead; nepotism, right? Wrong. Casey had been mostly relegated to supporting roles but the guy can act – he would receive an Oscar nomination the same year this came out for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and this performance is at least as good. Kenzie is not as self-assured as most thriller heroes; he is only too aware of his limitations, but given the stakes soldiers on as best he can.

The supporting performances are solid as well. Freeman and Harris are two of the finest and most respected actors in Hollywood and given material like this, they can’t help but shine. Ryan, mostly known for her Broadway work, absolutely breaks out with a magnificent performance. Helene is a drug addicted, selfish and promiscuous woman, absolutely unworthy of being a mother. To her credit, Ryan portrays her without any sympathetic moments; we only feel contempt for Helene and that’s the way the plot needs it. Madigan, Welliver and Ashton are all superb as well.

Sadly, Michelle Monaghan – a fine actress – is given little to do other than stand by Affleck and look concerned, or nod in agreement. She is little more than window dressing, which as I recall is not the way Gennaro was in the novel. Sadly, it feels like the Hollywood powers that be felt little confidence in having a woman be an equal to a man in a detective thriller.

Affleck had been in the middle of a slow spot in his acting career when this came out; he not only established himself as a director to be respected, but shortly afterwards resurrected his acting career as well. These days, he is much in demand in both capacities. Gone Baby Gone is the kind of movie that will punch you in the gut repeatedly until you’re breathless and wiped out. Some may find the tension unbearable, particularly in terms of having a child at risk. This was a sleeper critical hit when it came out and remains one of those hidden gems that not very many people think about in terms of movies they want to revisit – but it is worth doing that very thing.

WHY RENT THIS: Excellently written thriller. Fine performances throughout. Realistic heroes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Monaghan given little to do. May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of foul language, some violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amy Ryan’s Boston accent was so convincing that security guards refused to let her on the set because they thought she was a local trying to get in. It was only when a producer noticed her on the wrong side of the barricade that she was allowed on.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette detailing the thoughts behind the casting and how it was accomplished.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $34.6M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mystic River
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Inside Out

We Are Marshall


They are Marshall.

They are Marshall.

(2006) True Sports Drama (Warner Brothers) Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, Anthony Mackie, David Strathairn, Ian McShane, Katie Mara, January Jones, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Arlen Escarpeta, Brian Geraghty, Tommy Cresswell, Christian Kanupke, Nina Jones, Kevin Atkins, Mark Patton, Robert Patrick, Katie Kneeland Directed by McG

The American Experience 2015

On November 14, 1970, a chartered plane carrying the football team of Marshall University, the Thundering Herd, back to Huntington WV where the University is following a loss to the East Carolina Pirates clipped some trees on the approach to the runway and crashed into a gully a mile from landing safely. Every one of the 75 souls on that plane died in the horrific, fiery crash.

It remains the worst loss of life regarding an American sports team in history but it was more than that. Along with almost the entire Marshall football team, the plane carried the athletic director for the university, four trainers, all but one of the coaches, a state legislator, a city councilman, four physicians and 25 boosters. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash and 18 were orphaned.

The effect on the community was devastating. Huntington was then (and is now) a small college town; much of the town’s life revolves around the university and their football team, though it had been mediocre in recent years, still was a source of pride to the town. With the town paralyzed by grief, Marshall’s acting president Donald Dedmon (Strathairn) was ready to discontinue the football program. However, Nate Ruffin (Mackie), a wide receiver who hadn’t gone on the trip to East Carolina due to an injury, convinced Dedmon (with the help of the student body) to keep the team.

The surviving coach, Red Dawson (Fox) was offered the head coach position but was too grief-stricken to accept. After a long, fruitless search, Jack Lengyel (McConaughey) from tiny Wooster College, was given the job. It wouldn’t be an easy one. Essentially, they’d be starting a team from scratch, utilizing athletes from other sports at the University and former members of the Junior Varsity. Dedmon, at Lengyel’s urging, petitioned the NCAA to allow freshmen to be eligible to play on the Varsity. At the time, Freshmen were forbidden to play for the Varsity, the line of thought being that they didn’t have the maturity to handle the pressures of big time college athletics and that a year adjusting to college life would be more beneficial; the NCAA has since changed their rules on that matter.

Still, it would be an uphill battle and everyone knew that the team would be just awful that year. Would a team woefully unqualified truly be able to honor the memory of those who had died, or would they tarnish it? Is just stepping on the field enough?

While We Are Marshall disappointed at the box office when it was released, it has since become something of an icon of the true sports drama genre. Certainly the story is compelling enough; watching an entire town and university grieve for an unimaginable tragedy is almost mind-boggling. Even now, almost a decade after the movie came out, I still mist up just thinking about it.

For the most part, McG handles the tragedy with sensitivity. For one thing, he doesn’t show the actual crash, just the aftermath. He doesn’t beat the audience over the head with grief, although certainly the grieving process is a part of the film’s story. Less is more in this case.

McConaughey at the time this was made was best known for romantic comedies in which he usually found an excuse to take his shirt off. In many ways, this was the movie that led us to reconsider our opinion about the actor and reveal that there was more to him than a laid-back romantic lead. The guy can act, as was revealed more recently with an Oscar win and an Emmy nomination.

There are some other performances here that are worth knowing. McShane plays a University trustee in favor of discontinuing football; his son – the starting quarterback – had died in the crash and in many ways his grief had overwhelmed him. Fox is outstanding as Dawson, a man with survivor’s guilt who slowly comes on board with the idea of resuming his life. Mackie’s Ruffin provides leadership for the team and University. Strathairn gives Dedmon gravitas and the reliable character actor is at the top of his game here.

One of the few things I can fault the film for is its dialogue. It doesn’t sound like human beings talking; it’s mostly a series of inspirational quotes. I would have preferred fewer platitudes and more realistic conversation. While it might have looked good in the script, it creates a gulf between audience and character that is unnecessary; we really want to relate to them and it’s harder to when they sound like Gary Cooper delivering Lou Gehrig’s final speech.

That said this is one of the most moving sports films ever made, right up there with Hoosiers and The Miracle. Some might find it to be manipulative – the subplot involving Katie Mara’s waitress character (she was the fiance of Ian McShane’s son) certainly is – but overall I thought the movie comes by its emotional impact honestly. It can take more courage to get up in the morning and move on with your life than it does to step onto a battlefield, and in the face of overwhelming grief, the courage and heart of an entire town and University is to be admired.

WHY RENT THIS: McConaughey breaks out as a dramatic actor. Deeply moving and effective subject matter. Handled with reverence and respect.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Subplots are occasionally manipulative and the characters tend to speak in platitudes.
FAMILY VALUES: The material can be very emotional and those who are sensitive about such things should probably steer clear. There’s also some mildly harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While much of the movie was filmed in Huntington, the stadium that the Thundering Herd played in back in 1971 – Fairfield Stadium – had been demolished in 2004. The filmmakers used Herndon Stadium in Atlanta for Marshall’s home games in the movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD and Blu-Ray both include an ad for West Virginia tourism, a featurette on legendary college coaches and what techniques they used to motivate their students and a brief look at Marshall University today.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.6M on a $65M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hoosiers
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

The American Experience 2015


The American Experience 2015With Independence Day just around the corner, that means it is time for our annual mini-review festival that looks at what it’s like to be an American. The American Experience centers around movies that depict the American lifestyle, events in American history or famous Americans. In fact, our banner this year depicts an iconic scene from an Oscar-winning biopic about a famous American warrior. Perhaps ironically, that’s not one of the films I’m reviewing this year, although I will get around to reviewing Patton one of these days. It was one of my father’s favorites.

So hopefully those readers who are Americans will be enjoying their holiday weekend with traditional barbecues, fireworks and getting together with family and friends as we celebrate our home. And what could be more American than a motion picture, something that an American invented and has been an American art form for more than a century? Happy Fourth everybody!

The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow

Gods and Generals


The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

The Civil War: the greatest American tragedy of them all.

(2003) True Life War (Warner Brothers) Stephen Lang, Robert Duvall, Jeff Daniels, Bruce Boxleitner, C. Thomas Howell, Kali Rocha, Frankie Faison, William Sanderson, Mira Sorvino, Alex Hyde-White, Matt Letscher, Joseph Fuqua, Jeremy London and a cast of thousands. Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

The American Experience

When Gods and Generals came out in 2003, it was made by pretty much the same team that made the very successful Gettysburg in 1993 and certainly there had to have been high hopes that this would follow suit. However, while Gettysburg had Ken Burns’ highly personal and riveting PBS miniseries The Civil War to leapfrog from, it’s prequel would have no such assistance.

Based on a book by Jeffrey Shaara (whose father Michael wrote the book that Gettysburg was based on), the movie follows Confederate Lt. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (Lang) who was one of the most brilliant and fearless military minds of his time. He worked well with General Robert E. Lee (Duvall), who considered him his best field general. Jackson, a devout man who prayed to God even as he set out to kill as many Northern invaders as he could, resigned from his post as an instructor at the Virginia Military Institute to take a post in the Confederate Army. He was responsible for some of the most important victories the Confederacy would have in the war and died senselessly, shot by his own men who mistook him and his escort for Union scouts.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the movie, even though critics at the time lambasted it for being florid, long on dialogue and riddled with too many subplots and characters. Some even criticized it for depicting Southerners as being more concerned with States rights than with Slavery. Nobody ever accused movie critics of being knowledgeable about history however. For the South, Slavery drove their economic engine and the feeling was that the abolition of Slavery would be an economic catastrophe. They didn’t want Northern politicians to tell them how to run their affairs. There is a tendency with some to depict the South as sadistic twisted slave owners who wanted the institution of Slavery to continue because of a cruel streak. What it really was about, as it usually is, was money.

So how does this film depict the American Experience? It captures a period in time when America stood at a crossroads and would in four bloody years come to define itself and its future. Certainly the movie tends to lean a little bit towards the Southern point of view, but to tar the South with a single brush is both inaccurate and a disservice. Quite frankly, I think it’s a good thing to see things from the other side – history is written by the winners and while Slavery was an abhorrent practice, to see what the South really thought they were fighting for is certainly worth considering. Gods and Generals definitely captures the period, not only in the sense of how the armies operated but the civilians as well. One thing that has been praised about this movie was their attention to detail when it came to accuracy; in fact this may be one of the most historically accurate films ever made.

Lang’s performance brings Jackson to life. While the style of speech has been heavily criticized, this is how the people of the time spoke. Clearly there is an element of history lesson here and it might be argued that the length and pacing of the movie is akin to one of those history professors who talks on and on and on and on. However, the sumptuous visuals and the attention to detail make this a history lesson that if one is willing to sit through will inform and amaze, and that’s the kind of history professor that always got my attention.

WHY RENT THIS: Unusual historical accuracy. Terrific performance by Lang. A crackerjack reproduction of the era.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and ponderous. Too much speechifyin’. Overly long.

FAMILY VALUES:  While the battle sequences are tamer than some, there is still enough material here that might disturb the very sensitive.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duvall, who played Robert E. Lee, is actually descended from the great general.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an introduction by Ted Turner who put up the production budget of the film himself (nearly $60 million) as well as music videos from Mary Fahl and Bob Dylan and  a look at the life of Stonewall Jackson.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.9M on a $56M production budget; unfortunately the movie has to be considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gettysburg

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The American Experience concludes!