I still haven’t gotten entirely caught up yet, but every other weekend is rough for me to get things done, so hopefully, reviews for Dog Day Afternoon and The Hustler will be done next weekend. Until then, enjoy my takes on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sucker Punch, Bones season 1, Greek season 4 and a snippet review for Murder, She Said.
So, here is what I watched this weekend:
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY
One of the most iconic westerns in film history, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly is a tense, exciting adventure set during the United States Civil War.
Clint Eastwood plays “The Good”, a man only referred to as Blondie who partners with wanted men to bilk small frontier towns out of reward money before freeing his quarries and splitting the money. One of the film’s earliest scenes introduces this ignoble series of actions as he shares the reward with his partner Tuco (Eli Wallach) who takes the title’s moniker of “The Ugly”. His is the first scene of the film as he faces a collection of bounty hunters eager to take him in, but each end up dead in their attempt. These two are eventually pursued by “The Evil” Sentenza (Lee Van Cleef) who believes they may know the location of a massive treasure of Confederate coins buried by a ne’er-do-well soldier.
There is a careful dance between these characters that isn’t so easily defined. The first half of the film has Blondie and Tuco alternating positions of power as their complex relationship devolves into revenge motives. After Blondie cuts Tuco off and abandons him in the middle of the desert, Tuco vows to find Blondie and make him pay for his selfish act. When he eventually catches up, he almost gets the drop on Blondie, but finds himself holding nothing only to later come across Blondie again and proceed to torture him on their long trek across the desert. Near the half-way point of the film, they come across the eye-patch-wearing soldier who shares the name of the graveyard with Tuco and the name on the tombstone with Blondie, which results in a reversal of power and forces them to work together for the treasure.
Sergio Leone defined what has become known as the Spaghetti Western with his prior Eastwood collaborations A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. Although this would be the final film they worked on together, it was an amazing one. Eastwood is calm and level-headed through much of the film contrasting easily with Wallach’s excitable Tuco and Van Cleef’s calculating Sentenza. Their performances are each equally memorable and so successfully integrated that you couldn’t remove one without diminishing the impact of the others.
Leone’s film is more heavily stylized than most of the genre’s prior and future works. It’s limited color palate creates a measure of intense realism while its opening title sequence and slick editing create an utherworldly charm. This further enhanced by the iconic work of Ennio Morricone whose memorable score for the film is one of the most significant and important in film history. It seems utterly ill-fitting the genre, but there isn’t a scene where its use doesn’t feel completely justified. It’s the perfect symbiosis of film and sound paired seamlessly.
The film was a clear influence on later filmmakers who took its brazen twist on tradition as the ultimate in homage. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly does as much to tweak the genre as it does to celebrate it. The classic character archetypes and situational familiarity are treated with reverence even while being embellished. Quentin Tarantino not only owes a great deal of his success to emulating Leone’s style and appreciation of genre forms, but Eastwood’s talent behind the lens seems like a direct result of his interactions with Leone.
Despite not liking each other much during the filming of the two prior films, Leone’s insistence on an excessive number of takes on this film pushed Eastwood to declare he would never work with Leone again, which he didn’t. But Eastwood, after later becoming a director himself, took everything he despised about Leone’s methods and used them as guidelines of how not to make his movies. While a director like Leone or Stanley Kubrick who take an extreme view of creating the best art by finding the perfect take among many, Eastwood prefers a more minimalist approach wherein a handful of takes is all that’s required to achieve his desires. Had he not worked with Leoneo, I doubt Eastwood’s own work would have been so well informed.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the kind of western that puts many other more staid examples to shame. It doesn’t give its characters a lot of depth, but you hope for their success nonetheless. Where many other westerns use their motifs to push audiences towards expected reactions, Leone’s masterwork doesn’t feel as heavy-handed. I have never been a fan of the genre even when I find examples that work on multiple levels. This film is one of those movies that prove to me that westerns really can be enjoyable.
MURDER, SHE SAID
This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 4:50 from Paddington is another in a series of films I’m reviewing for a specific future article. My base reading of the film is that it’s highly entertaining thanks to the witty timing of Margaret Rutherford and passes the time quite effectively. That it feels so much like a television-based endeavor is probably its biggest flaw. Why a movie like this needed to be released at theaters I don’t understand, but if you love murder mysteries set in early-20th Century England, you should enjoy this film.
A young girl’s fantasy of escape leads her and four friends through epic imagined adventures to find five treasures that will set them all free in Zach Snyder’s original feature Sucker Punch.
Baby Doll (Emily Browning)’s mother has just died and when her stepfather attempts to rape her younger sister, she tries to kill him but accidentally ends her sister’s life. Sent to a maximum security mental institution, Baby Doll wants nothing more than to escape the place, but finds that she’ll need to uncover her inner resolve to succeed. Joining her on the journey are another pair of sisters, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Rocket (Jena Malone), who came to the institution after having run away from home. Two other inmates, Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) are in on the action. They must outwit the institution’s head orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) before the Doctor (Jon Hamm) arrives in five days to labotomize Baby Doll, considered a danger by her stepfather. Rounding out the film’s roster are Scott Glenn as a wiseman who visits Baby Doll in her imagination to give her advice; and acting as mentor for the patients, but never providing any real emotional stimulus, the sanitarium’s experimental psychologist Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino).
Sucker Punch is an attempt to invade Baby Doll’s psychological history in order to advance its narrative. Shortly after Baby Doll arrives at the sanitarium, we skip ahead to a scene in the Doctor’s office where Baby Doll immediately flashes back in time and in her imagination to her first introduction to the girls in the asylum. Most of the film takes place in this first layer of escapist imagination where she and the others are whores in a sleazy nightclub where they dance for the pleasure of the audience while feeling like prisoners backstage. Here, Blue is the nightclub/whorehouse manager and Dr. Gorski is the dance instructor. Shortly after arriving, Baby Doll is forced to dance for Blue and his two guards while the rest of the girls watch. This is results in her first foray into the dream reality her imagination concocts to help her put together small pieces of her tour of the facility to form a plan of escape. Glenn’s Wise Man is here as a martial arts sensei who gives her a katana and a pistol with which she must defeat three gargantuan samurai. This is our first introduction to the heavily stylized world director Snyder employed in his prior two live action films 300 and Watchmen.
His penchant for slow takes and narrow misses is put on immediate display and then repeated in each of three other visions, the trenches of World War II with Nazi zombies and war machines, a medieval castle with warplanes and fire-breathing dragons, and a futuristic bullet train carrying a bomb to a major metropolitan area. Each of which would have been entirely interchangeable were it not for their radically different environments, though all-too-similar color schemes.
Zach Snyder’s flaw has always been directing a narrative. His films are visual candy stores. They are gorgeous art pieces that lack a palpable emotional core. You can’t take your eyes off the screen for a minute in fear of missing some lovely image, but your brain shuts off half way through when it realizes it’s going to be starved for a compelling story. Snyder tries hard to give the audience a feeling of some deeper meaning, but with performances that feel as hollow as an empty shotgun shell, it’s hard to convey more than a compulsory tale. The first thirty minutes of the film held great promise and had Snyder’s inner teenager not gone haywire in the adventure visions, it might have given him time to develop his characters more and give the audience a real measure of personal involvement, not a superficial one. Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish are the only actress that come out completely unscathed. Both have a great deal of experience with more serious efforts and utilize that to create believable characters. Malone is the anchor of the film, but Cornish stands firmly by her side.
Carla Gugino and Jon Hamm escape mostly unharmed with characters that don’t feel as stereotyped as they could have been, especially Gugino’s strict matron. Dr. Gorski elicits a touch of humanity in few late scenes in the film but has a difficult time when paired with Oscar Isaac’s devilish portrayal not seeming two-dimensional. Isaac does what he is expected to do, which is create a lecherous villain the likes of which have been seen countless times. He dips frequently into an overzealous frenzy that fits fine within the confines of a Zack Snyder creation, but lacks real credibility. Scott Glenn and Jamie Chung give inattentive performances, though this is forgivable from someone with as short a resume as Chung, but from Glenn I expect better. Then there’s Disney celebutant Vanessa Hudgens who is so deplorably bad in her few scenes with her vacant eyes and faux tears that the film merits a half-star demerit because of it.
Like his previous films, Snyder has proven an incomparable stylist. But has not proven his ability to move beyond that style to a realm of substance. One of Sucker Punch‘s deepest flaws is a lack of stability. There’s never a chance for the audience to form more than perfunctory bond with the characters, it jumps from one scene to another without any cohesion. Having a series of goals to accomplish is not the same as a through line. Were Snyder less absorbed in the creation of visual flair and focused more on a suitable and credible story, he might have the potential to create something great. Even the great visual stylists like Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino required exceptional story foundations to make their films succeed. Snyder has refined one element of filmmaking, now he needs to focus on the rest. I’d rather see Snyder become another Tarantino and not another Michael Bay.
BONES, season 1
I am not normally a fan of crime scene procedurals (I find C.S.I. rather unexceptional), but Bones is a first-rate exception. With interesting and compelling actors and characters; a fascinating premise that, after one season, still doesn’t feel old; and a several really exceptional episodes, it’s a welcome distraction. The series focuses on socially-inept bone analysis expert Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel) and her team of specialized scientists working at an acclaimed scientific research institute. Her services are needed by the FBI and she’s assigned to an agent she’s had negative dealings with in the past. Seeley Booth (David Boreanz) is an ex-assassin who decided to get away from that ignoble line of work and serve his country as an agent of the FBI. They investigate various crimes by reconstructing the life and identity of those corpses whose only remaining identifiable characteristic are their bones. Brennan can tell great detail just from the growth, deterioration and status of bones of any age from the recently dead to those dead centuries.
The show does a suitable job setting up the relationship between Bones and Booth who are adversarial for much of the season, but soften up as time goes on. Whether this is the type of relationship that when reconciled will doom the show remains to be seen, but it’s fun to watch while we wait. The one episode I think deserves the most recognition is their Christmas-themed show titled “The Man in the Fallout Shelter”. In an effort to uncover the cause of death of an 50-year-old corpse found in an unexplored fallout shelter, leads to the team being quarantined in the Jeffersonian laboratory after being exposed to a potentially lethal, heavily contagious agent. Each of them struggle to rectify the fact that they won’t be able to spend Christmas with the people they love most. It’s an emotionally wrenching episode that confirms the power of television. It’s one of the finest Christmas-themed shows I’ve ever seen and is a fine stand alone episode specimen in its own right. The rest of the season doesn’t easily compare, but the other episodes all have their strengths and focusing on the personal lives of the people involved is one of the more involving aspects.
GREEK, Season 4
The final season, a scant 10 episodes, strives to wrap up the myriad storylines that have developed on the show. Will Casey and Cappy remain together? Will Rusty reconcile his feelings for Ashleigh? Will Calvin be able to overcome his betrayal of Omega Chi when they discover his duplicity? There are dozens of plots that weave through the first three seasons and begin to come to a head in season 4 and we get resolutions to nearly all of them, though the fact that there won’t be a fifth season is a bit disappointing as there seems to be plenty of tales left to tell. The cast continues its winning chemistry and you can’t help but root for them even when they do idiotic things. It’s the ultimate in mid-level quality programming that is missing from television. So many shows try to be so staggeringly creative or appeal to the widest possible demographics that they often end up less than entertaining. Compare the lowest common denominator comedy of Two and a Half Men with the high concept failure of a show like Flash Forward. Greek does what it does without much excessive fanfare, no baseline connectivity and no overzealous narrative acrobatics. It paints a portrait of realistic people in semi-realistic situations and endears the audience because of it.