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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


Sometimes, as a critic, you’re stuck for a motive. You work your brain around the history of cinema, and while potential reasons seem to reverberate, you still can’t comprehend what inspired a specific motion picture decision. In this case, we are dealing with the confounding decision by Broadway director Julie Taymor to tackle the Beatles masterful catalog as part of some post-modern musical experiment. Certainly, one senses an aesthetic in the right place – the Fab Four remain pop benchmarks and cultural earthquakes, individuals who redefined the very life and times they lived in. In addition, the ‘60s still reverberate with messages of peace, love, and equality - ideals that have just as much import today as they did forty years ago. Yet how all this ended up in the wildly uneven and creatively confused Across the Universe will remain a mystery to even the most insightful movie mind.


Telling the barest of stories and sprinkling an odd amalgamation of Northern Songs throughout, Taymor tries to achieve the same level of visual insanity and emotional power as Ken Russell managed in his adaptation of the Who’s Tommy, and Milos Forman found in his reinterpretation of the rock opera Hair. In fact, you’d be better served seeking out a rental copy of each of these gems and watching them side by side. Unfortunately, such a celluloid clash would only minimally mimic the mess Taymor achieves. This is either the most brilliant disaster ever helmed, or the most abysmal masterpiece ever crafted, a blunted gem that can’t make up its mind if it wants to shine, stumble or just plain stink. For every element of originality and invention, there’s a stereotypical take that destroys the atmosphere. Further more, the minute the music stops and the actors attempt to deliver their dialogue, all the energy dies. We soon find ourselves awash in clichés and cryptograms.


Our journey begins with Jude (and yes, there will also be a Lucy, a Sadie, a Prudence, a Max, and a JoJo, just to keep the Lennon/McCartney obviousness intact), a Liverpool shipyard worker who wants to find his American dad. Jumping ship in New Jersey, he locates his father working as a janitor at Princeton. After befriending fun boy Max, Jude winds up having Thanksgiving with the Ivy Leaguer’s definition of WASP-ish Americana. There he meets and falls for Lucy. Soon, everyone has relocated to the Big Apple, where Jude gets a job as an artist, Lucy becomes an activist, and Max is drafted.


They rent their communal pad from the Janis Joplin-esque Sadie, who has a Jimi Hendrix-ish guitarist boyfriend named JoJo. Along the way, we see the birth of campus revolution, the death of a black child during the Detroit Riots, and the introduction of acid by a LSD Guru named – wait for it – Dr. Robert. Eventually, Jude is deported, Lucy is feared dead, and Max comes back from his tour of duty in a less than sane state. Of course, all they need is love and everything is tangerine trees and strawberry fields…forever.


From a casting standpoint alone, Across the Universe suffers from that supposedly sincerest form of flattery – imitation. Sultry singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is the spitting image of Joan Osborne, while JoJo (Martin Luther) is Ritchie Havens in a purple haze. It’s not the actual actor’s fault – they’ve been cast and presented this way. Less obvious are the three main leads. Both Joe Anderson as Max and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy are supposed to be carved out of suburban symbolism, but both have the generic appeal or your typical Tinsel Town target audience. They aren’t individuals, they’re icons to wholesome hollowness, ex-Mickey Mouse Club members not invited to the reunion. In fact, the only performer who seems specifically selected for his combination of aura and singing chops is UK thesp Jim Sturgess. When he interacts with his fellow failures, he brings an inherent depth the others don’t possess. Even better, when he sings, he adds nuance and feeling to what is, for the most part, bland bombastic vocalizing.


Which brings us, naturally, to the music. Taymor wants to be innovative and unconventional in the way she interprets the Beatles songs, and with rare exception, her muse misses the mark by a long and winding country mile. The opening parallels between the US and the UK, set to the groove of “It Won’t Be Long” indicates where this project could have gone, and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is given a mournful ballad feel (and a sly subtext) that’s truly moving. But then there are outrageously awful misfires like Eddie Izzard’s atrocious reading of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or Bono’s bloated take on “I Am the Walrus”. Both numbers immediately bring to mind the cameo-packed claptrap from 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apparently, no one on this production learned a single lesson from that fiasco. Otherwise, they’d never consider putting a non-singing comic (Steve Martin) in a role where he’s required to belt out an incongruous joke tune (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”).


But it’s Tommy that keeps reverberating in your head, the wild eyed weirdness of Ken Russell’s slightly controlled chaos reminding one of how good this kind of material can be. Naturally, said rock show was specifically created as a character study, not cobbled together out of a classic band’s hit tracks. But Taymor is still trying to fill in the narrative and contextual gaps by the application of imagery, and it’s here where her status as a rogue surrealist wannabe finally fizzles and fades. During “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, refugee Marvs from Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City do a dopey ballet with army recruits in their underpants. A CGI montage of pre-induction tests battles against the same semi-clothed dudes carrying the Statue of Liberty like coffin bearers. Near the end, when Max is mental, multiple Salma Hayeks show up to administer pain killers as “Happiness is a Warm Gun” plays. Before long the entire hospital room is spinning like a carnival ride while a priest has a conniption fit. Groovy. 


Even the more normal takes on the material let the director down. JoJo arrives in New York to the strains of “Come Together” (featuring the brilliant move of having Joe Cocker play the ersatz narrator), but the obvious discomfort onscreen continues, mostly because of the incongruous nature of the images with the lyrics. In addition, a poignant moment set to “Let It Be” equally looses all its steam. The singing is miraculous – the metaphors are mixed. While there’s no denying that Taymor hits on more than one sequence of solid inspiration, it all becomes a question if it’s the material (it’s pretty near impossible to screw up an “All You Need is Love” singalong) or the mannered approach (overripe fruit as a symbol of destruction linked with “Strawberry Fields Forever”) that finally does her in.


The truth is, it’s neither. Had this filmmaker fumbled through the last four decades of rock and roll, picking out the purposefully obtuse and long since forgotten, found a non-derivative tale about growing up in turbulent times, and tried to meld her story with her symbols, we’d have a much better effort than anything Across the Universe attempts. The problem is an iconic cloud cast by The Beatles themselves. This was a group that literally shifted the cultural dynamic, leaving behind a lasting impression as both brilliant songwriters and social barometers. Like trying to import Picasso into your production designs, or using a shot for shot Hitchcock as your frame of reference, the music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had too much baggage to stand on its own. While Taymor may admit she took that into consideration when making this movie, given the deconstructionist nature of some of her choices, it’s a patina she can never fully overcome.


That’s why Across the Universe is so uneven. You have to work so hard at forgetting everything you know about the boys from Liverpool, even as the movie constantly throws their monumental achievements directly at you, that it’s frequently not worth the effort. In addition, the lack of insight and artistic shortcutting produces an overlong, laborious crusade. In many ways, this remains one of the worst ideas in the entire pop culture lexicon. Yet somehow, the individuals in charge of Cirque De Soleil managed to find a happy medium between creative and crass when they turned the Beatles Love into a Las Vegas strip hit. Of course, the free form acrobatic show doesn’t have a lax narrative, cardboard characters, uninspired imagination, or a rose colored glasses view of the ‘60s to hamper it. It simply treats the Fab Four as they deserve to be. This movie avoids such direct respect - and pays the price.


 


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Saturday, Sep 15, 2007


They don’t call them ‘the formative years’ for nothing. Our past constantly crashes into the present reminding us of the many reasons we become the people we are. As a result, we love to wallow in such nostalgic glimpses of shame, frustration, and accomplishment. They seem to support our own shaky self image, and add up to a universal connection between generations and personalities. Perhaps one day, a filmmaker will come along and find a way to tap into the inherent satiric possibilities of such blissful backwards glancing. If you’re looking for a joyless, toothless mess of a comedy that tries to use individual development as a means of metering out laughs, than the sad excuse for entertainment known as Mr. Woodcock will be right up your mangled memory lane.


There is a decent idea for a movie buried somewhere in this attention span testing nightmare. It floats along the surface of what is, in essence, a very forced bit of funny business. Even the story screams stupidity. After years away, self help guru John Farley (a desperate Seann William Scott) is awarded the Golden Corn Key by his Nebraska hometown. Using a trip back as an excuse to avoid a mind numbing book tour (organized by agent as soused aggravation Amy Poehler), John reconnects with his Mom (Susan Sarandon) and discovers the shocking news. The widow has been dating again – as a matter of fact, she’s going out with her son’s sadistic gym teacher from middle school, Mr. Woodcock (Billy Bob Thorton). The news dredges up painful, problematic memories for John, reminders of being mocked and abused by the buzz cut wearing jerk. He decides to use any means necessary to stop this possible partnership, especially now that wedding bells may be about to ring.


With the proper, no holds barred approach melded with a mean-spirited, manipulative script, this could be some hilarious stuff. But because of a preemptive PG-13 mandate from the studio, and a lack of any real intelligence or insight, this potential testosterone-laced standoff ends up a panty waisted wuss-out. It’s not just that the film is painfully unfunny – it fails to even understand why its jokes don’t begin to work. For example, when John complains to Woodcock that he doesn’t want to conform to some request, the emotionless man deadpans “do what you want. This isn’t Russia”. Similarly, during a last act battle royale for some manner of interfamilial superiority, every cornball catchphrase the PE coach has pulled out over the running time is regurgitated, as if to reemphasize how one note and completely superficial his prickly personality really is. Had the movie spent more time in the setup, showing John Farley as a sad little boy in a constant war with Woodcock, any payoff would have some context. But all we get are lame ‘lame’ kid riffs, followed by more dull Wood-cockiness. 


In yet another variation of his by now stereotypical ornery, wiry SOB persona (something he popularized with similarly styled efforts like Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears remake), Thorton plays the title character like a man wearing a peanut sized jock strap. His body suggests a few stints in rehab, not a lifetime in service of the President’s Physical Fitness Program. As a star, he really only has two modes – passive and peculiar – and yet he manages neither here. There is no chemistry with co-star Sarandon (who seems to be following the Diane Keaton “do any script that comes your way” version of a late in life career change) and very little believable combativeness with Scott. Indeed, when watching him work, you’d swear that Thorton was phoning this one in – and using one of those early ‘80s shoe box sized suckers to do it with.


The story also suffers from being wildly unfocused and full of unexplored tangents. Scott is given a gal pal, apparently, to prove he’s not some manner of failed momma’s boy, yet the possible plot thread NEVER goes anywhere. Similarly, he hooks up with one of his old classmates (My Name is Earl’s Ethan Suplee) in his plot for revenge. After one stint with a video camera, and another involving a little breaking and entering, said avenue of discovery is tossed aside. Even during one of several false finales (Scott lets the town have it in a pseudo scathing, subpar speech) we feel the ethereal brakes constantly being applied, filmmakers or fixtures behind the scenes stopping the comedy from ever getting too extreme or biting. Indeed, when a raging lush like Poehler’s character can’t get her alcohol fueled groove on (she has a sad seduction sequence in a bar), we’re witnessing watered down humor at its most bland.


None of this speaks well for novice director Craig Gillespie. A creator of TV commercials for the last two decades, his idea of cinematic innovation and intrigue is to preprogram specific beats and overlong laughter pauses into the actually narrative. Thorton will let rip with one of his listless macho man maxims, and the movie will actually wait until you’re done chortling. Even worse, sight gags and slapstick are regularly stifled so that the accompanying audience appreciation can be metaphysically measured. If timing is everything in comedy, Gillespie is a broken Bulova that’s lost its quartz crystal. From the lack of any realism in the performances (though humor can be fanciful, it should have an anchor in some kind of authenticity), to the sloppy and unsatisfactory wrap up, to the various dangling plot points, this is a director who suggests that every new film will be another act of apprenticeship.


Mr. Woodcock is not really a crowd pleaser or some kind of ‘dumb as dirt’ delight. Instead, it’s an apparent attempt to reset the demarcation when determining the lowest common denominator. If you enjoy wit wrapped around the repetition of one single snicker (John has to hear the employees of a pizza parlor constantly referencing his mother’s sexual prowess with the title character), or an obvious joke name (the brain pan appreciation of Beavis and Butthead immediately comes to mind), then this cinematic sludge is your perfect escapist exercise. Finding it mindless won’t be hard, since there’s not a single slice of gray matter swimming in its spoof. Perhaps the only thing more depressing than a movie that can’t manage the opportunities it has is one that specifically ignores them to go for the crotch shot. This is the filmic version of a football to the groin – with only the plentiful pain remaining.



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Thursday, Sep 13, 2007


Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.


With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.


At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.


Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.


Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.


Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders.  The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.


Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.


This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.


 


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Saturday, Sep 8, 2007

If you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order.

Welcome to the world of adrenaline amping gun porn. Maybe a better term for it would be “ammunition oriented erotica”. While there is technically nothing sexy about the arterial spray and wonder weaponry of Michael Davis’ demented actioner Shoot ‘Em Up, one does get the distinct impression of watching a XXX title where handguns substitute for hardcore. Grooving on its gratuity to the point of plentiful premature climaxes, and referencing the John Woo School of snail-paced mayhem to the point of stalker status, this demented director, previously known for nothing very much, has created the first freak geek manifesto. He has made a movie that does away with unnecessary cinematic standards like dimensional characterization, narrative clarity, physical logic, and any sense of subtlety. In its place are never-ending firefights, cut to the chase action sequences, bullet ballet, and a weird obsession with breast milk. Seriously.


The plot, when we finally find one, is an intriguing amalgamation of exploitation excess and Jackass level joke. While sitting on a street corner, minding his own business, the illusive Mr. Smith (a marvelous Clive Owen) sees a pregnant woman being chased by a murderous mob. Stepping in to protect her, he ends up with her newborn child, and a mob of angry hitmen on his tail. Led by the lecherous, leering Mr. Hertz (the brilliant Paul Giamatti), this craven crew has been given strict orders to destroy the kid at all costs. Hoping to find a substitute mom, Smith seeks the aid of prostitute pal DQ (Monica Bellucci as rather dandy eye candy). Initially rejecting his request, she relents, and suddenly, the faux family is on the run and looking for an escape. But they’ll have to get past a presidential candidate, an influential weapons manufacturer, the Second Amendment, the anti-gun lobby, and about 9000 members of the gang that couldn’t shoot straight before uncovering the truth and foiling Hertz’s fatal plot once and for all.


There’s no rationalizing a movie like Shoot ‘Em Up. There’s no way to excuse its excesses or validate its unavoidable volatilities. Instead, one simply has to sit back and enjoy the highlight reel histrionics of the action, the pure visual pleasure of watching choreographed actors exchange pot shots like gun toting gladiators. While really nothing more than a glorified game of one-upmanship where Smith and Wesson replace sword and saber, and everyone has a vendetta driving their designs, director Davis should be commended for making all of this negligible nonsense work. He takes what is, in essence, a Six Shooter Territory Wild West stunt show gone Gotham and turns it into a magical motion picture experience that borders on the epic. Granted, he doesn’t have the added Asian ideals of honor, duty, and loyalty down yet, and his characters tend to talk in blurbs from the back of old pulp novels, but viable action is an art. From what we see here, Davis is a punch-drunk Picasso.


It’s hard to hate this movie, try as it might to tweak your PC sensibilities. This is the kind of craziness that offers necrophilia as an offhand snicker, uses an infant as a precarious prop, and proposes that the entire world is run by corrupt corporate and government entities that pat each other on the back before planting a 9mm round in it. Emotions are for dames and dunce caps, and wit revolves around how successful you are in rearming your pistol before your opponent airs out your entrails. Sure, it’s all so hyper-stylized and mannered that it’s similar to hallucinating anime after a peyote and Pixie stick binge. Or maybe a better way of putting it would be to say that Shoot ‘Em Up is the naughtiest non-nudity the NRA ever fantasized over.  The well staged sequences of unbridled mayhem may help us to forget the overall lack of substance, but there’s no denying the high spirits hangover we feel once it’s done. 


Making matters even more complicated is the outstanding acting job by the two main leads. Clive Owen has crafted a nice little niche as the day saving action hero with the hobbled heart of a human being. As he did in Sin City, and again in Children of Men, he’s a capable champion made even more valiant by our obvious rooting interest in his success. Sure, he’s responsible for the death of hundreds, but who could hold a grudge with that cool and calculated chin butt. Similarly, Paul Giamatti gives a new meaning to the term “hygienically challenged” with his scraggly faced, sweat stained Mr. Hertz. Given lots of juicy lines to work with, and a character dimension that has his unstoppable anger deriving from a horrible home life (this mobster is the most henpecked hitman in the history of organized crime). Together, they form the core of some brilliant byplay, a cool for cat and mouse that adds an element of sly substance to what is basically kids playing cops and criminals.


There are a few elements here that will try your motion picture patience. Since its budget was obviously limited to the lower end of the financial scale, some subpar CGI had to be used to realize a couple of the stunts (one involves a classic moment between Owen, Giamatti, a couple of cars, and an infant in the middle of the road). Similarly, Davis does indulge his technicians a few too many rapid cutting conceits. When you watch a John Woo film, the last thing you notice is the editing. It’s easy to fall into an MTV style stance when dealing with this type of material, but for the most part, the director keeps it under control. And then there’s the lack of estrogen. Granted, Bellucci’s around to look fetching and fertile, but the lack of other female facets here is more than noticeable. When they’re not being gutted or gunned down, they’re part of the periphery, nothing more. Frankly, it would have been nice to see a long legged counterpart to our pair of provocateurs. It would have really pushed this project over the top.


Still, you gotta love the primal potency of Shoot ‘Em Up. It’s been a long time since any movie has made such a strong connection to our cave dweller cravings. This is hunter/gatherer grandness, the sort of symphonic splatter statement that turns ordinary people into obsessives. Though it all feels so superficial and slight, even with all the corpses piling up, the undeniable attraction to orgiastic violence provides enough entertainment heft to leave us spent and satisfied. Certainly this movie will rub some the wrong way, questioning the glorification of gunpowder as yet another scar on the already mottled match-up between the media and society. Even worse, they will point to adolescents, already ripe with retrograde notions of right and wrong via videogames, and vilify both the messenger and the missive. But sometimes, all we ADULTS want is cinematic junk food, and Shoot ‘Em Up is definitely more filling than equal entries like Smokin’ Aces, The Marine, or Crank.


In fact, if you’re looking for the culmination of the last two decades in filmmaking, if you need a movie that provides nothing but hair trigger pop shots, if your standard action movie is just too slack paced and remedial for your Red Bulled synapses, Michael Davis’s deconstructionist marvel will fuel inject your fun factors in quick order. It’s rare when a movie can elevate both your blood pressure and belief in the artform, but Shoot ‘Em Up definitely deserves such recognition. It’s not a full blown masterpiece, or something that will stand the test of time, but for what audiences are looking for in 2007, it will fit the bill with ballistics to spare.



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Thursday, Sep 6, 2007

The death of the western as a viable film genre remains, even to this day, a perplexing motion picture issue. It could be argued that the glut of horse opera product that flooded the pop culture market between 1940 and 1980 extinguished any artistic or commercial viability the category had left. Indeed, Hollywood loved to spread the oater’s morality play mandates as thinly as possible. Part of the reason was popularity. Until political correctness condemned its conceits, kids played Cowboys and Indians and the pioneers were looked upon as great land emancipators, not the catalysts for cruel, cutthroat genocide. How the mythos went from machismo to mass murder is definitely a topic for another time. But it does help explain why the sagebrush saga has seen better days. Along with a draught of compelling creativity, post-modern audiences just aren’t eager to revisit our country’s more primeval past.


Perhaps that’s why James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma is so strict in its storyline dynamics. This second version of Elmore Leonard’s short story (the first, in 1957, featured Glen Ford and Van Heflin) revolves around a simple rancher who, in a desperate act for much needed money, decides to escort a rogue outlaw to the title train, an express that leads to prison, and eventually, the gallows. Actors such as Tom Cruise and Eric Bana were originally considered for the project, but Mangold managed to score a box office bonanza when he cast Christian Bale (Batman himself) as Civil War veteran Dan Evans and Russell Crowe as suave train robber and ruthless killer Ben Wade. Rounding out the supporting parts with Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Gretchen Mol, and Alan Tudyk, he had performers worthy of pulling off the impossible—making this manner of film compelling to a consumed-by-CGI audience.


For the most part, he succeeds in spades. 3:10 to Yuma has its off moments, and its unexplored potential, but for the vast majority of its running time, this is an excellently made and superbly acted throwback. Mangold is not out to deconstruct the genre ala Unforgiven, nor is he trying to contemporize or reimagine his homage ala The Quick and the Dead. Instead, this is the kind of mild mannered, if action packed, movie that the Italians targeted with their spectacular splatter spaghetti updates. After an exciting opening stagecoach hold up, the narrative becomes a series of metaphysical standoffs waiting for some glorified gunplay to forward the momentum. This is a good looking film, one that captures an Old West authenticity that’s unique among its motion picture peers. This is a grubbier, dustier western, a movie that frequently mentions the hardship and the horror of eking out an existence on the fringes of a still-forming nation. 


In that regard, one has to stop and mention the magnificent work of Christian Bale. Playing a Northern veteran of the War Between the States (with his own humiliating past to protect), there’s a real desperation in his performance, a quiet helplessness that carries over to his gaunt face and hobbled physicality. Missing a foot and more considered than confrontational, Evans makes for an unusual hero. Not only do we need him to buffer Wade’s craven cult of personality, but we hope he will find his inner strength as well. The combination creates real tension, and gives Bale lots of room to play. In turn, he’s both pathetic and powerful, a presence that demands attention even if all it results in is nothing more than mockery. With a scraggly beard and sullen eyes, we witness the kind of alienation and angst we’d expect in a post-modern movie. But thanks to his amazingly accomplished acting, it all becomes part of a much more meaningful whole.


Crowe, on the other hand, is quite the quandary. He’s supposed to be larger than life, a charmer who’d enjoy conning you as much as killing you. Instead of delving deep into his character’s psychosis, or the rationale behind his antisocial stance, the actor merely grandstands. You can practically hear him having too good of a time, a leprechaun-ish lilt in his voice almost mocking everything the movie stands for. It’s a brave creative choice, since it could easily alienate the audience. After all, Wade will go through a last act change that pushes our perspective of him into fairly uncharted territory. One can indeed question whether Crowe actually prepares us for this possibility. When he turns on the intensity, he’s as grave as they come. But in the lighter moments, when he’s joking and jesting, we’re stuck stewing over the man. His rogue routine raises enough questions to turn his character into quicksand—substantive at first, but with some rather shaky foundations underneath.


The rest of the company is crafty and first class, with Ben Forster literally stealing the film as Wade’s trusty and treacherous sidekick Charlie. He’s evil personified, a man metering out his own idea of justice one blazing six-shooter at a time. When he appears onscreen, all bets are automatically off, especially during the opening/closing action sequences. He’s ruthless, with just a touch of feyness to render every act doubly despicable. He’s unpredictable and yet totally calculated, a lethal combination indeed. He acts as a counterweight to the cavalier tone taken during some of the movie’s more trite moments. Similarly, Alan Tudyk’s venerable veterinarian is a wonderful reminder of the definite dangers involved. Whether it’s repairing bullet wounds or reminding the posse of their purpose, he’s a wonderful voice of reason. Add in Peter Fonda’s grizzled grimness (including a rather nasty backstory) and a real flair for bullet bravado, and you’ve got a really fine cinematic sentiment.


There are a couple of minor misgivings however. The entire subplot with the son, an ungrateful little knave that eventually comes around to his dad’s way of thinking, asks too much of an already perplexed viewer. Why this kid loves the outlaw life and vicarious violence is only suggested, though it appears to be derived from a love of dime novels and press puffery. He’s worked back into the overall tone about halfway through, even if we’re not sure why he’s around. Then there’s the Civil War angle. Bale wears his service literally, the war wound haunting and hobbling him. Yet other characters who mention their part in the conflict do so without a lick of significance, as if their conscription in the nation-defining event was similar to going down to the local saloon for a snort. It’s confusing, and lacks closure. Still, 3:10 to Yuma does a direct job of both bending and blending archetypes. Luckily, the narrative avoids most of the standard stock personas, even if Crowe ends up bedding one of the cleanest looking whores in all of Arizona.


Most of the praise goes to Mangold, however. He keeps things lively, and never forgets that a contemporary audience likes their wicked weaponry in full muffle blast mode. The gunfights are staged in a highly kinetic manner, the participants constantly plotting and moving in an attempt to avoid that hot kiss of lead. The finale is probably the best two on twenty showdown in the history of the genre, made even more effective by the emotional bond we feel with these characters. Even better, this director lays out the basics for a possible genre rebirth. All that’s required is a simple story, capable stars, an acknowledgement of the current medium trends, and a filmmaker that’s capable of meshing them all together. The results can only hope to be as effective as 3:10 to Yuma. In the realm of remakes, this one surpasses its still significant sources.



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