Commentary – The Revival of the Western

August 29, 2008

There was a time when Westerns (Spaghetti or not) were widely made and appreciated. That died down, though, as many of us know. Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Unforgiven and Kevin Costner’s epic Dances With Wolves were about the only memorable Westerns of the 1990s. Then there was a long, long lull. Where did all the cowboys go? Other attempts were, of course, made, such as Tombstone, and Costner’s Wyatt Earp, but those were mediocre at best.

Yet I have noticed that there has been a recent revival of Westerns. Good ones. The Proposition, Brokeback Mountain, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and 3:10 to Yuma, for example. One also cannot discount the influence of HBO’s series Deadwood, which took a serious, vulgar, and ultra-realistic tone to the whole concept, but did it with brilliance. It’s impossible not to see how Deadwood has affected our idea of Westerns on screen. And then I saw the trailer for Ed Harris’ upcoming film, Appaloosa, and I couldn’t help getting excited.

I know. It’s a trailer. I hate getting excited about trailers, but considering the movement of truly good Westerns in recent years, it’s difficult to not get excited about it, especially when you have such a wonderful cast involved in the project: Viggo Mortensen, fresh off his Oscar nomination for Eastern Promises, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons and Renée Zellweger.

Westerns have become a catalyst for the exploration of human nature through choices, and the morality of those choices, in a way that few, if any, genres have been able to as successfully. They are also, in so many ways, an American genre. It is true that The Proposition, for example, is Australian, but the concepts and ideas upon which it’s based, and the influences it draws upon, are so clearly those of American Westerns.

I’m hoping Appaloosa will live up to its predecessors of recent years. Though I won’t get my hopes up too far. That’s always asking for disappointment.

Edit: You can watch the trailer for Appaloosa here, in full HD. Enjoy! I know I did.


Review – Beowulf

August 27, 2008

Beowulf [2007]

Starring: Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary

Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf is not really what I envisioned when I read the original epic poem so many years ago. The entire film feels like a balancing act between the story as told in the poem, and a more down-to-earth, grounded action and fantasy adventure. But it never quite feels at home. It’s certainly visually stunning. One cannot argue with that fact. The visuals lend a stylistic significance that perhaps was a stroke of genius in telling this tale. Yet though it’s good to look at, its story, characters and overall vision just don’t satisfy.

The story follows the basic plot of the epic poem. The Norse kingdom of Heorot is attacked by a vicious monster known as Grendel, murdering everyone in the great mead hall. King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) send a message across the lands and the seas for a hero to come and kill the beast. And so one does: Beowulf, voiced… and in a way, played, by Ray Winstone. Though his body is certainly not that of Winstone’s. As I understand it, a separate model was used for his perfectly muscly body. But no matter. Beowulf arrives and promises to kill the monster. As we know, he of course does. But it was at this point that I began to frown, and lose interest. Perhaps I simply loved the epic poem too much.

Let me explain. In the poem, Beowulf was a great, strong man, who was able to tear the arm off Grendel. Yet in the film, he finds a way to break it off without the use of his strength alone. It is obvious why this happens: the bards embellish the story, and we are left with the resulting epic poem. This is further indicated by Beowulf’s explanation of swimming across the sea and killing nine sea monsters (“It was three last time” says Beowulf’s companion). Embellishment often happened with the exploits of norse heroes.

So then why, if this film is supposed to be grounded in some kind of stylistic realism, can Beowulf move like a super human, and seem to do almost super human things to take down Grendel, and then subsequently, the Dragon? It always felt like the balance shifted from one side to the other. At times it was the embellished tale told by the bard, at others it was the “true” story upon which the tale was based.

Angelina Jolie shows up as Grendel’s mother, but she more or less felt like a gimmick to me. “Let’s show a digital, humanoid Angelina Jolie practically naked – that’ll win an audience.” I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, but I wondered afterward what the real point was. Some major details and twists were added to the story regarding Grendel, his mother, Beowulf and the Dragon. I’m not sure if I approve, but I certainly give the filmmakers credit for trying. It was interesting, but I didn’t find it in any way to really enhance the story itself. One point I did approve of was the more interesting role given to Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn), Hrothgar’s queen.

Still, for all the gripes I had with this film, I was taken in by its visuals, which are, to say the least, astounding. I recommend the visuals of this film, and if you’re the type of person that can love a film simply for the marvel and feast it gives the eyes, then I’m sure you’ll find little to complain about. Normally, I’d consider myself a part of that category. But in this case, I just wanted more, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t really delivered.

Commentary – Subjugating Art With The Artist

August 24, 2008

In a recent discussion, I came across a an interesting dilemma that I’m sure many of you have encountered. On a blog I tend to frequent, someone mentioned that Robert Duvall is a Republican, and planning to vote for McCain. Immediately, there were cries by some that they would never watch a Robert Duvall film again, including greats like The Godfather. How sad, I thought.

Can one really sacrifice the experiencing of such great works simply on the basis of the artist, the artist’s personal life, political affiliation, mental or psychological issues, or what have you? Apparently to some, they are able to make the sacrifice.

Great examples are those who boycott Mel Gibson films because he’s expressed anti-semitic views and sentiments. Or boycotting Tom Cruise films because he’s a scientologist and doesn’t believe in psychology and medication.

I don’t agree with either of them, and I find anti-semitism downright disgusting. But let’s put things into perspective. Roman Polanski is a great example. Firstly, he’s a brilliant director, absolutely brilliant and deserving of the praise. But he’s also a pedophile. So, do I boycott his films, some of which are great pieces of art, because of his private life? Although part of me would like to stay neutral in this, I can’t. The answer is a flat-out “no”.

The issue here is the subjugation of art to the artist, and it flatly ignores the entire concept of art, whether it be film, literature, music, or a painting. To put it simply, if I subjugated the artist with his or her work, I would live a very sheltered life. I would never have read the great novels I’ve read, watched the great films I’ve watched, seen the great paintings I’ve seen, or listened to the great music I’ve listened to.

It is, of course, my choice and right to watch, read, see, listen, or not, to anything. But this issue is not so much with the choice as it is with the reasoning behind the choice. Not watching a film because of its subject matter can be quite reasonable at times. Certain films are extremely difficult to watch, though quite brilliant and heartbreaking, such as Paul Greengrass’ United 93. Others are simply disgusting, and don’t accomplish anything worthwhile, such as David DeFalco’s reductive and worthless Chaos.

But realize the distinction: choosing not to watch such films for their subject matter is not judging the personal aspects, or political, religious or otherwise of the people involved in making the film: writers, directors, actors. Such work should be judged for what it is, not for what the people responsible for producing it believe in their personal lives, and certainly independently of such personal beliefs.

Review – Batman (1989)

August 23, 2008

Batman [1989]

Starring: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Kim Basinger, Jack Palance, Jerry Hall
Director: Tim Burton
Screenwriter: Sam Hamm, Warren Skaaren

Note: This review is independent of a comparison to Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the Batman franchise. I am writing it without Nolan’s films in mind.

As a comic book fan, I have always been interested in big-screen adaptations of our favorite super heros and comic books. Batman is one of the best and most intriguing super heroes, because in a way, he’s the most plausible. He doesn’t have super powers like most other super heroes. He’s simply a billionaire who’s able to construct amazing gadgets to fight crime. The first big-screen adaptation of the caped crusader since the classic Adam West camp-fest was met with huge amounts of praise from numerous people, audiences and critics alike. But I find it very difficult to agree with the consensus.

Many people have already seen this film, because of its popularity. Rather than talk at length about the plot, which really isn’t horrible in and of itself, I’d rather just talk about my main issues with this film: the main protagonist and antagonist.

To begin with, I question whether Tim Burton is the right director for the material. Sure, the film looks great from a stylistic standpoint. Art director is top notch, and the city of Gotham is certainly a unique place through Burton’s eyes. But Burton, as he tends to, sacrifices a human element for set design and eye candy.

Michael Keaton feels at home in Burton’s fantastical sets. That’s not a compliment. He feels unauthentic and fake. I have always questioned this casting decision. To be honest, I’ve always thought Keaton to be perfectly wrong in the role of Bruce Wayne and his dark altar ego.

Then there’s Jack Nicholson. Personally, I think that he does what he’s told: act like Jack with a ton of makeup on. Sure, I appreciate the role. I’ve always liked Jack Nicholson, and there are very few times I’ve disliked him. But was he really right for The Joker? I guess in Burton’s world he is. When things don’t seem real, and the world is caked in a makeup of its own, then this Joker works, so I guess I can accept him in the world Burton has created. But like Batman, he feels fake, unreal, a set piece rather than a cog to move the wheel.

I wanted to like this film. Many people do. It’s hard to dislike a film that’s as popular as Tim Burton’s Batman, but I can’t deny my heart to please the masses. It’s a great looking film with no real satisfaction for anything but the eyes. Where’s the heart? Where’s the soul? I never felt connected to the material. Tim Burton has a flair for art direction. He’s a director of style, and if a film like this could get away on style alone, it would be perfect. But it can’t, so it’s not.


August 23, 2008

I haven’t been as active here as I had been. On top of life just getting in the way, the past few days had been pretty suspenseful, waiting for Obama to announce his VP. Other than movies, I’m also a huge political junkie and was up all night waiting for the news last night.

Now that we all know officially that it’s Joe Biden, I can calm down a bit and get back to working on this site some more. I’ll have some more reviews in the next couple of days, so hang tight!

Oh, and I want to thank zippyfish for being the first person to comment on my site. Hopefully it’s the first of many more to come.

Review – 300

August 20, 2008

300 [2007]

Starring: Gerard Butler, Vincent Regan, Lena Headey, David Wenham, Michael Fassbender
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriter: Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad, Michael B. Gordon

After the success of the brilliant Sin City, Frank Miller is up for grabs. Everyone wants a piece of him and his works. Granted, it’s with reason. He’s one of the greatest graphic novelists, and a wonderful storyteller. But should all of his works be translated to the big screen? 300 proves that the answer is “no”.

300 is a macho movie. It’s a summer flick for the wannabe steroid-pumped male teens. It, as most know, follows the stand of 300 Spartans against a massive army of Persians. And… There’s really not much to tell plot-wise, because that’s really all that happens. The Spartans learn of the impending Persian attack, and they set out to stave them off, knowing they’re all going to die.

The film is very faithful to Miller’s graphic novel. But is that necessarily a good thing? Just because it worked with Sin City does not mean it will work with 300, because it doesn’t. From what i can tell, around 95% of the film is all done in CGI, with the exception of a few Spartan’s faces. It’s unrealistic to the point of overflow. Where Sin City was able to use Miller’s style to enhance the storytelling, it just seems to fall flat in 300.

I get the idea here. I’ve read that it’s historically pretty accurate, in terms of the events that take place. It exaggerates things to a breaking point, though, such as the nine-foot tall Persian “god” Xerxes, and the numerous hoards of mythical-looking monsters. But there’s absolutely no human element to the entire film. It’s just a bunch of half-naked men who look like they came out of Schwartzeneggar’s  Pumping Iron, screaming and killing with massive amounts of gore.

I know that’s appealing to a mass number of males out there, especially the teens out there. But for me, the film holds no depth, and I was yawning and bored before the halfway mark.

A Small Milestone

August 18, 2008

For those of you paying attention, I have now officially posted 10, count ’em 10 reviews online! It may not seem like much, but for me, it’s huge.

I’ve come a long way from just imagining getting this whole thing set up. I admit, it’s not much. But honestly, I haven’t had so much fun in a long time.

I absolutely love film criticism, and I love being a part of it. I want to continue to add on to and expand the site.

I’ll also take this time to thank the few visitors that have been coming (and perhaps coming back?) every day. Some days have been better than others, but there’s definitely been more people coming since I got the site up and running. I hope you all enjoy what you’ve seen and keep coming back for more.

Now that I know how much I love doing this, I doubt I’ll be stopping any time soon. Seeing new visitors every day is one of the things that’s kept me going and consistently posting, so thank you to everyone that’s come here and checked out some of the reviews. It means more than you know.