Sweetwater (2013): A Different Sort of Western (Review)

January Jones in Sweetwater

While Sweetwater could be called yet another variation on the 1971 Raquel Welch vehicle Hannie Caulder (sans the gang rape and the shooting lessons) it is a different sort of western underneath that premise.

A few years ahead of the Natalie Portman “Caulder remake” Jane Got a Gun Sweetwater has a heroine that asks no one for help. Unlike Caulder and Jane, this woman can shoot already, she is, in fact a better shot than her soon to be dead husband.

The story follows a trio of different people whose paths converge. Sarah Ramirez (January Jones), Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs) and Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) are all drawn to each other for different reasons. 

Josiah murders Sarah’s husband Miguel (Eduardo Noriega) as well as a couple of trespassers. Jackson comes to find the dead trespassers and gets involved with solving the crime as well as a new murder committed by Sarah. 

The three main characters are diverse beyond age and gender. Josiah is clearly a renegade Mormon.  Jackson references the prophet’s moving from Utah and his “many” wives. Sarah was a prostitute in the very town that she and Miguel lived outside of. The sheriff is an eccentric man who is years ahead in the detecting game.

Out of the three, Jackson is outwardly a little nuts.  His demeanor is, overall, one of joy.  Right up until he beats the town marshall (Luce Rainsinto submission and then shoots him in the hand, Jackson is disturbingly cheerful.

Later, when he questions Josiah about the two missing men, his behavior is callous, aggressive and threatening.  The sheriff may be a tad different but he is not certifiable.
Josiah, on the other hand, is clearly as mad as a box of frogs.  He has fits, after raving and reading his Bible,  and then goes on to do horrible things.  His goal seems to be, apart from procreating with all his wives, to take over the territory around him.

Sarah goes through a major amount of tribulations as the film progresses. She loses her dog, husband, the baby she is carrying and gets raped as well. Finally the former prostitute has had enough. Sarah Ramirez exacts her revenge one bullet at a time.

At its core, Sweetwater, is a thriller and a revenge picture set in the old west. The film is, however, a western by virtue of the trappings and  time period. Regardless of the base genre, this is a brilliantly quirky oater.

The characters are different and not what one usually finds in the genre.  A peeping tom store owner, a banker (played detestably by Stephen Root)  who decides he will pay out Sarah’s savings one dollar at a time, in exchange for oral sex and a religious zealot who covets a lot more than his neighbor’s wife.

Co-written and directed by Logan and Noah Miller Sweetwater is a spellbinding film. It offers a strong female character and two male leads who chew up the scenery with abandon.  

The cinematography is stunning. One can almost feel the heat, taste the dust and smell the sheep, as the camera follows events in the film.

Sweetwater feels a bit operatic in nature, somewhat akin to a Leonie Spaghetti Western without the extreme closeups. Although there is also an element of “noir” in the film.

With an excellent cast of stellar performers this different sort of western is a cracking bit of entertainment. At 95 minutes the film does not lag nor does it race to a conclusion. Its pacing is just right.

Sweetwater is rated ‘R’ for violence, some sex and a bit of female and male nudity.

This is a 5 star effort by all concerned and this treat is streaming on Netflix at the moment. Fans of more traditional western fare may want to give this a miss. However, folks who like a bit of variety will get a kick out of this one.

The Adderall Diaries (2016): Fiction as Fact – (Review)

Amber Heard and James Franco

The Adderall Diaries is taken from Stephen Elliot’s semi-autobiographical first novel “A life Without Consequences” and the author is quick to point out that this was a work of fiction. Adapted and directed by Pamela Romanowsky (her second feature length film as director) the film follows Stephen Elliot, played by James Franco as he unravels while following a murder case.  The film is, according to the real Elliot, masquerading as fact even though it is based upon fiction.

Amber Heard plays Times reporter Lana Emond, that the film Stephen dates and then falls in love with. Ultimately he alienates the woman as he loses his grip on what is real and what is not.

Ed Harris is Stephen’s estranged father Neil. A man that Elliot has been telling the world is dead. His memoirs, that are on the best seller list, tell of a bullying ogre who made Stephen’s life hell growing up.

Christian Slater plays real life murderer  Hans Reiser who, in the film,  is on trial for  the murder of his mail order wife Nina.  Stephen begins to fixate  on the man and projects his own issues onto the suspect on trial.

Elliot is into BDSM, drugs (specifically Adderall) and has fractured memories of his youth.  His father Neil attempts to reconcile with his son and eventually the two start to converse.

The main message of The Adderall Diaries appears to coincide with what the author says he learned around the time of writing his first novel.  Stephen says that everyone’s version of the truth is their version [sic].  The film does, at least, put this across rather well.

In the film Franco’s Elliot is a man not in touch with himself at all. His gaze, despite being inward,  is narcissist and  blind. His faulty and drug enhanced memories are all blurry and violent. In these his father is the villain and he the innocent victim.

The author lies to everyone but more importantly he lies to himself. The man is on a self destructive path that turns those he cares about away.  Stephen irrevocably damages his relationship with Lana (Heard) and nearly ends his lifelong friendship with Roger (Jim Parrack).

(On a sidenote: Amber Heard has been lumbered with what must be the worst wig or extensions ever seen on a romantic lead. It is a wonder she did not sue the production or at least the director for putting such a mess on her head.)

Slater makes the most of his smaller role as programmer turned murderer Reiser who was convicted of killing the mother of his children. In the film his defense was that he was trying to be a good father. It feels as though he felt that his wife suffered from Munchausen by proxy syndrome (MBPS). Whether this was true for the real Reiser case is not known.

The Adderall Diaries is a fairly downbeat film.  It is slow and despite a fair amount of sex, both kinky and straight, it is a mundane film.  Another problem is that, as portrayed by Franco, Elliot is unlikeable.  When he breaks up with Lena we do not really care.

(Another sidenote: Ed Harris looked shockingly old. Granted the actor is around bus pass age at 65 but he has looked the same for years.  Perhaps it was makeup enhanced but it was a surprise to see Harris suddenly age. Whatever the case it was effective for his role and helped to sell his character’s story.)

The real Stephen Elliot has pointed out a number of inconsistencies with the film. Mainly to do with the publishing world but he says there  are a few discrepancies about his “story” as well.

For someone who lived outside the country for number of years, this fiction presented as fact film was eye opening. It was a total surprise to learn that someone whose product was integral to the Linux kernel murdered his wife for example.

Director Pamela Romanowsky does quite a decent job here but the subject matter lets the side down.  Ultimately it fails to really garner any real interest apart from the childhood story of Elliot and his father. Those flashbacks do beg to be resolved.

The Adderall Diaries is streaming on Amazon Prime at the moment and it is worth a look but definitely not two.  A 3 star film that is quite underwhelming by the end. Although it does have its moments. (Think Ed Harris here.)

Appaloosa (2008) Ed Harris Changing the Western Gunfight

Screen shot from Appaloosa
Ed Harris is one of the best in terms of acting. His directorial skills, while not so visible, Appaloosa is only his second time in the chair, are also top notch as he proved in this 2008 slow but interesting western. Starring in, co-writing the script (based on the Robert B. Parker novel of the same name) and producing as well as directing shows just how much the star wanted this film made. Choosing Dean Semler (Dances With Wolves, Maleficent) as his DP shows how much he wanted his vision to look spot on.

In fact, the only real shame, or problem, with Harris’ film was the necessity of having to recast Allie. Diane Lane was the original choice and Zellweger was a last minute replacement. Certainly the Bridget Jones star was acceptable in the role, but, with Lane in the part, one imagines sheer perfection. (I will admit a certain prejudice here, I do like Renee Zellweger but, I adore Diane Lane.)

Taking almost a literal view of westerns, the two main protagonists resemble Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and not having read the Parker book which the film is based on, it is not known where this idea comes from. Regardless of where it originates, the allusion works. It should be pointed out that appearances are where these resemblances end. Both Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch are very different from the real-life western icons they favor.

Virgil is a taciturn man who can only really focus on one task at a time. While trying to better himself, reading the works of Emerson and checking with West Point graduate Everett (played wonderfully by Viggo Mortensen) when the vocabulary proves too taxing, he kills when his potential prisoners resist arrest. Hitch, his educated former Army officer partner of 12 years, is also quick to shoot and backs Cole’s plays whatever they entail.

This tale deals with, on its surface, the story of a long partnership of “mobile lawmen.” The pair come to the town of Appaloosa to help the founding fathers take care of a local rancher who has been riding roughshod over the citizens and businesses of the growing city. Randall Bragg (played with snooty superiority by Brit actor Jeremy Irons) finally stumbles when he personally murders the city marshal and two deputies in cold blood in front of a bevy of witnesses.

While only one young man steps forward to testify, it is enough to guarantee a noose for Bragg’s neck and he is to be transported to a local prison where they will help him meet his maker. Things do not go as planned and the remainder of the film is about personal issues between the three men and the woman who tries to play with all of them.

Allie French is a woman who confesses to Virgil that, “I’m afraid of everything.” At his urging she reveals a list of things that terrify her. Near the top of the list is her fear that she attached to the wrong man. This leads to her tendency to sleep with any Alpha Male she comes across. As she is in a relationship with Cole, this is troublesome, although it seems that the marshal is pretty accepting of her tendency to sleep with “anything that isn’t gelded.”

The film is a great treat for western fans as it does look fantastic. The sets, the lighting, the props, the guns are authentic and used properly, and the costumes all appear pretty much spot on. What is interesting is the way that Cole has opted to film the gunfights.

Appaloosa choses Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales method of gunplay. There are no Spaghetti Western quick-draws where the protagonist whips out his six gun and fans the hammer back to quickly shoot down multiple adversaries before they clear leather. At the beginning of the film, just after being officially hired by the town leaders, Cole and Hitch take on four of Bragg’s men in a saloon.

When two of the toughs, who are urinating in the bar’s spittoons, brace the new marshal and reach for their guns, Virgil almost leisurely pulls his pistol, cocks and shoots each one with deadly results. Hitch takes care of one cowboy behind Cole with his 8-gauge shotgun and the fourth declines to become involved in this mini bloodbath.

Later in the film, two more gunfights erupt and in each, the participants enter the fray with guns already drawn. Revolvers held down at their sides, the men face one another and “make their move” when they believe that the advantage is theirs. The gunfights are fast, “That happened quick,” says a prone Hitch. “Everybody could shoot,” replies Cole who is laying flat on his back with a “busted knee.”

As the traveling marshal points out early in the film, and later Hitch does the same, gunmen who become lawmen do so because “they can.” In other words they have the ability to shoot straight and fast with no thought of their own safety. As illustrated in the film’s penultimate shootout, not all gunmen are created equal, even those considered excellent can be killed.

In the film’s romance Zellweger’s piano playing Mrs. French and Harris’ single-minded marshal make an odd couple. Their relationship is interesting as it is awkward. Just as awkward is Allie’s tinkling of the ivories. At all times more perfunctory than musical and full of mishit keys and notes, the playing matches the woman’s personality. Something about Allie just does not fit and pointing out her mangled playing of the piano highlights this perfectly.

Appaloosa proves yet again that Ed Harris sits well in the director’s chair, his previous film was Pollock (2000). The film is a good 3.5 out of 5 stars; mainly because of Zellweger and the slow pace of the film itself as well as the offbeat soundtrack. Harking back to Howard Hawks’ El Dorado and its ultra modern music, Appaloosa uses a similar musical theme and it does not fit. This could be a personal bugbear of this viewer but it needs to be put out there. Available on Amazon and iTunes to stream and on disc, fans of the genre need to check this one out if they have not already done so.

Pain & Gain Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson Kidnapping Are Not Us

Pain

Despite the fact that this “based on a true story” movie did not do well at the box office, “Pain & Gain” show that Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson make a good team and the dark comedic film could have been called “Kidnapping Are Not Us.” Directed by Michael Bay, who obviously enjoyed working with Marky Mark so much that he brought him in to replace the disgraced Shia LaBeouf in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” this action and black comedy allows all the main players to impress.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shows that he can still do comedy, after this is the man who proved his comedic timing and ability in “The Rundown,” aka “Welcome to the Jungle.” His sensitive weight lifting body builder, who bonds with the kidnap victim too well, played by “Monk” star Tony Shalhoub, is funny without become a cartoon character, although it was close.

The story of three weight lifting wannabes who kidnap a wealthy client and torture him to sign over all his assets was not overly funny, especially to the real life victim played by Shalhoub. In the film, Marc Schiller (Shalhoub) is run over with a car twice after the inept athletes attempt to blow the businessman up in the same vehicle and fail.

“Pain & Gain” features the more charismatic Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson as two of the three criminals in this “Kidnapping Are Not Us” tale of dumb luck and dumb weight lifters who were destined to be caught from day one. One person who does not find the film or its version of events amusing is Marc Schiller. Presumably there were quite a number who did not find the film overly funny, but at least the estimated $26 million film made enough money world wide to classify as a success by Hollywood standards.

Ed Harris has a cameo as the cop turned private eye who helps Kershaw, Schiller in the film, track down his kidnappers who also attempted to kill him. Another cameo feature Peter Stormare as Dr, Bjornson and not one of the villains in a deviation from type for the actor.

This film has Michael Bay’s stamp all over it and it is this reason more than any other that the film is so entertaining. Combined with Dwayne Johnson’s humorous and simple villain and Mark Wahlberg’s egotistical and driven ring leader, “Pain & Gain” is not overly clever but it does tell the story, after a fashion, of the trio kidnapping a wealthy man and then trying to kill him after draining his money dry. These men are not “nice guys” as pointed out by Schiller who, unlike us the viewing audience, has first hand knowledge of what they are really like.

By Michael Smith

Sources”

Amazon.com

IMDb

Snowpiercer: Chris Evans in Korean Science Fiction Thriller (Review/Trailer)

Snowpiercer: Chris Evans in Korean Science Fiction Thriller (Review/Trailer)

Snowpiercer, the South Korean directed science fiction thriller based on a French graphic novel and starring Chris Evans, was shot in 2012. It was released in 2013 in South Korea and was then shown in just about every country in the world but the U.S. because of the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein.