The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017): Life of an “Also Ran” (Review)

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The Ballad of Lefty Brown is an interesting concept from start to finish. Part homage – it pays more than a little tribute to both The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and The Unforgiven – with a story about a western “also ran” who did not make the pages of the penny dreadfuls of the time. Written and directed by  Jared Moshe, the film is described as a “coming of age” film. 

Lefty Brown, played brilliantly by personal favorite Bill Pullman, is a “man-child.” His implied backstory is that at one time he and three other partners terrorized the southwest territory. One of these is going to be the new senator (Peter Fonda in a small but pivotal role) and after his death, two other old friends arrive to sort things out.

The film gives us a protagonist that, at times, is both simple and sly. One wonders just how much of Lefty Brown’s “slowness” is real. There are many instances where this character appears to be more than meets the eye.

We are privy to Lefty’s journey and Moshe gives us a story that pleases almost as much as it dismays. Pullman’s character goes through his paces with a doggedness that one assumes has been his main trait since birth.

It is his very pedantic, and simple,  approach to all things that has kept him from gracing the pages of the dime novel that the greenhorn Jeremiah (played very well by newcomer Diego Josef) carries with him in the film. Jim Caviezel and the splendid Scottish actor Tommy Flanagan are outstanding as the two old pals who were once part of the “gang.” 

Kathy Baker is spot on as the bitter and angry widow who fights for what is rightfully hers and the tale, while coming across as rather dire, is interesting enough to keep one glued to the seat for the climax. At just under two hours, The Ballad of Lefty Brown successfully manages to combine a character study with the western genre. 

This is Pullman’s film. From start to finish he commands the screen with his characterization of a man destined to be forgotten by all who knew him and it is Oscar-worthy. “Lefty Brown” combines music, sets and costumes effectively to make this oddly intimate film feel like a sweeping epic, along the lines of a John Ford (Cheyenne Autumn for example) western with just a touch of Spaghetti Western for good measure.

There is not an awful lot in the way of gun play, just one short gunfight in the middle, and the violence is not overly visceral in nature. This is more of a character study as we watch a man whose life has always been, it seems, outside the action.

However, there is the hint of a backstory that is slightly evocative of the Ford classic, “The Searchers” where the marshal’s wife was kidnapped by a Native American Tribe and one of the small group wishes for the good old days when “folks’ trembled before them.

This is an American West that resembles the AMC Robert Redford retelling of this countries history. It is all corrupt politics and bad men profiting from their past. Somethings, apparently, have not changed.

The Ballad of Lefty Brown is a solid 5 star film that delivers some solid performances from all the leads and gives Bill Pullman a real chance at garnering some awards.  Fans of the genre will love this homage to all things western.

The Hero (2017): Downbeat and Deep Sam Elliot Rocks (Review)

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Written for Sam Elliot and directed by Brett Haley, The Hero is a loving homage to the star and his long running career as consummate character actor. This deep and downbeat drama also manages to pay tribute to all those TV westerns where Sam, along with fan favorite Tom Selleck, helped to bring the tales of Louis L’Amour to life. Elliot, in short, rocks in his performance and should, if nothing else, get an Oscar nod for this role.

This is not a fun film to watch. With the exception of the award ceremony where Elliot proves he can play “high” with the best of them, the film is a cold hard look at the profession, aging and, ultimately, death. It also, through the auspices of Laura Prepon, tells us that romance is not dead at 71.

Co-written by Haley and Marc Basch The Hero tells the story of Lee Hayden. (Can there be a better name than this for a one time western star?) Lee is 71. His glory days are far behind him and he is estranged from his daughter (Krysten Ritter). Lee learns that he is to receive an award for his star turn in an old western “The Hero.” 

Before he can attend the ceremony, Lee marches through his days as a voice over artist; flogging barbecue sauce, smoking pot and wondering about his existence. He meets Charlotte (Prepon) who has a thing for older men and Lee learns that he is in the final stages of pancreatic cancer.

The Hero is a slow, almost languid, film. It is more interested in looking at Lee’s state of mind and the internal machinations of a man who knows he is dying. (There is a sort of irony at work here. Patrick Swayze – Elliot’s co-star in Roadhouse – died from pancreatic cancer. As this was written for Elliot, it stands to reason that this may be a slight nod to the late actor.)

The film has a fine mix of comedic moments (very low key) and a number of tearful scenes. Elliot’s resurgence in the social realm, after his award speech is broadcast on YouTube, leads to an audition. It is not a surprising scene. There is a splendid buildup to the moment in a previous scene.

Lee reads his sides with onetime costar and drug dealer Jeremy (Nick Offerman).  The lines deal with a space cowboy who is trying to save his estranged daughter. Themes of desertion, death and betrayal resonate in the brief bit of dialogue and the stage is set for what transpires later. 

Katherine Ross (Elliot’s real life wife) plays his ex with conviction and the only complaint here would be with her lack of screen time. This is, however, Elliot’s story so everyone else must stay on the periphery of the tale. The Hero strides slowly towards its somewhat ambiguous ending with a pace that is evocative of a western hero striding slowly down main street; spurs jangling, to that fateful shootout.

Prepon is spot on as Hayward’s young poetry obsessed lover. Ritter proves that whether she is playing a Marvel superhero, doomed drug addict or the  estranged daughter of a self centered actor, she  nails the character completely.

The Hero is the perfect counterpoint to the redneck comedy on Netflix where Elliot has been both miscast and misplaced. The actor can do comedy brilliantly and still manages to, with nary a word spoken, show pathos almost effortlessly.

(When Sam cries we all cry, such is his depth and honesty.)

The Hero is a full five star film, despite its somewhat lacklustre ending. The film is one that needs to be seen and savoured. Haley has put his heart and soul into this cinematic love letter to Elliot and this should net some gongs at the next Oscar ceremony.

Wonder Woman (2017): A DC Ode to Powerful Women (Review)

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It is hard to believe that Wonder Woman (brought to us by the same man who dehumanized Superman – Zack Snyder; but directed by Patty Jenkins which explains so much) came at the beginning of a year that has turned into one of empowerment for females in “the business.” Gal Gadot, in her second outing as Diana “Queen of the Amazons,” proves once more that one can love a strong yet beautiful woman warrior with little effort. 

The film itself shows that, Harley Quinn aside, there are positive female role models out there in the darker verse. It also takes Wonder Woman out of those 1970’s spandex short-shorts sported by the TV version played so capably by Linda Carter.

Despite the original outcry of dismay when Gadot was cast as the lasso spinning heroine, the actress (whose face could launch a 1000 ships) brings the DC seeker of justice to living breathing life. All the emotions missing in Snyder’s version of Superman are there for the taking in this film.

Set in WWI, versus the WWII origins of Marvel’s  Captain America, Chris Pine easily plays the American spy who is running from the Germans, aka the Hun (the Nazis do not turn up for quite some time…) headed up by the maestro of acting, Danny Huston. The cast is full of familiar and well-known names, all of whom turn in splendid performances.

David Thewlis, that long, tall and talented Brit actor, who needs to be in more films damn it, kills it as the politico whom one suspects immediately of shady dealings and the crew that Pine collects to stop Huston’s character are all brilliant as well. 

The only shocker, in terms of cast and actors, is the transformation of Lucy Davis (who is, perhaps, best known for playing Dianne in Shaun of the Dead) into a modern version of “Aunt Clara” from Bewitched, aka the late actress Marion Lorne.

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Elena Anaya plays the sinister and scarred doctor who plans of murdering a lot of her fellow denizens with a new gas. She is a close colleague of Huston’s murderous general and the two make a great “couple.” Cameos by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright round out this film with yet more stand out performances. 

Make no mistake though this is Gadot’s film.  She manages to surpass Carter’s TV heroine in this “origin” story with scary ease. Jenkins skillfully moves the film and her performers through the paces with admirable snap, crackle and pop.

Wonder Woman is up for a number of awards in the upcoming Oscar race and deservedly so. The effects, with the exception of that glowing lasso, are brilliant. The sets are spot on and London, for the brief time it is on show, looks authentic.

The story itself echoes real-life complaints of how the “war to end all wars” was run by generals sitting on their bums at Whitehall (see the last season of Black Adder “Black Adder Goes Forth” for a more blackly comic reference). Diana’s rant to the room of bureaucrats who have no problem sentencing thousands of innocents to death is spot on.

WW is a long film, it runs for two hours and 21 minutes, but does not lag or bog down in the middle. There is a jab at the ridiculous concept that glasses can adequately hide a superhero’s identity (Clark Kent anyone?) and we find that Diana works for the Dark Knight himself; Bruce Wayne.

There is enough time to wonder if the special gas that Dr. Maru gives Ludendorff is meant to be a tongue in cheek jibe at Viagra, but this does not distract from the overall film. (One also wonders if Wonder Woman would be so popular with fans if she were a plain yet muscly, superhero who looked horrid in those small warrior outfits. Although at the end of the day, the conclusion is that it really does not matter. Diana is appealing because of her mindset, not her appearance, although many teen boys, and girls, might disagree.)

Wonder Woman earns a full  five stars. It entertains full stop. While it is up for a number of those little gold chaps that the Academy like to give out, it will, no doubt, be snubbed. It is, after all, a comic book film and not, for instance, Schindler’s List…

There is a good bit of violence, of the non-visceral sort, no intense cursing and no on-screen sex antics. This is a film that the entire family can enjoy. It is also amazingly pertinent at a time when the Weinsteins, and others with that “casting couch” mentality, are being drummed out of the business by some very brave and new “wonder women.”

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): The Beginning of the End for Comic Book Adaptations?

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Directed by personal favorite Taika Waititi (who directed the brilliant 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople) Thor:Ragnarok can be seen as the beginning of the end for Thor in a number of ways. By the film’s end, Thor resembles Odin and has truly become his father’s son.

The film is a direct lead in to the next “big” thing in the Marvel-verse and, somewhat disturbingly, seems to signal an unwanted change in the comic book adaptations that we have all grown to love.

Thor: Ragnarok is more action comedy than all out action with a touch of humor (a’la Joss Whedon’s first two offerings in the Marvel arena of Avengers and all those who sail her…). Chris Hemsworth proves that underneath all those muscles and good looks there beats the heart of a comedian. 

He is almost hysterically funny and while this speaks volumes of his talent as an actor, it serves to “humanize” the God of Thunder too much. Granted the character is somewhat unnerved when his hammer Mjölnir is smashed to bits by Hella and he has been shaken by the death of Odin.

However…

Thor screaming in terror just before meeting the Grand Master (a star turn by the delightfully eccentric Jeff Goldblum) and then begging for his long tresses to be uncut takes the “God”and makes him puny and human. (But funny.)

There are a number of comic moments in the film. They are well presented- the build up to meeting Goldblum’s character with the “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” music playing in the background is simply delicious – but they detract from the verse as presented by Marvel and Disney thus far.

The films have always taken a moment to poke fun at the very premise of superheroes that suffer from an inflated sense of hubris and taking themselves far too seriously. “Doth mother know you weareth her drapes?” These moments come almost invariably from Tony Stark and although Thor does have a sense of comic timing “He’s adopted,” he is not overtly funny.

Thor: Ragnarok feels a little like Universal’s move in the late 1940’s to add comedy to their horror films. (Abbott and Costello Meet: Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman – “I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but… in a half-an-hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.”  “You and 20 million other guys!”) This move (to comedy) resulted in the death of the golden goose that make Universal a mint from horror and ultimately killed the genre.

The moment comedy becomes the main focus of a genre, even a “sub-genre” like comic book adaptations, the original intent is lost and the target audience drifts away. Studios have  learned, to their chagrin, that comedy in the superhero verse is a fragile thing.

Look at Suicide Squad where a clear conscious decision was made to “Marvel-ize” DC characters. The end result was a mess and lacked the darkness that sets the DC verse apart from Marvel. (There are exceptions of course, but overall, the heroes in DC-land are quite dark and tortured.)

Thor: Ragnarok is a great film though despite all the comedic moments. It looks great, there are cameos galore and Karl Urban is brilliant as the “baddie” that we know will redeem himself. (Kudos also go to the beautiful and oh so talented Tessa Thompson, she has, in one role, managed to fill the spot of new female action hero that Michelle Rodriguez first introduced “way back when.”)

Cate Blanchett kills it as the God of Death “Hela” and the only downside to this entire film is the death of almost all of Thor’s Asgardian cronies. Although Lady Sif is spared a grizzly death as she is oddly absent in this latest adventure in the Asgardian verse…

The interactions between Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor are brilliantly funny and the director’s playing of the gladiator “rock” creature is nearly sublime. All these moments add up to a film that is fun to watch and one that the audience clearly enjoyed. 

There was, however, too much comedy and it does feel as though this particular brand of franchise may be losing steam. Thor: Ragnarok is, despite the overused comedic element, a full 5 star film. There is enough action to satisfy and the FX are, as usual, spot on.

This is a film that deserves to be seen in the cinema and it is highly recommended that Marvel (and Thor) fans rush to catch it before the DVD and streaming stage. We enjoyed the film immensely although there was that sense of unease at the amount of comic circumstance that seems too much like Universal’s death blow to 1930’s and ’40’s horror. (“You and 20 million other guys!”)

The Snowman (2017): Slow, Beautiful and Quirky (Review)

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Directed by  Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Let the Right One In) The Snowman (based on Jo Nesbo’s novel of the same name) was made from a screenplay co-authored by   Peter Straughan,  Hossein Amini and Søren Sveistrup) features a case on the alcoholic Harry Hole (pronounced holy) played by Michael Fassbender. Fans of the “Nordic Noir” series featuring the FBI trained inspector will be, no doubt, a tad disappointed with this screen version. 

For a start, there is no mention as to why Hole is such an asset to the police department that his boss is willing to cover for his being AWOL from work. The film also touches all too briefly on the love affair between Harry and his ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but changes the story line somewhat in order to fit the film in a just under a two hour time period. 

I personally adore the entire Harry Hole series by Nesbo.  The Snowman was sixth in the series and while it seems odd that the filmmakers opted for this late novel the movie still works. We miss the intimacy of the books, there is no real focus on Hole or his alcoholic habit, including the why, or just why he and Rakel are still, on the sly, a couple.

The books emphasize the sexual proclivity of Harry along with his weakness for alcohol and the grip is has on his everyday existence.

However:

The film feels right. The story of Harry, as well as Nesbo’s superb novel The Headhunter  (that also left a good bit out of the film when translated from the novel) has to leave a lot of Nesbo’s work and character development or the finished project would have been in excess of four hours long.

I loved the series and Hole as a character. He felt a bit like a Norwegian version of England’s “Cracker” (played so well by that behemoth of talent Robbie Coltrane – who did have a career before Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise), in other words, a chap who was head and shoulders above his colleagues in skill sets and yet seriously flawed.

At first glance, Fassbender seems a poor choice to play Hole in “The Snowman.” However, he does shine as the alcoholic cop who is deeply addicted to booze, his ex-girlfriend and the pursuit of criminals. He is also, it seems, addicted to sex and not just with his ex. (This is more evident in the books.)

A woman goes missing and all that is left behind is her colorful scarf; wrapped around the neck of a snowman. The trail then leads Hole and his new partner Katrine Bratt (played by Rebecca Ferguson) to investigate a slew of missing women. All the cases seem to be interlinked and Bratt has her own personal agenda while working on the case.n

Bratt leads us to the most puzzling aspect of the film meant to be directed by Scorsese. Her father, played by a very ill-looking Val Kilmer, is part of the case despite being dead for a very long time. Kilmer, who looks to be on death’s door, has his lines dubbed for the film and it has the effect of throwing one right out of the story.

While Scorsese was attached to the film when the initial prospect of The Snowman being made into a film was in its infancy, Alfredson gives us a pretty well rounded film despite the odd bits of editing and continuity that jar and annoy.

(Moments after finding the head of a missing woman stuck on a small snowman, Hole tells his boss that it is all about missing persons at the moment, which is clearly wrong.)

J.K Simmons affects an English accent, Toby Jones is vastly underused and the film does deviate from its source quite a lot. Still, the mood and atmosphere remain faithful to Nesbo’s novel and the movie looks stunning. There is no doubt that we are in Norway, despite the lack of folks speaking the local lingo. (Although some minor parts do speak in what sounds like Norwegian.)

It would have been interesting to see a Norwegian version of this film, with a cast of Nordic performers and subtitles, but this effort manged to entertain, despite it’s overall length of just under two hours.

The Snowman scores a full 4.5 stars out of five for its atmosphere and the ability to keeps one glued to the screen throughout. The appearance of Val Kilmer serves to mystify rather than intrigue although the rest of the film manages to pull the viewer in nicely.

Check this one out at the cinema, it will be worth it, and then rush out and read the books by Nesbo. You will be glad you did. This is a quirky Nordic Noir thriller that manages to deliver despite deviating from the superb book.