A Video review of the recent Apple Film starring Zac Efron and Russell Crowe
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The Quick and the Dead (1995) [Movies I Want Everyone to See]
I am getting ready this weekend for a Podcast on the LAMB, covering the 1995 Sam Rami film, “The Quick and the Dead”. I have just watched it for maybe the thirtieth time and I am so excited to talk about the film again. The movie was one of eight that I submitted to be Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. As host, I get to select the films that the community votes for in my Birthday Month. While it is at least the fourth time I have submitted “The Man Who Would be King” as a MOTM option, I am perfectly happy with the results found here because I clearly love this film.
Let me point to the two biggest factors that draw me to this movie. First of all, it is a western, and they don’t make them much any more. The early 90s saw a brief revival of the genre, lead in part by the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, “Unforgiven”. At the time this was shot, there were a number of other westerns being made and reportedly, costumes became a little sparse. When I was growing up, most of the westerns being released were post modern critiques of the traditional genre. “The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance”, “The Wild Bunch”, and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, focused on breaking down the myths of the western, and giving us anti-heroes as our protagonists. Of course there were television westerns all over the three major networks, and that saturation probably lead to the decline of the film genre. While some of those featured unconventional heroes, none of them that I remember were out right bad guys for us to root for. Leone and Sam Peckinpah turned shady characters into the stars of their films and ever since, there is a delicate morality to the movies.
The second major factor that keeps me hypnotized by this film is the performance of Gene Hackman. I have made no secret of the fact that Hackman is my favorite actor. He is not movie star handsome, he is not chiseled like a superhero, and unfortunately, he stopped working in movies in 2004. The thing that he is is talented. He seems to have an instinct for the characters he is playing and the everyman quality he brings to the screen, actually enhances both his roles as good guy and as villain. In “The Quick and the Dead”, he is clearly the later. Unlike the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, that he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in “Unforgiven”, John Herod, the town of Redemptions usurper king, has no pretentions as to morality and justice. He is a self centered monster who rules with an iron sidearm and an iron fist. More about his performance in a bit.
So those are the two primary draws, but they are not the only sugar bringing this fly to the table. The star and co-producer of the film is Sharon Stone. This film came out the same year as her Academy Award Nominated role in “Casino”. She was at the height of her star power and sexual charisma, and she is using it in this movie. There is something striking about a woman in the traditional gunfighter’s role that makes it compelling. The film is drawing on her bigger than life persona to turn her character into the person that we most want to see succeed in the story. The fact that her wardrobe flatters her, and she still gets to wear very western garb is visually satisfying in almost every scene. “The Lady” as she is usually referred to as, wears a her holster and the gun at a slightly different angle. Her style is also just different enough to be noticeable without it becoming an artificial conceit. Slightly forward on her hip rather than low and on the outside.
When it comes to talent and charisma, the film does not run out of steam with the two leads. There are two actors billed after Hackman and Stone who will dominate the masculine acting roles for the next twenty five years. Russel Crowe is making his American film debut with this appearance and he quickly leans into Sam Rami’s style and looks the heartthrob that he would become for a decade after.
The part of Cort, gives him a meaty role that allows him to act as well as engage in the action. He is a reformed criminal who is doing penance for his previous life by taking up the role of preacher and is reluctantly dragged back in to the town by the will of his former mentor and now enemy, Herod. His conflicted participation in the quick draw contest that frames the story is dramatically satisfying without sucking up all the air in the revenge drama that Stone’s character is playing out.
Speaking of heartthrobs, this movie features a young actor, fresh off of his first Academy Award Nomination and just two years away from playing the biggest romantic lead in the biggest romantic movie of the last fifty years. Leonardo DiCaprio, was 20 years old when he played the part of Fee, better known as The Kid, opposite the three other acting legends. He looks like he is twelve, and playing cowboys with the big kids. He does however have a winning smile and a effervescent way of talking that belies the characters desperation to be accepted at the grown up table by his suspected true father, Herod. Of all the actors, he needs the most help with the gunplay required of his part. He manages the bravado of the tricks and the poses, but he just seems slow in comparison to everyone else.
So those are the stars, but the acting wattage does not really end there. Among the cast are veteran TV character actors like Roberts Blossom, Kevin Conway and Mark Boone Junior. They are grimy character actors who make up so much of the environment of the movie. The personalities that fill in the background are even bigger. Keith David is Sgt. Clay Cantrell, a self described gentlemen’s adventurer and shootist. His enigmatic character faces down Hackman both in the parlor of Herod’s house and on the street of Redemption. The polite banter that he and Hackman engage in is an opportunity to see the professionalism that the two gunfighters want to project to the world. Another gunfighter, played by Lance Henriksen, is the blow hard Ace Hanlon. A self promoter who has affectations that mark him as something of a buffoon, including a deck of cards stacked with aces, one for every man he has killed, and boots to die for, Hanlon is a character that enters the film dramatically and exits it too early.
Momentarily I will get to the plot and it’s connection to the Leone films of the 1960s, but one actor who appears in the flashback sequences should also be named. A year after his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise, plays the long ago Marshall of the town of Redemption. His character is the catalyst for the revenge story that Sharon Stone is following. Even though his scene is broken up into bits for the brief flashbacks, he creates a sympathetic character that the audience can see as important to the story arc that Ellen (The Lady) is carrying out. Sinise does the whole scene balanced on a chair and choking. What happens creates a different kind of choking on the part of the audience.
The film’s story and the look of the movie, are clearly influenced by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood. There is an entrance based on riding by the local undertaker as they enter the town, In “A Fist Full of Dollars” Clint tells the man to get three coffins ready, here, the coffin maker speaks and accurately states the height of Stone’s character, suggesting he will be ready when her turn comes. The duster she wears is not the same as the poncho that the Man with No Name wears in the Dollars Trilogy, but she does have a scarf that gives a very similar effect in her appearance and both of them seem to favor the same tobaccoist.
“The Quick and the Dead” is Sam Rami’s homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. There are tense close ups in the build to each showdown. The eyes of the characters are doing so much of the acting in those scenes that we barely notice the rest of the surroundings. Rami cross cuts tightly and the images close in, just as Leone did in so many of his films. There is a scene in a gun shop in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach’s character Tuco, is examining the guns and clicking through the cylinders. Crowe does the same thing as Herod takes him to get armed for the contest in Fee’s shop. Woody Strode, the athlete turned actor who supported John Wayne in Liberty Vallance, and tried to gun down Charles Bronson in “Once Upon a Time in the West” makes his final screen appearance in this film as the coffin maker and the movie is dedicated to him. The most obvious steal is the scene featuring Sinise. Sharon Stone is a much more attractive version of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica from “Once Upon a Time in the West”.
For every idea and stylistic flourish that Rami takes from Leone, he brings his own original style to the movie as well. The dolly zooms that he used so much in the Evil Dead films, fit perfectly in several spots in this movie. The gunfighters stand far apart from one another, but we can feel the tension ratchet up as the next shot zooms the opponent in at a weird Dutch angle.
All of these tricks are needed to help overcome the somewhat repetitive showdown in the street structure of the story. This is a quick draw contest, ultimately to the death, and there are 16 participants so there are going to be a lot of gunfights in the movie that are one on one in the main street of the town of Redemption. When I have seen negative reviews of this film, they often claim that the story is boring because the same event is reenacted over and over. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie Two Thumbs down for that very reason. What people are missing ate the innovative ways each of those gunfights is shot. There are also twists in several of the face offs that make the each contest unique. Additionally, the music themes play up different emotional beats for the fights. Sometimes the score is nearly whimsical and other times it is thunderous.
Two of Herod’s fights demonstrate this. The showdown with Ace Hanlon is slow to develop and then like a whip, the first shot is cracked and then we get a villain’s exposition from Hackman that is so condescending, the end is almost a relief to Ace. With Cantrell, we get two extra shots, one that spins his fancy sidearm around after the man has been shot and then the Coup de Grâce, a point of view shot that is disturbing and inventive and new to the genre. The TV critics down play it as grotesque, but let’s face it, the deadly combat in and of itself is also morbid.
Back to Gene hackman for a few minutes. Herod is an egoist who wants everything to go his way. He demands the retorn of Cort to his town, just so he can lord over him the power that he has. He is dismissive of The Lady at first and then tries to manipulate her to his will. At the dinner scene, Ellen gets the drop on him with a small gun under the table, hidden from view. Herod hears the hammer being cocked and responds with a similar sound to dissuade her from shooting. After she blinks, he gives away the fact that he was bluffing with the hammercock sound he produced, using a metal matchbox. He smiles smugly in his victory over her as she retreats. Hackman does these kinds of smiles and small hand gestures throughout the picture. Before his gunfight with Cantrell, he meticulously files the hammer on his disassembled firearm, to insure it is working properly. Rami tags on a slow motion shot when Hackman is lighting his cigar during a showdown, which accentuates the moment but it is the deliberate manner he uses in a casual way that sells his total control of the situation. Just to add one more element to Hackman’s complete command of the part, he looks elegant in all of his costumes, including the sidearms that go around his suit jacket in one scene.
In previous posts about the film, I mentioned the music, in fact I had a link up to the theme on YouTube, that seems to have expired for some reason. I have an updated link to a suite of the music here:
It is quite lovely, and it does mirror some Morricone themes from the softer moments of the Dollars films. There is nothing as grandiose as the Theme from the Good ,The Bad and The Ugly”, but there are a lot of places where it builds tension really well. Composer Alan Silvestri, who has done scores for “back to the Future” and four of the MCU films, has never received an Academy Award, but his music has received a lot of love from fans, and this is one of the pieces that is maybe not as popular, but it is certainly well matched with the drama of the film.
Director of Photography Dante Spinotti worked with Rami to get the signature shots that enliven the shootouts, but he has also photographed the plains, town and dingy barrooms of Redemption in a beautiful fashion. The sometimes sepia infused lighting is great for some of the interiors and the early shots. I was very impressed with all of the shots supposedly taking place in the rain, especially the shootout between Ellen and Dread. Spinotti would go on to an Academy Award nomination two years later for “L.A. Confidential”.
There will always be more to talk about on this film. Russell Crowe and DiCaprio should merit some comments of their own. Some of this will be discussed on the podcast, and I will come back and add a link to that when it goes up. For now I am just happy to be anticipating the discussion we will have, the notes that I have just given you, and the fact that a 4K version of the film arrived on my doorstep today, and I am about to watch it again.
The drought was over last weekend, when I went to a theater to see a movie. after five long months of Covid-19 closures. That movie was ” Jurassic Park” a film that I’ve written about many times already. So there was not really a need to have an in-depth look at that film. This week however, I am celebrating a new film, being released in theaters and it is fresh for comment, “Unhinged”. This is a brutal piece of exploitation film making, featuring a major star in a basic plot, which gets a few nods to social relevance, but it is really designed to screw up the tension level and cause you periodic moments of revulsion. In other words, it was a great movie for me to get back to a theater and blogging.
Russel Crowe is the great white shark in this movie. I mean that figuratively for the most part, although his physical presence in film in the last decade have in fact suggested that Quint was right in assessing the weight of the opposition. Crowe plays a character listed in the credits as “The Man”, an interesting coincidence sine the last film posted on this site “The Naked Prey” also features the same credit for the lead actor. Ay one point the character introduces himself as Tom Cooper, so I’m going to refer to him by that name for the rest of this entry. Cooper is a disturbed man, who we know immediately is going to be trouble. There is a pre-title sequence that establishes with violence from a distance, that Tom has lost all sense of proportion or reasonableness. This may work against the story a bit in the long run because we are never going to listen to the perspective he articulates and the background set up in the title sequences will become irrelevant. Tom is a bad man who can feign politeness for a few moments but ultimately will reveal himself as a lost monster.
Actress Caren Pistorius has to carry most of the film herself by reacting to phone calls and traffic encounters. There are a few moments of human interaction but they pass by pretty quickly. This movie is likely to do for road rage acts of expression, what “Fatal Attraction” did for extra-marital affairs, scare the potential bird flipper away from such emotional outbursts. Although there is a self righteous payoff line at the climax of the film, the real coda happens a few minutes later when Caren is reminded of how this whole day turned into a nightmare for her in the first place. I don’t think we should all assume that the worst possible thing that could happen will be the most likely thing to happen, but a little perspective is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, because we know from the start how awful the antagonist is, that perspective will not get a hearing.
Trying to turn a road rage incident into a movie is possible. Spielberg did it fifty years ago with “Duel”. This script however goes in some very different directions based on the level of privacy we give up by using smart phones. I can’t say what technological innovations will make those plot devices irrelevant in twenty years, but there will certainly be something. Like people today who laugh at classic films that use the absence of a phone in a remote location as a plot device, someday, the content of phones will seem like an antiquated tool for storytelling. The movie suffers from a few of the traditional plot holes that these sorts of movies suffer from. The main protagonist makes some dumb choices, the villain has prescient sight, and abilities that are far deeper and quicker than the average person can manage. The cops, who in real life have helicopters chasing drivers who run after a bad traffic light call, can’t seem to get it together enough to track, pursue and capture a man that has committed multiple atrocities and continues to do so. This is movie story telling, not the real world.
Let’s put all that aside for a moment. Crowe plays the maniac with enough range to make the character somewhat compelling. The vehicle jump scares and action beats are always effective, and the resolution meets our need for retribution and recovery. It’s not a great movie, but it came at a great time for me. I can’t stay locked down forever, and escapist fare like this helps quite a bit. And as this poster tells you. I saw it in a theater.
The Mummy (2017)
How is it we know that a movie is exceptional? One of the ways that we can reach such conclusions is by making comparisons to other films. A movie that is mundane will pale in comparison to something really strong. Excellence can therefore sometimes be measured by mediocrity. That’s why we need films like “The Mummy”, they show us how good films like “Wonder Woman” really are. I am not implying that this movie is bad, simply that it meets no standard for greatness except one, and that is the most obvious selling point for the film, it stars Tom Cruise.
I am probably a Cruise apologist. Of the forty plus movies he has made, only a handful have been clunkers. I would include his last film, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” in that handful of dismal efforts. This film is miles better than that weak sauce film from last year, but that does not make it great, it makes it average. Cruise as usual is winning in his role, in spite of the fact that his character is designed to be a thoughtless douche-bag who fails to follow orders as a soldier, steals from women and generally engages in the kind of archeological theft that Indiana Jones was accused of, without having any scholarly justifications for his actions. Tom just has charisma and it turns even vile characters into people we are willing to watch. As I said, this is the one big selling point of the movie. Cruise puts in as much effort as anyone can to try and bring this story to life.
The film is basically an action movie with a horror theme that needs to be a little more horrifying. There are a few creepy moments, like the camel spiders and rats that seem to be under the command of the villainess of the story. An ancient creature inadvertently raised from the dead and determined to bring the evil lord she made a pact with into the flesh, she has chosen Tom’s character Nick, to be that vessel. So there is a monster and a curse but there are also stunning aerial stunts and chase sequences. With a half dozen jump scares that become progressively less effective, the film barely feels like a horror movie at all. Still it is mildly entertaining in creating a universe for these characters to exist in and providing a series of hoops for them to jump through.
A few of the things that make this movie passable include the two female leads. Sophia Boutella as the ancient princess returned to the world looks exotic enough and she grimaces well in conveying a sense of evil. Annabelle Wallis is sweet enough for us to sympathize with and hope the best for. Neither could carry the movie but they don’t have to with Cruise in control and a scenery chewing middle aged matinee idol ready to turn into Mr. Hyde at any moment. Just like the pygmy zombies that were so fun in one of those Brendan Frasier Mummy movies, this update has something cool to sell it in the effects department. zombie crusaders. They are solid and they look especially creepy in the water.
A lot of people have been bad-mouthing the start of a new “Dark Universe” from Universal Studios, but everyone else in the film business has a steady supply of material to exploit and Universal is simply trying to keep up. Their iconic monsters are laying around doing no one any good unless new stories are written for them, so the studio is following up. The paranormal team led by Dr. Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe may not be the Avengers, The Justice League or even Transformers, but hey can be entertaining if given a chance. I can’t say this film is a bright start to that future of serialized stories, but it is not the failure that others would have you believe. This a a popcorn picture, disposable as any other fast food product of our consumer society. There is a place for romance novels in literature, hamburgers in dining circles and Fords in the car business. “The Mummy” reminds me of one of those mid-range sedans from Ford, it will get you where you are going but nobody will be bragging about the cool ride you showed up in. You may look over at that Lincoln in the next theater, but if you have already driven it and know what a nice ride it is, watch this film. It will fill your two hours and remind you that it is just a car, and there is luxury out there that you can still aspire to.
The Nice Guys
Here is a film with no redeeming social value whatever, except that it will tickle your funny bone, startle you with sudden shock and leave you feeling invigorated afterwards. The film is a hoot and if there is anyone still living in America with a sense of humor, this film was made for you. While it it not politically incorrect in any way, it features characters that are so amusingly not hip, that the irony police might be called out. “The Nice Guys” is vulgar but not cynical. There is plenty of violence played for humor, but there are real reactions to most of those moments which let the film be much friendlier than you have any right to hope for.
The movie has a retro feel because it is set in the 1970s but also because the characters will remind you of a dozen TV show detectives you may have watched in that era. Jim Rockford is one step away from being a partner in this detective agency, but that would turn the film into a takeoff of the three stooges rather than an homage to Abbot and Costello. Ryan Gosling plays Holland March, the boozy private eye, as if he were a handsome Lou Costello. He has the double takes and flustered line delivery that would fit perfectly in a comedy place filler from 1948, “Abbot and Costello Meet the Bimbo”. He even has a moment where upon discovering a corpse he becomes a dysphagiatic mute.
Russell Crowe has settled into middle aged beefiness with as much grace as a guy can muster. He’s not the matinee idol of twenty years ago, but he is still a hell of a good actor and he puts on some great comic chops here. Crowe and Gosling play off of one another in such a natural way that it is easy to imagine a series of films featuring these characters. Of course I thought the same thing eleven years ago with Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer in pretty much the same roles. Shane Black may be cribbing from himself but at least he’s doing it from “Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang” and not “The Last Boy Scout”. The convoluted plot and the violent gangsters are standard for him, as is the involvement of a woman, more competent that the two leads, in this case March’s thirteen year old daughter Holly, played by Angourie Rice.
The Warner Brothers logo from the seventies is on the opening credits of the movie. The city of Los Angeles is in it’s deep dark days of heavy smog overcast, and Hollywood was a sleaze factory of sex more than violence. Southern California residents will recognize the decay of the Hollywood sign, the Los Angeles River Bridge, and the intersection of Jefferson and Figueroa are not anything like they once were. [In fact, the bridge is gone now]. The hillsides of Hollywood though are played for great laughs and Ryan Gosling may be a comic genius because he manages to make the most incompetent Private Eye in the world, still come off as a sometimes insightful investigator, of course sometimes he just gets lucky.
I hope they do make this into an adult cartoon, ala “Archer” or at least plan a couple of other big screen adventures. It would be a shame to leave this much enjoyment to just the current movie season. This is my most anticipated movie of the summer, and The Temptations “Papa was a Rolling Stone” had me hooked from the first few frames. Plenty of soul music from the era plus a Bee Gees tune and Kiss anthem. It’s as if they found one of the home made 8-track mix tapes from my old Cutlass and plugged it into the speakers for the film. Maybe it’s the nostalgia factor that worked for me but I believe others much younger than me will get a kick out of this as well, burnt orange palate aside.