Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Falling Back on Flickers (and Not Always Being Caught)

Cowboys and Aliens is just barely worth watching, if only because it shows Harrison Ford up as the Lightweight that he truly is. Safe inside his virtually interchangeable Han Solo Indiana Jones Fugitive persona we hadly noticed: but when he’s plunked down into a milieu in which we’re used to seeing the likes of John Wayne and James Stewart and Henry Fonda, Ford comes off looking more like Rock Hudson in John Wayne drag. Cast as a mean SOB with a heart of gold (say what?), Ford is about as genuinely mean as a ripe tomato. 

The picture also proves that Daniel Craig has considerably more gravitas and is closer to heavyweight status than anyone else working in the business today. IT’s unfortunate that he reportedly hates playing James Bond, and would rather be seen in tripe like this.

Maybe tripe is too strong a word. The picture is totally harmless, and just exactly the sort of thing that Jon Favreau does well. In its early scenes it offers some genuine Western grit; but when the CGI aliens start bouncing around, chewing up humans at a rate far faster than the eye can follow, the picture just falls apart into another generic modern 100 percent computer generated extended explosion. For five bucks I wasn’t exactly robbed… but as the credits roll a viewer is likely to get the sinking that they’ve badly wasted another two hours of their life,

As proof that even outwardly trivial pictures can carry weight and intelligence, the somewhat sad and depressing 1955 musical It’s Always Fair Weather tells the story of three G.I.s, fresh from the war, who swear eternal friendship and vow to meet again ten years later. The ten years pass, and all three faithfully return for their reunion, only to find that they no longer have anything in common and actually dislike each other. Enter the always-amazing Cyd Charisse, some gangsters and some ad people and a cynical thing called television… and after a day of fighting back from a deeply assailed defensive position, the three men find that they are bound by more than trivial differences. It’s a powerful picture, but you sometimes forget that because the patter and songs by Comden and Green are so much fun, and the dance numbers staged by co-star Gene Kelly are, as you might expect, vibrant and exciting. The nominal director is Stanley Donen, though Kelly was a forceful presence behind the camera as well. Kelly has always been one of my favorites — he’s such a very Cool Cat that you can’t even hate him for being full of himself — but anyone who doubts that the man had a sharkish side to his nature need only watch the extra features in which it’s revealed, among other things, that Kelly insisted on cutting his co-star Michael Kidd’s only solo number for no other reason than that it was better than Kelly’s. Unconventional as all get out, and very very Fifties, with all of cultural explosion of that time period, It’s Always Fair Weather is a lesser-known classic well worth tracking down.

I can’t begin to express how disappointed I was by Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, starring Steve Coogan. The picture should have been a postmodern triumph. Just read the promotional copy on the box: “An inventive adaptation of the notoriously unfilmable British comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy … Skipping back and forth between the 18th century and the efforts of 21st century filmmakers attempting to shoot the classic … the story focuses on his life from conception onward, with numerous digressions and unfinished thoughts.”

If the movie was actually anything like that, it might have been brilliant. But the movie is not like that. It begins in the 18th century, spends about seven minutes there, and then leaps to the present day… where it stays, focussing almost entirely upon Steve Coogan’s extremely unlikeable portrayal of himself as an actor. We don’t see the 18th century again until just before the credits roll. I might be inclined to forgive the picture if anything in the middle modern bit was even the least bit interesting, humorous or entertaining… but it isn’t. This should have been an outlandish piece of moviemaking along the lines of The Ruling Class, starring Peter O’Toole… instead it is a plodding, self-regarding bit of twaddle, a waste of talent and money. More than a few times in the viewing I sighed and wondered when it was going to start being good, or, barring that, when it was going to be over. Movies that are self-consciously very very clever can not afford to be boring as all get-out. I’m going to have to call it a comedy, but it’s snot. It runs 94 excruciating minutes.

— Freder

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