2016 Blind Spot Series: “Paths of Glory”

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It was 1957’s “Paths of Glory” that first placed Stanley Kubrick among cinema’s prominent directors. It was his first true commercial success and critics praised it for its bold and unflinching anti-war message. But not everyone loved it. In a very crafty way the film would be banned in France until 1975 due to its depiction of the French military and government. In some ways you could say that is a testament to the power of its message.

The film is based on a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobbs. MGM heads were impressed with Kubrick’s previous film “The Killing”so they hired him to write and direct a film which would later become “Paths of Glory”. But the project was almost derailed by MGM’s reluctance to finance another war picture. That changed when new heads were brought in and Kubrick was able to entice Kurt Douglas to star in the film. He and his production buddy James B. Harris were then given the green light.

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The story is tight and straightforward. It’s about a French military unit led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) who are given an impossible mission. General Mireau (George Macready) is offered a nice promotion by his superior General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) in exchange for taking a German fortification known as the Anthill. That would require Mireau’s men led by Colonel Dax to sustain substantial casualties.

There is a great early scene where Mireau weighs the loss of so many soldiers against the glory of a new promotion. In a cold and callous conversation he and Broulard estimate as many as 55 percent of Dax’s men would lose their lives. For Mireau it’s a worthy risk especially when the personal gain is so significant. He agrees to the mission knowing the costs but also aware of the probability of failure.

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I won’t give too much away, but suffice it to say the mission goes poorly and a livid General Mireau takes action to protect his reputation and his promotion. Colonel Dax who has fought for his men on the battlefield now finds himself fighting for them in a kangaroo court of French military officers hungry to make examples. In many ways this battle is more appalling and vicious than the one on the battlefields. In one scene a general causally reasons “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.”

There are several different ways this movie could have went but Kubrick deserve credit for not caving in to a more conventional approach. I think I have been wired by many contemporary filmmakers to expect the routine and the predictable. Here Kubrick stays true to the film’s intent by not wimping out and abandoning the story’s sharp and pointed commentary. To have done differently would have dulled the edge and made this a much lesser picture.

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The film also excels thanks to Kubrick’s visual choices particularly his decision to shoot in black and white. It is perfect considering the harshness of the material and the morally murky waters we navigate through. There are also a number of scenes that stand out due to Kubrick’s cameras. The well known battle sequence was shot with six cameras placed around a huge war-torn battlefield. It offers up one of the most intensely arresting war scenes you’ll see.

The ending is a bit of a strange shift that may at first catch you off guard. It features a young German woman singing a song to Dax’s men in a small club (the woman is Christiane Harlan who later married Kubrick). Within this scene is a subtle shift in mood that works perfectly as a conclusion to this story. It’s a satisfying fit with Kubrick’s fluid and economic storytelling and it ends this powerful film with a poignant prick of the heart.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “The Hateful Eight”

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Quentin Tarantino. A mere mention of that name sparks a fire in the hearts of his devoted and vocal fanbase. It immediately brings praises of excellence, grandeur, and eminence. It evokes a level of enthusiasm within fans that no level of criticism can quell. Quentin Tarantino is considered by many to be a cinematic master, the greatest working filmmaker, a peerless screenwriter, America’s premiere auteur. Considering all of that, why is it that I still haven’t bought into the Tarantino hype?

Make no mistake, Quentin Tarantino is an auteur. He has defined himself with such a heavy yet specific style of filmmaking that genuinely feels foreign to all other visions. He dabbles in all sorts of genres and his love for cinema, all kinds of cinema, finds its way into every one of his pictures. But he has such a strong allegiance to the aforementioned style and I often find his films rely too heavily on it. And the response to his style is overwhelmingly positive which leads to Tarantino often getting passes when it comes to his shortcomings particularly in his writing.

Still, no one can deny that a new Tarantino release is an event filled with pomp and pageantry and that brings me to “The Hateful Eight”. It’s Tarantino’s eighth or ninth feature film (depending on how you look at it) and his second western in a row. As with every one of his pictures “The Hateful Eight” draws inspiration from all directions. Where “Django Unchained” drew from the spaghetti western genre, Tarantino says this film takes more from the television westerns of the 1960s although I would say very lightly.

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The story is broken up into six  chapters although that is more of a stylistic choice. Individually each chapter is more or less the same. It opens shortly after the Civil War with a rough and surly bounty hunter named John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell) on a stagecoach escorting his prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the Wyoming town of Red Rock to be hanged. Along the way he meets an old acquaintance and fellow bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Once the two meet Tarantino wastes no time developing a racial tension that will permeate his entire film. It is only magnified when they pick up Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a Yankee-hating Confederate renegade claiming to be Red Rock’s soon to be new sheriff.

With a strong blizzard approaching, the three men, the prisoner, and the stagecoach driver (James Parks) take shelter in a remote lodge called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Inside are four other characters seeking refuge from the storm. A Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) is watching over the place while Minnie is visiting her mother. Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) is a chatty Englishman who also happens to be the territory’s hangman. General Smithers (Bruce Dern) is a cranky old Confederate officer. And then there is Joe Gage, a soft-spoken cowboy on his way to see his mother for Christmas.

The title is a reference to these eight men trapped in the lodge together until the storm blows over. It’s here the story becomes somewhat of a mystery after John Ruth randomly discerns that someone in their company is there to rescue Daisy. The film then begins its looooong trek to discover who isn’t the person they claim to be. And when I say long I do mean long. The majority of the film is confined to this big one-room lodge so Tarantino can’t fall back on his vivid visual style of storytelling. Therefore his script has to carry much of the load and, as with some of his other films, that is the movie’s greatest weakness.

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In a nutshell “The Hateful Eight” is insanely overwritten. Tarantino can undoubtedly write good dialogue and there are exchanges here that are fantastic. At the same time he bogs his movie down with pointless and sometimes repetitive back-and-forths that drag the movie to a halt. I didn’t see the full 187 minute roadshow version, but the 167 minutes I did sit through definitely had its lulls. Even more surprising were some fairly obvious plot holes particularly in a pretty important flashback segment.

And some of his dialogue is certainly suspect. Again, I’ll grant that Tarantino wants to make some kind of statement on racism, but frankly his constant flippant use of the N-word didn’t offer me any meaningful commentary and what may be there is thinly represented. I give filmmakers a ton of room for expression, but I can easily see where his use of such incendiary language could be offensive. Same with the brutality towards the main female character some of which is played for laughs.

Also QT’s obsession with jarring, over-the-top content is here as well which in this case isn’t a positive. We get it through sudden bursts of gratuitous violence some of which was just too silly to appreciate. And the worst comes in one absurd flashback sequence narrated by Major Warren. It’s a bizarre and over-the-top scene that felt much more at home in “Pulp Fiction” than “The Hateful Eight”. It took me out of the moment and felt terribly out of place.

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But so as not to completely slam the movie it’s worth noting the positives. The film looks really good. Again, I didn’t get to see the 70mm roadshow but this version had plenty of nice visual flare even though the majority takes place in a one big room. I also loved what we got of Ennio Morricone’s original score. Unfortunately he isn’t allowed to score the entire film, but what he does is superb. And despite my misgivings with much of the script, Tarantino gives us some wonderfully unsavory characters that each have their moments.

I also think all of the performances hit the right notes. Jennifer Jason Leigh is getting a lot of awards buzz and she’s really good despite mainly serving as Tarantino’s physical and verbal punching bag. Kurt Russell is a surly hoot sporting the burliest of handlebar mustaches and Walter Goggins is surprisingly great in what is one of the film’s meatier roles.

It may not sound like it, but I do appreciate many of the ideas Quentin Tarantino plays with in “The Hateful Eight”. Unfortunately those ideas are weighted down by an indulgent and overblown script that wastes too much time trying to be clever and edgy. Even Tarantino’s signature humor misses more than hits its mark. I’m sure Tarantino die-hards will love it, but for me “The Hateful Eight” comes across as an hour’s worth of good material stretched well beyond its limits.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS 

2.5 stars

REVIEW: “Bone Tomahawk”

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Some movies are beyond categorizing. They simply can’t be kept within the bounds of a single genre. It is a tricky thing to do well and I have always enjoyed it when a movie pulls it off. The bizarrely titled “Bone Tomahawk” may be this year’s biggest example of that. This unique genre-jumping concoction could best be described as an action, horror, comedy, western, thriller. To fail to emphasize any of those components would be to fail in accurately describing this wild movie.

Is 2015 the year of the subversive western? Earlier this year we had “Slow West” and “The Salvation”, two well made films that dared to do unique and different things in the western sandbox. “Bone Tomahawk” blows the sandbox to smithereens. Writer and director S. Craig Zahler (perhaps better known for his novels and heavy metal music) makes an impressive directorial debut as he juggles genre and tone to give us a film we can never quite figure out. Every time I felt I had figured out what it was, “Bone Tomahawk” would pull the rug out from under me.

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While fleeing a posse, two murderous and thieving scoundrels (amusingly played by David Arquette and Sid Haig) stumble across a mysterious burial ground. Only Arquette’s character survives and he flees to the small town of Bright Hope. Unbeknownst to him, savages from a clan of hill-dwelling cannibals follow him to the town. They butcher a stable boy and kidnap three people. Among those taken is Samantha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) wife of Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson).

Kurt Russell ventures back into the wild west playing Sheriff Hunt. He and his insistent and loyal deputy Chicory (played with humorous precision by Richard Jenkins) prepare a rescue. Arthur joins their venture as does John Brooder (Matthew Fox), the town’s dapper dandy with his own violent baggage. This ragtag posse of sorts begin the three day trek to find their people unaware of the horrors that may lie ahead.

Zahler’s vision for his film is fed to us in small parts. In one moment it will feel like a traditional western. In another moment it is a suspenseful thriller. Then a subtle yet hysterical bit of dry or dark humor makes it seem like something else altogether. Also the film will occasionally hit you with a scene of gruesome horror, something akin to a B-movie cult film. Fortunately all of these work within the bounds of Zahler’s vision.

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The film also surprises with its patient, slow-burning storytelling. The intensity ratchets up in the final act, but prior to that there is a surprising amount of quality character development. For Zahler his characters are clearly a main focus and he smartly anchors them with a small but impressive cast. Kurt Russell is effortlessly superb and obviously comfortable with this type of role. Richard Jenkins is an absolute treat – a pleasant mix of humor and humanity. The underappreciated Patrick Wilson is very good in what is in many ways the main character. And Matthew Fox really impresses. At first he looks a bit too stiff for his character, but over time as layers are peeled back, Fox shows a noteworthy range. He is a lot of fun.

I’m not sure how big of an audience there is for a movie like “Bone Tomahawk”. In no ways does it bow to convention or crowd pleasing. It is far from formulaic. It certainly doesn’t follow any familiar blueprint. It does meander a bit in the middle which does make it a tad longer than it needs to be, but it still manages to be something absorbing and strikingly unique. Just go into it expecting the unexpected because that is exactly what you are going to get.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Furious 7”

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The evolution of the “Fast and Furious” franchise has been an intriguing thing to watch. It went from being a goofy street racing franchise that I easily dismissed to a huge scaled, amped up action series that I have enjoyed. It’s a franchise that banks on its silliness and absurdity but succeeds because it never takes itself too serious and it knows what it now wants to be. I can appreciate that. Part of the charm of what it has become revolves around how cinematically insane they can make things.

2011’s “Fast Five” was the turning point for me. The drastic change in formula was welcomed and that film still has some of the best action sequences of the last ten or so years. It was followed by the less satisfying but still entertaining “Fast and Furious 6”. Now we reach the seventh film because naturally there has to be another film, right? Unfortunately the path to bringing “Furious 7” to the big screen has been a tragic and complicated one. On November 30, 2013, halfway through filming “Furious 7”, Paul Walker was killed in a car accident while on Thanksgiving break. Understandably this threw the film’s likelihood in doubt. After the film was confirmed to be still on, script rewrites and cast changes caused a number of delays.

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But now it has hit theaters and the question becomes can it sustain the crazy, fuel-injected fun that has won me over to the franchise? In a nutshell, yes. “Furious 7” hits every note that you would expect from this reinvented series. The characters are formulaic and cliche. The dialogue is sometimes silly and hokey. The action blows believability to smithereens. But (and this may sound nuts to some readers) those things are part of the weird charm that these films have. James Wan takes the directing reins from longtime helmer Justin Lin and he doesn’t make the mistake of tinkering too much with the formula. This is definitely ‘more of the same’ but for fans that’s a good thing.

The film begins by reintroducing us to the crew and giving us a quick rundown of where they are and what they have been up to. Dom (Vin Diesel) is working hard to help Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) with her amnesia. Brian (Walker) is struggling to put aside his love for ‘the ride’ for the white-picket fence, mini-van family life. It also addresses the killer mid-credits scene from the last film. As it turns out Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the older brother of the last film’s antagonist, is hot under the collar and seeking revenge on Dom, Brian, and their crew. After Shaw’s attacks get personal and deadly, Dom and company set out to get him.

The hunt for Shaw also pulls in Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) who quickly feels the full force of Shaw’s resolve. Other familiar faces like Roman (Tyrese Gibson) and Tej (Chris Bridges) show up and fill their established roles. Their automotive adventure takes them all over the world – The United States, London, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, and a host of other places. Say what you want about the series, but their recent use of locales is one of its real treats. It’s not simply that it has a global feel. The locations are beautifully shot and injected into the storyline.

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The story itself is pretty simple and the structure is basically set around moving things from point A to point B. It’s nothing innovative or new when it comes to the storytelling. When it is focused on its main revenge-versus-revenge thread it hits on all cylinders. But there are some moving parts that don’t quite work as well. Kurt Russell shows up has a US shadow agent apparently with limitless government resources. He’s after the ultimate hacking tool called God’s Eye. A well-funded terrorist (Djimon Hounsou) is also after it for obvious nefarious purposes. The entire side plot isn’t particularly well presented or compelling. They do serve to fill-in necessary potential plot holes and to set the table for some of the better action sequences, but that’s about all they have to offer. There are also couple of weird, almost obligatory, diversions meant to reflect back to street racing roots of the franchise. Personally I wish they would get past that.

The performances are about what you would expect. They range from steady and serviceable to pretty shaky. This installment does try to inject more emotional weight than the previous films and that’s when the performances struggled the most. But ultimately they get the job done and with the exception of Ronda Rousey (who to be fair is just there for a glorified cameo) none are distractingly bad. And I have to say that despite the flimsiness of his character, it was a load of fun to watch Kurt Russell having a blast with what he was asked to do.

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But let’s be honest and true, nobody goes to a “Fast and Furious” movie for the performances. It’s all about the cars and the action we can get a lot of both. You almost get the feeling that each movie wants to top the other one in terms of the craziness of the action sequences.  This one definitely takes things to a higher level and most of the sequences are pure adrenaline-fueled excitement. Even when they pull something totally absurd out of their hat, it works within these reality-defying scenarios. That being said, the big action finale was the weakest. It certainly has its moments but it’s too long and overthought. Ultimately I was ready for it to end.

The movie ends with the fitting tribute to Paul Walker and his character, something I was expecting. It’s done really well and that could be said for most of the movie. It’s not perfect and there are stumbles that keep it from being an action movie classic. But these movies have embraced this new direction and this installment stays loyal to that. If you didn’t like the last two films I would be shocked to hear that you like this one. It definitely does the same things. But if you are a fan of their new model, and you enjoy just sitting back and going with its wildness, I have no doubts that you will find some of that same entertainment in “Furious 7”.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

THE THROWDOWN : Stallone vs. Schwarzenegger

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects, pit them against each other, and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and more. I’ll make a case for each and then see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

*Last week Christian Bale (74%) manhandled Michael Keaton (26%) in a Batman battle to the death.*

This week it’s an action movie face-off between the two biggest names of the 80’s. The 80’s and early 90’s were the glory days of the action genre and no one was bigger than Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Forget the critical acclaim, the stuffy Academy Awards, and the overrated importance of good acting. These guys were all about biceps, blood, and bullets. Before they teamed up in the recent “The Expendables” movies, these two had a huge box office rivalry that lasted several years. Now it’s time to settle the big question. Which of these action movie icons is truly the best? Their guns are loaded, their knives are sharpened, and their muscles are flexed. But it’s your votes that will decide the outcome.

STALLONE vs. SCHWARZENEGGER

At 66-years old, Sly Stallone is still kicking bad guy’s butts on the big screen. But then again, he’s been doing it for almost 40 years. His career really took off in 1976 with “Rocky”. But it was “First Blood” and “Rambo: First Blood Part 2” that laid the foundation for what would become an amazing action movie career. He would go on to clean up a psycho cult in “Cobra”, team up with Kurt Russell in “Tango & Cash”, hang from mountain cliffs in “Cliffhanger”, battle baddies in the future with “Demolition Man” and “Judge Dredd”, and rescue survivors trapped in a collapsed tunnel in “Daylight”. He’s also made several more “Rocky” pictures and two more “Rambo” films. He has several new projects ahead but he’ll always be remembered for his incredible run that helped make the action genre so popular.

Arnold Schwarzenegger may have more memorable scenes and memorable one-liners than anyone in cinema history. He also has an action movie resume that’s as impressive as any you will see. This one-time Austrian bodybuilder made a name for himself in the early 80’s with his “Conan” films. But his career really took off when he traded his sword for a gun in the sci-fi classic “The Terminator”. He then cemented his one-man-army status in “Commando” and “Raw Deal”. He would battle an alien threat in the spectacular military sci-fi film “Predator”. He also ventured into the future with “The Running Man” and “Total Recall” before making what is one of the best sequels of all time, “Terminator 2: Judgement Day”. He mad several more action films including “True Lies” and another successful “Terminator” flick. This 65-year old has no plans on slowing down and you’ll see him plenty in 2013.

So there’s a case for both. Now you decide who’s the winner. The action movie genre wouldn’t be what it is without the contributions of these two icons. So vote now. Who’s the heavier hitter, Arnie or Sly? You decide!

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (May 11th)

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”

“Django Unchained” is the highly anticipated next movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The director has had the ability to line up all sorts of acting talent to star in his films….at least until now. The movie has been plagued with cast members dropping out of the project. Early it was reported that both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kevin Costner had to drop out of the film due to conflicts. This week we found out that Sacha Baron Cohen has left the film. It turns out his role was fairly small but the other bit of news is a bigger problem. Kurt Russell (who has signed on to replace Costner) has now bowed out of the movie. No reasons were given but his role was much more important than Cohen’s. This is pretty unusual since Tarantino is known for his great casts. I’m anxious to see how this affects the film and it’s release.

“THE AVENGERS”

Well, I can’t help it. I have to throw in another bit of Avengers news. “The Avengers” shattered the record for biggest opening weekend previously held by the last Harry Potter picture. It brought in a domestic total of $200.3 million shattering the previous record. Those are monster numbers but that doesn’t even consider the money it’s brought in overseas. The movie has made almost $750 million worldwide easily justifying it’s $220 million budget. Is it any surprise that news also came out of the planned sequel?

NEW IN THEATERS (May 11th)

  • “DARK SHADOWS” (PG-13) – Comedy
  • “FOOTNOTE” (PG) – Drama/Foreign

It’s a light week at the theaters as everyone is scared to take on “The Avengers” even in it’s second weekend.