Category Archives: Action/Adventure

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly ends up being about three criminals–of varying type–hunting down some stolen Confederate gold. But that Confederate gold story line takes a break after getting setup in the first ten minutes–for almost an hour of the two and a half hour plus film–so Good, the Bad and the Ugly can introduce its protagonist and his antagonist. Eli Wallach, playing the Ugly, is the protagonist. Clint Eastwood, the Good, is the antagonist. Lee Van Cleef is the Bad, but he doesn’t really figure in until the second hour.

Wallach’s a criminal. Eastwood’s a bounty hunter. Only they’ve got a scheme worked out where Eastwood will bring Wallach in, collect the bounty, then save him from hanging. Only things go bad in their partnership, partially because Wallach’s such a scumbag, partially because Eastwood’s greedy. The film follows Wallach, with Eastwood getting maybe five scenes to himself away from Wallach. And at least two of them are Eastwood with Van Cleef. Eastwood’s practically a special guest star in the film, despite being top-billed.

The film opens with vingettes setting up the three characters. Well, not Eastwood. His setup vingette is a continuation of Wallach’s. Van Cleef’s vingette introduces the missing Confederate gold. He then gets some occasional investigation scenes before disappearing for a half hour or so. The film’s got to move Wallach and Eastwood into position to intersect with the missing gold plot line. Through exceptional plot contrivance.

It’s fine though, because Good, the Bad and the Ugly can get away with plot contrivance. Director Leone’s style and Wallach and Eastwood’s performances (more Wallach, Eastwood just has to be charming) can carry it through. There’s a lot of humor–Wallach’s such an abject bastard he’s lovable–and some rather excellent action scenes.

But then, in the second hour, Good, the Bad and the Ugly changes completely. It’s no longer a Western with Civil War trappings, it’s a Civil War picture with Eastwood, Wallach, and Van Cleef shoehorned in. Even if Van Cleef’s working as a Union prison camp sergeant hoping to get a line on that missing gold. During that sequence, which involves Van Cleef’s enforcer (Mario Brega) viciously beating Wallach for information, while the Confederate soldiers play a song to cover the noise, Leone transitions from making that Western to the Civil War picture.

Only he still then follows the plot of that Western quest for gold, gunfighters, bandits, doublecrosses. But until the end of the film, none of the non-Civil War stuff (save Wallach’s solo hilarities) can compare to what Leone’s doing with the Civil War stuff. The prison camp sequence is jarring and affecting, it’s also nothing compared to what Leone’s got coming.

There’s a shorter sequence involving Eastwood and Wallach coming upon a Union encampment. They’re on one side of the river, the Confederates are on the other. They’re fighting over the bridge. The Union captain (Aldo Giuffrè, in what’s got to be one of the best dubbed performances ever) is a drunk, crushed under the weight of sending his men to needlessly die twice a day for a bridge he wishes he could destroy.

If Eastwood had a real character arc, this sequence would kick off its final stage. He doesn’t though, but the movie uses him like he does and–for a while–gets to pretend it’s a thoughtful look at the two bandits encountering an entirely different kind of violence than they’re used to experiencing. It doesn’t even last as long as Eastwood and Wallach are at the Union camp, but it’s spectacular. It picks up again a little when they continue on their way to the inevitable showdown over the gold; just for Eastwood though. The film’s back to treating Wallach as the lovable bastard.

The Civil War material is passionate–with the Ennio Morricone score having a different, more romantic tone than the Western action sequences–and technically ambitious in terms of scale. The Western action sequences (for the most part, Eastwood and Wallach taking on Van Cleef’s thugs is a confused mix of the two styles) are a glorious mix of composition, editing, music, and photography. The cemetery-set finale, with Van Cleef, Eastwood, and Wallach in a standoff, the cuts getting more rapid between their faces, the tension (and music) intensifying with each cut, is a fantastic style culmination.

It’d be even better if Leone could’ve somehow figured a way to integrate the film’s differing tones. He doesn’t even try. He toggles away from the war rumination and back to the Western action. It’s great action. It’s just nowhere near as special (or as ambitious) as that war rumination.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a technical marvel, with some great performances–Wallach, Van Cleef, Giuffrè–and superior photography, editing, and music. Eastwood’s perfectly good, he just doesn’t get any material. Visually, Wallach’s his stooge. Narratively, with the two Civil War reaction exceptions towards the end, Eastwood’s Wallach’s stooge. Van Cleef isn’t in it enough to be distinct to the narrative, his vicious, brutal performance does wonders what little he does get.

In the supporting roles, Giuffrè is the standout, but there are some other strong ones. Despite a large cast, the supporting players don’t get a lot of material. Brega’s a great villain, Antonio Molino Rojo has a good scene as Van Cleef’s knowing commanding officer, and Enzo Petito has a swell single scene as one of the unfortunates who encounters Wallach. And Luigi Pistilli has a good scene as Wallach’s brother; it’s the two and a half hour film’s single attempt at character development.

Morricone’s score, both for the Western action and Civil War sequences, is singular. Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli’s editing is glorious. Leone’s composition, ably facilitated by Tonino Delli Colli, is excellent. Good, the Bad and the Ugly is an outstanding success.

It’s just nowhere near as ambitious as it ought to be, as Leone seems to want to make it to be.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Sergio Leone; screenplay by Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, and Leone, based on a story by Vincenzoni and Leone; director of photography, Tonino Delli Colli; edited by Eugenio Alabiso and Nino Baragli; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Carlo Simi; produced by Alberto Grimaldi; released by Produzioni Europee Associate.

Starring Eli Wallach (Tuco), Clint Eastwood (Blondie), Lee Van Cleef (Angel Eyes), Aldo Giuffrè (Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Cpl. Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramirez), Antonio Molino Rojo (Capt. Harper), Enzo Petito (Storekeeper), and Antonio Casale (Bill Carson).


RELATED

Advertisements

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Peyton Reed)

Despite being in the first scene in the movie and sharing most of Paul Rudd’s scenes with him, Evangeline Lilly is definitely second in Ant-Man and the Wasp. The film gives her her own action scenes–some truly phenomenal ones–but very little agency. She’s entirely in support of dad Michael Douglas; even after it’s clear Douglas–in the past–was an egomaniac who hurt lots of people, it’s not like Lilly has any reaction to it. Or the film for that matter. During the scene maybe, with Rudd laughing about what a dick Douglas has always been, someone getting very upset remembering how Douglas treated them, Douglas looking bemused, and Lilly looking vacant. There are a few of those scenes and they really define the film’s dramatic qualities.

It doesn’t have many.

It’s got a lot of humorous qualities and a lot of charming ones, but not dramatic. Nothing ever gets as emotionally intense as the first act, in flashback (either straight flashback or dream sequence). Even when there’s all the danger in the world, as Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas race against time to save Lilly’s mother (and Douglas’s wife), Michelle Pfeiffer, from being trapped in the Quantum Zone. Realm. Sorry, Quantum Realm. There’s a lot of quantum things in Ant-Man and the Wasp, it’s hard to keep track.

But the film isn’t about dramatic possibilities so much as good-natured, comedic special effects action ones. There’s this omnipresent theme about parents disappointing children–Douglas and Lilly, Rudd and his daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), not to mention the villain (Hannah John-Kamen), who’s got her own father issues. But if the film never acknowledges it’s a theme, is it really a theme? The screenplay (by five screenwriters) never worries about it and director Reed really doesn’t narrative echoes. It’s not his thing. His thing is humor and pacing and the film excels at both of them.

Because, even with those five writers–including Rudd–it’s not like there’s much depth to characterizations. Walton Goggins is one of the villains and he’s basically doing a really broad caricature of Walton Goggins being in a Marvel movie as a Southern tech-gangster. Randall Park plays a goofy FBI agent who Rudd keeps on one-upping and it’s even broader. Michael Peña excels with similiar treatment; he’s always played for obvious laughs and Peña plays through, fully, successfully embracing it. Goggins and Park act obviously to the joke. Not Peña.

None of the leads have much heavy lifting either. Rudd and Lilly are so adorable–and find each other so utterly adorable–it’s hard not to enjoy every minute they spend together. Douglas is one note, but the script doesn’t really ask for much more. Pfeiffer does more in her two scenes than Douglas does in the entire film. And she doesn’t even do a lot.

Meanwhile, Larry Fishburne–as one of the many people Douglas screwed over in the past–is able to bring some gravitas to his part. He takes it seriously, even when no one asks him to do so.

But none of it really matters because everyone’s really likable, including villain John-Kamen (far less Goggins, who’s nowhere near as funny as he needs to be to warrant so much plot import), and Ant-Man and the Wasp is full of delightful special effects action sequences. Whether it’s when Lilly is shrinking down and growing big to kick ass in fight scenes, flying all over the place, throwing people all over, or when it’s Rudd growing big instead of shrinking down and using a flatbed truck as a scooter. Reed and the screenwriters know where to find every laugh, every smile–it doesn’t hurt Rudd and daughter Fortson have such cute scenes. Opening on Lilly, making the movie about her missing mother, her lost childhood, it almost seems like it’s a movie about daughters. Oh, right, John-Kamen too. But it’s not. It’s about being cute and funny. It’s never even heartwarming when it’s not cute. There’s not much depth to it.

And, for a movie without much depth, it’s an awesome time. The special effects sequences alone–it isn’t just the fight scenes with awesome shrinking and growing effects, it’s sight gags and car chases and everything else (not to mention adorable giant ants). The film’s inventive as all hell. Except with John-Kamen’s villain, who’s not just occasionally invisible, but also immaterial. Her powers make narrative sense, Reed doesn’t visualize them as well as the rest.

By the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp, you want another one. It’s a delightful, thoroughly competent amusement. Even if Christophe Beck’s score is never as good as it seems to be.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Peyton Reed; screenplay by Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Dante Spinotti; edited by Dan Lebental and Craig Wood; music by Christophe Beck; production designer, Shepherd Frankel; produced by Kevin Feige and Stephen Broussard; released by Walt Disney Pictures

Starring Paul Rudd (Scott), Evangeline Lilly (Hope), Michael Douglas (Hank), Hannah John-Kamen (Ghost), Laurence Fishburne (Bill), Michael Peña (Luis), Abby Ryder Fortson (Cassie), Walton Goggins (Sonny Burch), Randall Park (Jimmy Woo), T.I. (Dave), David Dastmalchian (Kurt), Judy Greer (Maggie), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Janet).


RELATED

Darkman (1990, Sam Raimi)

The last twenty or so minutes of Darkman are when director Raimi finally lets loose. He’s been building to it, hinting at how wacky the movie’s going to get, but it doesn’t all come together until the end. And the end is when Darkman has the most standard action sequences. There are big set pieces. Before, it’s all very constrained. It all looks great–probably better than those last twenty minutes, when composite shots kind of do in Raimi’s imagination–but it’s limited.

The end is exciting, imaginative madness.

Darkman’s problem throughout is the script, but more because the movie’s too short for the story it needs to tell than anything the five screenwriters do wrong. Until the end of the second act, the movie hops and skips through its present action. There are way too many MacGuffins, way too many contrivances; Raimi’s fidgety and he creates momentum and Darkman needs it for those script lulls. Almost nothing in the middle of the movie actually matters by the end. The movie’s killing time before the set pieces.

More so the beginning of the second act than the end of it, but still… it’s too short.

So Liam Neeson is a scientist who is working on fake skin for burn victims. It disintegrates after ninety-nine minutes. Unless it’s in the dark, which you’d think might have something to do with the title, Darkman, because after Neeson is horribly burned and the doctors cut off his nerve receptors so he can’t feel pain (or any touch sensation) and he becomes super-strong, he needs the fake skin to exact vengeance. But he never uses it for extended periods of time in the dark.

He apparently uses the dark thing for storage purposes, but even the storage thing is just a sight gag.

Neeson’s girlfriend, Frances McDormand, is a lawyer who comes across a document bad guy Larry Drake wants. And he kills Neeson for it. Or so he thinks. Drake and his band of ultra-violent, but darkly comical goons blow up Neeson’s lab. His lab is also his apartment, which seems like a zoning problem, but whatever.

Added to the convolution is Colin Friels as McDormand’s… client? It’s unclear the professional relationship, but after Neeson “dies,” Friels puts the moves on McDormand. Though mostly offscreen apparently. Because McDormand disappears once Neeson starts his vengeance mission. Most of that mission is just killing off Drake’s goons. It seems like there might have been a plan in some cut scenes or a different draft of the script. It’s okay, eventually, because once McDormand comes back, Neeson’s character arc is more about how he’s going crazy from not having any touch sensation. And inventively and graphically killing the bad guys.

The visuals on Neeson losing his self-control are these fantastic montage sequences. There’s some montage to summarize his attempts at making his fake skin work too, but it’s function, not fervent. The madness montages are awesome. Inexplicably the last one, when Neeson needs to power up his adrenalin (he also has uncontrollable adrenalin for super-Darkman strength), is super short. It’s restrained, while everything else in the finale is outrageous. Raimi’s able to get away with a lot of bad composite shots just because the action’s so excessive. Not that montage, however.

But Neeson’s not just making fake skin faces of himself, he’s doing it of the bad guys to fool the other bad guys. So while Neeson’s performance is getting loopier and loopier, it only plays out when he’s opposite McDormand, which really isn’t much. They have three scenes together after she finds out he’s alive. Two of them really short. Otherwise, it’s Drake pretending he’s Neeson pretending his Drake or Nicholas Worth pretending he’s Neeson pretending he’s Nicholas Worth. There’s actually not a lot of the impersonation so Raimi never really figures out how to do them. The movie’s too short.

The movie dawdles through its first half, finally picking up in the second, and then getting really good in the finale. Only it’s too late. It’s not too little–there’s some awesome stuff in the third act–but it’s definitely too late.

Neeson’s good. He needs about ten more minutes to play the character after the “recovery” arc completes. Instead he basically gets a scene; it’s too bad, because his performance gets much more interesting as it goes along. McDormand’s fine. Her arc is similarly underwhelming. She does get a great visual cue for development in the first act, which Raimi sadly drops. The film’s not confident enough with his extravagances. Or more like the studio isn’t confident enough with his extravagances.

Drake’s good. He’s maybe in the movie too much. Friels’s isn’t in it enough, especially not after he gets to let loose. Friels and Neeson, who only have a scene together, both find ways to match the film’s peculiar intensities.

The goons are all fine. Though Rafael H. Robledo is in the film the most and has the least to do. Like, he’s just a goon. He’s not weird like the rest of them. He’s just got a scar and a ponytail.

Bill Pope’s photography, composites aside, is excellent. So is the editing–from Bud S. Smith and David Stiven.

Danny Elfman’s score is fine. It’s basically his Batman score from the year before, but it’s fine. It’s effective without being distinctive.

Darkman is seventy exceptionally competent, enthusiastic minutes before twenty minutes of sublime madness. It’s a shame Raimi couldn’t get the finale’s intensity through the whole thing. There are plenty of real, practical reasons he couldn’t, but he does hint at that intensity to come, so it’s still a damned shame.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Sam Raimi; screenplay by Chuck Pfarrer, Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Daniel Goldin, and Joshua Goldin, based on a story by Sam Raimi; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Bud S. Smith and David Stiven; music by Danny Elfman; production designer, Randy Ser; produced by Rob Tapert; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Liam Neeson (Peyton Westlake), Frances McDormand (Julie Hastings), Larry Drake (Robert G. Durant), Colin Friels (Louis Strack Jr.), Rafael H. Robledo (Rudy Guzman), Dan Bell (Smiley), Nicholas Worth (Pauly), Dan Hicks (Skip), Ted Raimi (Rick), Nelson Mashita (Yakitito), and Jenny Agutter (doctor).


RELATED

Westworld (1973, Michael Crichton)

Westworld is a regrettably bad film. It doesn’t start off with a lot of potential. Leads Richard Benjamin and James Brolin are wanting. But then writer-director Crichton starts doing these montages introducing the behind-the-scenes of the park.

Oh. Right. Westworld is about an amusement resort with humanoid robots. Benjamin and Brolin are guests. Benjamin’s not over his divorce, so he’s got to man up. Brolin’s a man of few words, less facial expression, and no mystery. Crichton’s direction of the actors in the first act should’ve been a clue for problems later on.

The behind-the-scenes procedural about the maintenance of the robots has a lot of potential. It eventually fails because the set is so poorly designed and Crichton and his cinematographer, Gene Polito, often shoot through walls. Everything looks like a set. Even when it shouldn’t, because Polito’s photography is so bad. And someone needed to explain head room to Crichton because he really doesn’t understand it.

Alan Oppenheimer plays the park supervisor. He’s okay. Okay is pretty good in Westworld. Benjamin is occasionally likable, but he’s never good. Crichton avoids him too much to ever give him the chance to be good or bad. When there’s the big chase scene–robot gunslinger Yul Brynner is out to kill Benjamin–Crichton sticks with Brynner for the first half. There’s a changeover to Benjamin after an atrociously executed ambush sequence where the footage between Benjamin and Brynner doesn’t match. It’s not just lighted differently, it’s obviously different locations because Polito and Crichton also don’t understand how depth works.

Westworld has a bunch of Western genre standards; Crichton executes them all poorly. And tediously. Every set piece in Westworld gets tedious. Crichton and editor David Bretherton can’t do the “action” sequences. They can almost do the mood sequences, when they’re showing the uncanny behind-the-scenes stuff. Then Fred Karlin’s music takes a turn for the worse and Crichton holds a shot too long and Polito’s lighting mistakes kill the verisimilitude. Westworld is a failing movie about something failing. Crichton has some great ideas. Not just for the story, but for set pieces. He just can’t execute them. He tries though. And it’s painful.

Karlin’s music is terrible. Set against Western tropes, it’s belligerently terrible. Crichton’s direction of the Western tropes is awful. It’s like he’s never seen a Western before. It’s singular, I suppose. It’s a singular way of directing action on an Old West set. It’s terrible too. Singular and terrible.

Around the halfway point, Crichton starts focusing more on Norman Bartold’s story. He doesn’t even get a name. But he’s guest in Medieval World, not Western World (Division Thirteen alert). It’s not like Bartold’s interesting–he’s trying to seduce multiple robot women without success–but Crichton still finds him more interesting than Brolin and Benjamin. And Crichton’s not wrong. They’re tiresome.

There’s a lot of future technology and Crichton does manage to showcase those effects well. He really does. It’s like forty-five good seconds of eighty-five minutes. But some of its dumb. Like when Brynner gets a visual upgrade and can see in super-pixelated vision. He can’t make out detail because the pixels are so big. Crichton does point of view with the computer visual stuff. It too kills the moment.

If there are any moments with Brynner. Crichton’s bad direction becomes clear when Brynner shows up. Along with Polito’s inability to match lighting between shots. But it’s kind of fun to pretend when Brynner’s smiling, it’s because his robot is evil. It doesn’t matter.

Because Westworld, even with killer robots and defenseless guests, has no stakes. Who cares if the guests are danger? Benjamin is divorced and no one cares. Brolin is so thin he doesn’t even have that story. Bartold maybe had an implied wife in the setup in the first act but not once Crichton decides he’s more amusing than Benjamin and Brolin. He doesn’t have a name. Oppenheimer doesn’t have a name. Dick Van Patten’s got a recurring cameo. But no name.

Westworld is like a disaster movie’s set pieces strung together. More should make it better but the film’s so terribly made, more would just be worse.

Worst of all, Westworld gets worse as it goes. It disappoints, continuously. And it’s not the story disappointing, it’s how badly Crichton directs the scenes.

Campy would help Westworld. Not much else would help, given Polito and Crichton’s risible composition choices, but camp might help.

Oh, and Majel Barrett’s good. She’s good. Ninety-nine percent of the rest isn’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Michael Crichton; director of photography, Gene Polito; edited by David Bretherton; music by Fred Karlin; produced by Paul N. Lazarus III; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Richard Benjamin (Peter Martin), James Brolin (John Blane), Norman Bartold (Medieval Knight), Alan Oppenheimer (Chief Supervisor), Dick Van Patten (Banker), Linda Gaye Scott (Arlette), Majel Barrett (Miss Carrie), Anne Randall (Daphne), and Yul Brynner (Gunslinger).


RELATED