Sunday, September 29, 2019

"Captain Ron" - Is Ron actually Snake Plissken?

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. But if you haven’t seen Captain Ron, then obviously you didn’t have TBS or the USA network in the ‘90s. 

Originally, I was going to write about Buffalo Soldiers, the Joaquin Phoenix movie that got delayed into oblivion because of 9/11. But the DVD was too scratched up to play, so I threw it away and randomly moved on to Captain Ron, a $5 bin classic that I would also watch every time it came on TV. Kurt Russell is amazing in this movie, and according to IMDb trivia, he pretty much created the character, down to the wardrobe that he provided himself (including the Speedo). The movie overall is pretty damn goofy; it’s like John Hughes got stoned and wrote a movie. But Russell makes it memorable. Watching it this time (and thanks to some of the trivia I read), something amazing occurred to me.

Captain Ron is the origin story of Snake Plissken.

First off, I know this is ridiculous, but there are enough similarities to consider this. Obviously, the eye patch is the main indicator here, along with Ron’s raspy voice. And while Ron doesn’t have a cobra tattooed on his stomach, it is still a tattoo he would conceivably get one day (and he knows good work, as evidenced by his “primo work” comment regarding Caroline’s tattoo). Also, Ron claims to have been in the Navy, and Snake was Special Forces in the Army. Could it be that Ron was actually a Navy SEAL? Or maybe Ron was in the Special Forces, but he’s so full of shit he forgets what branch of the military he was really in.

The timelines work out a little, too. Captain Ron came out in 1992, which leaves plenty of time for World War III to break out and Ron can become Snake. The events of Escape from New York don’t take place until 1997. Ron has experience in Communist Cuba, he’s dealt with pirates, and he associates freely with revolutionaries (much like Cuervo Jones in Escape from L.A.).

The bit of trivia that really set me off on this was the claim that John Carpenter was “nearly called” to direct Captain Ron. (It also claims that he said he would have done it, but just to be in the Caribbean.) With Carpenter’s possible involvement, it adds a little credence to the origin story theory. Also, Carpenter originally saw Escape from L.A. as a comedy satirizing modern action movies (the studio was not a fan of this idea, which is why the film ended up edited to basically be a carbon copy of New York). And he directed Big Trouble in Little China, which is very much a comedy, also starring Russell.

Of course, Captain Ron isn’t really the origin story of Snake Plissken, but there are enough similarities to at least consider it. And while I am always down to watch Captain Ron, watching it while considering it as Snake’s origin story added a new element to it. Finally, I just like the idea that fun-loving Ron finally got beaten down by the world enough to turn into Snake Plissken.

Russell's next movie was Tombstone. What a transformation.

I don't have anything to say about that. I just wanted an excuse to post this comparison picture.

Random Thoughts

The beginning really reminds me of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles. In fact, the whole thing comes off as a wacky John Hughes film. Steve Martin and John Candy were both even considered for Short's role.

The camera really hangs on that clearly fake photo of a young Martin Short.

"Incentives are important. Learned that in rehab."

Seeing "dead" Captain Ron getting poked with a stick still makes me laugh.

Ron claims to have been on the USS Saratoga, a ship that was sunk in a nuclear bomb test in 1946. How old is he?

I love how Ron gets the party going again at St. Haag by doing a little dance and saying, "Hey hey!" And it works.

My brother says, "Get me a beer, swab," to this day because of this movie. 

"Now that you got a little coin in your jeans, let's make this game a little more interesting."

"You want a beer, you get your own."

The shower scene provides a bit more nudity than you'd expect for PG-13.

Martin Short lets out a great scream when the sander knocks him off the boat. 

Ron's plan for Swab to get the anchor was great, just taping bricks to feet and sending him underwater. 

I think Martin's family should ditch him for Ron. Martin sucks.

"He's gone storm crazy! I've seen this before!"

Getting kicked off the island is what Martin deserves for snitching on Captain Ron. 

"I've always been a fast healer. Of course, I believe in Jesus Christ. It helps."


Tuesday, September 24, 2019

"The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" - Never Meet (and Shoot) Your Heroes

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS. Though one could argue the title, and history, has already spoiled the main event of the film.

With a lot of people seemingly just now realizing Brad Pitt can act with Once Upon a Hollywood and Ad Astra, I decided to go with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford for this month’s western. I have liked Pitt’s work for years, and 12 Monkeys was the first time I saw him more as an actor than a face. He has plenty of great roles under his belt, but I consider his work in this film some of his best. The Jesse James of this film is a mean, brutal, reflective, paranoid, charismatic, and generally complex character, and Pitt handles every element with ease. Perhaps it’s the meta-quality of the film that makes it stand out for me, as Jesse James was a celebrity of the time, Pitt could easily find common ground in that area. How often must Pitt deal with people in his life that come to him with a certain expectation of who he is based on performances and tabloid stories rather than his actual self. Jesse James, at least in the film (and probably in real life), also had to deal with perceptions of him compared to the real, very human, man he really was. Watching Pitt navigate that character is just one of the many pleasures of this underseen, understated western. 

Myth Vs. Reality

It should be clear by my previous choices for westerns in recent months that I prefer non-traditional, or modern westerns. I enjoy traditional westerns, but the westerns I want to own and revisit from time to time usually need to be a bit different, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford certainly qualifies. In fact, the story of Jesse James is the perfect subject for a modern western, because, just like Jesse James, the myth of the Old West time period compared to historical reality is often very different.

In the film, Robert Ford starts off idolizing Jesse James and his gang because he believed the stories he read as a child, which made James out to be a Robin Hood type hero. A big part of the reason Ford eventually betrays James is because he is disillusioned with James after meeting him; don’t meet your heroes, and all that. This allows the film to be a statement about celebrity, as well, and not just in regards to James. Ford becomes a celebrity after killing James, and he gets a taste of the downfall of having your reputation arrive before you. The film is a bit of a condemnation of celebrity culture and the dangers of chasing stardom at the expense of your soul. That element alone resonates with me for days after each viewing because the ending is so depressing and perfect, with Robert Ford dying as a result of his quest for celebrity, with nothing about his life turning out the way he had hoped. 

Much like Robert Ford’s disillusionment, researching the Old West also leads to a bit of disappointment when compared to the Hollywood version we’ve seen for years. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one of many westerns that highlights the reality of the era rather than glorifying it. 

The most obvious example that this is not a traditional western is the gunfight between Dick Liddil, Wood Hite, and Robert Ford. Dick and Wood shoot at each other at nearly point blank range, unloading their guns without either of them inflicting a mortal wound. Just like Unforgiven (which I will also write about in the future), the shootout is meant to show that when it comes to actually pulling a trigger a lot of factors come into play and the result is more sloppy than cinematic. I love a good Old West shootout as much as anyone, but I also appreciate realism. We all like to think we could be Clint Eastwood when the chips are down, but more likely most of us would be like Dick Liddil, missing shot after shot as we fall out of bed.

Aside from the shootouts, I love it when historical films highlight the mundane day-to-day life of the time period. Travel time and communication plays a big factor in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. People are often gone because a trip from place to place takes weeks. Word travels slowly, so scheming is a bit easier as is hiding from people. Robert Ford is only forced to play his hand when Jesse reads a newspaper article. It’s a slow time, and the film replicates it poetically rather than in a boring manner.

I hate to refer to a film as a “tone poem” at this point, mainly because I’ve overused it over the years, especially in reference to films like those of Terence Malick (whose later films make for an easy comparison to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). It’s not that it doesn’t fit, because it certainly does, but I just feel like it has become my go-to descriptor for a movie others might consider boring. I guess I just need to start being blunt about: a lot of people find this film boring, and I can understand why. But I find each frame beautiful and compelling, even when nothing is going on. 

Anyone who might find this film boring is probably just dealing with incorrect expectations. Many people still want their westerns to be old-fashioned, filled with stand-offs and shoot-outs. I still like that stuff, too, but I knew going in that this movie wasn’t promising anything like that. Perhaps it’s the title. Speaking of which...

TAOJJBTCRF, and Other Reasons Why This Movie May Have Failed Financially.

You may have noticed I have made no effort to shorten the title of this film. First off, the facetious shortening in the title of this section looks pretty stupid. Secondly, a title this long should just be embraced at this point. It is the title of the book the film is based on, and, according to IMDb trivia, Brad Pitt insisted that the title remain. 

I like the title, but for years after this movie came out I would always get a weird look when I recommended it. I had similar issues with The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (another movie I love and will write about soon). I would get into a conversation with someone about westerns and recommend these two films and just get a weird look after spitting out these mouthfuls of titles. If just calling this film The Assassination of Jesse James would have made it more popular, I wish they would have altered it a bit.

Title aside, this film was never going to be a huge success. The aforementioned tone poem aspect is usually an indicator that not many people are going to bother with the movie. Plus, it’s on the long side, and it’s just not a traditional film. All the things I like about this movie are also the things that most likely kept it from being a success. I could accept that if this film had a bunch of nobodies in it, but how did this happen with Brad Pitt as Jesse James?

I remember when this movie (kind of) came out in theaters. I had seen the previews and was very excited to see it, even reading the book beforehand. I thought it looked amazing. The release date came and went and no theaters near me picked it up. It eventually left theaters entirely never getting close to me. (I didn’t check Louisville [an hour and a half away] at the time, but Evansville [an hour away and my go-to for smaller films] never got it.) I couldn’t believe it. Brad Pitt’s new movie did not get a wide release. This was the first time I recognized the death of star power. Years ago, just having someone like Pitt in a movie would warrant at least a small wide release. But now, it doesn’t matter. If a studio doesn’t think the film can make a definite profit, then it doesn’t matter who’s in the cast; that movie is not getting a wide release. It’s always annoyed me so much, especially living in the Midwest. I just want studios to let the audience decide. Give the film a week in wide release, especially since everything is digital now and doesn’t require expensive film reels dispersed nationwide. But it won’t happen thanks to streaming and whatnot. I just wish so much that I had the chance to see this on the big screen.

Roger Deakins didn't win for this?

Until he won for Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins’s losing streak at the Oscars for Best Cinematography was a cruel joke. This man has made some of the most beautiful films ever made, and he somehow got passed over each year, including the year The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford came out. Deakins lost to Robert Elswit for There Will Be Blood, so it’s hard to be too mad about that, especially when you realize Deakins was double nominated for this and No Country for Old Men, and he most likely split votes because of it. This film is special, though, because he created such a unique western look for the film.

The narrated moments that show parts of Jesse’s daily life look like moving daguerreotypes of the time, and it’s a magical effect. Not to mention the train sequence early in the film, which Deakins claims is one of his finest achievements. His work in this film is why I want to see the longer cut of the film that was released at festivals. 

Deakins claimed in an interview that Criterion isn’t interested in releasing it (pretty much the only way it could happen). Why the people who chose to give Armageddon a special edition won’t touch this is beyond me. Of course, I want just want to see more of this movie overall, but I also want to see all the work Deakins did that didn’t make it. Apparently there was a four-hour cut originally, but writer/director Andrew Dominik claims he’s happy with the theatrical cut. With all due respect, let us be the judge of that.

I suppose that sums up how I feel about this movie. It’s a nearly three hour, slow moving treatise on celebrity and myths, and I want at least another hour of it.

Random Thoughts 

"The president of the Confederacy discerned his wife's needs and satisfied them, with the utmost skill and the utmost courtesy."

Bob sitting down just as chow is called and everyone else gets up is such a perfect introduction to his awkward, out of place character.

God, Garrett Dillahunt is so good at looking stupid.

Sam Shepard sees through Bob's bullshit immediately. 

"Well, what am I supposed to say to that?"

"So you can examine my grit and intelligence."

"I don't know what it is about you, but the more you talk, the more you give me the willies."

I don't know why, but it makes me laugh when Frank calls Jesse "dingus."

The approach of the train has so many beautiful moments: the train hitting the camera and continuing forward, the flashing lights revealing the robbers, Jesse's silhouette as the train approaches, etc. Not to mention the score.

"I about heard all I want to about sidekicks."

I wish Shepard was in this longer. I could watch him talk shit to Casey Affleck and Sam Rockwell all day.

What happened to Paul Schneider? After he left Parks and Rec, he has worked sparingly. He gave an interview about being more selective in his work, but it just seems strange to drop off as much as he has.

Brad Pitt's fake laugh when he visits the Fords after Renner's death is amazing. 

This movie could also be called The Many Tense Conversations of Jesse James with Ed Miller, Dick Liddil, Charley Ford, Robert Ford, and Others.

Ted Levine!

I don't mind the casting of James Carville as the governor, but it is a but distracting.

The noise Pitt makes when he says he could see the "gears grinding" after he almost cut Bob's throat might be my favorite moment from his career.

So much of this film is shot through that old timey glass that obscures the view a bit. It's like the era itself: everything we know about it is a bit blurry, the full vision forever elusive. Sorry for the poetic analysis; this movie brings that out in me.

The actual death feels staged like a play, which is, of course, fitting since the Fords would go on to put on the play.

Sam Rockwell is so good during the play sequences, first acting terribly, and finally becoming incredibly dark.

Everything after Jesse is killed is my favorite part of the film. The transition of Bob from annoying murderous fanboy to tragic man of regret is perfect.

"Charley was only expected not to slouch, or mutter. And to transport his sicknesses to the alley before letting them go."

I love Nick Cave's score, and his cameo singing a folk song about Jesse James.

I can't think of another film that truly made me end up liking, or at least sympathizing with, a character I initially hated. A lot of that is because of Affleck’s performance, which I still consider the best of his career.

Because of that, the last moment of the film now gives me chills and nearly made me cry this time.


Thursday, September 12, 2019

"Next of Kin" - Swayze and Neeson Take on the Mob, Appalachian Style!

*I write these articles under the assumption that you’ve seen the movie, so...SPOILERS.

I watched the documentary about Patrick Swayze that ran on the Paramount Network a few weeks back and decided to revisit one of my Swayze movies. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan, but I do like most of his films. But off the top of my head, I only own Road House, Next of Kin, and Donnie Darko, and let’s face it, Darko isn’t exactly a Swayze movie. Road House has been made fun of and/or celebrated enough already (although I will still write about it eventually), so I went with Next of Kin, a forgotten Swayze movie about revenge and the struggle between the law and family loyalty. The film is notable for me because my father used to call me Briar during my college years, due to my resemblance to Liam Neeson in this film. It’s not because I’m tall or even look like Neeson; it was because I had a scraggly Appalachian-y beard, wore an old baseball cap, and had a coat very similar to Briar’s. In fact, I still kind of dress like that, but my beard is a bit better these days. Anyway, that’s the weird reason why I connect with this movie.

Neeson and Swayze: Kickin’ Ass, Appalachian-style!

Next of Kin tells a fairly basic story about two very different worlds: the mobbed up streets of Chicago and the lawless hills of Appalachia. Patrick Swayze and Liam Neeson are brothers, torn apart over their desire to steer their younger brother, Bill Paxton, along what they see is the right path. When Paxton is killed in Chicago by a mobster, Neeson heads to Chicago to get revenge because he doesn’t think Swayze’s devotion to being a cop will allow him to get true justice for their brother.

That set up allows for plenty of interesting story beats, but the best of them is the rivalry between Swayze and Neeson. Their scenes together are by far the best moments of the film. They argue a lot, but when they share a moment (like when Swayze tells him that Neeson is going to be an uncle) they truly come across as brothers. It makes their fight scene in the bar that much more meaningful...and funny. Since they’re brothers, any fight between them, while very violent, has a hint of humor because you can imagine that this is probably the hundredth time they’ve fought. 

The movie gains some much needed momentum when Swayze and Neeson finally decide to work together. Unfortunately that doesn’t last very long. Swayze goes out on his own, and Neeson goes after the mobsters by himself, dying in the process.

Neeson’s death is the biggest misstep of the film. There is already one dead brother, why add another? I know it prompts the rest of the family to come up to Chicago, but that whole sequence was unnecessary, in my opinion (more on that in the next section). The ending of the movie would have been so much better if it was Swayze and Neeson taking on the mob by themselves. 

You can’t fault the filmmakers for not including Neeson more in the film. In hindsight, of course a team-up of Neeson and Swayze would be amazing. But Neeson wasn’t well-known at the time, and he wouldn’t be known as an action star until after Swayze’s illness and death. As it is, Next of Kin at least gives us a glimpse of these two working together. And when you’re dealing with two actors this awesome, a glimpse can be enough.

Why Is There a School Bus Full of Snakes in This Movie?

The big action set piece of the film involves all the hill people going to Chicago to avenge Liam Neeson’s death. It is by far the silliest part of the film, and the sequence is largely played for laughs. It’s all a bit unnecessary, especially since it would have been better if the final confrontation was between the mob and Swayze and Neeson. 

Some of it is okay, like the guy throwing the hatchets and the guy using a bow and arrow. Then it gets a little silly with the one dude using dogs to chase down some mobsters. But it ventures into flat out stupid territory when the school bus full of snakes shows up.

Let’s break this down. First off, I don’t recall snake-handling being an Appalachian thing. I’m from southern Indiana, so I live a couple minutes away from Kentucky. So I’m in the general vicinity of the people in this movie, even if the eastern Kentucky they are from is hours from my location. The point is, snakes are not a prominent part of that culture, from what I know. There’s the occasional redneck snake church, but the snakes in Next of Kin are not used for religious purposes. 

Next, why take the school bus of snakes all the way up to Chicago? It’s not an ideal vehicle for that long of a trip. And why didn’t the other hill people tell him to stay home for this one? 

Lastly, and most importantly, what did the snakes accomplish? The only thing that happens is a gangster gets locked in the bus with the snakes. We don’t see the snakes bite him or anything; he just freaks out. So the snake guy drove a busful of snakes about ten hours away to scare one mobster. That’s a bit of overkill, isn’t it? Even if the snakes were featured more prominently in the plan, how much damage could they have done? 

I suppose my biggest issue with the school bus full of snakes is that it’s entirely included for laughs. Next of Kin isn’t humorless, but this is still a fairly serious movie about murder and revenge. The goofiness of the snake bus at the end takes away from that a bit. I mean, Neeson dies, so we get a bus of snakes instead. That is not a fair trade. Let me finish by making that clear: a Swayze/Neeson team-up is better than a school bus full of snakes.

Random Thoughts 

The case for the DVD mentions a pre-Twister Bill Paxton. That kind of marketing cracks me up. So someone is on the fence about buying this movie, so they read the case; does that info put them over the edge? Hey, this movie also has a pre-Heavyweights Ben Stiller! And a fellow pre-Twister Helen Hunt! And don’t forget about pre-Firefly Adam Baldwin! Man, I have to buy this movie featuring all these actors before their better-known works!

I don't know why exactly, but I love how cities are portrayed in late '80s / early '90s movies. They are absolute hellholes, but they appear lived in and more realistic than they do in newer movies.

Ted Levine! Makes me think of an Appalachian Buffalo Bob...that's a horrifying thought. 

Hey look, it's pre-Twister Bill Paxton!

Swayze's hair is a thing of beauty, especially when he fancies it up for a violin recital.

Ben Stiller had an underrated early career as a punchable twerp.

Something tells me that knife Adam Baldwin takes off of Paxton, that the camera lingers on for ten seconds, is going to factor into the story later.

Adam Baldwin gives a lovely speech offending every demographic in the country, including hillbillies. 

I know it's meant as a memorial, but that picture of Paxton at his graduation is hilarious.

I like the random hillbilly moments showcased when Swayze goes home: axe throwing, deer head in the fridge, random dude playing with a snake, little kids practicing with a bow and arrow, etc.

Those pictures of Briar and Gerald hanging out that Swayze sees in Briar', I wonder how those were made. Did Neeson and Paxton just hang out on a farm drinking beer one day while someone took candids? I sure hope so.

"Okay, fellow criminals, let's get in the most blatant mob car of all time and follow this cop without attempting to disguise ourselves at all!"

There are some weird hotels in this movie. The one at the beginning was "Men Only," and the one Briar stays at is also only for men and doesn't allow food in the rooms. Also, why not just have Briar stay at the place from the beginning? That way you could establish the Harold character earlier, since he ends up being such a friend to the hill folk.

Adam Baldwin is such a fucking prick in this movie. I hate him more each time he speaks, which is a credit to his performance. 

Baldwin calling the head mobster "Papa John" is distracting. If that pizza chain was more prominent back then, surely they would have changed it.

The song about brothers playing while Briar is in lockup is a bit on the nose.

All of this over a vending machine company…

Is this movie sponsored by Old Style?

Why kill Ben Stiller off camera? And why did they bring the fuck-up mobster along?

Holy shit, I just realized the dude with the snake is the "Are you kidding?!" guy from Road House.

"Finally I just said, 'Fuck it,' and shot him."

Why do the mob guys like Chinese food so much?

Swayze: "Yo." *Throws knife directly into goon's heart as he turns around.

So did he resign at the end? To do what exactly? I know his job is dangerous, but quitting your job right when your wife gets pregnant is stupid. Hell, what am I talking about? This is Swayze. He'll figure something out.