Western movie reviews

Bottle Shock (2008)

Americans might not be in the mood to stick it to the French these days, now that we’ve moved on from “freedom fries” and into a slow-motion constitutional crisis. If you’re itching for a throwback though, Bottle Shock will take you to that time when America was looking to achieve better things, when it was a real underdog, at least in the wine world, and you could feel good about cheering them on, in the wine world.

The film is set in 1976, before California wine was a thing on the international scene. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman) owns Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, but is struggling to keep it afloat. He could use the help of his son, Bo (a shaggy Chris Pine), but the latter’s hippie lifestyle renders him useless in most matters, except when it comes to fighting racist truck drivers. Things occasionally get so heated between father and son that they resort to boxing matches in the vineyard. Both get a chance at redemption though when a stranger comes to town.

Well, two strangers. One is Sam (Rachael Taylor), the intern who knows a hell of a lot more about enology than the Barretts. The other is Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman), a self-proclaimed wine snob and Brit living in France. Spurrier’s wine shop is also struggling, and his only customer on any given day is his American neighbor (Dennis Farina), who slurps up free samples. In order to bring in business and earn some notice from the even snobbier French wine circle, he decides to host a blind tasting, pitting French wines against American ones. No one doubts that the French will win, but first Spurrier needs to get his hands on some of that sweet American grape juice.

The story is predictable because it’s based on real events and follows the classic underdog formula, but that doesn’t make its feel-good moments any less rousing. In fact, some of the most enjoyable scenes are the ones that play out just as you’d expect. The last few scenes are like a roller coaster, albeit a milder one. You can see what’s going to happen to Jim’s batch of brown wine and who will emerge victorious in Spurrier’s blind tasting, but it’s still exciting to watch the events unfold.

The build up isn’t as strong as that ending though. The script is in need of a major rewrite or two with some important storylines half-formed. In particular, Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), Bo’s friend and one of Jim’s hired hands, struggles to get off the page. Rodriguez gives his character plenty of emotion, but there’s not enough background about his father and relationship to the Barretts to figure out how he fits into Chateau Montelena. Even important plot points, like Spurrier’s initial proposal for the tasting, are oddly missing. It’s as if the filmmakers expect us to infer the details of his plan based on a sly smile with a fellow sommelier.

Bottle Shock offers many positives, but overall, the film is more miss than hit. The only constant is Rickman, who is delightfully foreign whether he’s drinking by himself in France or navigating his Gremlin through California. Napa Valley is occasionally pretty to look at, but then again, you could point a camera in any direction for breathtaking views. Like this story though, it lacks the texture you’d expect and fails to truly draw you in.

Released: 2008
Prod: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Brenda Lhormer, Marc Lhormer, J. Todd Harris, Marc Toberoff
Dir: Randall Miller
Writer: Randall Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz
Cast: Alan Rickman, Chris Pine, Bill Pullman, Rachael Taylor, Freddy Rodriguez, Eliza Dushku, Dennis Farina
Time: 110 min
Lang: English, some French and Spanish
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

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The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Strictly speaking, Christmas is an origin story. The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is not about the kid with superpowers who was born in a barn (apologies to my theology professors) but about the creation of the holiday’s other much beloved story. The film recounts how a young Charles Dickens came to write The Christmas Carol out of desperation more than anything else. The movie is humorous on occasion and sometimes clever in its conceit – his characters follow the writer’s maxim and try to take charge of their own story – but it’s also nowhere near as engaging as even the more tortured adaptations of the popular book.

Dan Stevens plays the author with a slight manic twist. He’s a man whose fevered imagination produces great literary work but that sometimes gets the better of him. After a few failures, he’s in need of a quick hit, something to pay for his pricy home remodel and his three or four kids, with another on the way. He proposes a Christmas story, perhaps Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, a real “hammer-blow to the heart” kind of tale. His publishers are skeptical, not only because Christmas is less than two months away but also because it was still a minor holiday at the time, nothing like the capitalist spectacle it is today.

He forges ahead anyway and cobbles together bits of the London life around him. A wealthy businessman’s unattended funeral forms the story’s backbone while a creaky waiter named Marley finds his way into the plot. Even the trials of Dickens’s own friends and family shape the narrative in the form of an ill-fated engagement and a sickly child. The author gets an assist from his new Irish maid (Anna Murphy) as well, inspiring him with homespun ghost stories and tales from Varney the Vampire.

As the deadline draws closer, Dickens grows more agitated. His characters come alive only to lounge around in his study and peer over his drafts, offering unsolicited advice every now and again. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) proves particularly troublesome. In typical Scrooge fashion, he grumbles at his portrayal and taunts his creator. It’s not just the imaginary that takes ahold of Dickens though. His spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) appears unannounced, stirring up childhood memories of a boot blackening factory where he worked after the elder Dickens was taken to debtors’ prison.

I understand the appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at A Christmas Carol. Not content to simply enjoy the story, we often want the “making of” special and feature commentary as well. Sometimes the work is enough though, especially when there are hundreds of iterations to choose from. This film never comes close to the drama and emotion of the original story, and it does a better job explaining how the book transformed the holiday than it does inspiring actual feelings of generosity and compassion. It’s a waste of Stevens and Plummer’s talents; Plummer in particular can play this part in his sleep. Though there are some exceptional personalities – Miles Jupp as Dickens’s vexing rival is my favorite – I much prefer going back to the old standbys when the holidays roll around.

Released: 2017
Prod: Robert Mickelson, Ian Sharples, Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Vadim Jean
Dir: Bahrat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Anna Murphy
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Les Misérables (2012)

Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.

I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.

Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.

That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.

I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.

Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.

His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.

Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.

That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.

Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.

“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:

“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:

“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:

“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:

“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:

“Stars” by Russell Crowe:

“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:

“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:

“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:

“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:

“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:

Released: 2012
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

Choosing Signs (2013)

There’s leaving things to fate and then there’s Jennifer (Jessica Lancaster), a woman who’s so wary about her own decision-making that she lets fate decide almost everything in life. Whether it’s moving from her home in New York to live with her boyfriend in Ireland or which direction she’s headed off to in the morning, Jennifer always needs a little assist. Sometimes that’s flipping a coin and other times it’s slinging a rubber band across the room, whatever’s handy.

It’s extreme, but Choosing Signs is not Serendipity, which is to say it’s not an infuriating case of a woman who fails to seize the moment and then makes a big ado about resetting the chain of events she’s set in motion. This is a quiet film more along the lines of Once and resting somewhere in a space that is romance, comedy, and drama without embracing any one of those.

The story is set in Cork, where Jennifer lives with Marc (Stephen Wyley), a guy with big ideas about how to best exploit the immigrant housing market, and their pregnant Ukrainian housekeeper Svletlana, (Betsy Douds). Her brother, Matty (Jeremiah Ocanas), has mental health issues and stays at a nearby nursing facility, which is how she meets Eamon (Owen Dara), one of his caregivers. Eamon is immediately attracted to Jennifer and wastes no time setting up a date. She’s nice, doesn’t know anyone, and happens to have dinged a bell on her wall when he called, so she agrees to meet up.

A friendship develops by steps, but that doesn’t necessarily bring more stability into her life. If anything, her feelings for Eamon complicates things, adding more variables to her relationship with Matty and Marc. As she juggles her obligations to her brother, she also wrestles with a growing unease over her boyfriend’s plans to subdivide flats into oblivion. Leaving things to fate, it seems, is as much of a gamble as just making a decision and hoping for the best.

The film is far from the silly, magical romp I thought it would be. Lancaster is splendid in this role, emphasizing all her character’s vulnerabilities without making her into an oddball. I’d call Jennifer’s penchant for tossing stones and scarves more of a quirk than anything; it’s enough for others to comment on but not so much of a distraction from the rest of her personality. Writer-director Dara also turns in a charming, low-key performance. Eamon is inviting and of course eager, but he strays from the stereotype of a love-struck loner when necessary. Of the supporting cast, Douds is the strongest, not least because she has the most interesting character in the film. Svletlana knows much more than she lets on, often safeguarding her wisdom and observations behind her flinty stare.

Released: 2013
Dir: Owen Dara
Writer: Owen Dara
Cast: Jessica Lancaster, Owen Dara, Betsy Douds, Jeremiah Ocanas, Stephen Wyley
Time: 87 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019

Golden Years (2016)

Golden Years doesn’t map out the ideal retirement plan, but you could keep it on the backburner. Or don’t since this slight comedy of errors about pensioners with a vengeance doesn’t quite live up to expectations. The heist film offers a daffy plot and a veteran cast to match, but it also suffers long pauses slowing the overall momentum. Those inclined to rage against the system may find in this movie some poetic justice, but it’s not as satisfying as say levying a seventy percent marginal tax rate on millionaires.

Arthur (Bernard Hill), a generally content retiree, has his life turned upside down when his pension is wiped out. Besides the utter indifference of financial services representatives, he faces the more pressing concern of paying for his wife’s medication. Martha (Virginia McKenna) is kept in the dark while Arthur tries to figure out how they’ll make it through the next few months, never mind the next few years. He comes upon an age-old plan, the one everyone gets when they’re really hard up for cash, and decides to rob a bank. He doesn’t scheme so much as fall into the idea, and his first robbery of £75,000 is finely choreographed if chaotic and unexpected bit of handiwork.

The story hits national news and attracts the attention of two police detectives, Sid (Alun Armstrong) and Stringer (Brad Moore). Stringer, a hard-charging officer who imagines himself the hero of every scenario, is convinced that the series of robberies is being carried out by highly trained young men with a meticulous attack plan. Sid is more circumspect, his years of experience telling him that something doesn’t add up but he’s not sure what.

Heist films operate on the premise that one’s luck is always about to run out, and there are some humorous if predictable close calls here, one of which involves eating the evidence. There’s not enough of these moments though, and Golden Years doesn’t follow through on the formula. Instead of each side ratcheting things up, the tension subsides the more Arthur and Martha get away with it. They become so comfortable in their new line of work that they even enlist a few friends (Phil Davis, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas) to keep up with their ambitions. The expected showdown between them and the law fizzles, however, and instead turns into a counseling session for Sid and his unhappy wife (Sue Johnston).

The film could have made bigger impression if it had padded the story with more humor and less of a feel good attitude. It tries to have it all ways, taking the real hardships and the indignities suffered by the elderly and pairing it with goofiness of a heist plot. That dichotomy can work, but this film takes the easy way out with every resolution instead of confronting its somber feelings. When the only consequence seems to be a good one, it blunts the emotional impact, and the story goes from looking at real injustice to a game some old folks play because it’s a step up from bingo night.

Released: 2016
Prod: Mark Foligno
Dir: John Miller
Writer: John Miller, Nick Knowles, Jeremy Sheldon
Cast: Bernard Hill, Virginia McKenna, Sue Johnston, Phil Davis, Brad Moore, Mark Williams, Una Stubbs, Ellen Thomas, Simon Callow, Alun Armstrong, Richard Cambridge
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019