The Claim (2000)

The Claim

Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 2000

Michael Winterbottom is as unpredictable as he is prolific. His works range from laugh-out-loud comedy (24 Hour Party People) to kitchen sink drama (Wonderland) to Oscar bait (A Mighty Heart) to one of the worst movies ever made (9 Songs). A favourite hobby of his is the idiosyncratic adaptation of classic literature, especially Thomas Hardy, whose novel The Mayor of Casterbridge finds new life in the fish-and-chip western The Claim.

During the California Gold Rush, Daniel Dillon (Peter Mullan) is an out-of-luck prospector who sells his own wife and infant daughter to a lonely prospector in exchange for untold riches. Twenty years later, Dillon is the mayor of his own town, Kingdom Come, whose fate is soon to be determined by the route of a proposed railroad represented by Donald Dalglish (Wes Bentley). Unfortunately, Dalglish arrives at the same time as Dillon’s now-dying ex-wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their now-grown daughter (Sarah Polley, at maximum cuteness).

There are a lot of things I could say about this movie. I could tell you to watch it just to show you why cinematographers love working with snow. I could tell you to watch just to see what kind of range you can get from the same screenwriter who did A Cock and Bull Story. I could tell you to watch just for the amazement of seeing a humble Wessex tale retold as a western epic. Instead, I’ll tell you to watch because of Peter Mullan. At the time the film was released, Wes Bentley and Milla Jovovich were hot stuff, and their supporting roles were way overemphasized in the advertising for this film. Peter Mullan is barely in the poster, but he is the goddamn movie. See it right away. A

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007

Nations have a weird habit of romanticizing the savage past, even when there are people around who still remember the truth. There is perhaps no better example of this than Jesse James, a late-19th century outlaw/terrorist who was feared and hated right until he died.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the story of Robert Ford, a Jesse fanboy who joins the James gang with his brother, only for the eldest of the group (Sam Shepard) to declare that it’s time to give up the life of an outlaw. As the gang disintegrates, Jesse (Brad Pitt) only becomes more dangerous and unpredictable, leading Ford to side with the state of Missouri and take him out. At first, Ford is a hero, and spends the next year recreating the assassination on Broadway, but public opinion gradually and mysteriously turns in the late Jesse James’ favour. Finding himself in constant danger from the drunken mob, Ford retreats from public life.

In a year full of incredible cinema, and one chock full of westerns, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is nevertheless a highlight. The only problem is that while the James Gang’s dysfunction is given two hours of screen time, Ford’s eventual fate gets only 45 minutes. Apparently, the film was originally developed in two parts, with the assassination at the midpoint, but the studios intervened. Somewhere out there is a four-hour director’s cut that gives the whole story the time it deserves. I only hope that someday we will be able to see it. A-

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012

Dir. Sebastián Silva, 2013

Once upon a time in Santiago de Chile, a local filmmaker decided to make a drug movie with his roommate, Michael Cera. The results were…mixed.

Crystal Fairy is a thoroughly strange movie about four brothers and their ne’er-do-well control freak of a friend (Jamie, played by Cera), who unwittingly invites a gratingly quirky hippie chick (the titular Crystal Fairy, played by Gaby Hoffman) on their road trip to partake of a psychedelic cactus on the shores of the Atacama. The gang takes a liking to Crystal Fairy while Jaime obsesses over the cactus.

After watching the film, I didn’t dislike it, but I had no interest in seeing it again. Sebastian Silva is obviously a talented director; he has a good eye, and his washed-out version of Chile really gives the impression of being on the far side of the Earth. But I wish he had enough confidence as a screenwriter to simply let things be. His need to give the film a satisfying conclusion may or may not ruin the whole thing. It’s up to you to find out.

C+

Men in Black 3 (2012)

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Men in Black 3

Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012

In order to talk about Men in Black 3, I have to talk about the first two.

Men in Black was a surprise hit. The director was a lightweight and the star, Will Smith, was only known for a TV show that was not actually as popular as we remember. The film was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, but the aliens were more in the style of Terry Gilliam and the story was unromanticized. In short, it was like nothing else in theaters, and audiences loved it. Smith plays J, a personable but inexperienced crime-fighter who’s hired by K (Tommy Lee Jones) in a constant battle to stop Earth from being destroyed by aliens.

It was funny, original, and even Sonnenfeld couldn’t capture its spirit, because Men in Black 2 was neither of those things. Men in Black 2 was soulless, derivative, and incoherent, and hopes of a sequel were dashed for a decade. Men in Black 3 came out of nowhere, and a lot of disillusioned audience members didn’t go.

Well, they should have. Men in Black 3 wisely jettisons most of the original film’s hallmarks in favour of a totally original story. Boris the Animal (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement channeling Tim Curry) escapes from prison, goes back to the 1960s, and kills K. When J realizes what’s happened, he goes back as well, teaming up with a younger version of his old partner (Josh Brolin) and uncovering a mystery involving Andy Warhol, the 1969 Mets, and the moon landing, all with the help of Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a softspoken being who can forsee all possible futures.

The change of setting is great, as are the new characters, but a few things don’t work. Firstly, a small part of the film draws attention to a possible romance between K and O (Alice Eve/Emma Thompson) which is never resolved. Second, a much larger amount of time is given to resolve J’s daddy issues. Why was this in the film? We don’t care about J’s past. Furthermore, between this, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Aladdin, why does every threequel feel the need to address this issue? And why always the third movie!?

Both of those subplots could be taken out at no expense to the rest of the story, but the story is good enough to make up for it. A lot of people didn’t see this because they thought it would suck, but it didn’t. It’s not as good as the first, but it’s miles ahead of the second and, honestly, better than it has any right to be. So get yourself some pie and watch it.

B+