The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Ant-Man and the Wasp
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All Critics (11)
| Top Critics (3)
| Fresh (6)
| Rotten (5)
No matter how well you know this tale, it still packs a wallop.
Despite the powers of the cast, especially the powerful Ethan and the intense Allen, the drama proves thin and slow as your proverbial molasses in January.
An adult fairy tale challenging us to follow the imperatives of our hearts or risk losing our souls.
Even when you know it is coming, it still takes your breath away.
And so begins the career of John Madden... the English film director (not the football guy), and if you don't know who that is, well, then you're probably not reading this review, because I doubt you know enough about this film to be mildly interested in what I have to say about it. I suppose Liam Neeson saw a reasonable amount of success as the lead in "Darkman"... a film that mostly featured him covering his face, but man, even with all of the starring roles and charisma, Neeson was having a lot of trouble breaking out during the early years of his career, and needless to say, this film didn't exactly help out. Of course, this film did come out the same year as "Schindler's List", so I reckon it's safe to say that it is, in fact, nice to have a backup plan sometimes. Well, people, it would appear that Steven Spielberg first stole John Madden's chance at making a megastar before he stole Madden's Best Director Oscar, but it's okay, because Madden did ultimately steal Best Picture from "Saving Private Ryan". Well, I don't really know how okay that is, because while I really like "Shakespeare in Love", it is anything but "Saving Private Ryan", and apparently I'm not the only guy who feels that way, because losing the Oscar only get Spielberg more attention, and Madden even less, if that's possible. Man, even Liam Neeson can catch a break quicker than Madden, who you think would have at least stood a chance of breaking out right after this, his first film, because as popular as "Schindler's List" was, you would think that there would be more people accidentally stumbling upon this film when seeing about a period drama in 1993 starring Liam Neeson. Hey, maybe that did happen, it's just that people quickly forgot about this film when they finally got around to "Schindler's List", because even though this film is decent, its memorability is shaken enough by its own, non-comparison problems.
The film is a British-American project, but many of the storytelling sensibilities are distinctly British, with the most notable British trait being a certain dryness to the atmosphere that isn't as considerable as I feared it would be, to where dullness ever ensues, but still stands and dries up much flavor in storytelling, leaving blandness to be firmly set and remind you on the limp areas in the written story structure, which doesn't have a whole lot momentum to plotting, and therefore gets kind of repetitious after a while. In terms of consequential shortcomings, rather than natural ones, I suppose blandness is the worst thing that can be said about this film, because when things slow down, they really slow down, never to where I found myself all that bored, but decidedly to where my investment got shaken a bit. Needless to say, my investment in this narrative was further shaken by plotting's limping along a familiar path, because as if the limpness doesn't bland things up enough, storytelling's conventionalism further distances your investment because you grow to figure where exactly this film is heading, thanks to many a trope within Richard Nelson's script, which puts little care into doing anything all that refreshing with this subject matter. I wish that there was more effort put into keeping things from getting too formulaic, and I certainly wish that there was more effort put into keeping the atmosphere lively, but the film just ends up limping out under the weight of its consequential shortcomings, of which there are only so many. Quite frankly, what really does this film in as underwhelming is its basic story concept's being arguably just as limp as the execution of the concept, because even if there weren't too many slow spells, and if the conventionalism was easier to ignore, there's no washing away the thinness within this drama which offers only so much that's all that memorable. There's just not a whole lot to this film, and sure, what kick there is to the final product proves to be endearing, but in the end, this is nothing that was ever to firmly grip your investment, whose being further distanced by rather bland and formulaic storytelling makes this effort an ultimately underwhelming one. Nonetheless, the film keeps you going more often than not, being nothing too special, but something inspired enough to be enjoyable, even on a musical level.
Okay, like the film itself, there's not much that's all that special about this effort's musical aspects, not just because Rachel Portman's score gets to be underused in this rather dryly quiet drama, but because the score itself gets to be about as blandly formulaic as the final product's storytelling, so you shouldn't even go into this film expecting all that much musical flavor, yet you can expect the score to still cut through its underwhelmingness enough color things up to a certain degree with a fair bit of tastefulness, kind of like the look of the film. The visuals of this film are about as commendable as Portman's score, in that they're not all that heavily played up, and when they are, they offer little that's all that flavorful, yet remain adequately impressive, with Bobby Bukowski's cinematography having gorgeously sparse plays with lighting, while art director David Crank sets up a look for the film that handsomely plays upon anything from convincing production value to near-wonderful locations. The film looks lovely at times, and when it doesn't, I suppose its reasonably handsome enough to attract your eye while it waits for a visual to really widen it, but on the whole, even the visual style of the film is kind of lacking in flavor, so if entertainment value is to be kept alive, then we're going to need some liveliness out of the bland storytelling and dramatically thin story concept. Well, as those adjectives will tell you, storytelling is most definitely not as thrilling as it probably should be, but really, as much as I complain about how bland and formulaic this plot is, the story concept is charmingly tender, and John Madden's directorial execution of such a story is with its share of dramatic highlights amidst a consistent degree of endearing charm. The film has heart, and that makes it thoroughly attractive in terms of charm, and that in turn graces entertainment value with some reinforcement, until the genuine high points in relative dramatic effectiveness come into play and further win you over, partially thanks to the performers' noble efforts. Seeing as how this film is dramatically thin, it doesn't give our performers much to do, and many of the members of this cast weren't strong enough at the time to fully compensate enough to carry the performances out of underwhelmingness, but there are talents - particularly within the higher regions in the billing - who had enough winning value by 1993, alone, to earn your investment in their characters as reasonably effective, maybe even compelling as the driving forces for this meditative character drama. The performers certainly deliver on decent chemistry, and enough of it to sell you on the relationships which are every bit as instrumental to the depths of this story as the individual characters by their own right, and do so with the very charm that powers storytelling, whose heart is rich enough for you to see the highlights within this story concept and to be won over as adequately entertained, no matter how much you wish this film had more going for it.
Overall, bland spells, powered by dry storytelling and predictability sparked through formulaic storytelling, help in making the natural dramatic thinness too hard to ignore as detrimental to engagement value, which isn't so thinned out that decent score work and visuals, a tender story, charmingly and sometimes effectively heartfelt direction and generally inspired acting can't make "Ethan Frome" an endearing and occasionally compelling, if ultimately rather forgettable drama.
2.5/5 - Fair
Love Liam Neeson. Hate Patricia Arquette. If it wasn't for her, this movie might have been decent. But, alas...
Frickin' good. Too bad that many others that I know have not even heard of the film let alone seeing it. A true gem from Neeson.
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