Friday, January 21, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#21) Jack Nicholson's GOIN' SOUTH


I love Jack Nicholson.  That's just one of those common things to say, like "the sky is blue" or "chicken is yummy."  Sure, some of you out there may have been annoyed by Nicholson at times in some of his films, he's had his stumbles and sometimes been in some flawed films (one of which his most recent, How Do You Know).  But there's just something that is completely irresistible about his star quality and acting ability.  When Nicholson is on he's ON, but, like Pacino, he can also be subtle, calm, reserved, observant and generous as an actor to those around him like in the underrated The Pledge or even the quiet moments in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  There's barely a time I can find something wrong with what he does, unless, for the most part, if the character isn't written well or the other actors don't help.  He's "Jack", and I and most of the world enjoys watching him get away with something on screen, and with a grin and a eyebrow shuffle.

So it's with some sadness that I have to report that Goin' South isn't great art from an auteur.  No, thankfully, Nicholson already tried for that and (somewhat) succeeded with his first film as director, Drive, He Said (the only one of his three directed films that he didn't act in).  For this, it's a "movie" as Hollywood might say, and as my pop-in-law would say it's what could be categorized under "a hoot".  I'm not sure if it's the funniest western comedy... no, that's a lie, as nothing is technically better than Blazing Saddles.  But as a screwball Western, which is one of those rare breeds (maybe Cat Ballou also joins it or, unintentionally as comedy, Paint Your Wagon).  It's premise is right out of a screwball comedy, only if it were directed by Anthony Mann: an outlaw, one of a gang, gets caught by a possee trying to get to Mexico and is taken back to town to hang.  But before he's let loose at the gallows he's told of a provision that he can escape his demise if a woman goes to marry him.  A woman raises up her hand, an elderly woman, but she'll do... until two seconds later when she drops dead.  Doncha hate when that happens?

Is this cause of my song from Tommy?  It was just a joke!
Sweet Mary Steenburgen (her screen debut) then comes to Henry Lloyd Moon's fate, and the scraggly bearded Nicholson becomes her loyal wedded spouse.  Of course this doesn't mean she has any intimate feelings for the man, on the contrary her main goal is to put him to work as she's working at the mine to possibly find gold to stop a railroad company from taking over her land (yeah, it's one of those kind of dopey Western yarns).  It's from here that some predictable things happen, and not just those that one might expect from a romantic comedy.  Thankfully as it's the 1970's there's some rowdiness even in a PG-rated movie, including much innuendo, some drunken camera moves as Nicholson tries to sweet-talk his 'wife', and then Moon's old gang comes to call when they start sniffing some certain 'find' that he's gotten with Julia Tate-Moon.  Oh, there's some wackiness that ensues, and sometimes to do with John Belushi in a bad moustache.


Yeah, maybe not everything in the movie is funny, like John Belushi's moustache.  Thankfully his few minutes as a bandito-looking sheriff in the small town are more than amusing, and Nicholson ultimately reveals his skills at directing comedy.  Some of this is just from his own confidence at pulling off self-conscious hammy acting.  This is something that may get on viewers nerves, and may account for the IMDb.com rating being a 6.2/10, a decent but not very high rating.  For me it worked completely in the scewball style, which included details like how Christopher Lloyd's town-deputy had the hots for Julia and now can't stand it that Moon's finagled his way into becoming her husband (there's a hilarious scene where he goads him on, and Nicholson turns into a kind of kooky caricature that only Johnny Depp could have pulled off with vigor and goading).

So... Animal House... did you really break a bottle over your head?  Cool!
Not all of the movie works.  The end of the movie wraps up just a little too quick, despite a mostly exciting gun battle that is notably without much blood.  And the music is a little too goofy on the whole, though it's probably the point for it to sound like that with such a goofy story.  What did work for me worked very well, which was the chemistry between the two leads.  It doesn't seem apparent at first, but then again Julia seems to be a cold fish, workmanlike, maybe a tomboy who does a lot of "man's" work for the old-West, and Moon is such a misfit with a lust for drink and rascally facial expressions.  But it's always there, and the comedy that comes out of the awkwardness if genial and fun.  To be honest I'd rather see something a little eccentric like this than a Katharine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy comedy from the 40's, which would be more well-mannered in a way.

So, it sounds convoluted, but I end up in the future, that is a future movie ending up with Christopher Lloyd... yeah.  
Goin' South is best seen a down-and-dirty piece of gritty, eccentric-light comedy.  Nicholson's eye is fine if not superbly attuned as director for a genre piece (hence why I didn't bring up, you know, Sergio Leone or John Ford or someone so grandmaster in comparison, actually Anthony Mann is being generous).  He's helped largely by cinematography by the great Nestor Almendros, who gives some of the best contributions for those tight, claustrophobic scenes in the mine where it's all dark save for a lantern and the two faces of the stars.  And there's such a fun ensemble cast going on here, with Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Veronica Cartwright, Belushi (who may be a little too slapstick for me but has an accent that kills), and Ed Begley Jr, and there's always something for them when they come on-screen, especially when Moon's old gang comes moseying on over in the middle of the night to party down with the Moon couple.

Take it for that, and it's a good ride, and a respectable and professional piece of studio filmmaking that has just that touch of Nicholson rebellion and chance for craziness, mostly in that first fifteen-twenty minutes setting up the movie by almost killing its protagonist.

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ADDENDUM: (This made for a kind of odd evening.  At first I was anticipating once this movie ended to jump right into the newly revamped Roger Ebert At the Movies, which did premiere tonight in the NYC area on PBS.  But at the same time as I was watching the movie I paused momentarily and checked my Twitter feed... and I almost wish I had waited till it ended as I read the sad news that Countdown with Keith Olbermann was over as he was leaving the network - whether he quit or was fired it's still not said though he certainly wasn't through with his contract, besides the point - and it messed up my equilibrium watching this goofy movie with Nicholson in the 70's.

But the worst part was that I experienced, and not for the first time but most significantly, a major glitch in my Netflix-streaming watching.  One might think that the viewing experience would be close to perfect, but it's just that, close, but not quite cigar - the experience was tainted tonight by glitches in the viewing, or what are closest to being like skips, and then it suddenly just stopped (and this was about oh seven, eight minutes until the END OF THE MOVIE) and a loading bar showed up that said "Rebuffering".

It never rebuffered, and I had to turn it off to get on to Ebert's premiere.  If anyone else happens to have this problem while watching let me know unless if it's just a temporary thing or just something to do with the internet, at any rate this was quite annoying, not to mention that I had only stopped the film once before, about four minutes in, and then when I had to turn off my system - it turns off automatically after 20 minutes if I don't anyway - it didn't go back to where I'd left off but back to *four minutes into the movie*.

Sadly I've found in this month this has happened a couple other times, though not to the annoyance it's had tonight, especially as it's such a light affair.)

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