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Key Largo melded with Quentin Tarantino’s bravura scenes in Inglorious Basterds and his crackling dialogue in Reservoir Dogs. I had the pleasure of watching this picture on Christmas Day in 70mm at the AFI Silver Theater, complete with an overture and an intermission. The latter occurred after 1:46 minutes, and I remarked to my son that the film was flying by, particularly so because almost all that had occurred was conversation. Obviously, a Tarantino film cannot subsist on talk alone, but when the violence occurs, it is supported by the rich, if broad, characters developed beforehand (unlike in Django, where the carnage at the end felt like an indulgent spasm, revealing an insecurity at what came before).

It’s one of the best films of the year and it’s also one that should not be in any way spoiled by a plot summary or any other commentary that could lessen the fun. Accordingly, I’ll make my review brief and non-specific in the form of a few notes.

First, Spike Lee once disrespected Samuel L. Jackson when the latter was a working character actor and the former was the auteur du jour who had not yet shown himself to be a one trick pony. Lee is also made apoplectic by Tarantino, who wades into race with a verve and incisiveness that obliterates Lee’s ponderous admonitions. As it turns out, Lee and Jackson have achieved a rapprochement, which is good, because of late, even if his films aren’t as interesting, Lee himself has become more so. Which is a long way to get to saying that Jackson is one of the most electric and fascinating actors we have; that his own observations are refreshingly non b.s. (“Spike saying, ‘I’m not going to see Django because it’s an insult to my ancestors’? It’s fine if you think that, but then you have nothing else to say about the movie, period, because you don’t know if Quentin insulted your ancestors or not,”); and that he should receive an honorary Oscar for this alone:

This is an ensemble picture but it’s Jackson’s picture (though costars Walter Goggins and Jennifer Jason Leigh give him a run for his money).

Second, Tarantino masterfully blends genre, history, comic books and violence, but sometimes, it is to the detriment of his narrative. Not here. When the necessary resolution explodes, it’s almost a disappointment because you know there will be less talk. Tarantino’s script is razor-sharp, hilarious, suspenseful and a brilliant mix of modern pop culture and historical grievance.  It’s really something.

Third, I generally do not read any reviews or commentary about a film before seeing it or writing my own review, and I did not do so here. But I presume there is the same hullabaloo about Tarantino’s liberal use of racial and sexist insults. All I can say is that he uses them beautifully, like David Milch in Deadwood.  This is how you would expect low, dangerous comic book characters who steal and murder to parlay.  Any objection is likely coming from the same humorless prigs or their progeny who objected to the hyenas in The Lion King because they were villains voiced by minorities. In fact, in creating a movie depicting a roomful of lethal people who must sleep with one eye open as they brave a blizzard and their own treachery, opprobrium aside, it’s one of the most egalitarian rooms you’ll find in film.

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Director-writer John Maclean has crafted a mesmerizing fable, an ingenious tweak on the western that bundles the innocence of Wes Anderson, the sly cynicism of the Coen Brothers, and the quiet, stunning visuals of Terence Malick. Maclean has us follow a Scottish naif (Kodi Smit-McPhee, presenting more Australian than Scottish, but no matter) as he travels through the Colorado territory, clueless and not long for the world until he is taken under the wing of an experienced gunman (Michael Fassbender). Smit-McPhee is on a quest to find his true love and Fassbender is in it for the cash, but as they wend their way through an expanse that is vast, surreal and sporadically lethal, they develop a bond that seals their fates. The cinematography is stunning, and Maclean’s confidence and patience are all the more impressive given this is his first feature. There are times you feel the scene has near been painted, until Maclean shatters it with violence. I was surprised to see many critics hail the picture as a revisionist western or an action film. It dabbles a little in both, but the heart of the picture is in the dreamy world of child’s myth and unrequited love. This is a beautiful, languorous picture, to be watched on a large screen with no interruption. Available on Amazon Prime streaming.

Lawrence Kasdan sought to revive the western, and thank God his vision of it failed.  We can thank better filmmakers for rejecting settling for sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where all the heroes are Clean Gene goody-goodies spouting banal, wistful tripe.

It has a few inspired moments, such as Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town.  Kevin Costner also showed real personality as Glen’s wild younger brother.

Other than that, it’s pretty awful, made even more silly by the gritty realism that followed in Unforgiven and HBO’s Deadwood.  Nobody misses when they shoot, even with a pistol from hundreds of yards away.  The town of Silverado also has the best and quickest dry cleaners around, because everyone looks so damn fine in their cowboy get-ups.

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Ladies and gents, The Village People!”

The language and attitudes are as new as the fashion.  Danny Glover is enlisted as the proud, honorable messenger of racial tolerance; Roseanna Arquette is the feminist landowner; and Kline is a gunslinger with a sweet disposition towards animals and women (Kline’s casting is peculiar; he seems too nice to be the town barber much less a desperado).  It’s all very precious, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness.  Bad picture, getting worse every day.

I only thought of this film because of Deadspin’s ode to Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday, and on reflection, Kilmer’s performance is not only the best thing about this western, it’s the only good thing about it. Thus, to have one performance account for 2.5 stars – that’s really something. But Kilmer’s languid, dissipated Holliday is a treat to behold.  He is having a blast with the role, and while everyone else is somber or uncomfortable (or both), he chews and chews and chews.

Unfortunately, no one else (except perhaps Powers Boothe, who actually twirls his mustache as the evil leader of the redlegs, Curly Bill) is having any fun. The Earps (Kurt Russell, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton) are dull as dishwater, particularly Russell as Wyatt, who decides that fury and blue eyes will see him through.  The villains, and there are scads of them from any number of sitcoms, look like they’re at cowboy camp. In fact, this whole movie has a certain slipshod, Eagles photo-shoot for Desperado quality to it.

The women are weak as well. As Kilmer’s moll, Joanna Pacula is just a hair shy of the cartoon Natasha, and Dana Delaney as Wyatt’s love interest lacks the lustful lure necessary to break down a rigid lawman. Delaney is a school marm, not a vamp; she doesn’t sizzle so much as reach room temperature.

Director George Cosmatos’ best efforts besides this leaden dog are Stallone vehicles, Cobra and Rambo: First Blood Part II. After Tombstone, he got one more feature (a Charlie Sheen vehicle) and that was that (he died in 2005). After Tombstone, which is a pedestrian, forgettable, script, writer Kevin Jarre penned The Devil’s Own and The Mummy and, again, that was that.

But oh what Kilmer does with what he’s given:

The charms of the character are legion.  As explained by Kilmer in a recent interview:

So Bob Dylan loves “Tombstone”, It turns out. I found out he was in New York so I called my friend and I said you know, I’d love to meet him, is there any chance and he says, “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” And the next call I got I thought was going to be my friend, but it wasn’t, it was Bob.

I was real excited, like a crazy fan, like a child; it was so great. Basically it was like nothing. It was like we were old friends, it was like “you want to come over?” and he was like, “yeah.” So, hangs up the phone, I was newly married and we had a baby and I went in and said “I think Bob Dylan’s coming over…I’m not sure, it could be a hoax…” 

He shows up and sits down and he wants to talk about “Tombstone”, but I just can’t, you know, nor can I talk about any of his stuff. Eventually he says, ‘ain’t you going to say anything about that movie?’ and I said, “do some ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and I’ll…” 

That’s what I said to him, basically I said no. I get like that sometimes. So I turned him down and, I thought, no one turns this guy down. Anyway, I felt like an idiot afterwards, well, yeah I could have said a few lines. They’re fun lines too, like people still ask me to say lines and now I’ll tell any schmo in the airport, I’ll say “I’m your huckleberry”, but I wouldn’t say it Bob Dylan! 

I felt so bad about it. I was like how could I make it up to him? So what I did was, I recorded “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” but as Doc Holiday and I put in all of the big lines from the movie into the song and made him a little tape

Was John Wayne being an old Green Beret stick-in-the-mud when, after seeing High Plains Drifter, he wrote to its director and star Clint Eastwood, “This isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country”?

Wayne was never a lover of nuance, and he had little patience for depicting the darker side of the American psyche, as is evident from his evaluation of another film: “High Noon was the most un-American thing I have ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ol’ Coop [Gary Cooper] putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it. I’ll never regret having run [screenwriter Carl Foreman] out of this country.”

Eastwood second directorial effort was released in 1973, and he wasn’t interested in Wayne’s myth.  It was a time of callous selfishness and a vicious appraisal of the institutions so revered by Wayne, hardly the environment for an uplifting Western about the strong stock of the frontier.

Eastwood’s story of a drifter returning incognito to the town that ran him out via a brutal whipping is assured (he was clearly taking mental notes when directed by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel with this bizarre, even trippy revenge flick).  It is also supremely cynical.  Nearly everyone in the town is guilty of either directing the whipping or standing by when it happened, frauds and cowards all, and these villains unwittingly give Eastwood a run of the place so he’ll protect them from the very same thugs (newly released from prison) the town set on Eastwood. Eastwood enjoys the power, as well as sticking it to townsfolk for their hypocrisy, per this exchange with a preacher upbraiding Eastwood for evicting people from the town hotel:

PREACHER
You can’t turn all these people out into the night. It is inhuman, brother. Inhuman!

EASTWOOD
I’m not your brother.

PREACHER
We are all brothers in the eyes of God.

EASTWOOD
All these people, are they your sisters and brothers?

PREACHER
They most certainly are!

EASTWOOD
Then you won’t mind if they stay at your place, will ya?

PREACHER
All right, folks, let’s go. Put your bags here. Friends, don’t worry. We shall find haven for you in our own homes… and it won’t cost you one cent more than regular hotel rates.

But let’s not dismiss that old fuddy duddy Wayne out of hand.  High Plains Drifter is also groundbreaking in a different, uglier way. Eastwood’s character rapes a woman in the first 15 minutes of the film, yet his status as the anti-hero is none the worse for wear. While she was a complicit bystander in his whipping, even cheering, when she tries to shoot Eastwood (and misses), he asks, “I wonder why it took her so long to get mad?” to which a character replies, “Because maybe you didn’t go back for more.”

Compare and contrast Wayne: “I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either” and you can better understand his distaste.

The first of Sergio Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” trilogy with Clint Eastwood’s “Man with no Name”, A Fistful of Dollars was actually shot in Spain. I guess “Paella Western” wasn’t an option.

Eastwood comes to a town at war. Two families seek the upper hand, and Eastwood shuttles between one and the other for the cash.

The picture sports the tell-tale Ennio Morricone score, featured in the opening credits:

As fun as it can be, the movie is a bit stilted. Leone’s visuals are ambitious but his sweep is not yet broad, and like Sean Connery as James Bond in Dr. No, Eastwood is still working on his persona and lacks gravitas (interestingly, Eastwood was Leone’s eight or ninth choice, behind Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and others). The entire cast, Eastwood excluded, is foreign and the dubbing is spotty (in the case of a crying child, I was immediately reminded of the dubbing in the Japanese animated series, Speed Racer).

This film ends up being a critical warm-up to the better For a Few Dollars More and its classic follow-up, The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.

Andrew Dominic’s moody, elegiac picture evokes Terence Malick’s imagery from Days of Heaven and Walter Hill’s sense of time in The Long Riders. As Ford, Casey Affleck is mesmerizing, and Brad Pitt’s depiction of James as a manic-depressive sociopath is chilling. Their performances are enhanced by Dominic’s sweeping, beautiful vistas (the film drew an Oscar nod for best cinematography) and a mournful score courtesy of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

A $30 million western without a single shootout (at least, one involving Jesse James) is destined to make a mere $3 million back domestic, but this film is more about hero worship, fame-seeking and insecurity than the violent exploits of the James gang. Affleck, who was nominated for best supporting actor, subtly communicates living in the shadow of Jesse James, traversing the path from awe for a legend to anger over his idol’s coldness and indifference to maturation and resolve as James becomes more suspicious, mercurial and dangerous. Ford’s likening of himself to James in the great killer’s presence, which can be found below, is startling in its honesty and vulnerability.

Affleck and Pitt receive strong support, including Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider as feuding gang members, but as ever, Sam Rockwell near steals the picture as Charlie Ford, playing dumb but whipsmart and canny. Garret Dilahunt (Deadwood) is also resonant as a doomed and dim Ed Miller.

Upon first review, I wrote, “a glaring fault is an unnecessary voice over narrative, the voice being similar to that of David McCullough. The effect is redundancy and a PBS/History Channel vibe.”  I also gently criticized the picture on its length.  I recently saw it again and I was wrong on both counts.  The voice over is not obtrusive nor is it merely aping what is happening on screen.  Rather, it enhances the film’s tragic nature (this is a ghostly western and a movie about one of the first celebrity screw-ups) with an explanation as to how it fits historically and personally.  And I was sorry to see it end.

This is a unique, accomplished period piece.