One of the best westerns I’ve seen, a medium cool, richly-layered drama that begs the question: where do old gun men go to die? The answer limits a lot of what I can say about this picture, but it is anchored by world-weary Tim Blake Nelson and sauced nicely by the ever-interesting Stephen Dorff (resurrected after True Detective, Season 3). What starts as a simple matter of competing interests and moral codes morphs into an increasingly taut mystery interwoven with a solid shoot ‘em up, one of those clusterfucks where, given the terror and adrenaline of the moment as well as the limitations of the weaponry, most people miss.
This is not the kind of vehicle you expect from the writer-director of Super Zeroes (“Two loser brothers and their simpleton roommate’s lives are forever changed when a mysterious meteor strikes their house”), but Potsy Ponciroli delivers the goods in this tale of fear of the past, secrets and loyalty.
One of the best of the year.
At 98 minutes, a Godsend. Currently on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Showtime.
My father introduced me to The Magnificent Seven when I was 7 years old. We were channel flipping, and we sat back on his big red sectional and settled in with a bowl of candy corn and circus peanuts. He told me the music was Elmer Bernstein doing Aaron Copland (he used to wake me and my brother up with “Fanfare for the Common Man” blasting from the hi-fi speaker set tailored made for a newly divorced man) and that the picture was based on a Japanese film. These tidbits were of no particular interest to me at the time. I was too busy trying to figure out who of the seven gunmen I wanted to grow up to be, and as the film progressed, I became increasingly alarmed at the potential demise of any or all of them. Indeed, as aptly put by one fan, “This is the sole reason we spent half of our preadolescence prancing around our houses with plastic guns, cowboy hats and an overwhelming desire to become heroes. Just like them.”
50 years later, I have come to the somewhat disheartening realization that I grew up to be none of the characters. Certainly not Yul Brynner, the cool as a cucumber King of Siam refashioned as a man in black. Nor Steve McQueen, the steady, wry “talker” of the crew (I can talk, but rarely in McQueen’s pithy homilies).
I never neared the lanky, laconic quick draw that was James Coburn, who utters the coolest line in film history
It gets no better than that, at 7 or 57.
Nor was I the brawny, decent Charles Bronson; the gold-greedy, laugh-having Brad Dexter; or the hot-headed kid who idolizes the crew (Horst Bucholz). Now, there are times I have felt as cowardly and unsure as Robert Vaughn, but in reality, I ended up being none of those dudes.
Half a century later, where mowing the lawn and an occasional campout are as close as I get to the frontier, I feel more like bad guy Eli Wallach, who runs into seven hired guns and damned if they didn’t all find Jesus at the same time. Wallach is a middle-management crook who steals what he wants from the peasants but otherwise, seems affable enough. And he can’t comprehend his bad luck. His last words, to Brynner:
“You came back for a place like this. Why? A man like you? Why?”
If you don’t know the film, the plot is simple. Six professional gunmen and one wannabe sign up for a pittance to protect a poor Mexican town that is being repeatedly ransacked and worse by a band of thugs led by Wallach. It is the best of 60s Hollywood. Strong characters, tight dialogue, solid action, sweeping cinematography, a rousing score, liberal sentiments (“You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground”) presented in conservative reality (“We deal in lead, friend”), and, to boot, a girl and a boy fall in love
Two asides. First, one has to hand it to director John Sturges for dexterous casting. A Russian Brynner plays a Cajun, and proud sons of Berlin (Bucholz) and Red Hook (Wallach) play Mexicans. Ah. Simpler times.
Paul Newman is ridiculous as an Apache but it’s as if he senses that fact in the first 10 minutes of the movie and just concludes, “Fuck it. I’ll just be Paul Newman.” That’s just what he does, and thankfully, from that point forward, all is well again in this Stagecoach-ish Martin Ritt western.
Newman and a group of misfits (including Martin Balsam doing his best Eli Wallach as a Mexican) share a stage to Bisbee and they are set upon by thieves/killers. Newman rises above the racism of his traveling companions (when they find out he is an Apache, they make him ride outside of the stage) and works to get them out of the jam.
It’s a tight script (based on Elmore Leonard story), it’s cynical, the ensemble is decently fleshed out, and it travels pretty well.
I caution you. I’m a sucker for westerns, especially modern ones, because they are so few and far between. The last good one was Open Range, and that was 15 years ago (I don’t consider the brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Fordto be a traditional western, but you have to go back to 2007 for that one, and the Coen Brothers True Grit from 2011 is a remake, so, it is also exempted).
I also concede that this film is a bit heavy on allegory and peace pipe mumbo-jumbo. That said, I loved it. Set in 1892, Christian Bale plays an embittered officer tasked with transporting an Indian chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana. It is a laborious task made even more so to Bale because a decade earlier, Studi massacred Bale’s men, much as Bale massacred many an Indian. During their trek, they come across a brutalized, in-shock Rosamund Pike, a frontier woman who lost everything to marauding Apache. Along with a dozen other supporting characters, the group makes it way through the forbidding and harsh land, and God help me for writing these words, but in the doing, they come to an understanding about each other and their past deeds. Written and directed by hit-or-miss Scott Cooper (Black Mass, Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), this is a sprawling, expertly shot picture with a heavy dose of melancholy and a serene, mystical side that evokes Terence Malick (in a good way). Several scenes were deeply affecting, and the acting is committed and mature.
I couldn’t get enough and will gladly suffer the slings and arrows of my position, because you damned cynics ruin everything.
Almost everything wrong with modern cinema is exhibited in the first five minutes of this 2016 loose remake of the John Sturges classic. The bad guy (Peter Sarsgaard) arrives to plague a town, the surrounding land of which he needs to rape, er, mine. He tortures a child, burns a church, shoots an unarmed man in front of his wife, and then, one of his men throws an axe into the back of a fleeing woman churchgoer.
That’s what the filmmakers believe is necessary for you to give a shit.
It ain’t nearly enough.
It’s an execrable film. The score is excessive and deafening. The western garb is better suited to a Manhattan runway. The heroes escape no demons, and no one ever misses a shot. Everyone is twirling a gun or a knife or a mustache. Marvel movies have more depth and gravitas. Video games carry greater danger.
Worse, the film is plotted by a moron. In a seminal scene, Chris Pratt (aka, Billy Rocks, I shit you not) takes all of the money from a poker table, yet within 15 minutes, he miraculously does not have the five dollars to buy back his own horse. Thus, he is enticed by Denzel Washington to save the town!
Speaking of Pratt, he is fundamentally, constitutionally unserious and insubstantial. He’s perfect for light, wiseacre comedy. He can’t do much else, and when he tries the hard stare, Lord, is it painful.
Five more dummies sign up for the suicide mission because, well, just because. I suppose some inducement comes in the form of a frontier gal whose husband was shot in front of her. Her pitiful story serves to secure Washington‘s agreement to save the town. Or maybe it was her cleavage, which seems discordant to her “I am just a simple farm woman” mien.
After Washington and Pratt, we get syrupy Southerner Ethan Hawke (hand to God, his name is Goodnight Robicheaux, and he had “23 confirmed kills at Antietam” – ha ha ha ha ha, you can’t make this dreck up); Vincent D’Onofrio (who comes off like Steinbeck’s Lenny had Lenny become a bounty hunter); the inevitable Indian (Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, who is mystical, perfectly painted and manicured, and accompanied by his own tom-tom score); and two other total nobodies, all of whom join up for similarly unexplained reasons.
Red Harvest is the easiest touch. Washington tells him, “we go to fight wicked men. Probably we all die” and Red Harvest is in. Washington did bring the gal with the ample bosom to this recruitment meeting, so maybe that did the trick. It is all I can figure.
Before signing on in cement, Red Harvest (which upon reflection sounds like a maize-based cereal rather than a fearsome warrior) does cut the heart out of a deer and makes Washington eat it. Later, Red Harvest kills a bad guy Indian, to whom he says, “You’re a disgrace.”
All to the tom-tom-tom-tom-tom-tom-tom score. Just in case we forgot Red Harvest was an Indian.
Of course, we learn in the end that Washington has a personal score to settle. Turns out Sarsgaard had men rape and murder Washington’s homesteader mother and sisters.
Which makes the recruitment effort by the buxom farm woman superfluous, as Washington should have been spending his every waking moment hunting Sarsgaard sintead of playing coy.
John Ford’s classic alternates between deft commentary on social strata, hypocrisy and manners and, for its time, jaw-dropping action (the chase scene at the end almost certainly had to result in many a broken bone, if not worse). Orson Welles studied the picture obsessively prior to Citizen Kane, and the film’s influence is evident in everything from Eastwood’s westerns to Tarantino’sThe Hateful Eight. As Eastwood correctly observed, “There’s something about the way he approached his subject that broke down clichés of the era.”
In the vein of these dimwitted times, you can leave it to Tarantino to lodge the standard p.c. indictment: “I hate him [Ford]. Forget about faceless Indians he killed like zombies. It really is people like that that kept alive this idea of Anglo-Saxon humanity compared to everybody else’s humanity—and the idea that that’s hogwash is a very new idea in relative terms.” Regardless, as is evident in Tarantino’s last film, which expertly apes and updates Ford’s socially diverse discourse, Ford’s influence is inescapable even if Tarantino believes himself immune to his charms. An excellent rebuttal to Tarantino’s juvenile approximation of Ford can be found here and properly notes:
His films don’t live apart from the shifts in American culture and the demands of the film industry, but in dialogue with them. Do those films provide the models of racial enlightenment that we expect today? Of course they don’t. On the other hand, they are far more nuanced and sophisticated in this regard than the streamlined commentaries that one reads about them, behaviorally, historically, and cinematically speaking, and the seeds of Ulzana’s Raid and Dead Man are already growing in Fort Apache and The Searchers. Is Ford’s vision “paternalistic?” I suppose it is (and that includes The Sun Shines Bright and Sergeant Rutledge), but the culture was paternalistic, and holding an artist working in a popular form to the standards of an activist or a statesman and condemning him for failing to escape the boundaries of his own moment is a fool’s game. Maybe it’s time to stop searching for moral perfection in artists.
The film also made John Wayne a star, and Ford’s introductory shot of the actor could hardly have done less:
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. Lee is also made apoplectic by Tarantino, who wades into race with a daring and incisiveness that obliterates Lee’s rote and easy observations. As it turns out, Lee and Jackson have achieved a rapprochement (they do commercials together), but any rift between Lee and Tarantino is settled by Jackson (“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,”).
Also, Jackson 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.
Director-writer John Maclean has crafted a hypnotic 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, patient 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 owe it to better filmmakers who rejected sweeping camera shots, Aaron Coplandesque scores, and stories where you have heroes, villains, and a town that appears both sterile and old-timey. Like a Disney ride.
The film has a few inspired moments. Scott Glen’s opening shootout rising above White Rock, New Mexico is memorable and the final Kevin Kline/Brian Dennehy gunfight in the middle of the windy town rises above the hackneyed. 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.
“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 clean, and for each of our enlightened characters, there are ten chaw-spitting, sneering henchmen to assure us of their goodness (including Jeff “Evil Eyes” Fahey).
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