Archive

Western

image

Almost everything wrong with modern cinema is exhibited in the first five minutes of this 2016 loose remake. The bad guy (Peter Sarsgaard) arrives like Lex Luthor 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.

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!  He really needs that horse.

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. It is her pitiful story that serves to secure Washington‘s agreement to save the town. Thankfully, she shows cleavage throughout, even though she tells Washington, “I am just a simple farm woman.“

image

Come on.

After Washington and Pratt, we get syrupy Southerner Ethan Hawke (swear to God, his name is Goodnight Robicheaux, and he had “23 confirmed kills at Antietam” – ha ha ha ha ha), Vincent D’Onofrio (he comes off like Steinbeck’s Lenny had he 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. The third thing Washington says to Red Harvest is, “we go to fight wicked men.  Probably we all die.“ The Indian wordlessly and naturally joins up.  Again, Washington did bring the gal with the ample bosom to this recruitment meeting. It is all I can figure.

Wait. First, Red Harvest (which upon reflection sounds like a maize-based cereal rather than a fearsome warrior) cuts the heart out of a deer and makes Washington eat it. Then he joins up.  And later, kills a bad guy Indian, to whom he says, “You’re a disgrace.”  That’s the Indian way.

Of course, we learn in the end that Washington has a personal score to settle.  Because Sarsgaard had men rape and murder his 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.  Or, Washington is just kind of a flighty pussy.

The re-creation of the famous James Coburn knife scene is nothing less than an abortion, but thankfully, it is the only thing the filmmakers try and lift from the original, and accordingly, the only thing defensible about this movie.

Advertisements

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’s The 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:

Methinks the fix was in.

image

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.

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.

image

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.