Thursday, November 30, 2017

Roger Moore as 007: An Appreciation

This past May cinema lost one of its most iconic actors with the passing of Roger Moore. Over the past month I went back and revisited all seven James Bond films he starred in as 007, a run that began with Live and Let Die in 1973 and ended with A View To a Kill in 1985. Many of these I had not watched in years so it was like discovering them all over again. 

For the most part they have aged well. For years, I considered Connery films to be better since they were more realistic and avoided the camp so often associated with the Moore films. And while there were some moments that were a bridge too far, for example the ridiculous space battle in Moonraker, he brought a knowing sense of fun and intelligence to all the films.

Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with most of Moore's work outside of the Bond franchise. He was steady performer on television during the 1960s and 1970s, most famously as The Saint. I also need to see some of his films outside of the Bond franchise such as Gold and Shout at the Devil. After leaving the Bond franchise, he went into semi retirement. He also devoted much of his time to being an ambassador at large for UNICEF and other philanthropic causes.

The Films

Producers had had been eyeing Moore since the early 1960s as a contender for the role, finally at age 45 he got the part after Connery did not return after finishing Diamonds Are Forever. 

Live and Let Die (1973) ***1/2

Live and Let Die gave Bond a new look and sound, with Paul McCartney writing the soundtrack. The story also took some creative risks, this time 007 takes on the global drug trade. After three fellow agents are killed, Bond is sent to the Caribbean to investigate. The film took inspiration from the popular Blaxploitation genre of the mid 1970s. A young Yaphet Kotto plays the main villain Mr. Big, a drug kingpin out to build an empire. The best sequence takes place in Harlem where Bond is hilariously out of his comfort zone. Jane Seymour made her big screen debut as Solitare. 

The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) ***

Bond must prevent an international assassin from endangering England's energy supply. Moore goes mano to mano with a devilish Christopher Lee. Most of the action takes place in Asia - Macau, Thailand, and Hong Kong also makes The Man With the Golden Gun an enticing travelogue. The best of the Lo-Fi Bond films.

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) ***

Moore's first "big" Bond film pits him against a mad man out to destroy the world. Bond teams up with a beautiful KGB agent XXX (Barbara Bach) to prevent world destruction. Many consider this a remake of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, so it does go back to the well up to a certain point. Richard Kiel leaves a lasting impression as the steel toothed henchman Jaws. The opening sequence is stunning and the theme by Marvin Hamlisch with vocals by Carly Simon is one of the best in the series.

Moonraker (1979) ***

Of all the films I revisited, Moonraker was the most surprising. It's well paced and builds up to a wonderfully ridiculous conclusion. Moore lets the puns fly as he tracks the strange doings of Hugo Drax (Elon Musk type character) as the most chill villain in 007 history. Jaws even returns and is given something of a character arc. 

For Your Eyes Only (1981) **1/2

Maybe the most divisive Bond film ever made. After the over the top Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only features a more realistic plot with less of an emphasis on stunts and gadgets. Moore gives another fine performance, but I find the film itself to be a slog. The bad guys are forgettable and the stakes are almost too low for a Bond film, if 30 minutes were cut out the film would be leaner and perhaps more memorable. Best moment: Moore coldly dispatches of a bad guy by kicking his car down a cliff! 

Octopussy (1983) ***

Moore's most underrated Bond film. More engaging than its predecessor, the plot reverts back to Cold War intrigue of the early films. The action stretches from India to East Berlin and leads to a nail biting conclusion. Well plotted and acted, Octopussy marked the high point of Moore's tenure.

A View To A Kill (1985) **

Unfortunately, a failure on all counts. Christopher Walken is underwhelming as the generic bad guy, a product of Nazi eugenics. Moore seemed exhausted with the role. Old enough to be the father of his love interest, he decided it was time to move on. He deserved a better exit from the franchise, why not an adaptation of Casino Royale? There's a great film to yet to be made about an aging Bond (I don't consider Never Say Never Again to be canon). 

Taking Stock

Following Sean Connery would tough act for any actor to follow, yet Moore managed to pull it off. While his films have a different tone than Connery's, they are entertaining and never dreary. Moore kept the series alive in the 1970s and 1980s, keeping the 1960s icon relevant. 

What made Moore different than Connery? Certainly his movies had a lighter touch, an eye more towards comedy, romance, and adventure. Not as physically threatening as his predecessor, he made up for it with his innate charm and intelligence. Although there were times when Moore could be a ruthless Bond, those moments were few and far between.

All the Moore films have aged well. The "camp" approach of some of these films, especially The Man With the Golden Gun and Moonraker, may be out of step with what modern audiences expect in a James Bond movie, yet they make a nice contrast to the cold tone of the Daniel Craig films. Thankfully, Moore made his movies their own thing, distinct and separate from the rest.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Suburbicon *** (2017)

In George Clooney's sixth directorial effort he revisits the Cold War culture he portrayed in his previous films Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck. Matt Damon stars in one of his darker performances as a devious man in the gray flannel suit. Suburbicon was a bold dark comedy written by the Coen brothers over 30 years ago, and one can see the DNA of movies like Fargo and Blood Simple. Clooney and producer Grant Heslov reworked the script into not a perfect movie, an enjoyable and prescient one.

The movie opens with a parody of 1950s documentaries that championed the bright new suburban neighborhoods as new utopias. Then we follow a mailman cheerfully delivering letters until he comes upon a house with an African-American family moving in and his mood quickly changes. At the house next door a boy sits with his mother and aunt and they entice him to play baseball with the "colored boy."

Matt Damon is an overweight schemer, channeling John Belushi in Neighbors. Julianne Moore plays two roles: wife and sister. Oscar Isaac appears all too briefly as an insurance investigator. Damon shows a good timing for dark comedy and has fun playing against his persona. Noah Jupe, a child actor, gives the best performance and a provides a human element to the film.

Suburbicon sat on the shelf for a few years. Although it has taken a drubbing from critics, I've seen few films that better suit the current political mood. The sight of angry white people raging over accepting diversity hits a little too close to home, much as Kathryn Bigelow's film Detroit did a few months ago. The moral rot that Clooney identifies in 1950s values is a direct slam on the MAGA crowd who consider the era a golden age. 

Suburbicon is a bizarro Spielberg world by way of Rod Serling with dashes of Hitchcock at his devilish best. Some of the uncanny imagery channels the absurdity of the Coens. Suburbicon has potential for attaining cult classic status.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) ***1/2 (2017)

Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller star as half brothers in Noah Baumbach's latest family drama that's available on Netflix. Dustin Hoffman plays the family patriarch Harold, an artist in his twilight years constantly worried about his legacy. Danny (Sandler) is a former house husband who must figure out his next step as his daughter Eliza prepares to leave for college. Matthew (Stiller) is a successful businessman still seeking the approval of Harold. 

A film made in segments, with each chapter focusing on a specific character, gives the film a literary quality. As usual Baumbach's writing is superb, right up there with his previous films The Squid and the Whale and Greenberg. Sandler displays his range and great potential when given a good script. His scenes with Stiller are especially good. Hoffman gives one of his best performances in years.

The Meyerowtiz Stories features a stellar supporting cast. Emma Thompson as Harold's boozy wife, Elizabeth Marvel as the younger sister, and especially Grace Van Patten as Eliza. Adam Driver, Judd Hirsch, and Candice Bergin also appear.

The film also has the feel of a J.D. Salinger story with all the terse dialogue and mundane situations that take a surreal turn. Saul Bellow and John Updike also come to mind.  

Eliza's the best hope for the family's future, a well adjusted millennial who somehow navigates the emotional minefields of the past.

Baumbach dares to create unlikable characters and allows you to appreciate their character flaws. He makes them relatable. Even though Danny and Matthew have taken different paths in life they still care about each other. Despite all of Harold's bitter sarcasm there's something moving about his love for the Mets. A wonderful character portrait. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Allied (2016) ***

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star in an old fashioned World War II drama/espionage thriller Allied that's both suspenseful and emotional. Directed by Robert Zemeckis with a pristine sense of period detail, the film recalls the literature of Graham Green and Elizabeth Bowen. 

Max (Pitt) is a Canadian who works for British Intelligence in North Africa where he meets his contact Marianne (Cotillard) who is with the French Resistance. Their mission is a success and they get married. Then the movie shifts to wartime London, where Max begins to suspect whether Marianne's been totally honest with him.

There are excellent set pieces and an outstanding supporting cast. The terror of living in London during the blitz is realistic and frightening. The two leads have a strong chemistry and the story's full of surprises. 

Now that Zemeckis has come out of his animation phase, he's turned his attention to stirring historical thrillers of another era, much like his onetime mentor Spielberg. Allied is never boring and tells its story with precision and wit. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 *** (2017)

Blade Runner 2049 takes its stylistic cues from the original 1982 film, yet at the same time offers a different vision that's just as striking and imaginative. Ryan Gosling stars as a blade runner, one who hunts down replicants, artificial beings who are not allowed to live on earth. In the original film, Harrison Ford starred as a blade runner who finds himself caught up in corporate intrigue that will shape the future. In the sequel, even deeper questions are posed on the fate of humanity and the inevitability of digital intelligence.

In 2049, the world is still reeling from an environmental catastrophe. Los Angeles resembles modern Tokyo and the lines between human and replicant have narrowed. Gosling plays "K." The investigation he pursues is more convoluted than Humphrey Bogart's in The Big Sleep. Yet each scene offers visually stunning and thought provoking moments. 

One things is clear as I watched Blade Runner 2049, humans will be forced to deal with real world consequence of artificial intelligence. That's the key idea the film attempts to address. The original mused on what it means to be human. The sequel asks even more complicated questions with the assumption that humans are destined to disappear: What will the legacy be when our forebears take the reins?

That's heady stuff. I think that's why audiences are not responding with rave reviews (many walked out at the screening I attended). Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is a cold film. It's a specific vision from Jacques Villeneuve, who directed another Sci-Fi classic last year with Arrival. Hampon Fancher's (writer on the 1982 film) screenplay is dense, yet brilliantly brought to the screen.

Harrison Ford reprises his role and appears in the second half, yet somehow seems irrelevant to the overall arc of the film. Still, he brings some humanity to the dour proceedings. 

There's much to process with Blade Runner 2049: the nature of human/machine relationships, the consequences of climate change, and a post-human future. It dares to be difficult and pessimistic. Many will consider it pretentious and overlong.  I predict it will age well. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Last House on the Left ***1/2 (1972)

Wes Craven's debut feature film, infamous for its time, is an extremely bizarre mixture of family drama, exploitative crime fiction, shocking horror, and slapstick comedy.  Despite the grainy look and weirdo soundtrack The Last House on the Left succeeds as a worthy response to the bleak early 1970s.

The Last House on the Left begins as fractured Hallmark commercial as young Mari prepares to attend a rock concert for her 17th birthday against the wishes of her humdrum middle class parents. She's accompanied by her free spirit friend Phyllis. They want to score some pot and they approach a sketchy looking dude on a dark street who invites them up to his apartment. Up there waiting are viscous, but all too human, group of violent criminals. What follows is horrific.

Through a series of coincidences, the gang of criminals end up as house guests of Mari's grieving parents. In the last act the parents take revenge, revealing themselves to be just as depraved as the thugs. Spliced throughout the film are scenes following two idiotic cops who are on the case, scenes that are played as straight up comedy and feel like they belong in a separate movie. A touch that adds another level to the terror.

The Last House on the Left brings to mind many other films of the period.  A Clockwork Orange is an obvious parallel, especially in the flip side nature of both films. Craven is clearly condemning violence, regardless of who commits it, while Kubrick's stance is more ambiguous. In terms of style and look, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes to mind, both have a creepy cinema verite influence, forcing the audience to feel like a spectacle to the horror. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead inspired all these movies, especially with its absurd sense of reality.

Craven admitted to being ignorant of the horror genre at the time The Last House on the Left was written. It's a far cry from the self reflexive tone of modern horror gems like It Follows (ironically Craven invented the approach with Scream.) The final result struck many as a sick and convoluted mess. I would compare Last House to a crazy cocktail mixture; there's a method to the madness.  You don't walk away feeling good (queasy more likely), but it's definitely an experience. Remember, It's only a movie.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Salem's Lot ***1/2 (1979)

The 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King's second novel Salem's Lot made a memorable impression on audiences, especially young people who were scared out of their wits. King's tale of a New England town being taken over by vampires drew upon a variety of influences: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Peyton Place. Tobe Hooper's direction is sure and steady, effectively building up suspense with an array of characters, in direct contrast to his legendary exploitation flick The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

David Soul stars as a writer who returns to his hometown to research a novel and discovers something is rotten in the state of Denmark. The new owner of the antiques store, devilishly played James Mason, wants to remake the town in his own image. 

There's a charming quality to Salem's Lot: the production is rickety and well acted. The cast is full of great television actors including Ed Flanders. Bonnie Bedelia, and many more. The deliberate pace will annoy younger audiences (I've not seen the two hour version), but the payoffs are worth it. The jump scares are unforgettable.

I doubt there will ever be a motion picture made of Salem's Lot since the Tobe Hooper version is so unique, imagine a horror movie directed by Norman Rockwell. The town looks great and there's a perverse pleasure in watching the rot gradually being revealed: that's the world of Stephen King. Maybe not the best adaptation, but one of the most loyal to the source material.

Monday, October 9, 2017

American Made *** (2017)

Now in the fourth decade of his career, Tom Cruise soldiers on as one of the last true movie stars. America Made proves to be a film that works for Cruise as a star vehicle - up to a certain point. 

Based on a true story, Cruise plays a bored commercial airline pilot Barry Seal in the late 1970s. One day's he's approached by a "government official" played by Domnall Gleason who offers Barry a job of taking photographs from his plane of locations in Central America. Barry jumps at the opportunity and eventually finds himself working for drug cartels and eventually at the center of the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Other films have covered similar ground such Lord of War with Nicholas Cage and War Dogs from 2014, movies that force opportunist characters to face the reality of the situation. American Made refuses to put the audience through that, it's more of an amusement park ride with Cruise at the helm. A good old boy with a pseudo southern accent who can do wrong; like the rest of us, he's just trying to get by. 

A subplot involving a nefarious nephew almost grinds the film to a halt.

Despite being predictable at times with Argo style use of stock footage, the last 20 minutes do surprise. A crowd pleaser from start to finish.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Spielberg **** (2017)

The new HBO documentary Spielberg is an intimate and moving overview of the director's nearly fifty year career in film.  Susan Lacy, the film's director, was given access to Spielberg's archive and was granted several interviews by her subject. Many of Spielberg's frequent collaborators also appear. Clips from his films are also prominent, sure to please cinephiles everywhere.

Spielberg begins with Jaws, the make it or break it moment of his career. His sheer skill as a filmmaker, the ability to create unrelenting suspense and foster memorable characters made the film an era defining blockbuster. For after Jaws, Spielberg earned something few directors achieve: creative control. 

The most revealing aspect of Spielberg is how personal his movies really are, influenced by his lonely, exciting, and sometimes traumatic childhood.  His father, an IBM computer engineer, was rarely home and often relocated his family. Spielberg describes his mother as being more of a sister, a free spirit who encouraged all her children, Steven and his three sisters, to channel their creativity. He found an outlet in movies and television and expressed himself by telling stories through the camera, many clips of which are included in the documentary. Film gave Spielberg an identity and helped him deal with the pain of bullying, the divorce of his parents, and uneasiness about his Jewish heritage.

His movies were a way of working through these conflicts. Spielberg's early films, most notably E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, behind all the special effects and surreal sequences, deal with issues of family and abandonment. A sizable segment deals with Spielberg's reflections on the making of Schindler's List and coming to terms with his Jewish identity. Schindler's List still looks unlike anything he ever did; it was especially enlightening to hear Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley reflect on working with Spielberg.

Not without critics, Spielberg's been accused of being too much of a populist in his movies. Some critics contend Spielberg's sentimentality and childish worldview offer little way in the way of substance. Interestingly, Spielberg himself agreed with early critics such as Pauline Kael who praised his technical wizardry, but wondered if he had anything of substance to say. He took the criticism to heart.

As Spielberg matured as a person his films grew more complex, especially his run of Sci-Fi films in the 21st Century, most notably A.I. and Minority Report. Even a later film like Catch Me If You Can from 2002 can be read as an autobiography of sorts, like the con artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio who convinced people he was an airline pilot and doctor, Spielberg used persistence and outrageous risk to break into the film business.

Well made and comprehensive, Spielberg does increase our understanding of one of the great artists of of the past 50 years.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It (2017) ***1/2

The long awaited adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel It proved a Box Office juggernaut for a September release. As a movie, the rebooted It stands heads and shoulders above the workmanlike TV movie from 1990. The script and look of the film resemble the Netflix TV series Stranger Things, with its stellar cast of child actors. It suggests the beginnings of an epic story despite the occasional hiccup and tendency to bludgeon the viewer with jump scares (after awhile the shock value wears off). The acting and direction are exceptional, staying true to the spirit of Stephen King's original vision.

Set in the fictional town of Derry, a typical medium sized American city in Maine (based on King's long time hometown of Bangor). The novel and film begin with a terrifying scene of a little boy meeting a clown who lives inside the city's sewer system. More children disappear, yet no one in the town seems concerned. 

A group of kids who call themselves the "Losers Club" begin to investigate the strange disappearances, leading to even larger questions about the town's troubled history no one ever talks about.

All the child actors did a fantastic job as the underdogs who must fight off bullies to survive. Meanwhile, their parents are distant and possibly corrupted by the evil that resides in Derry.  Beverly, the lone girl in the club, must deal with slut shaming and a super creepy Dad, Sophia Lillis gives the standout performance that's worthy of Oscar consideration.  

Bill Skarsgard was scary enough as the clown Pennywise, frightening in his voice and bizarre facial mannerisms. My only criticism would be we get too much of Pennywise, especially in the strained climax.

At his best Stephen King is definitey not all about scares and gross outs, but story and character. In fact I would argue that's the secret of his success, he creates memorable characters.  Who can forget Carrie, Johnny Smith from The Dead Zone, or Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption? That's the great strength of It, one of the gems in his prolific career.

My hopes were high for It when Cary Fukunaga was scheduled to direct, but in 2015 he dropped out over creative differences and was replaced Andy Muschietti. Apparently Fukunaga wanted to make a more unconventional horror film and King was reportedly enthusiastic about the script.  While Muschietti made a more conventional horror film, he obviously worked well with the cast. I'm not sure if this version of It will become a classic, but at the very least a respectable adaptation. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Late Summer Western #15 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid **** (1969)

Watch enough movies you start to learn things about yourself.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of those, I prefer it to the other great Western of its time The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah's film is about a bunch of old angry dudes who are cruel and hopeless. At least Scorsese's psychopath gangsters had a sense of humor.  Butch and Sundance, as played by Newman and Redford, take life with a grain of salt, smirking and wisecracking through life with a peculiar courage, but courage nonetheless.  They're outlaws because they got nothing better to do. They know the Old West is fading so they leave and give it a go in Bolivia. An existentialist tale for the weary; they're irreverence blended with bathos leaves a more lasting impression than slow motion violence. All to a Burt Bacharach score!  

Late Summer Western #14: Little Big Man **** (1970)

Little Big Man was based on the picaresque novel of the same title by Thomas Berger. The story is the life and times of Jack Krabb, a white man who lived among both Native American and White cultures. The film takes aim at the mythology Hollywood has championed in Westerns, namely: the triumphant narrative of winning the west. 

Little Big Man is American history as tragic farce.

Dustin Hoffman begins the films buried in makeup as a 121 year old lone survivor of the Battle at Little Bighorn. His story begins when Jack and his sister are taken in by Cheyenne Tribe after surviving a massacre.  Later Jack gets captured by the U.S. Cavalry and obverses religious hypocrisy, con artists, and the cruel nature of business. Back with the Cheyenne Tribe he witnesses a massacre committed by Custer's troops and tries to make it as a frontiersman.

Custer as played by Richard Mulligan is a complete buffoon, holding on to command only by his inane charisma. Obviously inspired by the Vietnam War, Little Big Man is one of the great anti-establishment films of its time.  

Arthur Penn's underrated direction balances a unique tone, hitting the line somewhere between absurdity and tragedy.

Hoffman pulls off the naivete and pathos of his character in several different vignettes; a film worthy of the current political climate.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Late Summer Western #13 High Plains Drifter *** (1973)

Clint Eastwood's 1973 Western High Plains Drifter bordered on being a straight up exploitation picture that reportedly offended John Wayne, a sordid morality tale on revenge and human nature. Eastwood plays "The Stranger," a loner who comes into Lago and within 20 minutes commits four felonies . . . and then the city fathers decide to give him carte blanche in running the town (a surprisingly prescient premise). He appoints a dwarf named Mordecai played by Billy Curtis as Sheriff and Mayor. The Stranger learns the town hides a terrible secret from its past and that three dangerous outlaws are approaching. So he enacts harsh justice on "Lago," exposing the town as a place of sinners and hypocrites.  Is he the Old Testament God? Or some avenging angel? High Plains Drifter is Sodom and Gomorrah set in the Old West; a viscous allegory that borders on dark comedy. Eastwood revels in his menacing performance. A cruel, cruel, Western. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Late Summer Western #12: Wind River ***1/2 (2017)

In the wintry and violent 2017 Western Wind River, Graham Greene plays a seasoned police chief who warns the young FBI agent Jane played by Elizabeth Olson, "This isn't the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you're on your own."

Wind River refers to the Native American Reservation in Wyoming where the movie takes place. Jeremy Renner stars as Cory, a Wildlife Field officer who discovers the body of a young woman when out tracking one day. The FBI is called in to investigate the murder; they send Jane who is inexperienced, but determined to pursue the case. She enlists the help of Cory in her investigation. They have their work cut out for them.

Renner anchors the film as a character trying to come to terms with a tragedy from his own past. Life on the reservation is portrayed as tough, a place forgotten by 21st Century America. Inspired by true events, the oil boom of the past decade led to increased crime on reservations, criminal activity that typically targeted young girls. The law is designed so it's next to impossible to prosecute someone who does not reside at the reservation, leaving most of the missing person cases unsolved.

At 110 minutes Wind River moves along fast, feeling more like a 90 minute film. The acting and the dialogue are simple and to the point. A shootout scene begins without warning and devolves into brutal violence, one of the most striking sequences I've seen in a recent film. The main character is the land itself, all shot with a haunting beauty.

Taylor Sheridan has made another classic America film with Wind River, coming off of last year's socially relevant Hell or High Water. Both films do a great job of establishing setting, while creating characters that are believable and memorable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Late Summer Western #11: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ***1/2 (1973)

Sam Peckinpah's  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid bears his unique cinematic signature: violence and anti-romantic sentiment come in a heavy dose. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson are both excellent in the title roles, even though they were too old for their respective roles. The pacing of the film feels a bit off, and many characters are never developed.  Still, with Bob Dylan's music and Peckinpah's impeccable style, the film is full of depth and moments of grace.

Peckinpah goes against history, Hollywood history anyway, in all of his Westerns.  Dualities are everywhere. Pat and Billy are two sides of the same coin, their actions mirror each other, unclear where one character begins and the other ends. Violence enters into almost every sequence.

The supporting cast is eclectic. Bob Dylan made his screen acing debut as Alias. Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickins, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, and Jason Robards all appear.  Characters come and go in every scene.

The version I watched was the 110 minute version from 2005. Legend has it there's a much longer cut only a few people have seen. The 2005 version hints at a masterpiece, yet lacks the full vision of The Wild Bunch.  Still, Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid is a fantastic Western full of great moments and a keen sense of the sublime.

The film can best be summed up in an exchange between Pat and Billy:

Garrett: It feels like times have changed
The Kid: Times maybe, not me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Late Summer Western #10: Chisum **1/2 (1970)

An agreeable "by the numbers" Western, Chisum features John Wayne teaming up with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to fight corrupt cattle barons. The story flows along well enough and it's a bit moving to see an aging John Wayne entering the final decade of his film career. The character sketches of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are one dimensional, but nicely plays upon the mythology of two friends destined to become famous enemies.  Fans of Westerns will recognize players from classics of previous years. Highlights include a shoot out at the end and even some musical interludes. President Richard Nixon screened the film and praised it for its "law and order" themes and for the good guys prevailing over the bad (not sure if Billy the Kid was a good guy). The appeal to Nixon (and his fellow squares) makes sense; the 1970s were the decade of moral ambiguity, making Chisum seem a tad anachronistic. Still worth a look as a textbook example of genre.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Late Summer Western #9: Bad Girls ** (1994)

Bad Girls was a well intentioned Western that dared to be different by casting four female leads. Unfortunately, the movie is a complete mess. Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, Madeline Stowe, and Mary Stuart Masterson star as four "fallen women" who end up becoming legendary gunslingers.  It's as if the writers took a crash course on Westerns and included every cliché imaginable.  Meanwhile, the action scenes are choppy and poorly edited. Anything good to say about Bad Girls? The four leads are all iconic actresses of the 1990s - so Bad Girls is a must watch for fanatics of the decade's cinema.  Robert Loggia appears in a few scenes as a grizzled (and incoherent) old dude. There's a Jerry Goldsmith score. According to IMDB the production was plagued with problems. It shows.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Late Summer Western #8: Rio Bravo **** (1959)

One of the ultimate "hangout" movies, Rio Bravo consists mostly of dialogue and brief moments of intense action. Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly cited Rio Bravo as having a substantial influence on his film education.  The influence shows in Quentin's films, with their preference for dialogue punctuated by action instead of the reverse. An unconventional Western, Rio Bravo dares to immerse movie goers in character study and nuance.

John Wayne is Sheriff John T. Chance, a seasoned officer of the law attempting to hold a dangerous man in jail, the brother of a local strong man. To help him, Chance recruits his former deputy and struggling alcoholic "Dude" (Dean Martin), a young gunfighter Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and his cranky friend Stumpy (Walter Brennan). When not attending to business, Chance flirts with Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a saloon gambler. The premise is one Hawks would revisit in two other movies El Dorado (1967) and his final picture Rio Lobo (1970).

On the Blu-Ray Commentary Track film critic Richard Schickel and director John Carpenter speak at length on the "Hawks" style. Carpenter has cited Rio Bravo as a major influence on his own films, especially his 1976 cult film Assault on Precinct 13. The premise, what modern critics would call a siege narrative, features a group of people facing overwhelming odds in a claustrophobic setting.

Carpenter praised how Hawks favored simple shots and compositions, a style that allowed the story to unfold in a naturalistic way. Schickel alluded to Rio Bravo being a response to television, a medium Hawks found to be simplistic due to its clipped narratives that favored economy over in depth story telling. Hawks also wanted to make a statement about the 1952 classic film High Noon, a film he considered to be a ludicrous study of courage.  Hawks was more concerned with how professionals handled a tense situation.

Rio Bravo feels claustrophobic, but not in a negative way. It's a breeze to spend time with these characters.  There's Leigh Brackett's pulpy dialogue, an unforegettable scene of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson crooning "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me," and the measured tone throughout.

Rio Bravo gains resonance after repeated viewings.  Wayne carries the film with ease, while the supporting cast provides comic relief and poignancy to the story.  A film that can be appreciated on many levels: the acting and direction, it's attitude towards violence and ethics in the Old West, and its influence on subsequent filmmakers.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Late Summer Western #7: Seraphim Falls ***1/2 (2006)

Starring Liam Neeson (Carver) and Pierce Brosnan (Gideon), Seraphim Falls is a tale of revenge and redemption set a few years after the Civil War.  Both stars deliver stoic performances as two men on both sides of the same coin.  For reasons unknown, Carver intends to kill Gideon, searching him to the ends of the earth. With a posse in tow, Carver chases Gideon through the harsh environs of the frontier. The film begins as an adventure story.  As the film moves along the landscape changes from snowy mountains to arid deserts, the situations and characters introduced become increasingly surreal. Jack London meets Sergio Leone. John Toll's cinematography captures the harsh grandeur of the landscape in a gritty and often violent tale. Many character actors appear in memorable small roles, Anjelica Huston appears in a crucial scene towards the end.  Seraphim Falls attests that Westerns remain an ideal genre to explore mythical themes in new and innovative ways.  Highly recommended.

Late Summer Western #6: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance ***1/2 (1962)

One of John Ford's last great Westerns, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a complicated film operating on many levels.

The film begins with aging Senator Ranse Stoddard (James Stewart) arriving in a former frontier town to attend the funeral of a friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Then the story flashes back to Rance's arrival in the town as a young man about thirty years earlier (both Stewart and Wayne were twice the age of their characters). He wants to practice law, taking the advice of Horace Greeley to go west.  Upon arrival, his caravan gets held up by the nasty outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Ranse gets nursed back to health by his future wife Hallie (Vera Miles).

Enter Tom Doniphon, a mysterious local, the only one with the courage to stand up to Liberty Valence. Although Ranse has the courage to challenge Liberty, he stands no chance in a physical confrontation. And he detests guns. Rance builds a successful law practice and leads a movement for the territory to become a state, defying the large landowners.  The frontier is closing, a place where old values are in decline and newer ones are taking over.

That's the dichotomy between Rance and Tom. The man of thought vs the man of action. In The Searchers Ford's suggests that John Wayne's character Ethan, a ruthless Indian hater, has no place in the "civilization" emerging in the West. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Wayne lets Rance take credit for ending the threat to the town, even letting him take Hallie as his wife (suggested she and Tom were together). These characters become archetypes of the American mythos.

The theme of civilization is further emphasized in Ford's depiction of the democracy emerging in the west.  Rance teaches a class on civics and instructs the ruffians of the frontier on the merits of voting and civic duty.  Ford's portrayal an emerging democracy looks a little hokey, yet the message is clear: democracy, as flawed as it is, stands as a workable alternative to a culture based on fear and violence.  

A troubled production, Ford and Wayne feuded throughout.  The two aging stars, Stewart and Wayne in a young man's story, adds a layer of melancholy.  What seems to be a story of courage becomes something else, a commentary on history and the inevitable mythmaking that distorts rather than shines a light, cinema being one of the biggest culprits. 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence is a fascinating Western, a commentary on the genre itself.  It would be a compelling story to revisit in a remake.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Late Summer Western #5 Winchester '73 *** (1950)

Winchester '73 traces the tale of a rifle through the maelstrom of the Old West. The story begins on the Centennial Day (July 4, 1876) in Dodge City, with Wyatt Earp presiding as Marshall. Lin McAdam (James Stewart) and his partner are in pursuit of a fugitive and take part in a shooting contest, Lin ends up winning a Winchester 1873 rifle, the most coveted gun in the West. What follows is a compelling journey featuring outlaws, Native Americans, and settlers.  At around 90 minutes, director Anthony Mann packed in quite a bit of story. Critics credit Winchester '73 for revitalizing the Western genre for the 1950s, a genre that would dominate the decade on film and television. Stewart's career also received a boost, introducing a more subdued and contemplative style. He would go on to star in many Westerns during the decade. Stewart's performance displayed a serious tone that would add poignancy to his Westerns to differentiate him his pal John Wayne. Shot in vibrant black and white, Winchester '73 tells a clever story with menacing villians and biblical irony.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Late Summer Western #4: Ride in the Whirlwind *** (1966)

Monte Hellman's second Western of 1966 Ride in the Whirlwind, written by Jack Nicholson, is slightly less experimental, but no less compelling, than its predecessor The Shooting.  The plot involves a gang of outlaws led by Harry Dean Stanton who are being chased by vigilantes, meanwhile a group of cowboys led by Jack Nicholson take refuge with the outlaws and are mistaken for being perpetrators of crimes they did not commit. Ride in the Whirlwind reminded me of an early Stanley Kubrick film with its deliberate pacing and fascination with triangular conflicts.  And the Utah landscape is a character in itself, desolate and beautiful. In both Hellman films, the West is an unforgiving place, marking a clear departure from the familiar Hollywood productions of John Ford and Howard Hawks. The sense of isolation, cruelty, and its anti-romantic tone mark these two Monte Hellman films as landmarks in the Western genre.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Late Summer Western #3: The Shooting *** (1966)

One of two films directed by Monte Hellman in 1965 on location in the Utah desert, The Shooting has gained notoriety through the decades as an art house Western.  The minimal story begins with two miners played by Warren Oates and Will Hutchins who discover their friend was shot by an unknown gunman.  They become paranoid since they are in the middle of nowhere and are later visited by a woman (Millie Perkins) who mocks their existence and asks the two men to accompany her to a place called Kingsley.  Along the way they meet up with a stranger named Billy Shear (Jack Nicholson) who also treats everyone with contempt.  No one seems to know where they are going and they are running out of food and water. The cinematography is stunning, creating a real sense of desolation and dread in the landscape. I agree with those who consider the film a Waiting for Godot set in the Old West.  The Shooting is a "trip" movie about aimlessness, a striking slice of cinema from the school of the absurd.

Late Summer Western #2: The Missouri Breaks *** (1976)

Any movie starring both Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (neighbors in real life) in the 1970s sounds like a match made in heaven, yet their one and only project together, The Missouri Breaks, proved one of the decade's biggest disappointments. With Arthur Penn directing what would now be called a "revisionist western," rumors circulated of never ending problems on the set.  Not surprisingly, stories of Brando's erratic behavior and refusal to take direction were of more interest than the film itself. 

There were other problems: delays caused by weather, accusations of animal cruelty on the set, and daily script revisions. Leonard Maltin called it one of the worst "big movies" ever made, most noted Brando's odd performance.  All the bad reviews makes me wonder if these critics actually watched the film. While there are flaws, the astounding cast of 1970s character actors created a unique tone, blending farce with pathos. The Missouri Breaks has aged well.

A sense of entropy permeates the entire film, mirroring audience exhaustion with the Western genre.  Nicholson plays Tom Logan, leader of a rustling gang. Robin Hoods they are not.  I suppose cattle rustling lacked the romance associated with outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid, they seem to be the bottom feeders of the criminal underworld in the Old West. Logan's gang includes a cast of legendary character actors: Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and Frederick Forrest among them.  The new cattle baron David Braxton (John McLiam) is cracking down on rustlers so the gang decides to rob a train and get revenge.  The train robbery scene, a staple of the Western, is shot as a routine maneuver, as if the men are bored with such antics.

Plans for revenge are put on hold when Logan gets into a relationship with Braxton's spirited daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd). In the mean time Braxton hires a "regulator" to take care of Logan's gang. 

Enter Brando as Robert E. Lee Clayton, a guy who is a little . . . eccentric. He speaks in an Irish brogue and has lots of hobbies, bird watching among them. One by one he dispatches of Logan's crew, each killing stranger than the one before.  Like a cat playing with a mouse, Clayton likes to toy with his victims before getting rid of them.  At one point he wears a dress as he brings fire and destruction to the land (sure that was Brando's idea). Clayton gets more demonic and terrifying as the film unfolds.  He reminded me a little of the psychotic, Godlike character known as "The Judge" in the Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian. Brando's performance, while offbeat and probably not what the scriptwriter had in mind, is nevertheless memorable and effective. 

What to make of The Missouri Breaks?  Robert Kolker, author of the epochal A Cinema of Loneliness, wrote the following:

Although the film carries some favorite Penn oppositions - particularly that of the individual who lives on the fringes of the legal order and confronts the guardians of that order . . . it is a fairly lifeless work, unable to locate itself within a point of view or a consistent method of telling its tale (20).

Kolker's analysis does get to the biggest flaw in the film: the story feels thin and aimless at times.  But the lack of a tone adds, not subtracts, from the film. Unlike traditional Westerns The Missouri Breaks is commenting upon, the story's allowed to go to some dark places and deal with psychological complexities. Even the "happy ending," if you wish to call it that, feels ironic and oddly appropriate.

Work Cited

Kolker, Robert.  A Cinema of Loneliness. London: OUP, 2011.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Late Summer Western #1: Shane **** (1953)

From 1953, Shane is one of the greatest Westerns ever made. The film tells a fantastic story with many powerful themes in the subtext: the tight bond of a family and a meditation on courage and loneliness. Filmed on location in the awe inspiring Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, Shane is certainly one of the most beautiful films ever made with stunning cinematography by Lowell Griggs.

Based on the Jack Schaefer novel, the story is set in Wyoming several years after the Civil War.  Loosely based on the Johnson County War between settlers and cattle barons, material also covered in Michael Cimino's 1978 film Heaven's Gate, Shane tells the story from the point of view of a young boy.

As the opening credits roll, a stranger named Shane (Alan Ladd) passes through the homestead of Joe and Marlen Starrett (Van Heflin and Jean Arthur) as their nine year old son Joey (Brandon De Wilde) watches. At first the family's uncertain about the stranger seeking a brief stay at their place, but in time Shane and Joe form a bond. Upon first impression Shane seems small and unsure of himself, but looks can be deceiving.  In time they learn he is one of the best gunslingers around and is pretty good in a fight.

Under incessant harassment from a ruthless cattle baron who uses intimidation to drive homesteaders out, they try to lure Shane into a fight.  At first he turns the other cheek, but the next time he strikes back. Stevens filmed an epic fight scene with Shane taking on several goons.  The bond between Shane and the family grows. He teaches Joey how to shoot a gun, although Marlen voices her disapproval of violence, he becomes a trusted defender of the community. 

Enter the main villain Jack Wilson, memorably played by Jack Palance.  In a memorable scene he kills a settler in cold blood.  Realizing a final confrontation is inevitable, Shane decides he must end the threat for good.  He insists on confronting Jack alone, Joe and him get into a fist fight as Joey watches his two male role models fight it out.  Shane wins, deciding to save the family by sacrificing himself.

Joey follows Shane into town and watches the final confrontation, leading to one of the great farewell scenes in movie history. By film's end, there are as many questions as answers.  Where did Shane come from?  Was he some archangel sent by God to defend good from evil?  Is he on a quest for redemption for past sins he committed? Was he even real?  The simplicity of Ladd's performance is more powerful than anything in a modern superhero film.

Like many great Westerns, Shane asks the question: What makes a civilization?  Close bonds between families and communities are emphasized.  Civilization also means people sacrificing themselves for a higher cause. A great movie, one that deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Dunkirk **1/2 (2017)

One of the most anticipated films of 2017, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk is a quasi reimagining of the war film.  The few reviews I skimmed are overwhelmingly positive, praising Nolan's ingenious approach to the genre.  What is the approach?  Basically, separate vignettes told in fragments that blend into a panoramic picture of the Battle of Dunkirk. For myself the film's shortcomings are simple, I found the vignettes unengaging, minimalistic to the point of incoherence.

The German invasion of France in May 1940 changed the course of world history, the swift surrender of the French army left the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) stranded on the French coast. To save the army, the British navy and English civilians organized a dramatic evacuation immortalized in the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill.  The BEF was saved and Britain went on to resist the Third Reich on its own until the American entry into the war almost two years later.

The film opens with British soldiers in retreat from the German forces, interestingly the Germans never appear in the film.  The enemy remains an abstraction.  Other story lines follow Mark Rylance as a British civilian determined to do his part in the evacuation with his sons in tow. Kenneth Branagh plays a naval commander, he's really good at gazing wistfully into the sea.  Nolan regulars Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy appear in small roles.  The story unfolds in an elliptical way with flashbacks and flash forwards, but the approach adds little to the overall narrative. 

While there's enough sound and fury to fill 100 minutes, few of the images are memorable. There's a claustrophobic sense of space, with boats constantly being straffed by German planes, yet it all looks like crisp archival footage set to Hans Zimmer's pulsating music. 

Dunkirk is not a bad film by any means, it's an impressionistic war movie along the lines of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, multiple impressions of a singular experience. Yet even Malick allowed us to get inside the heads of his characters. Nolan keeps us at a cool distance.  In other great World War II movies such as Das Boot and Saving Private Ryan we get to know the characters and their motivations, there's a deep humanity through those works.  Maybe Nolan grew tired of the Interstellar critics who chided the film's maximum effort to create an emotional resonance.  Dunkirk keeps sentiment at arms length, resulting in long stretches of tedium.

And then there's the politics of the film, or lack of it.  The issue never comes up, the stakes of the battle are never articulated.  There's hardly any discussion of Hitler and the Third Reich, the enemy could be anyone from anytime in history, giving Dunkirk an almost Sci-Fi feel.  While war films are hardly required to get into the ideas at stake in a battle, patriotism without ideals walks a razor's edge.  Dunkirk is a WWII film that seems to exist outside the war itself.  There's enough style for ten movies, it's the lack of substance that leaves you famished. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes ***1/2 (2017)

By far the best of the reboot trilogy of Apes films, War for the Planet of the Apes matches the original 1968 movie in the power of its allegory. The previous film Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ended with most of humanity wiped out by a virus as the apes are becoming the dominant species on the earth. By the third film, humanity is reduced into tribal societies.  Most of the film focuses on the apes, humans play a limited role in a bold creative choice.  Woody Harrelson plays a Colonel Kurtz type military leader who wants to wage a war of extermination on the apes. The enlightened Chimpanzee messianic leader Caesar wants to lead his people to freedom.  The apes look more realistic than ever, Andy Serkis deserves special recognition from the Academy for his groundbreaking work in these films.  By far the darkest of the trilogy, it's about the end of one culture and the rise of another.  Harrelson excels in his character's introduction, you know where's he's coming from! In the last half hour the movie takes the allegorical themes up another notch, bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, and leaving the door open for more.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down a Dream (2007) ***

As far as rock documentaries go, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: Runnin' Down A Dream gets the job done.  Directed by New Hollywood prodigy Peter Bogdanovich, the documentary covers the entire history of the band up till 2006.  As the decades have passed, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became standard bearers of the rock and roll spirit. With interviews and archival footage, Bogdanovich presents a full portrait of the prolific band.

A telling fact is revealed about Petty early in the film.  Despite growing up in Gainesville, Florida he never picked a up a southern accent. Tom's independence, determination to do things his own way, comes out in that anecdote.  While he's written about his Southern roots, no one would ever accuse the band of being Southern Rock.  They embrace a more complex idea of American identity. 

A rock and roll fanatic, Petty recruited what became the Heartbreakers when he was a teenager. After years of honing their repertoire, they scored a record contract.  In 1976, "American GIrl" became a hit single with its Byrds inspired melodies.  During a period sandwiched by punk and disco, the Heartbreakers carried the torch of rock music inspired by earlier eras.  Interestingly, they gained a following in England with fans and critics before finding success in the states.  Their third LP from 1979, Damn the Torpedoes, proved their breakthrough in America: "Here Comes My Girl," "Refugee," and "Even the Losers," all became staples of FM radio.

Through the 80s their music and popularity flourished even more with the rise of MTV.  By the end of the decade Petty had a thriving solo career, even playing alongside other rock legends as the youngest member of The Traveling Wilbury's. By decades end the hits kept coming: "Running Down a Dream," "Free Fallin," and "I Won't Back Down."

Petty soldiered on through the 1990s, always carrying the banner of American rock and roll as audiences fragmented.  Their 2002 LP The Last DJ is one of the best albums to deal with post-9/11 America, with Petty's prophetic condemnation of the corporate takeover of radio in the title track.

Interviews with other band members including keyboardist Benmont Tench, guitarist Mike Campbell, and former drummer Stan Lynch illuminate the band's sometime tumultuous history: tensions over Petty's decision to go solo or creative differences in the studio often got intense, but never broke up the band. The tragic loss of bassist Howie Epstein to a drug overdose in 2003 also gets discussed. The interviews are complemented with excellent archival footage.

Fervent fans of the band will love the documentary. Those new to Petty may find it a bit self-indulgent at times. Regardless, Runnin' Down a Dream is a worthwhile history of an essential band.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Long Strange Trip ***1/2 (2017)

The Grateful Dead are originals. They created music that comes from the fabric of the American experience.  The four hour documentary Long Strange Trip, currently available on Amazon Prime, chronicles the four decade career of the band from their beginnings in the psychedelic scene of 1960s San Francisco to mainstream success in the 1980s. Fronted by the sphinxlike Jerry Garcia, the band carved a deep niche in the history of rock and roll with their improvisational style that created a unique symbiotic relationship between audience and artist. 

With Martin Scorsese on board as executive producer, Long Strange Trip recaptures some of the magic of his 2005 Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home.  The film includes interviews, superior archival footage, and historical perspective on the forces that drove the band.  The tone subtly shifts as the narrative moves forward from the bright idealism of the 1960s to the harsh atmosphere of, in the words of Garcia, the "fake culture" of the 1980s.

In the mid 1960s, Garcia formed the Dead along with bluesman Ron "Pigpen" McKernan. They became fixtures of the counterculture in San Francisco.  The Dead joined Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, serving as the house band for his famous LSD experiments, as chronicled in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.

In time the Dead added their own elixir of blues and jazz to rock and roll.  Founding members included the classically trained bassist Phil Lesh, guitarist Bob Weir, two drummers Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart, and lyricist Robert Hunter. Unlike other bands of the era, the Grateful Dead worked from a different model: building a loyal audience through nonstop touring, promising a unique, transcendent experience with each performance.

During the 1970s, the Dead gained a loyal fan base of "dead heads" that followed them everywhere. Although some critics considered their music boring and repetitive, their popularity grew. The 1987 single "Touch of Grey," 20 years in the making, finally got the Dead on the pop charts and even some MTV play.  But just as they were peaking, Garcia fell deeper into his addictions, the documentary suggests it may have been a deliberate message to his fans: Don't be like me.  Years of touring took their toll. Garcia passed away in 1995 and instantly became a legend.

Well versed fans of the Grateful Dead may find the documentary too superficial for their taste, while for those new to the band it's an excellent primer. Original members of the band and those who worked closely with them add colorful commentary.  The time flies by.  Highly recommended.