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.