Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle: A Rebuttal

It’s rare that I write a take down review of a film I’m not much enamored with. I have always told myself that I hardly have enough time to write about all the films that I love, let alone find the time to write about films I dislike. Occasionally I get inspired however to write a contrarian view, especially when the film in question seems to be garnering heaps of praise. David O. Russell’s latest film, American Hustle seems to be building a good deal of momentum as the awards season kicks into gear. It has received a 90% rating at Metacritic and 94% at Rottentomatoes, certainly highly regarded from nearly the entire critical establishment. Watching the film first hand though, is something of a let-down. What is set up as a promising farcical piece of comedy led by an outstanding cast turns out to be cinematically sloppy, and is brought down by poorly executed pacing, such that one feels nearly every one of the 129 minutes.  Many people that I love and respect greatly, have an admiration for this film. I want to say that in no way whatsoever, should anyone who likes this film, view my thoughts as any sort of condemnation of them personally. I aim simply to express my thoughts on this film and to present very detailed analysis for why I think the film fails to reach its potential and thus remains underwhelming.

As most are aware, the film is about the inner workings of the Abscam Con in 1978, set in New Jersey and regarding the lives of a few con artists and related characters, among them those in the FBI and the mayor of Camden NJ. I’m not even going to get into the fact that the film's plot and execution plays as poor-man’s Scorsese. This angle to me, is the weakest argument against a film loaded with numerous issues. What is probably an easier complaint to argue is the blatant fact that the film lacks any particular stylistic cue of its own, despite the fact that numerous critics and bloggers have celebrated the “style” of American Hustle. The St. Louis Dispatch says, "As much as anything, the wildly entertaining ’70s flashback American Hustle is a triumph of style." The Sun-Times says, "American Hustle is the best time I’ve had at the movies all year, a movie so perfectly executed, such wall-to-wall fun, so filled with the joy of expert filmmaking on every level I can’t imagine anyone who loves movies not loving THIS movie." I beg someone, literally get down on my knees and beg someone to explain to me what this particular “style” is? I saw nothing beyond the usual use 70’s tunes and costumes. Don’t we expect this? It’s not really a style so much as it is a price of market entry. One can’t possibly make a 70’s film without the 70’s look. If we’re talking about camera-work, there’s nothing distinctive there either. There are no long takes, or bravado camera movements to be found in the entire film. It is filmed in the exact same ensemble style that his previous films, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter were made in. I’m simply finding no evidence in this film of a stylistic element that is worthy of mention. I hope someone will explain to me what this brilliant style is that I’m missing. It has none of the drive and propulsion and sense of real stakes that Scorsese infuses into his works. Russell does not do himself any favors by filming in a style of another director, and then doing a weaker, less propulsive version of it.

This brings me to probably what is most problematic for me, and that is the pacing. In the first hour of the film, we spend most of our time mired in exposition, as the story our two con artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams is examined in totality (let’s take it from the top). I mean the story starts in the middle, and then bounces completely back to the beginning, with the point of view shifting between the two of them for roughly an entire hour. This wouldn’t be such an issue, if the film continued to examine their relationship and story-thread, but the film then spends an entire second half on a series of con-games, as the list of characters and storythreads balloons beyond the film's capacity for functionality. Jennifer Lawrence appears in exactly one scene in the first half, and then dominates key screen time in the second hour. It’s almost a reverse for Adams, who dominates the first half, and nearly disappears from the screen in the second half as attention is shifted to Lawrence. This jarring and misguided editing element proves an issue as the film continues to introduce new characters only to have them vanish, for instance the characters related to Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent, like his mother and fiancé who appear and disappear just as quickly. Or how about the cameo by Robert DeNiro, who appears in exactly one scene, a scene which builds nicely and then fizzles out without any real pizazz, wasting his presence. He never shows up again. How about Jeremy Renner? He continues to gain in screen time throughout the middle portion, and then disappears toward the end, despite the fact that the film wants us to feel sorry for his Mayor of Camden, New Jersey. All of these characters simply begin to make the film feel long, and screen time is devoted to them without intention of creating proper character arcs. All of these characters strain the focus and spread the ice very thin. As for the acting, it’s hit and miss. Christian Bale dives in completely for a role and film that is not exactly worth the effort. He is actually more deserving of better material considering his wholehearted acting. Bradley Cooper, who had begun to gain respect for his acting in Silver Linings Playbook and The Place Beyond the Pines, drops the ball here, returning to his casual, smirking jack-ass. Amy Adams does an admirable job in a role with no real pay-off or story arc as her character is given short shrift toward the end of the film. 

Perhaps the one most successful, despite what some will have you believe, is Jennifer Lawrence, who is perhaps the single most important element of the film. Lawrence plays Bale’s naïve and emotionally fraught Jersey Girl wife and mother of his adopted child. If the con-artists are the wizard, then Lawrence provides a look behind the curtain. What she represents among all the conning and goings on, is the exposing of the con-artists as delusional, and self-absorbed. When she’s onscreen, everyone around her is paranoid she will give away the scam, as if she’s some uncontrollable wrecking ball. Watching those around her attempt to control her is hilarious. In fact, she’s so naïve and in disbelief of what’s going on, she is able to emphasize the accidental “talent” of our con-artists, who are nothing but insecure losers who continue to lie to themselves. Lawrence is the one character who exposes the fraud through her own misguided sense of entitlement as if she's part of the game. The single most successful scene in the film, and probably the funniest, is the one where Bale confronts her in the bedroom over her accidental confession to the mob that she believes her husband is doing illegal acts. She is able to turn the scene around at the end such that her own ignorance is seen as a sort of grandiose turn of luck. If only more scenes utilized the balancing act that all those around her must do to keep her at bay. Russell fails to recognize the potential of the conflict though as he under-utilizes her in the entire first half. Frankly, the three best scenes in the film involve her. The one I just mentioned, the scene where she and Adams confront each other in the bathroom ending with a ludicrous kiss on the lips, and the one where she goes on about her fingernail polish at dinner. She represents a central conflict in the film, one potentially loaded with comedic opportunity, and yet Russell continues to focus on the churnings and the con-games as if they’re well written and intricate enough for us to care about these people, which actually gives Bale, Adams, and Cooper’s characters far too much credit, and allows for the film to present their pathetic stories as something worth following in and of itself. I’m sorry. I find all the conning more funny and pathetic than anything, yet Russell under-delivers the central elements of the comedic potential in favor a kitchen sink approach where he wants us to laugh and to care at the same time.

One of the biggest trends within the critical community the last few years especially, is heaping praise and year end awards upon films that are so utterly average. In 2011, it was The Artist. Last year it was Argo, and this year it is already American Hustle. What these films have in common is a complacent type of filmmaking. These films are low-hanging, cinematic fruit that are primarily aimed at the November-January cineaste and the Oscar-ites. You know the type. That guy who spends a few months out of the year catching up on a few of the “important” films so that when Academy Awards come around he can play Oscar bingo (“Look Ma, I just checked four nominees off my list with one film!”). In reality, this same guy spends the rest of the year watching super hero movies and horror flicks. Perhaps the biggest con of all, is that Russell has somehow convinced the critical masses that he’s made a masterpiece.  Last year, there was a genuine build of word of mouth over his rather sweet and romantic character study of two flawed individuals who need each other in Silver Linings Playbook. That film never aspired toward greatness, but was content with a rather focused and poignant examination of people. Those that bashed the film for it’s somehow inappropriate treatment of mental illness were missing the fact that there’s something called artistic license. What happened after that though, was that the film built buzz so that come nomination time, it hauled in several nominations, somewhat unheard of for a romantic comedy, a genre that is much maligned these days. That film I labeled as Russell’s best film to date, and one of my 10 favorites of the 2012, but certainly nowhere near best film of the year. Russell however, is wildly erratic. I liked the funny I Heart Huckabees, but loathed The Fighter’s simple-mindedness. I loved Silver Linings Playbook, but in my mind he’s overstepped himself with American Hustle.

Perhaps the most egregious and annoying element above the flawed pacing, is another example of how Russell wants to have his cake and eat it too, which is the final con in the film, whereby Adams and Bale trick Cooper and all his FBI folks into thinking they’ve finally apprehended the crooks and brought down the big guys. What’s amazing is how the veneer of the surprise ending that Russell uses disguises the fact that his cinematic approach throughout the entire film had been one of relative transparency, meaning up until the ending he had deliberately showed us the machinations and backgrounds of the cons for the entire film, except when it’s convenient for him to conceal the elements of a con that will provide the audience with a cheaply earned “surprise ending”, giving the audience a signpost that lets them know they’ve seen a good movie. Russell’s film wouldn’t need to rely on this thinly veiled inconsistent piece of cinematic hubris if his film was better written. But because he’d spread his characters and interests too thin all throughout, the ending is trite. My hope is that the critical masses will correct their errors and begin praising more worthy films, like McQueen's masterful 12 Years a Slave and Linklater's Before Midnight, two films that are challenging and progressive. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) - Directed by Robert Hossein

Robert Hossein’s only entry into the spaghetti western genre was this beautiful and fatally romantic masterpiece. His unique perspective and sense of subtlety allows the spaghetti western here to retain an interesting sense of restraint and pacing. As far as influences go, perhaps the film is more inspired by the likes of Visconti's impassioned melodramas than Leone or Corbucci. But by using the conventions of the traditional spaghetti western on the surface, he’s able to comment and build upon them through his emphasis on different aspects. He takes a tale filled with revenge, and the lone, hired gunman, but he’s able to delve into the psychological state of this character, among others, due to his insistence upon the emotional FEELING of the situation, which in its own way, is as exhilarating as any shootout that occurs in the film. There isn’t nearly as much overt violence though, as in The Great Silence, but the characterizations are passionate, moody, sexy and filled with a sensuality rare in this genre.

This film is a bit difficult to track down, but it is well worth seeking out if you can find a copy or can watch it on YouTube. Hossein makes his mark by infusing the plot of this film with a culpable sense of emotion, compassion, and sympathy. This level of intense psychology and humanism is what elevates this film above others in the genre. Cemetery Without Crosses concerns several elements we’ve seen in other films, but as I mentioned, the emphasis is shifted. A man named Ben is hanged by the rival ranching family, the Rogers, for a theft dispute, right in front of Ben’s house and in front of Ben’s wife Maria (a beautiful Michele Mercier). Maria seeks out Ben’s friend Manuel (Robert Hossein), a gunman, to exact retribution upon the rival family and there is a back and forth of revenge tactics, with Maria cold-heartedly seeking retribution. Despite Manuel’s apprehension of the situation, he can't help but become involved because of his pining love for her, which he’s unable to fully express. The film ends with a significant remorse for the cycle of revenge that is never able to be stopped. This fatalistic, gloomy tone is operatic to the extreme.

What I particularly love in this film is the way that the Maria character is fully responsible for the progression of the plot. It is her desires and her wishes that propel the cycle of violence as see seeks out retribution and this focus on the female experience is an important thing to note. Clearly Manuel is in love with her, and this is a significant reason for why he wants to please her, even though it goes against his own better judgement as he wants to express his love for her in this way. Michele Mercier is terrific in her role, contributing much through her dark eyes, as does Hossein as the melancholy and lovelorn gunfighter. A significant sense of mood is contributed by the soundtrack, which is a blending of 50’s style western pop music and also an overtly romantic Spanish flamenco guitar piece, apparently written by Hossein’s father Andre, which is lush, vibrant and often played while people are traveling over the desert landscape. Hossein blends all of these operatic and melodramatic elements with the typical gunplay, infusing the film with a fatalistic and romantic tone.

I think my favorite moment in the film though, is the final showdown between Manuel and the Rogers family in the middle of the street. In the terrific draw scene, one of my favorites in any western, we see Hossein facing, not 1, but 4 men…….and as quick as you can imagine, he blows each of them away before any one of them can get to him. But even this sequence is reserved in the way that the editing is put together, as the visual and sound almost occurs so fast, you just see the outcome of the dead men falling instead of the hand reaching into the holster and the full moment captured via the camera. In Hossein’s world, though, there’s always one more retribution around the corner and you can never run away from revenge. No one escapes from death once they've entered that cycle of doom. Cemetery Without Crosses is probably the most elegant and refined spaghetti western that I’ve seen, and proof that elegance is not mutually exclusive from the genre, it just takes the right approach to make it work. Hossein thus created a work that stands apart from the rest.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Life is Sweet (1990) - Directed by Mike Leigh

Some of my favorite comedies of the modern era are ones which examine a sort of sad-sack loser or melancholic group and which add a touch of warmth and whimsy which cuts through the dry, deadpan atmosphere. Films by Wes Anderson, or Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch fall into this category where the sadness and disappointment of daily life are viewed with a slight chagrin. Thus there is tragedy in the comedy and comedy in the tragedy. I'm not sure why I like this kind of comedy so much. Perhaps the self deprecating tone is the sarcastic selling point. Mike Leigh’s 1990 masterpiece, Life is Sweet (even the title is brutally sarcastic), is one of the greatest films of this type that I know of. Coupling his understanding of how to incorporate a seemingly "improvised" feel to real-life situations with an absurd hilarity of human nature, Leigh created a beautiful document of a family who loves each other through thick and thin and captures the beauty and pain of life.  

Featuring his wife at the time Alison Steadman in the lead role, Mike Leigh’s film concerns a particular family who is not so much dysfunctional as actually rather normal. I mean what family isn’t somewhat dysfunctional? Steadman stars as Wendy and Jim Broadbent is Andy, parents of twin, twenty-something daughters named Natalie (Claire Skinner) and Nicola (Jane Horrocks), who both still live at home. Wendy leads dance classes among other odd jobs and Andy is a gullible man, who has a steady cook’s job, but who continues to get conned into random investments by his friend and drinking buddy, Patsy (Stephen Rea). In this particular instance, Patsy gets him to buy a broken down lunch trailer, which gets parked in their driveway. The twins are quite something. Natalie, the tomboy, is the more “together” one, holding a steady plumbing job and dreaming of traveling to America. Nicola is the bulimic and depressed one, constantly fuming about people being “fascist” or “racist” or “sexist” or some other “ist”. Thrown into the mix is the family friend and overly ambitious Aubrey (an absolutely hilarious Timothy Spall), who has plans to open a new gourmet restaurant.  All of these characters intertwine in random situations and the vignette-like nature of the film takes on the flavor of life, each day bringing its own challenges, laughs, and tears.

One of Leigh's major achievements is his brilliant casting in the film. There is not a miscast role here. Broadbent is perfect as the rather henpecked husband/father who never seems to be able to finish any project he starts. Claire Skinner and especially Jane Horrocks play off each other brilliantly as sisters who pick on each other, yet who bury their love and care for the other just under the surface. As I mentioned, Timothy Spall’s fat and sexually desperate Aubrey is so hilariously droll and unawares, that I have a hard time keeping it together when he’s onscreen, with his awful hat and jacket choices, as well as his pathetic 80’s looking suit that he wears on the opening night of his restaurant when he’s getting totally wasted and attempting to make love to Wendy, who volunteers to be his hostess for the evening. The most brilliant performance in the film, is in fact Alison Steadman’s Wendy, a perpetually positive woman, trying to encourage her family to follow their dreams, whilst wanting everyone to be happy. I love the way she seems to laugh through everything she says in the film. It’s rather engaging and hilarious to watch her work her way through interactions, particularly with her husband as they tease and cajole each other and clearly love each other. It’s one of the more humorous and touching husband/wife relationships I’ve seen on film. Her performance is warm and feminine engaging….one of the best performances in any film I’ve watched in some time.

Leigh’s script is built upon each of these personalities, giving them things to say that feels real and unforced. His brevity of pacing doesn’t leave any dull moment in the film. Each scene builds off of a comedy-of-life situation. Adding most of the tragicomic elements is the character of Nicola, played with bracing sadness and combativeness by Jane Horrocks, whose depression and health issues cause great concern to her family, particularly her mother. A scene near the end of the film where Wendy confronts Nicola regarding her problems, stating that she just wants her to be happy is the most heartfelt moment in the film. Seemingly inspired by American sitcoms, the film has a lived-in vibe that is hard to achieve in a feature-length film. Usually this depth of character understanding and deft interaction has to be built over the length of a television series, as the audience begins to understand quirks of the characters. Leigh seems to be able to throw a character like Patsy and Aubrey into the mix and we don’t need to know why or how they came to be friends of the family; they just seem to fit and we acknowledge we’ve known people like this who just pop over for a chat. They’re sort of like the furniture….always there. This film is probably the prime example of Leigh's comedic ability, and is as funny as any film I’ve seen in years. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) - Directed by William Wellman

As one of the first examples of the anti-western, and perhaps the best, William Wellman’s magnificent The Ox-Bow Incident is a perfect film, a dark and cynical tale of old-west justice gone bad. It's probably even Wellman’s best film....period, and it also contains one of Henry Fonda’s best performances…..although his list of BEST performances is pretty lengthy to begin with. Wellman holds a stake as part of the group of directors who added lasting impact to the western genre in particular. His best work occurs when he takes a clear-eyed, unadorned look at things, and weaves a deft, emotional weight throughout that reflects a certain human understanding like here in this film, or in Yellow Sky, or Westward the Women. There is a reality-based element on display in these works that de-mythologizes the west, particularly in this film, which is filled with a certain nasty sort of basic human instinct gone unchecked.

Wellman’s film was written by Lamar Trotti, based upon a novel by the same name by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. It stars Henry Fonda as an aimless drifter named Gil Carter, who with his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan), ride into Bridger’s Wells, Nevada and stop at the saloon. Talk of cattle rustling and suspected criminals talked about. In no time, Art and Gil begin to be suspected by others at the saloon. Later that afternoon in town, it is announced that a local rancher, named Larry Kinkaid has been murdered, and the town assembles a make-shift posse to pursue the villains.  This posse is warned by the local judge to bring the men back to trial in town if they are found, and not to lynch them on the spot. It’s clear though, that the town wants quick justice and determines to go on a majority vote to lynch or not, once the perpetrators are found. A man who has just come down from the mountains tells the posse he has seen three men heading up that way with a bunch of cattle bearing Kinkaid’s brand. The posse then heads to find the men, with Art and Gil joining to avoid any sorts of suspicion from the local, blood-thirsty crowd. After traveling up the mountains through the night, the posse happens upon three men sleeping. They hold up these men at gunpoint, and convinced that they are guilty, the posse begins to use their interrogations and accusations to serve their own need for quick justice. Those accused are a farmer named Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), a young Mexican Juan Martinez (Anthony Quinn), and an older gentleman named Alva Hardwicke (Francis Ford). The cattle Martin has is indeed Kinkaid’s, but Martin claims he paid for it and that he and his men had nothing to do with the crime. The ugly nature of human instinct is on full display in the second half of the film, as the three men plead their innocence, while most of the posse are determined to lynch them, despite the fact that none of the evidence suggests that the men are guilty. Pleas from some of the posse who disagree with the proposed lynching go mainly unheard. 

This scenario in this film previews Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, and even contains the continuity of Henry Fonda (whom Lumet must have seen in The Ox-Bow Incident), but there are some key differences. In 12 Angry Men, there is a modern safety-net of the jury and due process. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the lynch mob mentality is on full display, and even the actions and intentions of the so-called “good” people, really can have very little impact once the lynch-mob finds it’s target. In this way, it’s almost like the opposite of 12 Angry Men……this is what happens when we let the actions of a few headstrong, vengeful people play jury, as opposed to the lone hold-out in 12 Angry Men who can impact the outcome all by himself. What The Ox-Bow Incident does is basically present to us the anti-western concept….there are no heroes, the good people can do nothing to impact the final outcome, and the pleading cries of the innocent are drawn out, reminding us continually that this is unjust, making the viewer cringe with sympathy and realize that the “wild west” wasn’t called “wild” for no reason. When watching many westerns, we forget to reflect upon the certain level of fear that one may have had to live with in an era when frontier justice was still ruled with a gun. One of the best elements of the plot structure is the fact that we as the audience are kept at a parallel understanding with the accusers regarding the suspected criminals and their guilt or innocence. We do not know any more or less than anyone else in the film knows, providing an element of suspense to the script which positions us as needing to decide for ourselves what we would do if we were put into this same sort of situation. At least that’s how I think about it. I must admit that it’s a tremendously moving script, especially once we get to know that Martin has a wife and kids and is just getting his start in the local area. This becomes even more pronounced when we learn Martin wants to write a parting letter to his wife. In the film's final 30 minutes on the mountain pass, we witness a series of confrontations, debates, and propositions, in one of the most memorable scenes in any western ever made.

Henry Fonda is cold, and stand-offish as the lonely drifter, but also clearly has a good heart. Fonda’s able to present both of these elements in his performance and it’s extremely nuanced. There are few actors better than Fonda was in the western genre, as he was able to do everything from the hero, to the villain and all shades of gray in between. His range is probably the best of any actor in the genre, including John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. But the entire cast here is effective, including Dana Andrews as the falsely accused Martin, and a young Anthony Quinn, as the headstrong Mexican. Wellman’s direction is lean, mean and distinct, displaying his typical brand of dark humor throughout the realist action (mostly courtesy of Jane Darwell’s cackling laugh as Jenny Grier, the lone woman among the posse). Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography contains some remarkable framing (he was a 2-time Oscar winner for The Song of Bernadette and How Green Was My Valley), using the old Academy ratio. Of particular note is his ability to frame multiple faces in one shot, and for making the frame seem to hold more information than we normally see in this ratio, as his camera pans across the faces of the posse and the faces of the accused, often with the ropes and nooses in view behind them, creating a visual gallery of roguish fear. All told, the film is a sobering and depressing look at the west and a film that gets better with each viewing.   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013) - Directed by Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen, the black, London-born director of such artsy fare as the self-important Hunger and sex-addiction focused Shame, has taken on the topic of American Slavery with perhaps the most direct and accomplished portrayal that anyone has yet seen on the subject. Eschewing his favored embellished takes and political/social maneuverings of his previous films for a more direct and emotionally involving style, 12 Years a Slave is filled with the kinds of moments that are essential to tell this story, but is without the sort of Hollywood colloquialisms, overt sentimentalization and politically correct quagmire that we might expect were this film coming from a more American/Hollywood minded perspective. Thus, the film feels remarkably clearheaded. Maybe for too long, Hollywood has been too afraid of hurting certain people's feelings by making a film about slavery. Or maybe the wounds are still too fresh. That is except for certain "safe" portrayals like Tarantino's hollow and superficial Django Unchained. Spielberg also mostly sidestepped the issue in Amistad (basically a courtroom drama) and last year's Lincoln (a biopic of the president), as neither really went into the subject completely. Perhaps McQueen’s nationality allows an objective portrayal to come forward. 12 Years a Slave brings us face to face with one of the greatest evils in the history of humanity. Perhaps not since television's "Roots", has the subject been approached with any degree of importance, and let’s not forget….that was, amazingly, 36 years ago!

“12 Years a Slave” was a memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup. It concerned his personal story of how he was taken from his life in Saratoga Springs, NY. He had a wife and two children when he was kidnapped while traveling in Washington D.C. and taken as a prisoner and traded on the slave market, shipping him down to a plantation in Louisiana, where he began 12 years enslaved to a couple of masters, all the while attempting to find a way to notify his family up north. The film bases the story upon this memoir and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gut-wrenching performance as Northup, who eventually has his name changed to Platt by force. Throughout the film, he is under servitude to two masters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford, and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Under Ford, Northup is exposed to the vengeful treatment of John Tibeats (played with a bit too much crazed bravado by Paul Dano), a carpenter on the plantation. In a scene almost unbearable to watch, Northup is nearly hung by Tibeats and his cronies, but ends up dangling by his neck, standing on his tiptoes in the mud all day, while Northup's fellow slaves look on, unable to help him. After this incident, Ford sells Northup to Epps, an extremely racist and violent man, prone to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse upon his slaves. Of particular note, his attentions paid to a slave named Patsey (an amazing Lupita Nyong’o) bring the ire of Epps’s cruel and vengeful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). All the while, Northup tries to maintain secrecy of his education and ability to read and write, biding his time until he can find a way out of this bondage if possible. That is until he meets an honest and kind man named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who helps him send a letter home, providing an impetus for his return to freedom.

Because the film focuses on such a personal story, rather than on such a large swath of slavery, it makes the film so much more streamlined and taut than a longer or more broad film might be. This focus on Northup and his particular predicament is not necessarily common to the slave experience, though. His story of being enslaved as a freeman is not typical, yet it’s alarming and jarringly shocking in ways we may not be used to, somehow taking a type of story we think we know everything about, and unveiling a new degree of moral corruption and human torment through that. Ejiofor gives the performance of the year as Northup, where he emotes even while he must often refrain. It’s a balancing act that is best seen in a few of the film's most memorable moments. One is the scene where Patsey is begging Northup to kill her to put her out of her misery. Much of the dialogue in this scene and in the film in general actually feels a bit formal and almost pre-determined. Yet in a way, this effect comes across as a most tragic kind of poetry reading. The second is the moment where Epps confronts Northup with having asked a white man to deliver a letter for him. They stare each other down in the dark, in the candlelight like two men waiting for the other to crack. Finally, in a penultimate kind of scene, Northup breaks down and reveals his story on the plantation to Bass, and Northup is shocked to tears that he's actually telling the story to someone.

McQueen makes the choice to include elements of religion as it became part of the justification for the white south. Epps and Ford preach the Bible to the slaves, while the slaves reach out to God in their own way. Each speaks of the same God, yet the corruption of power led the southern plantation owners to utilize certain passages of the Bible for their own ends. Through the corruption of un-checked power, slavery became a reality, while religion was used a "justification” and this point hits home several times. If Ejiofor is the main focus of the film, the point of view sometimes seems to drift toward Fassbender’s Epps, which may be the only flaw in an otherwise spectacular film. Fassbender has a tendency for one too many pregnant pauses for my taste, and some of the passages involving Fassbender’s perspective are the most overwrought elements just because the story isn’t really about him. One might wonder how a film about slavery, featuring a character who is free at the beginning and freed at the end can really fully examine the integral experience. Somehow, and it's to McQueen's credit, the ending leaves us not elated or relieved, but instead broken and enlightened. Through Northup's journey, we are able to experience an amazing story of perseverance and also the slavery experience as a whole, providing a voice to those still left in bondage at the end of the film. There is no attempt to sensationalize, sentimentalize or politicize the experience. Northup’s memoir, suppressed for nearly 100 years, provides for a framework for McQueen's film that makes us feel the injustice first-hand, giving us a cinematic portrayal as penetrating and moving as any film could. Few movies are ever truly important culturally anymore. Let’s hope that this one becomes such a film. 

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Shane (1953) - Directed by George Stevens

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark for the Top 50 Westerns Countdown, coming in at #14.

There are westerns with greater size and scope (The Searchers). There are westerns that are more taut and suspenseful (High Noon). There are westerns that are more pure (Seven Men From Now) and filled with more psychological depth (The Naked Spur). But there is no other western that is as emotionally resonant as Shane. Weaving throughout its running time is a point of view of a young boy, perhaps not so dissimilar from young boys over the last 150 years or so, brought up first on dime novels and cheap western stories and then eventually silent films and the boom of Hollywood cinema, pushing a brand of western and selling a mythology that continued to further the daydreams of millions of youth across this nation. I too fall into that group. I can remember playing in the backyard with my brother when we were kids growing up in the 80’s. Inevitably we would end up playing cowboys and Indians or some sort of old west themed adventure, utilizing things we’d picked up in movies, tv, and books in order to build a repertoire of dialogue and action, that in our minds resembled some sort of reality, when in fact we were recalling a western mythology, and even though this mythology has basis in reality, it became larger than life through stories and lore that were told and retold generation upon generation. Shane is in fact a film about the mythology itself, taking an examination of our western hero worship and adding incredibly rich layers of emotion which remain remarkably effective in their ability to maintain an honest sweep, unchallenged by any other film in the genre, with everything seemingly put together to achieve a definitive emotional arc.

Taking Jack Shaeffer’s popular novel Shane from 1949 and improving it for the screen, was director George Stevens. The plot actually resembles stories of chivalrous knights in shining armor, roaming the countryside in search of people in need of help. Shane begins at this sort of moment, as a lone gunfighter rides down from the mountains into a valley, where a young boy named Joey Starrett (Brandon De Wilde) is watching him from his family’s farm. Shane meets Joey, and his parents, Joe (Van Heflin) and Marian (Jean Arthur), but before he can be properly welcomed, Joe mistakes him for being part of the Ryker gang, a group of bullies who happen to arrive to Joe’s claim moments later. They charge that the Starret’s land belongs to them. Joe nearly runs Shane off his land. But, Shane senses trouble, hanging around the back of the house as the Rykers catch a glimpse of the mysterious stranger and ride off. Joe realizes his mistake and invites Shane to stay for dinner, and soon asks Shane to stay on as hired help. From the word go, young Joey and Marian are in love with Shane: Joey, idolizing his gun and mannerisms and Marian showing off for Shane, bringing out her fanciest china for dessert and enlivening her femininity. It’s not long before Shane becomes a family favorite and entrenched in the local atmosphere, trading in his white buckskin and gun for farm clothes. This attempt at normalcy for him is continually threatened, as the Rykers to try to push Joe and all the other homesteaders off the land, finally resorting to hiring a cold-blooded gunman out of Cheyenne named Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to do the dirty work. As one character remarks, “That’s the trouble with this country. There isn’t a lawman for 100 miles.” Joe is soon prodded to come to town one night to meet with Ryker, but Shane realizes this is a suicide mission for Joe and comes to grips with the fact that he’s the only one equipped to save the Starretts and the other families in the valley, strapping on his gun and white buckskin, heading into town for a final showdown with Wilson and the Rykers.

Shane has a far reaching influence upon many western films since it’s creation, providing inspiration to elements in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and Once Upon a Time in the West, and in fact Clint Eastwood’s entire career was built upon the sorts of themes and motifs in Shane (let’s do forget about his awful Pale Rider, a terrible remake of Shane that is often so similar and hokey as to induce chuckles), especially when we think about everything from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven. There’s also elements that can be seen again in Cimino’s excellent Heaven’s Gate, with the similar Johnson County War as context. What sets Shane apart from all this is the emotional pull of the film, derived from the homespun point of view of the Starrett family, and usually by the young boy Joey. He is privy to both the entrance and exit of our hero Shane, and to many of the critical moments in the film, particularly the fight in the saloon between Shane and Callaway (Ben Johnson) where he’s looking from under the saloon door, the brawl between Shane and his father in their yard, and primarily the final shootout scene between Shane and Wilson after he has followed Shane from their home all the way into town. Though he is naïve and trusting, there is a certain innocent and unfiltered quality to Joey’s portrayal that allows for a great deal of understanding between the audience and this character. Seeing events through the eyes of a child creates a significantly different emotional response for the audience, taking a story that could be rationalized and analyzed and instead making it instinctual and emotional. It’s not always Joey’s point of view though, as we also regard the situation from the character of Marian. Played with divine sensitivity and fragile femininity, Jean Arthur came out of a 5-year retirement to make this movie for George Stevens and the 52 year-old veteran actress came up with one of her greatest performances, simultaneously playing the devoted wife, caring mother, and pining woman who looks at Shane with significant amounts of feeling which she can barely begin to hold back or express, remaining stuck in the middle. Her longing is best conveyed when the family has all returned from the saloon fight and she’s bandaging Joe’s and Shane’s cuts. She leaves the group to say goodnight to Joey in his room and returns to the main room to find Shane has gone outside. She watches him from the open door. She turns around to see her husband….walks over to him and says, “Hold me. Don’t say anything. Just hold me.” It’s not just we the audience that notice her and Shane could have a thing together. Ryker mentions to Shane about how lovely Marian is, invoking a harsh response from Shane. Even Joe at the end of the film relates to Marian he believes she will be taken care of if he were to die. One of the film’s significant improvements upon the book is in fact the characterization of Marian. In the book she is rather flighty and unsubtle. Jean Arthur brings an authenticity that isn’t present in the book. The loveliest and most tender moment in the film occurs between Marian and Shane, after Shane has knocked Joe cold in their fight in the yard outside the house. Joey is tending to his father after feeling betrayed by his hero for hitting his father with his gun. Marian comes over to Shane and in their moment together, so much is said by what is unsaid….

Marion: You were through with gun-fighting?
Shane: I changed my mind.
Marion: Are you doing this just for me?
Shane: For you, Marion - for Joe - and little Joe.
Marion: Then we'll never see you again?
Shane: Never's a long time, ma'am. Tell him, tell him I was sorry.
Marion: No need to tell him that.

At this moment it might appear that Marian will in fact lean in for a kiss….but Joey calls to his mother, reminding her of her own moral code. She instead reaches out for a handshake that means so much more than that.

Marion: Please, Shane. Please (and then there’s this long and beautiful pause)………….. take care of yourself.

Alan Ladd, a rather undersized actor, is actually the perfect choice by Stevens to play Shane, as the book describes Shane as “not much above medium height, almost slight in build.” Ladd needs to portray a sort of handsome boyish quality that would make Joey and Marion attach to him, and also display a quiet perseverance and calmness. Another improvement upon the book is in fact the character of Shane. In the book, he’s far more dangerous, mysterious and unpredictable. Ladd makes him more likable and gentle, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in his relationships with the family members, without us questioning his motives. Some have claimed Shane is out to lay down his guns from the beginning of the film and seek refuge in community and domesticity. I disagree. It’s only after he sees the opportunity to stick up for the Starrett family in the face of the Rykers does he see the need to stay with them. You can also see how he relishes the opportunity to take Joey’s soda bottle from him to turn it into the bar, as an opportunity to challenge Callaway to a fight. This is not the action of someone ready to lay down his fighting spirit. He knows what he’s doing and is rather charmed by the Starretts, but even he knows there is a destiny at play here. Many have sensed a Christ-like portrayal and even some have claimed that Shane dies at the end. I disagree with this reading as well, and even the book doesn’t go this route. If Stevens wanted to sacrifice him that way, he could have done it more blatantly. 

Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) as the hired gun out of Cheyenne is a larger than life figure to rival Shane’s back history, forcing Shane into action to confront an evil only he can defeat. Palance’s portrayal of the archetypal “bad guy in black” is loaded with mythology and a quiet, focused sense of impending death, like some grim reaper out to collect souls. Even his entrance for the first time into the saloon causes a dog to cower away in fear. One of my favorite moments occurs upon his first visit to the Starrett home as Wilson gets down from his horse and gets a drink of water. Despite the fact that Shane is in farm uniform, they eye each other with a certain regard, sizing each other up, a precursor to their iconic showdown at the end. Their final duel actually hinges upon Wilson gunning down the rather small character of Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) midway through the film. Wilson understands Torrey is a “hothead” and knows he can goad him into a draw. He knows once he kills Torrey, the rest of the homesteaders will begin to get scared and leave the valley. This dark and somber sequence begins with Torrey and his friend Shipstead riding into town. Wilson calls to Torrey and asks him to come over to where he’s sitting by Grafton’s Saloon. Torrey can’t resist the temptation, and he slips and sloshes through the muddy street to reach Wilson. They both walk parallel to each other toward Grafton’s saloon…and then stop and face each other, Wilson taunting Torrey with southern degradations, standing 5 feet above Torrey who’s at street level. Wilson guns Torrey down in the saddest and most unglamorous death that side of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

There are two additional things that make this scene incredibly impactful. One was the fact that Stevens wanted Torrey’s body to be launched backward violently from the impact of the bullets. To achieve this, Stevens had Elisha Cook Jr. fastened with a harness that was yanked to create the illusion that he’d been pushed back 10 feet from the blast. It’s an effect that makes the gunshot and the death seem that much more violent without actually showing blood, lending the death a strong sense of gravity. Second, with Stevens being a war veteran, he didn’t want anyone underestimating the destruction that a gun could do, and this was emphasized even to the sound of the gunshot. Gunshot sounds in most westerns are rather weak and muted on the soundtrack and are usually that particular stock gunshot sound that can be heard across hundreds of westerns. It starts to become unimpressive when you hear the same thing over and over again. To achieve a unique, deafening, and fearsome gunshot effect for Shane, Stevens experimented and recorded the sound of a Howitzer cannon firing into a garbage can, thus capturing a shocking and explosive sound which helps to deglamorize the violence and emphasize the lasting impact of a loss of life. Stevens also understood that if you heard the gunshots too often, it would no longer have impact. It’s almost a full hour into the film before Shane teaches Joey to shoot. Once those enormous gun shots go off on the soundtrack, it’s incredibly jarring and sounds unlike any other gunshot in any other western. It’s literally the loudest thing you hear in the movie…which is as it should be. Torrey’s death is given further magnitude with much emphasis paid to the funeral sequence involving all the homesteaders. This becomes a polarizing moment for many….some convinced they should stay and some convinced they should leave. Thus, Torrey’s death provides the hinge upon which the mechanics of the finale swing, emboldening the homesteaders, in particular Joe Starrett who realizes something must be done to respond to this death. It can probably be argued there is no other death in any western in which a side character’s passing provides such an important impact upon the story.

The iconography of the final showdown between Shane, Wilson and the Ryker brothers, as Shane jarringly reappears in his white buckskin riding into town, is enhanced by the pounding and propulsive score leading up to  that sequence. Indeed, the score written by Victor Young is astounding throughout the film, as he seemingly wrote a theme for most of the characters, from the playful tune to mark Joey’s perspective, to the romantic ballad given to Marian, to Ryker’s descending notes of doom upon every appearance and also Shane’s larger than life nostalgic notes. I think the highlight is that finale march by Shane into town with Joey and his dog running after. Young’s music builds the stakes and the suspense as it leads us to Shane’s entrance into the saloon, with Shane taunting Ryker and then challenging Wilson’s manhood, dictating the scene’s action.

Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane (pausing): …….I've heard that you're a low-down, Yankee liar.
Wilson (softly): ……Prove it.

Then the sudden and swift power of this final shootout unloads with a deafening roar, young Joey looking on from under the door as Shane shoots both Wilson and Rufus Starrett in quick succession. Joey involves himself in the proceedings when he yells “Shane lookout!”, giving Shane a chance to shoot Morgan Ryker off the upstairs balcony, probably saving his life. After the final shootout, Joey must say goodbye to his hero, as Shane rides across the valley and up into the mountains, with those iconic words said by Brandon De Wilde, "Shaaaaaaaaane........Come Baaaaaaaaaaack!!!"

Though filmed in 1951, the film didn’t release until 1953, due to Stevens’s remarkable diligence to editing and re-editing. One can see from the way he incorporates different points of view, angles, edits, sound effects, and musical scoring, that he paid so much attention to the look and feel of the final product. It is reported that the scene when Shane teaches Joey how to shoot took 116 takes. Jack Palance in fact had so much trouble mounting horses that Stevens had to use a shot of Palance dismounting and then played it in reverse to show him mounting. Additionally, the whole shoot was plagued with terrible weather in Jackson Hole, with rain often postponing the schedule. The shoot went over-budget and overtime significantly, but the film did huge business at the box office, raking in $20MM with a budget of $3MM. Shane has been a highly popular western throughout the decades, yet I would wager that even 10 or 15 years ago, this film wouldn't have placed anywhere outside the top 10 of any western countdown, maybe even top 5. I wonder whether today’s audiences find the emphasis on emotion as fulfilling as audiences in prior decades? We seem to be ingrained these days to distrust or even to mock honest emotion. Thus, more subversive works, and particularly the spaghetti westerns get more interest these days, or at least films that are filled with more psychological shading. Call it old-fashioned if you want, but the sort of story and execution on display in Shane is actually what many of the more modern westerns are built upon, including the spaghettis. Without the mythology, there is nothing to subvert. Without the traditions inherent to the genre, there is no need for revision. This film plays better as an emotional experience than as a revisionist western, and for some, that may be a drawback. But, for my money, Shane is the grandest and most emotionally involving examination of western mythology and thus my personal favorite western. Stevens has such a terrific sense of pacing throughout that allows a beautiful emotional arc to unfold, giving weight to life and death, to childhood and family, and to a man’s code of honor. This is Steven’s most lasting legacy with this beautiful film.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Gravity (2013) - Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Alfonso Cuaron has accomplished something that I had started to believe was becoming an impossibility in this age of Hollywood decline.  And that is making an intelligent, visceral, and fun popcorn movie that re-establishes a reason to go to the movie theater in the first place. Here is a film that makes a case to get out of your house, go to a darkened movie theater packed with other people, and be dwarfed, engulfed, and nearly absorbed by a film. When I say absorbed, I sort of mean that. This is a survival film set in space, but one in which the act of watching it places the viewer into the film, into space with the astronauts where one literally feels the weightlessness of space and of the exertion that must be made to get from here to there, with little control of one's spatial surroundings. There were moments in the film where sitting in the theatre, I literally felt short of breath. I do believe it was the most tense I’ve ever felt in a theater, as the peril the astronauts are under plays out in basically real time over the course of about ninety minutes. Most of this credit can be given to Cuaron and his excellent design and photography team who made use of camera technology, CGI, animation, and some solid work from George Clooney and especially Sandra Bullock.

Matt (Clooney) and Ryan (Bullock) are two astronauts who are working outside their Explorer shuttle making repairs when they learn of a satellite that has been blown up. They are told to make it back inside the ship, but the shrapnel and debris from the wreckage passes through their orbit, damaging the ship, taking lives of others on the mission, and sending Matt and Ryan free floating off into space. We watch as Matt and Ryan work together to stay alive, and then eventually, the film hones in on Ryan as she attempts one of the great survival tales in the history of cinema, turning the film into a nearly one-woman show in the second half as Bullock commands the screen with a balance of humanism, grace, and athleticism as the script subjects her to one peril after another, without much of a let-up. Ryan has a backstory whereby she had a daughter who had died at age 4, leaving her struggling to find ways of coping. This comes into play as she reaches a point of no return where she is ready to give up on life, but thoughts of her late daughter spur her to not give up.

This is the rare film that allows a woman to be a strong heroine, not forcing her into a pigeonholed existence where she has to be macho, sexualized, or violent to get there. Bullock gives an athletic and physically intense performance. We often hear her heavy breathing in her space suit as the soundtrack is overwhelmed by her shortness of breath during her moments of fear. It’s almost enough to make one start breathing heavy as well just listening to it. Bullock has often taken roles that don't require a lot of range from her, but here she shows what she's truly capable of: Fear, despair, strength, compassion, sadness and utter believability throughout. Moments where she’s floating, crashing into space stations, closing hatches, reaching desperately for anything to grab onto….all of this spatial acting is accomplished with a real sense for physicality and the enormous strain that her body and mind is under. Often, the first person point of view comes into play, as the camera switches to Ryan as if we are her. These moments engulf us, as if we ourselves are floating and reeling through space with her, trying to reach for anything we can grab onto as we pass by the space station. It’s unbelievably tense filmmaking and cinematography using new technology to create nearly-invisible transition shots that flex the point of view and allow for such fluid movements. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki don’t just film scenes statically. They film them in such a way that it gives the viewer a feeling a flotation and zero gravity. When the blackness of space opens into the blackness of the movie theatre, all of this becomes the large and immersive experience it was designed to be, with the size and scope of the visuals overwhelming the viewer, transporting them to a world the likes of which we’ve never experienced this way.

Though some have recalled Kubrick’s 2001 when mentioning this work, I tend to only reflect upon the usage of special effects wizardry when comparing them. Surely, the depth of plot and size of ambition is different in each case, with Kubrick's film more cerebral and Cuaron's humanistic. What becomes of comparison is the way that the films put you in these places and make you feel part of the mission by using advancements in technology, not to overcompensate for other lacking elements, but to ground the audience in a reality, immersing one in the environment. Thus helping shape and define the experience so it is believable, tangible and relatable. As the film occurs in real time, we feel the weight of accumulated peril, as nothing comes easy for Ryan with sequence upon sequence building the tension and the desperation. We gradually sympathize and identify with her in increasing measures throughout the film, building to the moment she has a breakdown and is in tears when she realizes she is facing her hour of death. These incredibly personal moments leave a real impression. I’m not sure if watching the film at home will bring the same level of excitement, but I’m certainly glad my first viewing was in the theater. Cuaron, who has a penchant for long takes (making a legendary one in 2006’s Children of Men), ups the ante with a 13-minute take here, building suspense at the beginning of the film, enhancing the real-time feel. All of the design elements, like the soundtrack, sound design, and effects design all enhance the aural and visual focus. Yet Cuaron knows that what elevates works like this isn't is the human element, and through Bullock’s assured portrayal, she keeps it from becoming all about the effects, shrinking down the narrative to a mother who has lost her daughter and might lose her own life now, but will fight and claw and not give up. This is the most excitement I've had watching a movie in the last 5 years.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - Directed by John Ford

Note: This review appears at Wonders in the Dark in the Top 50 Western Countdown, placing at #24. 

"Sentimental" is often a pejorative term used to describe a certain kind of art that wears its heart on its sleeve. Regarding film in particular, Ford, Capra and Spielberg have had the term flung at them in condemnation at times. Sentiment is actually neither good nor bad in and of itself though. It is simply a mode for conveying a certain feeling that the director is trying to express, but more often than not, the term has significant negative connotations for some. John Ford was certainly fond of sentiment, or nostalgia or whatever you want to call it, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is probably his greatest use of it in westerns at least, wrapping the film with a heartwarming charm. As the second film in The Cavalry Trilogy (and best to my mind), it followed Fort Apache and came before Rio Grande. It’s significantly memorable for several reasons even among Ford's films. Among them the beautiful cinematography by Winton C. Hoch, in color, as he made iconic use of Monument Valley and incorporated imagery borrowed from the paintings of Frederic Remington; furthermore, this just might be the prime example of Ford’s “kitchen sink” approach to making westerns….meaning everything but the kitchen sink….where he weaves action, romance, sentiment, comedy into the plot and often turns on a dime to switch gears. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the most memorable thing about the film: John Wayne’s epic and beautiful evocation of traditional Fordian values as he portrays an aging hero, cavalry officer Captain Nathan Brittles.

Wayne stars as Brittles, Cavalry Captain of a troupe of men stationed in the southwest at Ft. Starke. He is a week away from retirement and is charged with one final task, which is to escort the Major’s wife Abby (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to a stagecoach post where they will be catching transportation back east. As added backdrop to the storyline, General Custer has just been killed at the Little Bighorn and many of the American Indian tribes are joining efforts, becoming a threat in the area. There’s also a charming subplot that has Olivia being courted by two cavalry gentleman named Flint Cohill (John Agar) and Ross Pennell (Harry Carry Jr.). When Brittles leads the troupe to the stage coach post, he finds that it’s been attacked by the American Indians as part of the uprising and he retreats back to the fort, failing in his mission and feeling like he has let everyone down. On his final day on the job, he redeems himself by fending off a potential war, stampeding the tribe's horses out of their camp, forcing their retreat to the reservation.

Ford has a way of emphasizing the rituals of daily cavalry life, infusing a knowing recognition of tradition, values, and nostalgia into the story. Early on in the film, we see flags and bugle calls, the early morning assemblies and inspection of the troupes. We also see the picture display on Nathan’s desk of his late wife and daughters. This touching memorial sets off another type of tradition, whereby Nathan seems to spend every evening out in the little adjacent cemetery where the three of them are buried. Their tombstones read their death was in 1867, and knowing that the current year is 1876 (Custer’s Last Stand was this year), that means Brittles has been doing this little ritual for 9 years. It is these rituals and traditions and the camaraderie of the troupes on display that make the film so uniquely Fordian, as one of his defining traits as a director was his emphasis on upstanding values…..heroism, loyalty, sacrifice, determination. These aspects lend themselves toward the sentimental side of things, but the film succeeds because of it, not in spite of it, generating a significant amount of sincere emotion and warmth from the American spirit on display and a sort of homespun catharsis begins to form. Comedy helps offset the sentiment, and Ford weaves in a great deal of comedy relief courtesy of Irish actor Victor McLagen as the often drunk Sergeant Quincannon, allowing for Wayne’s comedic sense of timing to play off him nicely… “You got a breath on ya like a hot mince pie!”.

Photographer Winton C. Hoch won the Academy Award for best color photography for 1949, and his work here at framing individuals with Monument Valley in the background is often breathtaking. You could just press pause once in a while and look at it like a painting. I particularly love the way that Hoch framed and filmed the scene where Wayne sits and talks with his late wife on the ridge of the cemetery with the rose-colored hues of a sunset bathing the scene in a lovely pink color. Of particular note is the interesting scene filmed on the plains during a thunderstorm, which was apparently not pre-planned, but Ford wanted to keep filming once the storm came up, forcing Hoch to continue filming in the darkening light, something uncommon considering this was a Technicolor film (and at a cost of $1.6MM, the most expensive western ever made up until that point). But it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the film, perfectly capturing the flailing mood of Brittles and his troupe at that critical moment in the film. Richard Hagemen (a Ford favorite) donated a wonderful score to this film, as he captures the myriads of moods on, going from jaunty and comedic to melancholy and sentimental, flipping the tone as deftly as Ford is able to do, even incorporating snippets of Irish music and the lovely strains of “Dixie” at one point.

Last but certainly not least, is Wayne’s performance, which has to be one of his very best, even among performances in Red River, Rio Bravo, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. In this challenging role, Wayne plays a man about 20 years older than he was, with graying hair, a mustache and a few extra wrinkles on display at times. He is able to incorporate many of his masterful acting traits throughout the film, from his commanding sense of leadership and duty, to comedic timing, to romantic sentiment, it’s all here on full display and he rarely ever expressed such brilliant range as in this film. There are even a few critical moments, like when Brittles receives that silver watch, or when he is talking of his failures with the Major, that tears begin to well up in his eyes. One can see that Wayne really put a lot of effort into this one. I was talking with my 5 year-old daughter a week ago and she told me her favorite actor was John Wayne. I said that’s a great choice. We sat down and watched this film together, and in the middle of the film, she remarked, “John Wayne is such a good actor.” My personal favorite moment is when Wayne gets upset at the two young soldiers for preparing to fight over the love of Olivia with a poor choice of timing. 

Brittles: "Button your shirt Mr. Pennell. Thought better of you. 4 years out here and still acting like a wet eared "kaydet" on the Hudson. What is this all about Mr. Cohill?"
Cohill: "Sir I decline to answer…..respectfully."
Brittles: "Mr. Cohill. It is a bitter thing indeed to learn that an officer who has nine years experience in the cavalry…. The officer to whom I am surrendering command of this troupe in 2 more days…. Should have so little grasp of leadership….. as to allow himself to be chivied into a go at fisticuffs…. while taps still sounds over a brave man’s grave..... God help this troupe when I’m gone."

Wayne uses his inflections and his eyes tremendously during this scene and I could literally watch this scene over and over again. Some may complain that the film is too sentimental for its own good, but I would hearken to say that with the sensitive portrayal by Wayne and the careful balancing act of the script and Ford's handling of values, that Ford was intending everything with a high degree of sincerity, and not taking shortcuts. Some also may complain about the portrayal of the American Indians in the film. I would agree that the portrayal certainly isn't all that enlightened, but the film isn't really about them or about personalizing their story. That would come much later in Cheyenne Autumn. It's about Brittles and the Cavalry and about military tradition and honor. Everything in this film comes together for this to be one of the most Fordian of all Ford films, as it contains so many elements that make Ford great and is a prime example of his effective storytelling. It’s simply a lovely film that gets better every time I see it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seven Men From Now (1956) - Directed by Budd Boetticher

Note: This review appears on the Top 50 Westerns countdown at Wonders in the Dark, placing at #28. 

“The reason that people understand the westerns I made with Randy Scott is that they were simple…..nothing in those Scott pictures would make the audience say, “What did he mean? What was he trying to say?........I said it very simply, and that’s the way I make my pictures. One doesn’t have to sit there and say, “Well, I don’t know….ethically….and maybe he meant…” That’s a lot of crap: to be so artistic that you don’t make sense.”

Budd Boetticher - 1972 - Excerpt from The Director's Event

For it is indeed the most intelligent western I know while being at the same time the least intellectual, the most subtle and the least aestheticizing, the simplest and finest example of the form.

Andre Bazin - 1957 - Cahiers du Cinema

Through a series of 7 films that Budd Boetticher made in conjunction with his star Randolph Scott, the western saw some of its finest films get made. The best of the bunch, The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, and especially Seven Men From Now were all written by Burt Kennedy. It was a tremendous stretch run for a director, writer, star combination, and it's really only in recent years that Boetticher's films have become more available and more lauded, finally landing Boetticher in the same discussion with Ford, Mann, and Leone (and I think Daves could be included as well). It turns out that Seven Men From Now, in particular, has been little seen for decades and only available in archive prints until about 2005. Because the film was produced under John Wayne's Batjac film company (as opposed to Ranown Productions), it had different distribution rights than the other films in the series, and after Wayne's death, the film remained in hiding for the most part. It's almost hard to believe that a film THIS good was so hard to see for so long. It is high time that this film gets seen because it's one of the most perfect westerns ever made, and is worthy of consideration for top 10 status. Perhaps in years to come, this film, and Boetticher's works in general, will continue to receive more recognition within the western genre.

Seven Men From Now was the first of the series, the best of the series, and laid the framework for the films in the Ranown cycle. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Stride, ex-sheriff, who is hunting a group of 7 criminals who stole $20,000 from the Wells Fargo freight office......and also killed Stride’s wife in the process. He’s out to track them down, kill them, and return the money. He lost his job following the event, so is now taking law into his own hands, not waiting for anyone else to do that job. He kills two of the men early in the film in an excellent setpiece in the rain, dropping us right in the middle of his quest. Then he comes across a married couple, John and Annie Grier (Walter Reed and Gail Russell) traveling west from Kansas City who are trying to reach California. He helps get their wagon out of a muddy ditch and then decides to ride along with them for a while. It is clear one of the reasons he stays with them is that he has eyes for Annie. They happen across two ex-cons, Bill (a brilliant Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry), both of whom Stride once put behind bars. These two are tracking the same criminals and want the money for themselves. Friction builds as Stride and Annie begin to develop feelings for each other, while Bill begins to prod and tease them as he notices it, right in front of John, the husband. Before long, Stride steps aside from the group in order to face down the remaining criminals and deliver justice in the proverbial showdowns that ensue.

John Wayne's Batjac production company bought the script from Burt Kennedy, with the original intention of having Wayne star as the lead character. He was tied up with making The Searchers at the time though, and instead chose Randolph Scott to star, which I think was the perfect choice. Scott seems like some kind of perfect amalgam of all the great western lead actors, somehow encompassing the little bits and pieces that we like about Wayne, Fonda, Stewart, Eastwood etc., but is remarkably balanced, not dipping too far into any particular acting stereotype. I like his stoicism, his smirking nonchalance, his deft masculinity...... I almost can't even imagine Wayne in Scott's role here. Scott is far more down to earth, which fits Boetticher's simple, bare-bones aesthetic. What I find consistent in all of these films that Scott and Boetticher made together, is the genuine goodness of Scott’s characters, despite the fact that he often has reasons to be angry and vengeful: he is polite to women; he is chivalrous and does good deeds without expecting anything in return; he usually has a good degree of patience and calmness in the face of danger; he rarely ever raises his voice or speaks harshly of anyone. There's something so unassuming and unpretentious about him.  For me, he is the prototypical, no nonsense cowboy of all time. No wonder Andre Bazin likened Scott to William S. Hart. Nothing ever seems to phase this guy, not even in the final showdown in this film, when he’s hobbling on one good leg, using his shotgun as a cane, and has to face down Lee Marvin in a draw who has two guns and two good legs. Boetticher utilizes Scott's persona to build a simple purity of the western as artform, which appeals to true western aficionados. Boetticher stripped his works of over-reaching and complex, extracurricular contexts. They are not about unspoken backstory or some mystery, per se, to rely upon characterization (Mann), nor do they rely on the “kitchen sink” approach (throwing in comedy, romance, sentiment, action, social commentary etc.), like Ford uses, nor are they moral proverbs like Daves’s films (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Broken Arrow), nor are they social allegories (High Noon) or reflexive mythological examinations (Shane). They are in a sense, about the here and now....the ever present moment and the decisions made in those moments. Yes Stride has a backstory providing a set-up, but there isn't really anything hiding. The pre-destiny of the situation is written on Scott's face. It is about what Stride is doing in the moment as he rides, as he thinks, and as he talks. The purity of the storyline and lack of pretension reverts the western to its essentials. Many have often called Boetticher's films, "chamber westerns" and this is because they're so focused and lean, without a wasted moment, but they also contain a certain limited list of characters who are thrown together and must work out their problems in a relative isolated situation. Despite the simplicity, there is a remarkable range to Boetticher's best works...brutal and violent, austere and stoic, tender and sensitive, and nearly perfect in their clarity.  

One of the subtle charms of Seven Men from Now, is in fact the blossoming relationship between Annie and Stride. Both Scott and Gail Russell give beautiful performances. One never truly gets a direct sense that Scott's character is that interested in sex (Scott was reportedly gay, which lends interesting context to many of these films.) But they seem to have a mutual affinity for the sharing of each other's burdens. Gail Russell's performance is greatly enhanced when you understand that she hadn't appeared in a film in 5 years. She had been John Wayne's good friend, as they appeared in a few films together (namely Angel and the Badman), but severe alcoholism had stricken her career and by 1951, she was out of Hollywood. With Seven Men From Now, Wayne was able to provide a part to the 32 year-old Russell, whose naked, emotional tenderness adds so much to the film. She would in fact die from a heart attack due to alcoholism within 5 years of the release of this film. The yearning friendship of man and woman certainly makes for some wonderfully written moments between Scott and Russell, which keeps the film from becoming too masculine and linear for its own good, as the "uncool" aspect of a man and woman falling in love certainly doesn't fit well with the loner cowboy, masculine aesthetic. In fact, Boetticher routinely refuses to cooperate with or relate to cliches in his films, often giving us exactly the opposite of what we expect. For instance in Ride Lonesome, where Karen Steele appears as the curvaceous blonde, there is nary a whisp of interest from Scott's character at all. At the end of that film, the two part ways as nonchalantly as you please. Here in Seven Men From Now (where we have the loner cowboy on a complex, dogged mission) Stride is sidetracked by the potential love of a woman who's rather plain and is in fact married! There's even a sort-of "sex scene" between the two of them, as she lies in the wagon and he sleeps under the wagon to escape the whether, the two of them achingly close. We can also look at the final showdown here, as Boetticher undermines the rules of the western draw..... as when Scott and Marvin draw, we don't even see Scott pull his guns. Instead the camera stays on Marvin as he falls over. Speaking of Marvin, he's incredibly confident and effective here and it's easy to see how he became such a huge star after this. His projection and body language reek of attitude. Marvin's characterization is filled with warmth and life, making him likable to a point and rather intelligent, turning him into a bad guy whom we hate to see die at the end. Boetticher routinely populates his films with personality driven and rather flamboyant villains from Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins etc., giving them a definitive, rounded humanism. 

Regarding Boetticher's approach, it would be a mistake to overanalyze his works, but there's simply too much to enjoy, like Kennedy's unadorned and propulsive script, which would be a hallmark of Boetticher's best works. Furthermore, William H. Clothier's cinematography creates some of the most beautiful and eye-catching visuals in any western film and the color palette is often striking. He was on contract to work with Wayne in his Batjac production company, and the two would collaborate together on 22 films. In particular, sequences involving Gail Russell hanging up the laundry, a particular scene where the wagon rolls away with Scott in the background, and the final showdown, are framed so perfectly, it's astounding. Ultimately though, the legend of a film like this boils down to the way that Boetticher strips everything to a series of man to man conflicts in the form of showdowns, both psychological and physical. Through this, we find the basis of the types of westerns that would be built in the decades to come.