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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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In the early 1960s the American actor Richard Harrison was living in Italy and had carved out a bit of a niche for himself starring in movies there, including the very first of what are now known as spaghetti westerns. The makers of a new movie in that genre approached Harrison with a view to his appearing in it, but not having enjoyed his previous experience, the actor declined. So the director asked him to recommend another actor who could conceivably carry a new kind of western. Harrison, a veteran performer with over 120 films to his credit, nowadays wryly comments that his response may have constituted his single greatest contribution to cinema, both as an industry and an art form.

The director was Sergio Leone, the film was A Fistful of Dollars (Italian title Per un pugno di dollari, while – somewhat curiously – the on-screen title card omits the indefinite article), and the eventual star was Clint Eastwood, at that point best-known as the star of TV western Rawhide. These days A Fistful of Dollars is famous as the film which brought both Leone and the spaghetti western subgenre to international attention, while Eastwood has gone on to have the most distinguished of careers as a film-maker – even to the point where his fame and success as a director surpasses that of his acting work. It all started here, in an unauthorised and uncredited remake of the Japanese jidaigeki movie Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa and Toho duly sued, to which Leone’s response was that Yojimbo itself was a derivative work, ultimately drawn from an Italian commedia dell’arte play. But he still settled out of court in the end, with Kurosawa claiming he earned more from Fistful than he did from his own film).

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars will certainly seem very familiar to anyone who has seen the Kurosawa film. A taciturn stranger (famously known as the Man with No Name, but a minor character in this film repeatedly calls him ‘Joe’) arrives in a desolate town in Mexico to find it moribund, paralysed by a struggle between rival gangs of smugglers and bandits – the Rojos and the Baxters. The local cantina is almost deserted, and the only person doing good business is the man who makes the coffins.

But the stranger sees an opportunity to maybe make a little money, for he is a lethally skilled gunfighter and quite prepared to play both sides off against each other in pursuit of a bigger payday. But Ramon (Gian Maria Volonte), one of the Rojo brothers, is also a dangerously intelligent killer, and the stranger may not find his scheme as straightforward to implement as he first thinks…

I have to say that Sergio Leone was really trying it on when he tried to assert that A Fistful of Dollars is not a fairly obvious remake of Yojimbo. There are a few tweaks to the storyline early on – a visit from a government inspector is replaced by a double-cross involving some stolen gold – but in many places this is very nearly a shot-for-shot recreation of the Japanese film, dramatically at least.

Looking slightly beneath the surface, things are somewhat different. A Fistful of Dollars is a much ‘straighter’ movie than its precursor, which – in its early stages at least – functions as a kind of black comedy. Fistful is by no means po-faced, but it is a particularly cynical kind of humour, articulated many in terms of one-liners from Eastwood’s character. But then the film as whole feels like it is operating on a more limited, superficial level.

It has many of the same strengths as the Kurosawa film, most notably the pairing of Eastwood and Volonte as protagonist and antagonist. (In an attempt to pitch the movie to xenophobic American markets, many of those involved are credited under somewhat unlikely American pseudonyms – Leone’s original credit was as ‘Bob Robertson’, Volonte ‘John Wells’, Mario Brega ‘Richard Stuysevant’, and so on. I’m not sure how convincing this would have been, even at the time.) It doesn’t quite manage the beautiful simplicity of Yojimbo‘s swordsman-versus-gunfighter finale, but negotiates around this with reasonable elegance.

However, Yojimbo, like most of Kurosawa’s films, is a study of character and the world, as well as being an entertaining narrative. Kurosawa loved working with Toshiro Mifune because, the director said, he was the most expressive actor he had ever come across. It seems Leone loved working with Eastwood in the same way, but for diametrically opposite reasons – he saw the actor as an inscrutable mask, observing that he had two basic expressions: hat on or hat off. (Leone was, of course, joking: he was the first, after all, to recognise Eastwood’s ability to shift, almost imperceptibly, from neutral-featured juvenile lead to flinty-eyed spectre of annihilation, as he does most famously in the ‘My mule don’t like people laughing at him’ sequence.)

A Fistful of Dollars seems largely to have been conceived in visual terms. Most of the dialogue doesn’t go far beyond ‘Ey, gringo’ cliches, and the plot is, as we have discussed, obviously derivative. What makes it distinctive is the big set piece moments: rapid intercutting between wide shots and huge close-ups of silent actors, their faces filling the screen as the trumpets of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack soar above the action. This is a director’s movie, a cinematographer’s movie, perhaps above all an editor’s movie.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the film feels a little superficial as a result (although the constraints of the production – it was filmed ‘as silent’ with dialogue and sound added later – may also have had an effect). Leone doesn’t seem particularly interested in making any specific point, with the result that the film just feels like a very violent melodrama, about and punctuated by acts of cruelty and murder, populated by thin (maybe ‘archetypal’ would be a better way of putting it) characters. A key moment in the plot comes when the stranger risks himself to help a family torn apart by the Rojos – in Yojimbo, Mifune’s performance effectively foreshadows this moment of hazard, but here it just seems rather out-of-character for Eastwood.

Nevertheless, on its own terms this is a highly accomplished film, and very entertaining too. All the intelligence and charisma that Eastwood would show throughout his acting career is on display; the same is true of the artistry and skill of Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone. Opinion may still be somewhat divided as to the place of A Fistful of Dollars in the history of the western – is it a bold new take on, or perversion of the genre? – but it is still a great movie.

 

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In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).

So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)

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The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going up against this sort of competition?

The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.

And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.

Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.

It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nominee are probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.

I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.

This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.

In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days).

In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up amidst automatic gunfire). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.

 

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Summer has come to an end, and there are few more reliable signs of that than the disappearance of the really big studio films, in favour of a somewhat more mixed slate of releases: unashamed genre movies, smaller comedies, unnecessary remakes, and the odd serious quality film which has somehow snuck past security.

Definitely falling into the latter category is David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, a brooding, thoughtful thriller which oozes a very particular kind of Americana. The director’s name didn’t ring a bell and I was rather surprised to learn he’s actually Scottish – he was responsible for the slightly bonkers apocalyptic romance Perfect Sense – but I suppose it only goes to show you never can tell.

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The film is set in Texas in the present day. Chris Pine and Ben Foster play Toby and Tanner Howard, a pair of brothers who embark on a spree of bank robberies in order to finance a get-extremely-rich-moderately-quickly scheme. Pine is taciturn and thoughtful, worried about his estranged family – Foster is a not-too-bright headcase with a short fuse. Luckily Tanner has form in the bank robbery department and things initially go according to plan, more or less.

Then the law gets on their trail, in the form of Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham. Bridges is crusty and close to retirement, Birmingham is long-suffering. Bridges soon figures out there’s more than meets the eye to the brothers’ activities, but will he be able to get one step ahead of them and put a stop to their scheme?

The most obvious thing that Hell or High Water has going for it is a very strong set of lead performances. For quite a few years now it has been generally accepted that Jeff Bridges has become one of the best and most reliable character actors working today, and his performance here does nothing to cast doubt over that. Initially it looks a bit like a collection of quirks and tics, but as the story progresses Bridges manages to make it very clear that much of this is a front his character affects, masking a very sharp and dedicated cop. Ben Foster isn’t a particularly well-known actor, but he has done some big movies – he was one of the X-Men for about ten minutes, not to mention starring in The Mechanic and Warcraft. He comes across as a fairly serious actor, though, and this film suits his talents better. You would have thought the weak link might be Chris Pine – there were, last time I checked, billions of people in the world who are not William Shatner, but Pine is the only one for whom this is a professional impediment. He’s never made much of an impression on me in the past, but here he is very good – there’s a two-hander between him and Bridges in which he holds his own very comfortably.

The film is, as you may have gathered, something of a western-inflected heist movie, with perhaps a bit of a resemblance to No Country for Old Men. Nearly everyone wears cowboy hats, some people even ride horses; many of the characters routinely carry heavy-duty firearms. Texas seems lost in the past – or not quite up to date with the present day, certainly.

This seems to me to be more than just background colour, for it’s quite clear that there is more going on here than a simple crime story: the script obviously has things to say about the state of the American economic system. The Howards are targeting one particular banking corporation, simply because they feel it ruthlessly exploited their late mother, and their ultimate motivation is to provide security for Toby’s sons. Pine even gets a speech about how poverty is like an inherited disease, one that can destroy lives. The subtext is woven through the film consistently, and if I had a criticism of it, it would be that it almost becomes text – the various characters are always driving past vistas of industrial decay, prominently featuring billboards with slogans about Debt Relief and so on.

This probably makes the film sound slightly heavier and more worthy than is actually the case, for there is some humour along the way (most of it courtesy of Bridges’ character and his somewhat unreconstructed attitudes), and some extremely well-mounted action, too. Mackenzie stages a very tense bank-robbery-goes-wrong sequence, which concludes in (perhaps) unintentionally comic fashion as it turns out practically the entire town is packing heat and seeking to stop the robbers’ escape. But the film doesn’t shy away from the consequences of violence, either.

If there’s a sense in which the film’s deeper concerns gradually overwhelm its identity as a straightforward thriller – it opts for a ending steeped in ominous ambiguity rather than conventional closure – this doesn’t stop it from being a highly accomplished and intelligent script, brought to the screen with skill and energy. Well worth catching.

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It must be that time of year again, for there seems to be a conspiracy at work to make me feel stupid and/or lacking in true gravitas. It’s becoming very nearly an annual thing, as I say, and always just as awards season is kicking off in earnest: the great and the good announce their lists of contenders and nominees for the big prizes, I duly go along to check out some of the most lauded films, and emerge, bemused, a couple of hours later, honestly not entirely sure quite what the fuss is about.

This is, admittedly, a slightly negative note upon which to start a review, but then it seems somewhat in keeping with the general tone of Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is one of most thorough-goingly bleak and uncompromising films I’ve seen in a long while.

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You want to hear about the story? Well, frankly, it strikes me as a rather secondary element of the film, but here we go: in 1823, a party of trappers in a remote North American wilderness find themselves under relentless attack by a war party of the local Ree Native American tribe. A handful of the men manage to escape the slaughter, due in no small part to the expertise of their guide and scout, Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man well-versed in the ways of the locals (he even has a half-native son to prove it).

However, as the group struggles back to their base, disaster strikes when Glass is attacked and savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, leaving him close to death. The leader of the group, Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), refuses to leave Glass to die alone, and eventually agrees to pay a few of the men to stay with him and do what’s necessary. Taking him up on this offer is the slightly unhinged Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy at his Tom Hardiest), who, with respect to the whole stay with Glass – wait till he dies – bury him plan, is quite prepared to skip the middle step…

But Fitzgerald has reckoned without Glass’ almost inhuman will to survive, and the guide crawls out of his grave and slowly begins to recuperate, intent on getting his revenge on Fitzgerald. But there are many miles of frozen wilderness, filled with hostile Ree, between Glass and his objective, and Fitzgerald is not a man to take lightly…

Well, it sounds like the stuff of a fairly traditional action-adventure story, with a lot of western trappings, and I suppose to some extent it is: there are lots of shootings, stabbings, and various fights during the film’s very considerable running time. But it never really feels like an actual action-adventure, and probably even less like a western. It’s just a bit too relentlessly bleak and horrible for that.

I was browsing around the blog last night, seeing what I’d written about other problematic Oscar nominees in the past, and I came across what I said about 12 Years a Slave. Many of the things I said then definitely rang a bell with what was going through my mind about The Revenant – ‘a horrific world of violence, pain, and misery’, ‘a grim and deeply uncomfortable experience from start to finish’, and ‘almost totally bereft of traditional entertainment value’.
Well, I should make it very clear that I don’t think The Revenant is a bad film; by any objective standard, this is a film made with enormous skill and thoughtfulness. There are very few moments of it which are not strikingly beautiful to look at, and – while not as tricksy as the single-take shenanigans of Birdman – Inarritu engages in some bravura camerawork at key moments in the story.

But at the same time I can’t help wondering if there is less going on here than meets the eye. On one level, this is a simple story about a man who simply refuses to die until he’s carried out his self-appointed mission, and what such a man is capable of (I wasn’t surprised to see that DiCaprio has said this is one of the toughest films he’s ever done, nor that he had five stunt doubles – I imagine the first four died mid-shoot). But on another level… well, that’s the thing, if there is another level I don’t really see what it is. It’s just buried a bit too deeply.

It doesn’t really help that much of the peripheral plot feels a bit murky, too – the fact that a lot of the dialogue, Tom Hardy’s in particular, is delivered in such a thick accent as to be utterly unintelligible, is probably responsible for some of this. But there are subplots whose connection to the main story seem either unarticulated or entirely arbitrary – a party of Ree wander through the film, searching for a kidnapped young woman. They play a key role in the resolution of the climax but I’ve no idea why things play out in the way they do, based on what I saw in the rest of the film.

Another relevant line from the 12 Years piece is ‘this sort of factually-inspired historical gloom-a-thon is almost always made with a view to pushing a particular political or moral point’, and this time around it’s the treatment of native Americans that the film has something to say about. It is, as you would expect, a very revisionist western (to the extent it’s a western at all), and while the Ree may carry out atrocities against the European characters, it’s made very clear that they are ultimately victims rather than aggressors.

As I said, this is a serious film, and a well-made and good-looking one. I’m not completely sure if the performances are actually as good as all that, but I suppose the willingness of the performers to suffer for their art, not to mention their services to the growing of luxuriant beards, demand some sort of recognition. And I know the Academy likes serious films, and historical films (especially ones about American history). But 12 Oscar nominations? Really? That’s more than The Godfather, West Side Story, or Lawrence of Arabia, and The Revenant isn’t in the same league as any of them.

I think it’s probably just a case of momentum, that this film is the work of a bunch of people whom the Academy, on some subliminal level, is aware it really likes and feels like it should be nominating on a regular basis – Inarritu, obviously, following his success last year, and also DiCaprio – who’s almost become one of those people whose lack of an Oscar colours how they are perceived. Maybe even Tom Hardy has also joined this club, he’s certainly done good enough work in plenty of high-profile films recently.

The Academy is ultimately a political body with its own little quirks and fixations and I think it’s this that explains why The Revenant has done quite so well in terms of racking up the gong nominations this year. I will say again that it’s not a bad film, though neither will it suffuse you with joy and good humour: it is very heavy going. On the whole, much easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

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There are, as they say, two kinds of people in this world: those who can think of a witty and original gag for the opening line of a review of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the rest of us. But hey ho. The conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy (working title apparently River of Dollars, though I also like Garth Ennis’ quasi-suggestion of A Coffinful of Dollars) made its first appearance in 1966, when Clint Eastwood was just on the threshhold of proper major stardom, a state which he has managed to maintain without too much effort for the nearly fifty years since the film came out. There’s nothing like getting off to a good start, is there, and it is somewhat ironic that Eastwood himself was deeply reluctant to do yet another spaghetti western (and indeed refused to take part in further Leone projects like Once upon a Time in the West). Critics were initially fairly sniffy about the film, but its reputation as one of the greatest westerns ever made has grown down the years, which is no doubt why it is still receiving swanky restorations and revivals nearly five decades on.

gbuThe plot of Leone’s epic tale is somewhat convoluted, unfolds at a fairly languid pace, and is not entirely essential to the success of the venture. As the American civil war rages in the background, the film follows three drifters as they go about their business: Blondie (Eastwood), Angel-Eyes (Lee van Cleef), and Tuco (Eli Wallach). Blondie and Tuco initially have a deal where Blondie repeatedly turns Tuco in for the bounty on his head, gets the money, and then rescues him from the hangman so they can both do a runner, but this not entirely surprisingly turns sour and leaves Tuco questing for a brutal revenge. Angel-Eyes, meanwhile, has business of his own, trying to track down a huge treasure which has gone missing in the fog of war.

Their paths cross when Blondie and Tuco meet the only man who knows the location of the gold, shortly before he dies. Both of them end up knowing half of the treasure’s location, which makes them potentially very rich men, provided they can put their mutual antipathy on hold long enough to track it down. However, this also puts them squarely in Angel-Eyes’ sights, and he is even less noted for his sweet and reasonable nature than they are…

Time and its own influence have probably robbed The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of much of its impact: Eastwood may have been ambivalent about his association with Leone, but it’s a connection which fundamentally informs his own work in the western genre. Seriously bright people such as Rich Hall scorn Leone’s westerns as empty jokes, and in a way it’s easy to see why: if you look at the classic American western, it is all about the classic values of the country. The west is a place for principled and heroic self-realisation, a place of freedom and potential. The west in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, on the other hand, is a desolate wasteland where the only certainty is violent death, and moral alignments are just labels on empty bottles.

This film works on some level as a very black comedy, and one of the main ironies is in the title. Blondie may be tagged on-screen as good, Angel-Eyes as bad, and Tuco as ugly, but realistically there is very little to choose between them: they all three share a high degree of moral flexibility and a staggeringly lethal level of skill at gunfighting, and they are all only really motivated by the desire for money. Everything else is really just a grace note in their characterisation – Blondie occasionally expresses a little compassion for the men caught up in the war, and Angel-Eyes seems to rather enjoy killing and torturing people, but there really isn’t much to choose between them. They are both detached, rather emblematic figures, in any case: compared to them, Tuco may come across as a sort of oafish, demented rodent, but he is still by far the most humanised of the trio. We learn much more of his background and character, mainly because he probably talks more than the other two put together. If he is ugly, it is because of his very humanity and frailty compared to the others.

This could be taken for evidence of the cynicism of Leone’s film, which seems to be dismissive of conventional morality – this is a story about three very greedy, very violent men, after all. The civil war is presented stripped of any moral context, any sense of it being a struggle between good and evil: it is just pointless, bloody chaos through which the leads move – they treat it more as an inconvenience than anything else. But it seems to me that this is not a wholly cynical film: there are repeated scenes where the camera tracks along great numbers of wounded men from the war, usually accompanied by some of the most soaring and emotive sections of Ennio Morricone’s famous score. The film may scorn morality, but it is not entirely without compassion: even Eastwood’s character comments on the pointless waste of life he observes in the war. In the end I would say the film is profoundly cynical rather than totally amoral.

Leone’s conception of the film is distinctive – especially by 1960s standards, when John Wayne was still making westerns – and it is matched by his realisation of it. There is a curious convention at work where anything not actually on the screen is totally invisible to any of the characters (Blondie and Tuco saunter along at one point, completely oblivious – it would seem – to the vast military encampment just to their left, until the camera pans onto it, anyway) and the rest of the film shares this non-naturalistic sensibility. Much of the time people are either tiny specks off in the distance, or enormous sweaty faces overfilling the entire screen, and Leone seems very comfortable just telling a story with images and music rather than dialogue. He is, of course, more than ably assisted by Ennio Morricone, whose legendary operatic score is central to the success of the movie. It’s true that at times the music sounds like full-scale war has broken out between Hank Marvin and a mariachi band, but this is still an incredible score – many people who’ve never even seen the movie will know the central theme within a few seconds of hearing the first note.

Pictures and music come together to extraordinary effect in the film’s set pieces, mainly towards the end of the story. The climactic three-way gunfight largely consists of extreme close-ups of people’s hands and eyes not really doing very much, while Morricone’s music goes berserk over the top of it, but even better – if you ask me – is a sequence a little earlier in which Tuco searches a graveyard for the treasure. As his excitement builds, so does the music, and as the music builds so the cutting of the picture and the movement of the camera both accelerate, to an almost frenzied level. Conventional storytelling it isn’t, but it is still hugely impressive film-making.

You could probably have a go at The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for its violence, its cynicism, and its near-total lack of female characters, but I think this is all to some extent a matter of taste. For me, it isn’t really a contender for the title of best film ever made, or even the best western, but it is still the product of a singular and coherent vision, as well as more than satisfying the requirements of its genre. While you’re watching it, you’re always aware you’re watching a piece of art, but you’re also being thoroughly entertained – and that’s what I call a good time.

 

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Topping up my rental list a while back, I decided to add the Coen brothers’ No Country For Old Men – not because I’m a particular fan of the Coens, though I’ve never found one of their movies less than diverting, but because this one seemed to have a bit of a reputation about it. (Due to my international jetsetting lifestyle, I missed it on its initial release and indeed for quite a long time kept getting it mixed up with There Will Be Blood, which came out at about the same time.) It also appears to be the film that launched Javier Bardem’s career in Anglophone cinema – and with my ticket for Skyfall already bought, he’s an actor currently on my radar.

The thing with the Coens is that you never know quite what you’re going to get – they’ve done comedies, thrillers, and westerns of all stripes and tones, although a certain offness of beat is usually to be expected. This movie, however, is written and played rather straighter than most of their output, presumably due to its greater fidelity to Cormac McCarthy’s source novel (when asked about the process of adaptation, the Coens revealed that one of them held the book open while the other typed the contents into the script).

Josh Brolin plays Llewellyn Moss, a laconic retired welder living in the southern USA in 1980. By chance he stumbles upon the aftermath of an unsuccessful drug deal: one of the distinguishing features of the drug business is that failed deals tend to involve more spent ammunition and corpses than other areas of industry. Moss discovers a bag with $2 million in it and, perhaps understandably, decides he would quite like to keep it.

However, the owner of the money would also quite like it back and to this end dispatches laconic psychopathic weirdo Anton Chigurh (Bardem, in a deeply unflattering hairstyle somewhat reminiscent of Sonny Bono) to get it back. Chigurh’s chosen implements include a pneumatic bolt-gun and a shotgun with a silencer on it (no, I didn’t know you could do that either); as someone observes, he is not well blessed with a sense of humour, and the sort of hitch-hiker who gives the pursuit a bad name.

Aware of what’s going on is mild-mannered and laconic sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – but Moss is intent on handling matters himself, placing himself in severe peril as Chigurh, another laconic bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson) and some peeved Mexican drug-dealers close in on him…

On one level this is unrepentantly a genre movie, though it’s a little unclear quite what the genre in question is. The Coens cheerfully mash together tropes of both the classic western and the contemporary crime thriller, and the results are virtually seamless. The result is a tough, one might almost say macho movie, bloodily violent in places, and mostly populated by hard, laconic men, used to lives of violence. (That said, Kelly Macdonald is rather good – and, to my eyes, almost unrecognisable – as Moss’ wife.) This is a great-looking film with its own rather spartan style: there are long stretches with virtually no dialogue, and the only music in it is diegetic (hey, look at it this way: I’ve given you the opportunity to either feel a sense of smug kinship or learn a new word).

For the majority of its running time this is a taut, engrossing movie, well-directed, with very strong performances from everyone involved. And then… well, I would hate to spoil the ending, even though I found it more baffling than satisfying. There’s – well, it’s not quite a plot twist, but it’s an event that would cause most writing coaches to faint with horror if you were to suggest it. And following this, the remainder of the film becomes much less obviously a thriller or a western, but more a thoughtful and rather oblique meditation on… I’m really not sure. Fate. Responsibility. The nature of justice. The thriller plotline seems to get forgotten about, and so, for that matter, does a conventional ending.

I have to say I was disappointed by the way this film wrapped up, largely because I’d been so impressed with it in its earlier stages: the shift in tone and focus is just a bit too sudden and jarring. I suppose by making what looks like a genre movie you’re putting yourself in thrall to genre conventions, and having done so it’s very difficult to extricate yourself with a great deal of elegance, or indeed in a satisfying way.

Then again, it may be that it’s this very peculiar denouement which is responsible for the tremendous critical acclaim No Country For Old Men received: certainly it’s one of the most garlanded movies of recent years. Certainly, it’s beautifully written, filmed, directed and performed – Bardem is brilliant as a genuinely creepy psycho, and I don’t recall Harrelson ever being better, either – and if I was watching it for the first time on TV and the set blew up around the 90 minute mark I would be incensed, certain I was missing the end of a classic movie. As it is, I don’t know; maybe I will have to watch it again and try to assimilate that final half hour or so properly. I hesitate to call this movie deeply flawed, because that ending is obviously intended to mean something: I just have no idea what it is.

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