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Posted: Sun Feb 06, 2005 9:57 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Assassination Of Richard Nixon (2004)
(A Penn is Mightier than the Film)

Reviewed by... Censored-03

Sean Penn is very good as a weary salesman soon to be wannabe assassin in this somewhat predictable film. Penn's salesman (basically a rip-off artist) has had his wife (Naomi Watts) leave him taking their kids with her. He tries to get financial help from a government small business loan that the Nixon administration has signed into effect. He wants to start his own business with his only friend (Don Cheadle), thinking this will help impress his wife and make her come back.

Penn is excellent at playing a pathetic inept person sometimes, and he pulls it off to perfection in this film. I only wish the story gave us more background on all of the characters. It is quite obvious that the salesman doesn't have what it takes to start his own business, lacking what his boss calls "belief" in order to be a good seller. In one scene the boss uses Nixon as an example of a good salesman, having sold the American public the premise that he would bring home the troops from Viet Nam in two elections.

The story takes us with the salesman down a spiraling life that leads to an ugly end. You know Nixon's career ended this way, but you also know he wasn't assassinated, so you do the math. I enjoyed the film, but I think it is an esoteric one and if you don't like hearing the incessant voice of Richard Nixon buzzing on a TV set in your head the way it does in Penn's character, I would suggest staying home.

Niels Muller is a first time director with this project and I will be interested in seeing what he does next. There is a lot of good work in this interesting but flawed film. Penn's acting is the standout in this film.
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Posted: Sun Feb 06, 2005 9:58 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Reviewed by... Censored-03

The story begins on the battlefield where five WWI soldiers - in a common act for that horrible war - wound themselves intentionally to be sent to a field hospital - or anywhere else for that matter - away from the horror that was trench warfare. They are found out and instead of execution they are sent back into no-man's-land for an even more awful sure death, even though one of the five is possibly innocent of his "crime".

In the meantime we meet Mathilde - played by Audrey Tautou of Amelie and Dirty Pretty Things fame- a young woman from the provinces of France who's fiance is one of the five soldiers. She suffers from a polio limp, but this - or anything - can't keep her from a quest to find her young man, when she learns through a letter that the fiance named Manech - Gaspard Ulliel- may have survived the war, as she had suspected in her heart all along.

The film takes us with Mathilde on a search through a visually beautiful French countryside as well as a wonderous Paris. The cinematography is truly breathless at times. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet - Amelie, City Of Lost Children, Dellicatessen - is as adept at directing some of the most joyous moments in a film as he is at excrutiatingly real battle sequences with all of the blood and guts. He is truly becoming one of film's greatest visualizers and storytellers.

Mathilde hires an aging private detective to aid her in the formidable task of interviewing the many possible human leads to this missing person mystery. Speaking of missing persons, Jeunet uses the story of a prostitute as a parallel character to Mathilde. The prostitute - played by a Jeunet regular Marion Cotillard - also had a lover among the five soldiers and is hunting him down as well, only in a completely different way, she is murdering her interviewees! She is hell-bent on revenge and is getting it.

The film has quite a romantic lilt despite all of the detailed bloodshed. It is not, however to be compared to Jeunet's much lighter and whimsical Amelie which also starred Audrey Tautou. We see much of the story in flashback, including Mathilde and Manech's early love affair. Manech is the son of a lighthouse keeper and is so handsome and charming that the locals have given him the name Cornflower. His innocent look is an important cinematic hook in keeping the audience in the hunt with Mathilde. I won't tell you if she indeed does finally reunite with Manech, I will however say the film has a powerful ending.

This is not a perfect film, the juxtaposition of the gritty WWI sequences and the charming Tautou and her relentless search for a lost love are what make this film work and not work at the same time. This type of back and forth storytelling can be rather wearing on the viewer considering the more than two hour length of the film. It is a difficult story to tell on film actually and Jeunot does the best anyone possibly could have done considering the complexity of deciding whether this is a love story, a war story or a mystery. This I think is more of a problem with the original book by Sebastien Japrisot than it is with this almost top rate very entertaining film.

One last thing, Jodie Foster has a minor role - speaking very good French - in the film, I found it to be a distracting cameo.
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Posted: Tue Feb 22, 2005 8:56 am Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
Garden State (2004)
Written and Directed by Zach Braff

Review written by...Marj

When Mike Nichol's The Graduate was released in 1967, it was a first. Never before had a film tackled the angst of young adults in such a fashion, if at all. Certainly there was Rebel without a Cause, but these were rebellious teens. The Graduate on the other hand, looked at the life of a recent college graduate and his isolation upon entering adulthood and the real world. It was funny, touching and looking back not terribly good.

Since then we have seen more than our share of teen angst, young adult angst, mid-life angst and enough coming of age movies to create a genre of its own. One might think in order to enter to this rarefied niche, any film dealing with similar issues must introduce something new, sparkling and refreshing. Sadly, Zach Braff's, Garden State tries awfully hard but rarely succeeds.

Braff shows moments of originality. He is a keen observer of human behavior so when he finds the handle from a gas nozzle still stuck in the back of his car, one might think this movie holds promise. It is certainly a wonderfully funny moment, but a few good moments does not make up for a tired and clearly self indulgent exercise. It's like having déjà vu all over again. We've seen it all before, and by far better film makers.

Garden State tells the story of a quirky, 20 something young man, who returns home after a nine year absence to attend the funeral of his mother. There, he embarks on a three day odyssey, coming to terms with the reasons for his lengthy time spent on numerous psychotherapeutic medications, his uncomfortable relationship with his father, and meets his soul mate, also a quirky young thing who wears a helmet to work due to her epilepsy. Along the way he also meets up with quirky (Isn't quirky getting old yet?) school friends, one a grave digger/robber and another the inventor of silent Velcro. Yes, this guy now has enough money to burn his own furniture!

Garden State boasts some great casting. Natalie Portman as Sam, is charming in spite of the script and is reason enough to see this film. Peter Sarsgaard and Ron Liebman are terrific, although Sarsgaard's role is somewhat of a waste. In a small role the wonderful Ann Dowd is admirable as Sam's mother. And if it weren't enough to write and direct his first movie, Zach Braff plays the title character of Andrew Largeman.

I'd like to give credit to Braff for being audacious enough to tackle such a task, but one can only due that when the film's a success and when we care about its protagonist. While Braff may be able to carry a sitcom, (Scrubs) he simply does not have the charm or acting chops to make one care about his plentiful problems in a feature film. And while Garden State does have its moments; some of the dialogue is quite good, and the relationship between Andrew and Sam is often touching, too much of this movie detours and drags. It's as though once the characters are introduced and the premise is established, we can all go home. Or if not, we can easily take a snooze until the denouement, just to see how it all turns out. That is, if we haven't already predicted it.

Earlier I called Andrew's odyssey a three day trip. Truthfully I don't know exactly how long Andrew's adventures took. But if it wasn't three days, it certainly felt like it. Trust me. I'm being kind.
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Posted: Mon Feb 28, 2005 10:38 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Aviator (2004)
Director. Martin Scorsese

Written by...Marj

For years I have read, been fascinated yet repulsed by Howard Hughes. Whatever I read, I read at a distance, never intrigued enough by the man to get too close. I never understood what made Hughes so irresistible to women, but for whatever reason I was never that interested either. Tonight however, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo Dicaprio have done the impossible. They made me actually care about Howard Hughes!

Imagine being alive when air travel was all the rage. When movies were just grabbing our collective attention. Those must have been exciting times. Witnessing Howard Hughes' larger than life adventures whether in the air or closer to ground level, though never really quite there, must have been something to behold. The Aviator tells Hughes' story with an uncommon caring, not sympathetic, more empathic really, which is after all, Scorsese's want. And rather than the intimate manner with which he told the story of boxer, Jake LaMotta, this time Scorsese employs an almost epic style which truly befits Howard Hughes and his times.

Howard Hughes lived a life, no one would've believed had it not been true. He was a mythic figure and in telling his story Scorsese paints his canvas in a style appropriate for such a grandiose character. The flight scenes are both joyous and breathtaking while always segueing seamlessly into intimate moments. Being true to his subject, Scorsese stylizes the film moving from art deco to more earthy tones for the latter years. And he does so not to exemplify his own prowess but because it is so right for this particular story. His eye for detail is unparalleled, inviting us to witness the period as though we were actually there.

The Aviator covers the life of Howard Hughes from the late twenties and the filming of "Hell's Angels" up to the late forties, just before the demons that plagued his life from the start, took final hold and turned him into caricature. While they were his nemesis they may have also been his allies; transporting the man from the ordinary to the extraordinary, propelling him to accomplish feats unfathomable to the human experience.

Credit must be given to Leonardo DiCaprio. Though not at all like Hughes physically, we quickly forget that and join him as he soars in a moving and often subtle performance. Howard Hughes should rightfully have been played by a young Sam Shepard, but this is DiCaprio’s baby and it is his performance that is deserving of accolades. DiCaprio never attempts to play the character, simply the man, thus humanizing Hughes as well as his demons. And even if we know how it all turns out we still root for him. Whether he is trying to get "The Outlaw" and Jane Russell's mammaries past the censors, attempting to break a new speed record or fighting a scurrilous senate subcommittee, we care about him, his joys and his sorrows.

Cate Blanchette continues her stream of wonderful portrayals as Katherine Hepburn. While close to mimicry she is wise in not going too far, therefore allowing us to believe her. We do and whether or not Hepburn and Hughes actually had as long an affair as the movie portrays, doesn’t seem to matter. It is a movie after all.

And that's the point! In this, the year of the biopic, we finally have one that lives up to its promise. It tells the story of a man, but never forgets it's a movie. Hence, we are able to suspend disbelief and join Scorsese for one Hell of a ride. Rather than attempting film a chronicle, Scorsese simply but with grandeur, weaves an amazing yarn. In so doing he lifts and transports us into that most rarified of atmospheres, the fantastic life of Howard Hughes.
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Posted: Mon Feb 28, 2005 11:33 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Aviator (2004)

Written by... Rod

If Gangs of New York was Martin Scorsese using a great story to tell history, it seems right to describe The Aviator as using history to tell a great story. I have never succumbed to the fiction that his out-put has been deteriorating since Goodfellas, a period which actually stands, with such intrepid and varied works as The Age of Innocence, Casino, Kundun, and Bringing Out The Dead, as rather superior in fact to his ‘80s list of which only Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ are top-line works (the value of that sick classic The King of Comedy can and will be argued over; The Color of Money is a work of supreme craft but is not the sweat-inducing masterpiece The Hustler or half of Scorsese’s oeuvre was). He is actually remarkably prolific, and yet remarkably undiluted in creative energy and experimental zest.

Especially by the standards of his generation, most of whom have burnt out, gone to pot, or just racked up too many flops to stick it out in Hollywood. Of the supreme talents of the Movie Brat generation, Coppola got old and fat and is now being out-done by his daughter, Lucas seems to be having a romantic affair with an Apple Mac, Johns Carpenter and Landis took a long slow slide down to the metaphorical Drive-In; Cimino cracked up long since; Oliver Stone was never any good to begin with. Ironically, those two polar opposite temperaments, Scorsese and Spielberg, stand tall, and begin to look rather less different that one would have thought. When Spielberg gives us a glimpse of what his nightmares look like, mainstream cinema gains an edge not usually permitted; when Marty gives us his day-dreams, we see that geeky kid from Little Italy for whom the streets were a playground and the movie theatre a womb of dreams.

I’m hardly then going to call The Aviator a special or rare work in his career; if it’s a borderline great film, well, most of what he does is. He rescues this work from down-the-line Hollywood bio-pic neurosis and constructs, with his usual intensity, a brilliantly expostulated tale of a man fighting tooth and nail to hold madness at bay whilst indulging, rather than repressing, his wildest flights of fancy. How is this possible, the film asks? Well, as it shows, it’s finally impossible, which makes it a gloriously sad fairy tale. Scorsese’s style, whilst very flexible, has always been best when serving as a cinematic equivalent of the interior monologue (Taxi Driver is the cinema’s Notes From The Underground), and his greatest films are essentially experiential; The Aviator, for all its size and the expected niceties of grand-scale film-making, is in the end squarely in this tradition. We pass through the world of flashbulbs, starlets, corrupt officials, jazz swingers, international aeronautical finagling, as Hughes, with Hughes, rather than watching Hughes. The sequences detailing Hughes obsessive-compulsive periods are as exact and suffocating a depiction of mental illness as any in cinema, a true match for Travis Bickle’s psychotic rants and Henry Hill’s coke-fuelled paranoia. But just as impressive are subtler scenes as when Hughes squirms at the Hepburns’ dinner table, suddenly reduced by the trap of manners from hero and visionary to hick amongst the gentry, a scene we all, including one expects Scorsese as the Bronx prodigy, have been through. Though Hughes is no working-class hero or defender of the poor and desperate - behold his anti-union fascistic streak - he yet stems from the still-nascent Yankee urge to work ethos and hard-work achievement, something the bosses of Enron and Halliburton seem to have long let fall by the wayside. By the time Hughes became a complete disaster he was a man out of his era; The Aviator legitimately concentrates on when he was entirely a man of his era, and lets you know all you need to about where he’s heading. (A point I want to make is that obsessive-compulsive disorder is a disease, not Freudian compulsion; his mother washing him only placed devices in his mind, not causes, and complaints about this film’s aspect are alarmingly ignorant of this).

Through a fantastic melding of editing, staging, and Leonardo diCaprio’s career-defining performance, we get to understand the horror of what it is for a mentally ill man to pass through a crowd of photographers. It is this basic cornerstone of Scorsese’s talent that keeps the film from disintegrating into a bunch of episodes lined up neatly and stolidly as Hughes’s urine-filled milk bottles, the fate of most bio-pics, and becomes a great adventure skimming the darker parts of grandiose existence. The Aviator is closely related in the counterpoint between exorbitant style and grit of material with New York, New York. Like that film it is aggressively unsentimental even as it is quite rapturous about the world it creates; it achieves the remarkable feat of making us care very deeply for a disturbed and often obnoxious man. It is not as sharp or devastating a picture on the vicissitudes of narcissistic love as that film, but stylistically it a much more intricate and successful melding.

It’s also a film that requires a quick ear and much attention. John Logan’s script is a model of efficiency, having to balance romantic liaisons with movie stars, the intricacies of WW2 aviation industry, the grim truths of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and show how they all tie together in Hughes’ extreme quest. If one wants more on some things - Jude Law’s Errol Flynn is worth a movie in itself and I’d love for someone to cast him and DiCaprio in something dashing like The Sea Hawk - and less of others - all that plane talk gets a bit much - it makes the matters of Hughes’ job, the technical wrangling, the insatiable desire for technological enhancement, as much part of the drama as whichever of his lay-of-the-week club is throwing cars and ashtrays at him. I also enjoyed how it got across a most excellent piece of pop-history subversion, demonstrating the theory of how American big business turned engineering and advertising into forms of pornography, in presenting Hughes as the exemplar of this process; machinery is as much sensual turn-on and life-escape comfort-zone as female flesh.

When Scorsese paints on a large scale, it is with a Shakespearean quality, or, his interest in the rich and large-living is much like D.H. Lawrence’s in books like Women In Love or St. Mawr; the trappings of the wealthy are only interesting for how they free and inflate the essential concerns of human existence; the glamour is nice, on the side. Casino, for all the mob violence and Gotterdammerung excess, is the tale of a bad marriage and the obscenity of materialism as substitute for emotion; Raging Bull depicts the disintegrating personality of a man whose title says Middleweight Champion but whose life values are anything but champion. The Aviator is actually very much in the same realm. There is never the feeling to any of these works that Scorsese is a professional celebrity dirt-digger; human limitations are the bread of his art, and how we fight against them, the breath.

Two concurrent strands in his career have been this exactly; the unsparing investigation of a flawed man seeking greatness, and the attempts of a flawed man to transcend his nature. His few triumphant characters choose transcendence over greatness; the Dalai Lama, who, to do so, had to lose everything, down to and including his country, Jesus, who has to accept being nailed to a cross and not just suffer it like Gibson’s hollow shell of an icon, Nicolas Cage’s emotionally punctured ambulance driver in Bringing Out The Dead who has to accept that even for a professional savior not everyone can be saved. Howard Hughes pointedly does not join this roster, but he fights long and hard. Even Travis Bickle followed his craziness long enough to emerge from the other side; the Biblical quote concluding Raging Bull offers the same hope for Jake La Motta. Hughes gets only a temporary respite; ironically, the harder he fights, the more grandeur and glory he collects, the more he saving himself from the only things that can help his disease; human contact and plain psychiatric treatment (Michael Jackson is a fine modern example). “Quarantine” is ultimately his life philosophy, and all his pushes to singular greatness are in fact a subconscious urge to achieve this state. The final line(s), “The Way of the Future”, might go down with “The stuff that dreams are made of” and “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown”, as a classic clincher, a summary of a character, a film, a whole ethos; it is of course Hughes predicting with his visionary power the shape of things to come, and also accepting his final spiral into unredeemable madness. But, he has at least flown, and touched the edge of what he sought, and sometimes, the film seems to say, that is in itself enough. The Aviator shows how Hughes with classic American chutzpah and more than touch of crazed will chased a version of the American dream worth chasing.

Matching Scorsese pound for pound in this gigantic wrestling match with the trappings of a $100 million budget is Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio initially made capital of his boyish good-looks as well as great talent; he promised, in The Basketball Diaries, to be a hauntingly beautiful specimen of Beat desire. He let this be perverted into glamour-puss celebrity and as he himself put it, threw his career off proper trajectory; a few more films like The Basketball Diaries and This Boy’s Life and his looks would have been part and parcel with his talent. But Romeo and Juliet and Titanic gave him an army of teenybopper fans and doomed him to have to fight his lover-boy appearance. He actually did a tremendous service to Titanic, turning in a dead-on star turn. It wasn’t even so far off his best persona, as he was cast as a period James Dean, an embryonic Beat. But he was locked now in a shape a man of his ambition couldn’t work with, but he seemed far too much in love with Hollywood to do what Johnny Depp, Chris Walken, and certain other talented, good-looking, but ill-shaped actors did, and drop out to go looking for trouble; he seemed threatened for a George Hamilton future. He couldn’t shake his uncertainty even in his first Scorsese encounter. One of Scorsese’s distinctive talents is taking a star and casting them precisely for a melding of image and ability; to whit, Sharon Stone in Casino, Tom Cruise in The Color of Money; DiCaprio, however, for being more talented, was less at-ease in this fashion, and although he was very good, he was not unquestionably right, outshone in charm, wit, grit, energy, even movie-star wattage by Daniel Day-Lewis’s fiendish turn. Ironically it was probably Spielberg who freed DiCaprio from his boyishness by giving him exactly the right part in Catch Me If You Can, a character much younger than the actor who specializes in pretending to be much older. In The Aviator, DiCaprio’s face finally becomes fascinating to watch. At first, it’s in a strained fashion; when Hughes is young and handsome, the constant lines of discomfort he tries to hide are unnatural contusions on a supposedly sheer fuselage, cracking through the chic shell and slicked-down jazz baby style. When Hughes experiences his second and worst plane crash, DiCaprio makes the leap from talented tyro to expert character actor with the same jolting, impressive grace James Dean gave in Giant; with voice craggy, ill-trimmed moustache, over-pomaded hair, scars and creaky limbs, DiCaprio finally impresses not just as an actor, but achieves real gravitas. Dean made the leap quicker, but he had the tiger by the tale, and died right away.

The rest of the cast essays with immense professionalism; John C. Reilly was born to act in Scorsese films; Cate Blanchett often invents a really good voice for a character and a set for her face and passes this off for acting, but after threatening that here gets across Kate Hepburn’s mix of coltish pride and subterranean vulnerability; Kate Beckinsale is better than I expected as Ava Gardner, but Kelli Garner outshines her in her very small but eye-catching turn as Faith Domergue - she certainly shows far more spunk, sex-appeal, and talent the Domergue ever did; Alec Baldwin does what is by now his speciality of a man who underneath superficial charm and fine dress is actually a low-life; Alan Alda does a good job - though I’m perturbed by how oddly over inflated it has been - as his milk-blooded senatorial baddie.
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Posted: Tue Mar 01, 2005 4:04 pm Reply with quote
Site Admin Joined: 12 May 2004 Posts: 4246 Location: Montreal
The Saddest Music in the World

Written by...Syd


This is a film where the director is walking a tightrope for most of the film and I thought several times he was going to fall off, but he never quite did, and at the end I was quite happy and pleasantly surprised that he managed to wrap up such an unwieldy vehicle. It reminds me a bit of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in that the director's vision of what the film should look like sometimes got in the way of the story. In this case he wants it to look like a movie from the early thirties--not like a new movie in the 30s style, but like a film that was made in the thirties whose negative has been allowed to age for 70 years and perhaps put together out of several prints. Sometimes the film looks like there is ice on the camera lens. Every now and then, there will be a sequence in color, according to some pattern I couldn't quite figure. Fortunately, one of these scenes is America's final entry in the song contest which is remarkably odd and funny--for a while.

The ostensible premise is that Lady Port-Huntley (a legless Isabella Rossellini in a huge blonde wig), the owner of a brewery in Winnipeg, a remarkably sad city due to the Great Depression, decides to throw a contest to decide which country in the world produces the saddest music, the winner getting a prize of 25000 Depression-Era Dollars. (I didn't catch whether these are Canadian or American dollars.) Lady Port-Hundley is hoping that the attendant publicity will help her make a killing when Prohibition ends in the United States.

Soon musicians are coming from all over the world claiming to represent their countries. We see musicians representing Mexico, Scotland, Spain, Africa, Canada, the United States, Serbia and Africa and more, all trying to depress the hell out of the radio audiences. (Africa's not a country, and Serbia was part of Yugoslavia, but so what?) These countries face off one by one, and the winners get to dive into a vat of beer.

Although this is the premise, the film follows the fortunes of the members of the Kent family and their loves, their methods of dealing with sorrow, and the consequences.

The film starts off with Chester Kent, under the influence of his lover Narcissa, consulting a fortune teller. Chester is a chipper producer of Broadway musicals, but the fortune teller tells Chester that he is sad, which Chester denies. The seer shows Chester a scene from childhood, when Chester's mother died of a stroke during a family music session while singing "The Song is You." (Since this song came out in 1932 and this scene takes place 15-20 years earlier, I think she died of a time warp of the brain.) Chester remarks that he never cried at his mother's funeral and he denies sadness, and the seer warns him that denying his sadness will kill him. Despite his cheerfulness, Chester is determined to win the contest for America.

Canada is represented by Chester’s father Fyodor. Earlier, Fyodor was in love with Lady Port-Hundley, who was having an affair with Chester. Fyodor was a doctor with a drinking problem. One icy night, he crashed his car into Chester’s and Lady Port-Hundley’s leg was trapped in the wreckage. Drunk and seeing double, Fyodor cut off the wrong leg, which is why Lady Port-Hundley wound up legless. Fyodor’s quit surgery and has devoted his life to producing artificial limbs. Since Lady Port-Hundley cannot tolerate the usual materials, he has made her beautiful glass legs, filled with her own brew. He hopes that this gift will make her forgive and love him.

Serbia is represented by Chester’s brother Roderick, who calls himself Gravillo the Great. Roderick’s solution to sorrow is to wallow not only in his own sorrow, but that of Serbia. Since a (Bosnian) Serb fired the shots which started World War I, Gravillo gets to mourn the 9,000,000 dead of that war. More personally, he also mourns his dead son, whose heart he carries in a jar. He also lost his wife in the process. The song he uses to represent Serbia is the one he was going to play at his son’s funeral—a mournful version of none other than, “The Song is You.” Roderick cannot bear to be touched and shies away from light and sound, and is so deep in self-pity you want to slap him.

Soon enough he has another sorrow, for his lost wife is none other than Narcissa, who is amnesiac and Chester’s lover and a self-proclaimed nymphomaniac.

So you have all these methods of dealing with sorrow: Chester through denial, Roderick through magnifying it to a universal tragedy (and remember Roderick is Canadian by birth; he disguises himself to play Gravillo), Narcissa by amnesia, Fyodor by hoping for forgiveness (and not getting it, since even though Lady Port-Hundley loves her new legs, they’re not enough to let her forgive the loss of her old), and Lady Port-Hundley through aggressiveness to the point of being overbearing. Some of these are heading toward tragedy and others toward healing, and we get at least seven versions of “The Song is You.”

And what is the saddest music in the world? It can be the happiest song in the world if in your memory it links to tragedy.
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Posted: Wed Mar 23, 2005 2:25 pm Reply with quote
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Gun Crazy (1949)
Alternate Title: Deadly Is the Female
Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Written by...Marilyn

What goes together like guns and ammunition? For fans of classic noir, the only answer is Annie Laurie Starr and Bart Tare, the sharpshooting outlaw couple in Gun Crazy. Joseph H. Lewis’s mesmerizing film noir is just about as pulpy as they come, with its unironic dialogue and seedy environments. “I’m bad,” says Laurie to Bart, “But I’ll try awfully hard to be good. Awfully hard.” “It makes me feel good inside, like I’m somebody,” says Bart about his gunslinging talents. These are two elemental characters who act on emotion and don’t think things through too much. Even the complicated heist they laboriously plan that requires Laurie to get a job in the Armour-Albuquerque payroll department looks like something they executed on the fly that afternoon. Indeed, they completely throw caution to the wind after the robbery and take off for the California border together instead of driving in separate cars to opposite corners of the United States. Why? They aren’t just crazy about guns. They simply cannot be apart from each other.

It doesn’t look as though Bart is headed for a life as a fugitive from justice at the start of the movie. A 13-year-old Bart (played by “Rusty” [Russ] Tamblyn) is in juvenile court for smashing a store window and stealing a gun, but his sister and closest friends say he isn’t a danger to anyone. An incident in which he killed a newly hatched chick with a b.b. gun has made it impossible for him to kill anything. The judge, though sympathetic, still sends Bart to reform school until he turns 18 to discourage him from stealing. Four years in the Army follow, and Bart (John Dall) returns to his hometown to look for work with the Remington company. Reunited with the boyhood friends who stood up for him in court, he attends a carnival with them where he meets Laurie (Peggy Cummins), a sideshow sharpshooter. Although Bart has a sweet, Jimmy Stewartesque demeanor and Laurie couldn’t look any more tough and deadly, the attraction is immediate. He gets a job as her partner and eventually they leave the show, marry, and seem to be headed for happily ever after.

Scenes of the high life Bart and Laurie are living give way, however, to a boxcar diner where the pair must refuse onions on their hamburgers because it costs 5 cents extra. As they wolf down their food, Laurie is probably already hatching her “I’ll never be hungry again” plan. “I want things. Lots of things,” she says and ropes a helplessly in love Bart into a life as her stick-up partner. Never seeming to able to hold onto money, Bart and Laurie’s jobs get bigger and bolder, moving from liquor stores to banks. The payroll heist is to be their last big job. “Just one more,” Laurie promises a reluctant Bart. It’s not hard for the avid noir fan to figure out why.

This is one of the more ingenious noirs I’ve seen. At the start of their final robbery, Bart moves through a sea of animal carcasses as he makes his way from the Armour loading dock to the payroll office, clearly foreshadowing his own death in a new, more contemporary way. Gun Crazy takes the noir screen vocabulary—confining interiors, moody lighting, tight window frames, odd camera angles—and twists them slightly. In its obligatory broken mirror, for example, neither Bart nor Laurie are reflected, but rather, a rival of Bart’s for Laurie’s loyalty. In a sense, this break from convention signals that this noir has something few other films of its kind can offer—bad guys who earn our sympathy, in this case, by being completely in love. The movie was an obvious influence on Bonnie and Clyde, and both films are as much love stories as crime dramas.

Love, of course, never conquers all in noir, and Bart and Laurie meet their end in a terrific scene in a foggy swamp that represents a place of innocence from Bart’s youth and the final, confining setting for a doomed love. The film earns the complex emotions we feel at the end by giving us so much to chew on along the way.
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In My Country (2005)

Written by...Censored

This is a movie that I went to see with an enormous amount of enthusiasm. I thought the trailer was intriguing and I was told by an acquaintance that I should see it. Those are usually two fairly good enough reasons to get me to the theater. In My Country directed by John Boorman attempts to tell a tale of importance, a story about two individuals drawn together in South Africa during the Truth and Conciliation Commission hearings after Apartheid in South Africa.

Juliette Binoche is a local poet who is covering the events for the radio and Samuel L. Jackson is an American journalist sent to get some insight into the Commission's proceedings which were about bringing together people from both sides of the racial conflict and having accused torturers and killers confront their victims and in some way doing penitence and maybe through their contrition being granted a form of amnesty for their past crimes.

The two journalists meet and become personally entwined, this is telescoped way early, maybe as early as the trailer? Their relationship is strengthened by a similar exposure to the social ramifications of the crimes committed and the people who committed them and their victims and the couple's two respective takes on same.

The idea of social reconciliation of two peoples through the Committee's process is a much harder concept for the black American journalist to believe in. He is somehow confronted with his own personal demons when he interviews one of the worst white offenders in the torturous events before Apartheid. Binoche's character is going through a similar yet different kind of personal turmoil caused by her hearing and seeing what her own people have done to their helpless victims. Both of these characters start to find a refuge in each other and both come from fairly dysfunctional backgrounds as we learn, making this an even easier reason for their budding romance.

Of course the fact that one is black and one is white is almost too obvious a "romantic" plot ploy in my opinion. I think it would have been more interesting if both characters had been white frankly..ah but then it would have been another movie, which halfway through I was starting to wish it was. This film is a noble attempt by Boorman to make a serious movie about a serious and frankly important time and issue. Unfortunately the story has very little to do with the Truth and Conciliation Commission, instead using this event more as a background for the melodrama that is the affair between the two antagonists. The initial idea of this film is a great concept, too bad it really doesn’t come to fruition as a picture of this period in history.

I thought, the problems started fairly early, when I thought I noticed Samuel L. Jackson seemed uncomfortable in his skin, so to speak. He was pre-occupied throughout his fairly wooden performance. I realize now I think he was really pretty much mailing it in. If this movie has any saving graces they come from Juliette Binoche who on the contrary seemed to have really done her homework for her role. Her Afrikaans accent seemed legit as if she had spent time with a dialect coach and her spirit throughout was believable and often inspiring. She is a pleasant actress to watch and she doesn't disappoint here. The film does and it just got worse frankly.

In My Country could and should have been a film rich with the storyline of redemption, forgiveness and ultimately love winning over violence, suffering and hatred between two peoples. Instead we get a fairly obvious love story between two people in a film decorated by an important event instead of awash in it. I think it's a shame that the film-makers didn't have many good ideas as to how to pull this one off. There is a weak script and without one this kind of film, which attempts to be important just isn't.

One thing I thought could have been explored more is the fact that post-Apartheid South Africa has a great deal in common with an African-America of today. It is still an unequal community where very little political help has proved to keep people down and unable to sit in at the rich banquet-of-life that is their white counterpart's privilege. This is sad and so is this lackluster film that could have been so much more.
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Vera Drake

Written by...Rod

Mike Leigh has had an impressive last twelve years - from '93's Naked on, he's been possibly the most reliable film-maker working. It's true, he hasn't quite matched that film's red-hot relevance and pressure-cooker summation of everything wrong in pre-Blair Britain. But his unrelenting quality-control and rectitude of purpose have also meant his oeuvre hasn't got anything as embarrassing and grimly commercial as Cape Fear, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, or Interview With The Vampire to his credit. Secrets and Lies, Career Girls, Topsy-Turvy and All Or Nothing are all uneven films; Secrets and Lies fell away to a sit-com in its finale, and had a seriously over-rated turn by Brenda Blethyn; All Or Nothing floundered until it hit its stride in the second half, and indeed seemed a conscious attempt to work a better variation on Secrets and Lies's awkward up-with-people conclusion. Leigh's improvisatory method can result in blinding wonders and also films with all the rivets visible and rattling.

Vera Drake is a period film, a good thing all round, as the requirements of period detail, as with Topsy-Turvy, force Leigh to be formally rigorous, careful of how he's showing things as well as deeply committed to the depth of what he's showing. Vera Drake is, however, a glum and curiously minor movie. It is in many ways Leigh’s most ordinary, scarcely a cut above the standard of a decent British telemovie. His greatest capacity is to portray a stark reality and yet not make it feel like a chore; the flesh and blood of his people, close to caricature as they often stray, is almost never in doubt, and they become little warriors for the human race. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton) is entirely in the tradition; in fact, a bit too much. This whole film is constructed so we can suffer the grim fate of a woman with an 'eart of gowld get cruelly done over by dem wicked guardians of public morality, innit eh guv? The constant making of cups of tea becomes almost self-parodic; Leigh is determined to present an archetypal, super-British, proletarian type of heroism. Leigh sacrifices his favoured ambiguity of character, especially in relationships; Vera and Stan (Phil Davis) have a marriage so "When I'm Sixty-Four" perfect despite the rancid poverty you just know they're going to get it in the neck. Also boringly present are a few stock Leigh characters, like Ethel, Vera’s near-autistic daughter, and his favourite villain-type, the social-climbing woman with a snobbish streak, here inhabited by Stan's partner's wife, interchangeable with such types found previously in Meantime and Secrets and Lies. Just in case we don't miss the Social Relevance of what is occurring, we have in counterpoint a sub-plot to show what the toffs do in such situations - they jest buys their way out of trouble, don’t they guv?

If I’m being a bit hard on Vera Drake - which would seem a small triumph from anyone else - it’s because we’ve been down this path once too often. Leigh-isms aside, the “’50s Britain Was Desperate Place” genre is old and getting stale, and a staple of it is railroaded justice - Let Him Have It, Dance With A Stranger, Ten Rillington Place. Oh yes, we won the war and lost the peace. Get over it already. Leigh’s neo-Dickensianism is actually a strong point, not weakness, of his previous films. He drags works of the realm of drab realism and into broad, symbolic, hyper-acute depiction, comic and universal. Vera Drake almost entirely avoids this, however, and loses Leigh’s usual flavour; except for the long-take improvisatory feel and exquisite feel for actorly epiphanies, it could have been made by almost any other fairly talented director. Previously unrealistic lapses in Leigh films, like Greg Cruttwell’s yuppie villain in Naked, were forgivable because of the distinct Dickensian vein; Jeremy/Sebastian became an icon of everything malignant about Thatcherite Britain. Vera is just as iconically conceived, and yet played for dead-on truth as everything noble and pure about post-War Britain, a disappointingly schematic concept to live underneath such a concernedly realist film. Leigh keeps such a tight reign on proceedings that Vera Drake - except for small bits, like the wallflower romance between Ethel and her painfully shy suitor, and the tailor son’s exchange with an Irish customer, laden with dry good-humour - never quite kicks out of message-pic solemnity, and fails to fully bloom with his familiar, gloriously ragged visions of humanity.

Which is not to say Vera Drake is either Stanley Kramer lifeless or Ron Howard obvious, for it is certainly neither. The essential structure of a Leigh film contains a life-changing moment, sometimes grand, sometimes small as to be almost unnoticeable, provoked by a succession of apparently bland and frustrating details that coalesce in epiphany. Such moments include the painting job in Meantime that provokes its young heroes’ self-respect; the slow accretion of desperation and passing through the worst pit of memory of molestation that pulls Johnny Porter through a very dark night of the soul and sends him off into the world battered, limping, but newly indestructible, and Doreen’s equivalent reclamation of female pride; the near-death of the son in All Or Nothing that stirs a couple’s long-quiescent mutual contempt that changes overwhelmingly into a desire for change and love; even, Gilbert’s sudden inspiration for “The Mikado” that turns failure into success. Usually such transitional moments come as woozy-making surprises, built up to with supreme care. Vera Drake has the same pivotal turning, and it is not a positive one, and also it is a more obviously signposted one, and consequently not especially devastating. Instead, the subsequent action all has the cheerless inevitability of church, which indeed, as Vera coughs up all he guilt to her father-confessor policeman, is what the last third most resembles. Vera is condemned as well as canonized by her own moral compass. In a fine symmetry, the first half shows Vera acting as mid-wife to personal misery, hysteria, and guilt, absolving of all sins, performing her job without nonsense but in an invisible fashion, so in the second half Detective-Inspector Webster (Peter Wight) does exactly the same for her.

When the film has a process, a detail, a small enacted drama to show, it hums; the alarming simplicity of Vera’s abortions, her matron’s efficiency and the repetitive nature of her encounters, the nightmarish details of being arrested, imprisoned, and entirely socially humiliated, the everyday minute absurdities, pains, and rule-dodging of ration-book Britain with its aching boredom, clapped-out economy, and deep-buried but still glowing Anglo-Saxon joie-de-vivre (it is an interesting and slightly blasphemous point to make that the continuation of rationing was a tool of social engineering by the then-Socialist government, and probably helped stifle economic mobility in the country precisely when it was most needed). Tellingly, the film first properly engages the attention when the family sits talking with visitors over war experiences; they, and we, finally sit up with interest for the last time the sun shone on the Empire. There’s just no poverty like pre-’60s English poverty. I feel it reflects a weakness in Leigh’s unplanned approach; many scenes are simply repetitions, and take an uncustomarily long time getting to a point. Unlike the accidental qualities of most of his films, this one, by telling a more standard story, could be better served by some short-cuts and a more rigorous sense of shape. Where Topsy-Turvy lost itself gloriously in the creative process, and Naked gained a Euripidean precision from its two-day structure, Vera Drake trundles with tea-lady grace towards a sad finish that fails to convince in tragedy - a two-and-a-half year stretch, likely to be only a year, is hardly the worst of fates.

Acting in Leigh’s films is often a tricky area; sometimes the performances are as breathtaking as they are intended, other times you can hear the squeaking of chairs on the actor’s workshop floor (and sometimes, as with David Thewlis in Naked, both). I was then wary of Imelda Staunton’s hyped performance in the lead role, but it is a fully inhabited performance. I was completely sold on her when the police came into her kitchen; the slow change of her mouth from ebullient smile to a deep pit of woe was a slow and beautiful as the twilight. Nevertheless, she is hamstrung by what a limited concept Vera is, and spends the film basically in one of two modes; in the first half beaming cheerfully as the earth mother, in the second sobbing and shaking profusely as the self-crucifier. Excellent support turns are casually scattered, like Fenella Woolgar as a deftly helpful bourgeois, Sally Hawkins’ quivering repressed rape victim, and Phil Davis, previously a rather irritating actor, here a model of motherly-male strength.

But of course, there is a case to be made for Vera Drake simply that it exists. It presents a story of importance as a withering blast in a current political debate, made on the cheap by a director who could have packed in such threadbare existence and sold out years ago. But I didn’t expect to have to defend a Leigh film on those grounds. The last film of his great compañero Ken Loach that I viewed, Sweet Sixteen, pulled off one of his great alchemic twists, completely altering the experience of the film, something which many, taken in by the deliberate artlessness of his style, would not credit him with the capacity to perform; Leigh, a much more apparently cinematic director, fails in comparison.
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The Upside Of Anger

Written by...Billyweeds

Finally I get a moment to write about The Upside of Anger. First of all, sorry, but I liked this "commercial" Joan Allen vehicle a little better than our pet Off the Map, which I also liked an awful lot. Anger was written and developed by Mike Binder for Allen from the very start, and the care is obvious. She's never had a role so juicy or one that she plays so richly. I have never been a particular fan of Allen's. She's clearly a very talented actress with great chops, but she's never been a grabber for me until now. She's seemed sexless and intellectual in her acting, every move calibrated beautifully and correctly, but without a lot of pizzazz. The closest I ever came to loving a Joan Allen performance was in The Contender, but she stopped just short of thrilling me.

In The Upside of Anger, however, she hits it out of the park. Playing arguably one of the most potentially annoying characters in recent memory, she doesn't soften Terry Wolfmeyer in the slightest. Terry is a suddenly abandoned wife with four daughters, and she is expressing her resentment--inappropriately and inchoately, everywhere she can think of. She's also hitting the bottle heavy--not so heavy as to be unfunctional, but heavy. She's always at least buzzed pretty good.

Into her life and those of her daughters comes her next-door-neighbor, a boozy and burned-out former baseball star-turned-disc jockey played by Kevin Costner. The results of this relationship are constantly surprising, funny, sad, poignant, sexy, acerbic--you name it, they touch on it.

This movie, btw, is heaven on earth and manna from heaven for a Costner fan. It's arguably his best performance ever, which naysayers will proclaim isn't saying much. But let me hasten to add that this is a Costner performance even for those who don't much like Kevin Costner. It's great acting, pure and simple. And his chemistry with Joan Allen is for the ages.

In addition to everything else about the movie, it provides possibly the most accurate depiction of "functional alcoholism" I've ever seen on the screen. Allen and Costner are not Bowery bums or reformed derelicts or Leaving Las Vegas/Lost Weekend types. They're the drunks next door, the ones who go to PTA meetings and coach Little League.

Having said all that, I have to add that The Upside of Anger is not without flaw. It tries to handle too many subplots and the story is sometimes diluted and muddled. But no matter. The acting throughout is excellent, by the four actresses playing the daughters (all high-profile: Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, and Alicia Witt) and by writer/director Binder himself as Costner's sleazoid radio producer.

And, once again (have I said this?) great, great performances by Kevin Costner and Joan Allen. This is a keeper.
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Closer (2004)
Director. Mike Nichols

Written by...Marj

Closer begins with so much promise that by the time the film falls apart under its own shallow weight, it's a much greater disappointment then movies of far lesser quality. Taken from the play by Patrick Marber, Mike Nichols examines the intertwining loves of four people. It is the language of love, deception, longing and desire that permeates the approach and often the language itself is greater than the sum of its parts; in this case the characters who speak it. The necessity of truth or lack thereof is essential to the story and often motivates the character's actions and more often, machinations.

The film begins as Dan (Jude Law) meets Alice (Natalie Portman) on a busy London sidewalk. As Americans tend to do, she looks the wrong way when crossing the street and is struck by a taxi cab. This sparks a series of events that might have you thinking had they not met, these people might never have existed at all! We know what they do for a living but little else. What we learn about them is solely a result of their behavior falling in and out of love. So it is essential for each actor to make the plot sing. And for a while it does.

Mike Nichols moves the film along without any indication of time. We move forward a day, a month or even a year, only knowing where we are, through dialogue. It's a risky move that's at once intriguing but then becomes sadly as predictable as the bed hopping and romantic angst of all four people. Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Clive Owen and Julia Roberts fall in and out of love faster than a speeding locomotive and always with each other. They are obsessed with their romances and just as obsessed with ending them. Yet as strange as it may seem we are drawn to them -- up to a point. Unfortunately, since we rarely learn little about their lives other than who is sleeping with whom, it all becomes rather tiresome. It is as though they exist only for love, which is perhaps precisely the point. But if it is, than maybe the idea of love and nothing but love should be tiresome? As this particular plot unfolds it certainly appears so. But if this is the point that Mike Nichols is selling, he does so without letting us in on it. As a result, all we as audience see, are four crass and sorrowful creatures.

The actors all try hard at selling their own individual plights. Natalie Portman and Clive Owen are the most successful. Jude Law comes in a close third but it is Julia Roberts who is the most disappointing. It is though due to some bad coaching she is determined never to smile or more importantly, let us in on her life. She works so hard at underplaying that she's often stifling. Will the real Julia Roberts please stand up?

This is movie that belongs on a stage and with some changes in approach I can see why it may have been successful there. As a film it leaves one wanting. And finally ... hardly caring, if at all.
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The Decline of the Western - An Essay (parts I and II)

Written by...Rod

I. Exploding the Bottle

As Pauline Kael memorably described the impact of “The Wild Bunch” upon the Western genre, it was the new wine that exploded the bottle. The fine mesh of history, legend, and style that had previously sustained this specifically American brand of myth had received a most crucial blow in the shift of zeitgeist. Where the Westerns of the ‘50s and ‘60s had become increasingly complex and multi-faceted, they had never quite lost the formats that had made it the most popular of Hollywood genres; they relied on action, and were formed by schemes of morality dramatised minutely by the action portrayed on screen. Heroes could be dark and conflicted, their situations despairing and riddled with moral threats, but always the plots revolved back to the classic plot patterns where the civilised life rolled on and the westerner trotted off to unknown tracts.

The civilisation celebrated by John Ford as weaving its threads through the wild was however at war not just with the Titans that were the heroes of the Westerns, but with the psychological responses of those watching them. Kids found heroes, men found what they might have been in another era, women were attracted by the Western heroes for whom masculinity was something restrained and dutiful -as opposed to the villains who were usually rampant personifications of macho strife let loose - but still potent and capable compared to the town clerks, bankers, merchants and businessmen who represent on the on-rush of society. Yet the genre began to be dismissed through an absurd sense of dress-up play that the shifting pop culture of the ‘60s began to ridicule in the Western as a genre increasingly lacking direct relevance to the society whose fantasies it had once so well articulated. As so memorably articulated by Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy”, by ‘69 the cowboy had become what was then the lowest, most sniggering form of cultural expression: camp.

Yet it took some time for the Western to die, and ironically it was killed by certain films that, viewed as distinct from the role they played in that death, rank in truth amongst the best works of the genre. As a body, Westerns tend to be inseparable from the boyish fantasies of the male audience members - and critics - who adored them as youths; take Danny Peary’s dismissal of “The Wild Bunch” in favour of “Once Upon A Time In The West”, a choice I think only really to be justified as to which one speaks most clearly to your personal sense of myth. “…In The West”, is anti-modern, a shrine; “The Wild Bunch” is entirely modern, Jesus in the temple after the moneylenders. The consequence was an attempt to construct a new Western genre through the ‘70s, based not in the formal garb of morality play and penny-dreadful action, but in a luxuriant search for authentic feeling and experience on the edge of burgeoning American society, informed strongly by the Hippie movement, by the general tend towards more intensive, realistic historical study, even the early glimmerings of the Environmentalist movement. Consequently, ‘70s Westerns are often entirely at odds with the philosophical and psychological needs of the audiences that previously hungered for them, whilst still trying to court those whose tastes were formed by those earlier Westerns.

II. Leone and Peckinpah

In theory, the American tradition of the Western was dealt a blow first by its appropriation by Italian cinema. Who would have guessed, except possibly eagle-eyed cultural students and critics in days long before Joseph Campbell was a commonly dropped name for cognoscenti, the innate similarity between Hercules and Shane? Suddenly the Western was no longer just a vessel for specifically American myths, but for the world’s myths. The Western was won away from its hard roots in a specific time and place. This became another aspect of the absurd sense of dress-up play. Yet, Leone did not kill the genre; in fact along with Sam Peckinpah he was its final master, and the very last film-maker to essay it in ritualistic form. The Leone and Peckinpah Westerns are fetishist in their evocations of time and place; they take the Western back a century, brushing aside all the intervening back-lot hamlets, technicolour fantasy, and censor-board intervention, to luxuriate in a rough-hewn world of cobbled-together towns, Figaro type posters, harsh sensuality, and eccentric yet accurate details, such as the revolver-rifles in “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” and an end to omnipresent cowboy hats. This shift seems closely bound-up with the growing cultural need of the early ‘60s for less processed, more honest views of life and history.

Peckinpah arrived first; his eccentric debut “The Deadly Companions” in some ways prefigures his later work better than the better-known “Ride The High Country”, which is something of a self-conscious crossroads, a specially-prepared generic funeral for two top stars of the classic form. The body of “The Deadly Companions”, and the background of “Ride The High Country”, is however the future of the genre, where an almost pungent attempt to capture the sensations of the frontier is more important than the foreground events. In this regard he anticipates, and possibly influenced, Leone, for whom evocation is a triumphant need. Few films more exactly capture time and place than “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” or the gangster film “Once Upon A Time In America”, a film that makes the period sense of “The Godfather” films look threadbare. Peckinpah and Leone shared this common bond, yet really beyond this they were very different temperaments. Neither were very much concerned with the niceties of dramatics; their films never quite strike the familiar beats of classic Hollywood.

In Leone, this manifested as a mythic blankness. The hints of this in “Shane” become full blown in The Man With No Name. “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” casts itself immediately as the symbolic template for the genre; the Good and Bad battle and provide the drama, the Ugly keeps things interesting. What is always peculiar about Leone’s Good guys and Bad guys - a note played on today with some relish by Quentin Tarantino - is a certain interchangeable quality. All are divorced from roots of home or society, all are phenomenally skilled to the point of being demigods in conscious continuation of Homeric heroics. They have become ranging supermen and hobgoblins, thus forcing the mythic scheme of the Western into a timeless frieze. This is the subterranean embalming of the genre, even as the surfaces of the Leone universe entirely resist embalming. It is a panoramic, cluttered, messy, bawdy, funny world, filled with dirty ruffians, sleazes, sadists, cowering clerks, and mistreated women. The heroes and villains proceed with merciless intentness after specific goals for divergent reasons - usually, for villains, greed and satisfaction of sadistic impulses; for heroes, revenge - as all concerned in “The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly” search for the same buried treasure. Motivations become blurred, and results often distressingly similar. Often, watching The Man With No Name or Harmonica of “…In The West”, their actions seem peculiar for “Good” guys, until one conceives of them from a Catholic viewpoint; if they seem aggressive to society, a touch cruel and outlaw-like in their dispensation of justice, we realise it is because, in a totally corrupt world, everyone is essentially corrupt and deserving of being taken down a peg or two. Thus, The Man With No Name is in fact Avenging Angel.

Clint Eastwood took this instinct to a logical conclusion in his own first Western as director, “High Plains Drifter”, in which the title character comes closer to being defined as a supernatural avenger than ever before, and proceeds to save a town’s soul by tearing its body to pieces; he casually rapes a genteel woman five minutes after arriving, taking the increasingly brutalised vision of femininity in Westerns to a new height and laying final waste to the need for the Western hero to protect the temple of womanhood as Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp had once essayed so decorously to his darling Clementine. By this time, the Western hero is entirely at war with society, gentility, and the anti-sexual quality of the traditional Western; the rape fantasy is in, and the villain is now the hero because his honest commitment to both his macho feelings and his moral eye is strength. The sexual rawness, even brutality of many of these films sparked the ire of the burgeoning feminists, and it’s worth considering how both viewpoints spring from similar wells, of increasing frustration with social roles. Later the Drifter arranges the town’s destruction by the very men he is supposed to protect it from, setting all the townsfolk up for a humiliating and brutal invasion. It is a literal statement of outrage by the old-school moral figurations of the Western upon modern American society, a harsh Vietnam-inspired self-castigation.

Peckinpah’s westerns are rather different beasts to the Leone-Eastwood tradition, though they two display much anxiety and disgust over the direction of modern America. Peckinpah stated with the non-Western-set, yet thematically linked, “Straw Dogs”, that it was his desire to rub audiences’ noses in the violence, to paint a vision of the ecstatic hell of violent release. This however only communicates a small aspect of Peckinpah’s efforts, and by a curious quirk of temperament, Peckinpah’s films are more beautiful, more elegantly styled than almost anything else in popular American film. No other director would provide a slow-motion shot of leaping turkey with the same panache as a machine-gunning. As stated, with Leone he shared an almost obsessive interest in capturing a tactile sense of the frontier; unlike Leone, he was not at all interested in the myth. Or, at the least, he wanted to reshape the myth. If myth is a telescoping of human concerns, Peckinpah’s view is through the wrong end of the telescope. His heroes are ragged, slightly loopy, very human figures, often brutal, sometimes cruel, faintly despicable at times, and also capable of joy, laughter, and unruly shows of sensuality, even romantic sensibilities. They’re not so far from people you might have known, maybe even been yourself; and Peckinpah better than any other director understood the possible relationship of the average male of the era to the Western’s heroic forbears who display a will beyond social redress to act on their suppressed desires and often less-than-decorous attitude to civilisation. The kids of the ‘40s, chasing after the perfection of Shane, had grown to the angry men of the ‘60s, having found that far from rugged individualists they were made for the machine honed post-World War II world, now desiring the bawdy anarchy of the Wild Bunch whilst awaiting the inevitable apocalypse.

“The Wild Bunch”, despite being for famed for violence, is actually a film of earthy life-lust; it articulates as well as any film of its time the general state of American manhood. It begs for pools of beauty, moments of peace in sexual and psychic release, for the elegance of respect to passing heroes. The opening is a vision of hideous, mutually destructive violence, between two equal and opposite sides of power - the destructive anti-rationalist outlaws and the capital-backed power-mongering assassins, who between them kill far more innocents than each-other, as solid a metaphor for the general perception of Vietnam as any yet devised, including “Apocalypse Now”. The Bunch, shirking off bitter, defeated, even cheated of their temporary cash prize, still muster a laugh and chase their accidental idyll in Mexico; as opposed to Albert Dekker’s harsh, totally unsympathetic railroad boss who has enthralled Robert Ryan’s Thornton and redneck cohorts, the Bunch are still in contact with the impulses that make them need to kill, and plunder; that, is their desire to eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow et cetera.

That Mexico is a consistent, almost fantastical playground and psychic escape hatch in Peckinpah’s works is not accidental; still ruled by iron fists, death cults, and machismo, Mexico is the anti-rationalist Yang to America’s iron-horsed, greenbacked Yin. A consistent conceptual line in American westerns since “The Magnificent Seven” transposed Kurosawa’s feudal world there. Here the machine of American progress and its eternal opponents the frontiersmen and outlaws, come to a halt before a land rigid in poverty and long in memory of sorrow, with a culture entirely dedicated to the tragic transience of existence, the code which the Wild Bunch pursue half-realised. A leitmotif is Mapache’s mariachi band which plays all the time, even when they and soldiers are being shelled, and later during the Bunch’s march to death; a pure distillation of this sense of life. They have found it in an older world, where the monstrous forces are not implacably masked by capital and machinery but parading still in uniforms with medieval showiness. Where driven by implacable forces slowly to a dead end, The Bunch at least get a chance to die noble deaths, going down like Spartans at ten-to-one ratio, momentarily turning the grotesque and hated technology of death - represented by the machine gun - to their own advantage, but only revealing that the warrior identity has just come to an end in an over-efficient age. It is romantic and terrible and absolutely final, all at once.

Last edited by lshap on Sat Apr 16, 2005 10:06 pm; edited 1 time in total
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The Decline of the Western - An Essay (parts III and IV)

Written by... Rod

III. The Elegiacs: Later Peckinpah, Altman, Penn

Many of the themes and flourishes of “The Wild Bunch” recur in the follow-up “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid”, a work that prefigures several interesting Westerns of the coming decade though in itself dismissed upon release and misshaped by studio cuts. It attempts to combine the analytical yet romantic nihilism of “The Wild Bunch” with the elegiac spirit of “Ride The High Country” and “The Ballad of Cable Hough”. “The Wild Bunch” is a breathtaking statement, both in its vigour and scope and also compaction; messages of great weight are encoded in innumerable wordless passages; sequences of astonishing vibrancy and complexity speed by half-noticed so whole segments may leap out at you unrecalled and yet brilliant on the fifth or sixth viewing. “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid” feels like the Kabuki remake. What is compulsive in “The Wild Bunch” is meditative here.

It essays the same basic story - a pair of old friends, once partners in spirit and swapping sides of the law carelessly, have become set as implacable enemies, driven to a conclusive showdown. Deke Thornton in “The Wild Bunch” was forced by the world to hunt his old friend, as Garrett is here, but in this film it is as much by choice. Garrett has chosen the side of the world, for he knows his future is within it, just as Billy is still dedicated to the outlaw life. For each, it is a personal choice, and the film recasts the drama of Billy’s death. Where the traditional motif of the Outlaw tale is the inevitable fate of the transgressor, where we will not spare him no matter how much we sympathise with his reasons and impulses because he is ultimately too dangerous, this film presents Billy, who has in the past fought for the men of power such as the cattle baron Chisum, whom he now harries with useless fury, now set against them too completely in mind and spirit to ever contemplate a return, and thus seals his death in social rather than moral terms. In this frontier land, the Law is not, as in a fully developed bourgeois society, a clear-cut set of guidelines for the imposition of morality and order, but a selectively enforced, bought-and-sold force. The Law is Power, and Power is based in guns, which is why gunmen seem to swap sides of the law easily until they become, as Billy has, a famous and marked figure for destruction for opposing Authority.

That Billy is not a hero is a treacherous question; he kills without concern with only interest in his own skin; yet nor is he villain, as we feel his impossible position and sense his moral disdain for the world, and, when Chisum has Billy’s friend (played by Emilio Hernandez) tortured and his daughter raped for no apparent reason other than helping Billy (perhaps another victim of editing), and Billy tries to save them, we understand his impotent frustration with a land ruled by despots. Tellingly, this scene causes Billy, who has set out for Mexico, to return to his inevitable death; the fantasy land is dead and there is only fate. Garrett’s lot is equally ambiguous. Increasingly hardened by his chase, committing harsh acts of violence all the way, such as when encountering a whore once both partial to him and Billy, he slaps her around to gain Billy’s whereabouts. The hunt becomes a self-indictment on Pat’s part. He is cut off from the loose and sensual world, frozen in implacability. Yet he chases Billy as much because he cares for him as because he is angry with him for killing his fellow lawmen. Knowing Billy must be stopped, yet wanting the coup-de-grace to be brought by someone who loves him rather than the shadowy tough guys sent by the state, Pat shoots Billy down with swift lack of ceremony at the end, then refuses to let Billy’s body be mutilated. Finally he rides off, pelted with stones by a small boy, in silent certainty that he has bought his future comfort by killing his passionate self.

Beyond this critique of American authoritarianism, “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid” is an often funny, fitful film. Having not seen the painstakingly re-stitched versions of Peckinpah’s cut, it is hard to comment on, though I suspect that the sensation the film offers of being the fifth act of an epic is still deliberate. All the rules, plays, and fates of the scenario are in place at the start, and all that is left is for them to trot to a conclusion. We are introduced to Garrett informing Billy he has joined the law, and shortly after Garrett joins Chisum and others in ambushing Billy’s hideout. From here on the film is a series of small and select beauties, brief moments of transcendence and horror on a journey to a certain conclusion; these include Billy’s young boastful offsider, played by eternal victim Charles Martin Smith, discovering a certain stoic grace on the point of death; Slim Pickens, reeling away full of holes from a gunfight, faces his tough wife Katy Jurado, and their silent, mournful recognition he is dying; the savage-strained amicability Billy and Pat give each-other when Billy is temporarily captured; Billy’s blank-faced, dutiful extermination of two lawmen when he escapes, one with a warning and the other, a religious fruitcake who bullied him, without a second thought. Peckinpah’s fascination with the moods of a fin-de-siecle landscape is the whole drama here; old friends from way back now carelessly kill each other; rape and violence are casual; the more “law” comes to the land, the more violent and perverse a place it becomes.

Of curious status is Bob Dylan’s nervous, wiry presence as a youthful blacksmith, without an identity, calling himself Alias, who drifts through the film both as protagonist and watcher; the songs on the soundtrack may well be the character’s later commentaries on what he had seen, a chorus. His character votes his moral choice and gravitates towards Billy as a beautiful force of anarchy, and seems to celebrate Billy’s capacity for snatching brief joys before death. rarely has film score been so well tied to the film it has been written for as Dylan’s music, swelling throughout, articulates the unspoken emotions and epiphanies of the characters.

Ultimately a woozy and ragged film, “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid” is still a fascinating attempt at myth-deconstruction. It eschews chases, melodramatics, and causality for a mood of total, beautiful desolation, one where human warmth becomes more and not less important, where a woman’s skin and a friend’s smile is a force of redemption not to be disdained on the gallows’s trap. Where “The Wild Bunch” saves its heroes from the worst of fates - death by ignominy rather than glory - and gives Deke Thornton one last tilt at honour by heading off with the Villa rebels, Pat Garrett is tragically stuck in our world. Having, as even the bravest usually are, been forced to compromise with the rotten world, he is alive but a shell, his capacity for sensuality and joy finally sucked out.

Beyond “The Wild Bunch” the Western had thematically run into its own cul-de-sac. Without heroes, without trust in either the civilisation myth or their eternal-outsider heroes, the Western looked both retrograde and formless in the highly urbanised and cosmopolitan air of the ‘70s. The best Western of the decade, arguably, was Scorsese and Schrader’s “Taxi Driver”, where inside the common sociopath vigilante spirit of the time they located the beating heart of the cowboy hero; or perhaps the other way around, for in a contemporary context the heroic qualities of Western protagonist suddenly look anti-social, dangerous, even repellent. Not even the Wild Bunch repel us as Travis Bickle does; in fact the Bunch we come to like despite their brutality, perhaps because they want to get away from it and our sad certainty of their doom. Bickle represents the complete septic maturity of the Western code’s rot and refusal to take society for what it is.

If the Western’s standard form had been temporarily grafted onto noir subjects on the way towards eventual sublimation into science-fiction, the genre stumbled on in sub-divided spirit. Revisionist works, generally lacking either the iron spirit and romantic impulses of Peckinpah or the mythic humour of Leone, ran riot with settled notions; cavalry men slaughtered Indians, whores became the new heroines, and immorality reigned supreme. Eastwood’s Westerns continued to essay the Dirty Harry scenario of getting-what-they-deserved purification in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” before the flabby, silly, yet starkly beautiful “Pale Rider”. As the last few Wayne works such as “True Grit” and “Cahill, U.S. Marshall” lurched by elephantine, graceless and homely, and Eastwood ratcheted the anti-social violence up a few notches, the “Mud and Blood” westerns were born as sons of Peckinpah. Works like Robert Benton’s “Bad Company”, Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs Miller”, and Arthur Penn’s “The Missouri Breaks”, were films dedicated much less to plot and expansive vision than to capturing elusive qualities of texture, mood, and character. Another influence was probably the audience-friendly hippie Western “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid”, a work which though technically faithful to its true-life detail, and appropriating of the story arc of “Bonnie and Clyde”, distorted it beyond all recognition into a light and romantic fairy tale for flower children.

The Mud and Blood oatsers’ story-telling seemed to chase the flickering quality of nostalgic moods, savoured like a recalled scent not identified; even their stories seemed to be patterned more after the rambling comic quality of folk songs and tales, taking to a certain extent a cue from such backward-looking icons of ‘60s music such as Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie and the folk-music scene, as much from the traditions of Western film and literature. Perhaps because of Altman’s steadfast cult, “McCabe And Mrs Miller” is probably the most highly regarded of these today, though I found it a fuzzy and somnambulant work. Each of these films has a passive-aggressive refusal to play out like a standard Western, even as they retain certain standard plot elements; in “Bad Company”, “McCabe”, and “The Missouri Breaks”, there are goodies and baddies, but the divisions between them tend no longer to be by such arbitrary and tinny symbols such a badges and societal roles; indeed in each the heroes are criminals and the villains are more ruthless criminals, usually with backing from the big end of town. In addition, each can be described as a comedy, fairly black ones at that. In some cases, as in “The Missouri Breaks”, this seems to be an ultimate impression rather than a planned result. Most take highly ironic views of the creation of American venture capitalism, and present smaller-than-life figures tramping awkwardly through landscapes of dust, snow, mountains, desert, and, yes, mud.

Arthur Penn’s experimentations with trying to capture the humour and homespun quality of folk songs and oral tradition, of populist mythology and underground history, began with “Bonnie And Clyde” (written by “Bad Company”’s Robert Benton and David Newman), which captured the folk-myth mood of a dream remembered by a million people. This continued to greater and lesser success through “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Little Big Man”, two quirky, counterculture-inflected American elegies that championed social outsiders, the peacenik sensibility, the transcendence of the radical. With a certain historical viability, the Hippie movement was pictured as having roots in the West and its brand of ambling individualism, of natural communion, of good-natured lawlessness; and Penn’s world is Peckinpah’s world as enacted by Yippies. “Little Big Man” is a faintly insufferable film, not really succeeding in welding together both the impulses of epic storytelling and Hollywood spit-shine, of myth-breaking satire and slapstick, yet it is remains a singular and occasionally striking work.

“The Missouri Breaks”, Penn’s follow-up and an expensive flop, is a definite failure, but the degree of critical derision it still receives is bewildering. Penn’s film is an almost irresponsible film, which presents to a public salivating at the thought of a film combining Penn, Jack Nicholson, and Marlon Brando, a lilting, almost action-free, determinedly unspectacular film that instead chases the loosely romantic feel of a western ballad. It is a more interesting, less higgledy-piggledy film than “Little Big Man”, continues “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid”’s ironic inversion of the moral scheme of the Western, and disgraces it even further by refusing to take it seriously at first and then by not forcing the mood or pace when things become decidedly grim. As the laughing, slightly foolish band of rustlers discover their lives are worth far less than a bunch of horses, they respond by killing one of their persecutors. Ranged against them is the ailing, dry-boned paterfamilias David Braxton (John McLiam) and his subsequent hired gun, Robert E. Lee Clayton, who as played by Marlon Brando in one of his few character parts (despite top-billing), is an original and perverse villain. A range-riding, accent-faking, long-distance killer, Clayton moves with smiling deliberation, seeming absurd much of the time, then destroying people as he does animals, with ruthlessly playful precision.

To a great extent, the film becomes a lake around a raft upon which Brando and Nicholson practice their craft. Nicholson gives a masterful performance in a sly and subtle key, knowing he won’t win against Brando in showmanship. Brando’s turn is suitably spectacular; what other actor would come into a film hanging sideways from a horse, or affect three completely different accents? One magnificent moment, entirely original in acting, has Nicholson, upon realising Brando has killed one of his friends, confronts the man in a bathtub, trying to provoke him out, but is faced only with Brando’s blubbery back and avoiding blather. It is, in short, a remarkable and inspired piece of grotesquery. Certain moments suddenly compact into urgency, as when Brando, who has pegged Nicholson as a nemesis, practises a little marksmanship-intimidation, and others, such as Nicholson’s various scenes with Kathleen Lloyd as Braxton’s wilful, tomboyish daughter, weave a delicate spell. Nicholson’s characterization offers what little cohesion the story has, particularly in his late shift into dark revengeful mode, and his final act upon Brando is a chilling moment.

But it would be asking too much for a film like “The Missouri Breaks”, so utterly divorced from what general audiences went to Westerns for, to be a success, even with such a cast. It did, finally, define the no man’s land the western had traversed since “The Wild Bunch”; what stories were there to tell in this setting, that weren’t the usual range of gunslingers and rustlers? The Western-as-metaphor was becoming increasingly tired and ill-focused. Long a vessel for the escapist fantasies of many kinds, from macho fulfilment to Aquarian devolution, the Western was becoming irrelevant as a suitable conduit for any of these.

IV. Cimino and “Heaven’s Gate”

“Heaven’s Gate” is not an unqualified masterpiece, which apparently was what it needed to be upon first release to justify its great cost, and, more importantly, the continued uneasy reliance of Hollywood on the Auteur model of film-making. Looking back, it’s conceivable Cimino was given just enough rope to hang himself. Even without conspiracy theories, it is plain the film’s failure was eagerly greeted by Hollywood as a final excuse to abandon the ‘70s film model and proceed voraciously into a brave new world of blockbuster mass-production. It is also worthy to note another big budget, financially unsuccessful Western from the same time, Lew Grade’s “Legend Of The Lone Ranger”, is now completely and apparently deservedly forgotten, but then that wasn’t anything to upset the applecart, it was just bad.

Yet “Heaven’s Gate”, seen today at last on DVD in a cut of 229 minutes, is a superb film. It is a touch lethargic in pace. But at least it is paced. Quite apart from the incompetence of construction that marks many movies today, there have been many films which, deliberate in form, have been severely damaged by being hacked down with no care for rhythm so the films become shapeless and confusing; “Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid” for example. Beyond this, the criticisms levelled at the film have become in retrospect quite lame. If the good guys and bad guys are too obviously pronounced for a serious film (and yes Sam Waterston’s moustachioed, fur-clad villain is comic-opera, and not in the multi-levelled style of "Gangs of New York"'s Bill the Butcher), and the townsfolk do seem a touch “Fiddler On The Roof” on occasions, then any number of films can be castigated for the same reasons.

Also despite accusations, the film has a plot, quite a well-essayed plot at that. It simply does not bow to standard-form “epic” quality, by providing Titan heroes, rafts of sub-plots and confusion. It experiments with telling in a manner more like much smaller, modest films, by carefully-caught moments of character interaction, and well-textured pageant-like explosions of communal action, as with the opening at Harvard and, most specially, the wonderful scene where the Johnson County folk, following the lead of a brilliantly physical fiddler, make celebration on roller-skates.

Where “The Deer Hunter” was a critical and commercial success, it abandoned the first half’s inspired, mosaic-like accumulation of detail, and passed up the chance to create a rare work of art based in honest visualisation of people within their milieu, and (in a manner similar to criticism of Robert Penn Warren’s novel “All The King’s Men” and its dictionary of Jacobean stunts) if Cimino had not had such a strong grasp of the conventions of Hollywood epics, he might have made something very special. In contrast, “Heaven’s Gate” succeeds in screwing its narrative momentum and tension upwards in a slowly expanding arc, until the finale explodes, whilst not abandoning the mosaic approach.

The central romantic triangle, for instance, resists standard inflections; a decent, intelligent, but psychically defeated man, James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) competes with a hot-shot, identity-challenged young gunman, Nate Champion (Christopher Walken), for the hand of a young Madame, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert); there is no self-conscious bed-hopping, no slaps in the face, recriminations, or typical sad-sack moments follow, but more a sad and distanced decision by Ella to choose the younger man whom she loves less because he is ready to make the commitment. Nor does the story play out in typical style: where one might expect eventual joining of forces, Ella emerges as the film’s true hero (Huppert’s performance, though initially awkward, is really quite excellent, balancing a dewy emotionalism with a hard-hammered spirit), attempting first to rescue Nate, and then mustering a resistance army of immigrants into an enterprising defence. Subsequently, Averill is stung into action as his friends die. In the process of overcoming so many traps of cliché and style, “Heaven’s Gate” successfully and wilfully throws off the defeated outsider-heroes grace note of so many of the Westerns I have described, and portrays an eventual, vigorous, cheer-the-heroes rallying to a compromised but still relished victory.

The social conflict of so many ‘70s Westerns at last hardens into a fully-fledged war; where capital attempts a crushing final victory over the miscreants who stand in their way, suddenly they find a massed and more-powerful people’s army, led by the man who played the thoroughly-destroyed Billy the Kid a decade before. This is what led the film to be described as the first Marxist Western, but really it simply deflowers a theme of the genre extant well before the ‘60s. Such various and classic old-school works as William Wyler’s “The Westerner”, and even “Shane”, tell awfully similar stories. It is simply here that the romantic myth of the gunslinger has been replaced by the romantic myth of the people’s revolt. In a spectacular, exiting, but realistic and thus chaotic finale, the marauding Cattlemen’s encampment is attacked, ringed by dust clouds punctuated by fallen horses, writhing bodies, and gunfire. Averill puts his classical education to work finally by stealing a Roman trick and bringing the Cattlemen to the brink of annihilation before they are rescued by the Cavalry (another distinctly seditious touch, but surely not so offensive after “Little Big Man”’s unrelenting depiction of Native American massacres). Really, it’s hard to think of a more heroically American vision of grassroots resistance. The film’s only real dead spot stands as an unnecessary coda indicating Averill’s eventual relapse to death-in-life when, returned to the East having been cheated of his love, resumes a life of worthless debauchery, a rather potted and ineffectual attempt at tragedy.

Despite then certain failings and a slow mid-section, “Heaven’s Gate” is a supreme work, an attempt to create a genuinely contemporary Western and a new kind of epic. If one has to still join the chorus that reckons Cimino was absurd in his behaviour on set and expenditure, it is regretfully. When, today, flops like “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” and “K-19 - The Widowmaker” see a hundred million dollars sink down the drain, and yet a tag of infamy still hangs on this film, one ponders what exactly its grim death signified. The attempt at original style, the tart, unsentimental, if still heroic, world-view of the film, its bawdy sexuality, the very hard-won sense of detail, the breathtaking rigour of the film-making and what is being filmed, all throw into contrast what is sorely lacking in so much contemporary Hollywood product. And, in retrospect, if the Western remains dead except for rare, silly performances such as “Silverado“ and “Tombstone”, it is not finally because the genre itself could not grow, it was simply that the audience for it could not.
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Primer (2004)
Producer/Director/Writer/Star: Shane Carruth

Written by...Marilyn

Have you ever seen a grown man gush? I did following the screening of Primer at Roger Ebert’s Overlook Film Festival 2005. During the Q&A session with first-time film maker Shane Carruth, Roger said he felt privileged to be in on the beginning of a career he felt was destined to be as great at Martin Scorsese’s. W-O-W. A rightfully humble Carruth seemed bewildered and overwhelmed by this extravagant praise. That made him a lot like Aaron, the character he plays in Primer.

The transformation of Carruth from computer system designer to film maker parallels the journey of Aaron and his friend and business partner Abe (David Sullivan) from computer industry workers to inventors of the stuff that dreams (and many movies) have been made on. Tinkering with two other young computer geeks in Aaron’s garage, the pair discovers a strange substance on the invention they have been working on. If you want to be completely surprised by this movie, you might want to stop reading after the next sentence. The movie is so incredibly complex, however, that even knowing what they have discovered may not help you sort everything out. SPOILERS START NOW. The substance is a type of bacteria, in a quantity that a biologist friend of Abe’s says would take years to grow under normal laboratory conditions. It dawns on Aaron and Abe that they may have created a time machine, the mechanics of which they explain in plausible fashion. SPOILERS OVER. Abe and Aaron distance themselves from the other two inventors and experiment with their machine, first in predictable ways and then with the growing realization that they are in way over their heads.

The characters speak in the shorthand the way people who inhabit the same closed universe do. That leaves the audience on the outside a lot of the time, but it also lends the narrative an edgy excitement. What are they doing? What have they discovered? How are they going to deal with the consequences of their discovery? Even though this film heads into fantastical territory, it seems so real, grounded as it is in chaos theory, that the suspension of disbelief almost doesn’t enter into the mix. The film is shot in an almost banal, flat way, but at the same time is given a look that seems hyperbolic in its use of color and contrast. I can only call this near-genius in visualizing the themes of the film.

Trying to follow the plot gave me a headache, but not as much as the one Carruth experienced. He said that he had written and posted elaborate timelines for the story so he could keep each thread straight. The film was rigidly storyboarded to keep it within its austere $7,000 budget. Carruth said that his inspiration for the film was All the President’s Men. The dark-haired Carruth resisted casting Sullivan, who is blond, to avoid making the homage too obvious, but the influence is subtle, in my estimation. Like that film, Primer leaves its main characters breathless at the magnitude of their discovery, and seems to turn a page for the audience in terms of what the future will bring. This is a film respectful of its heritage and bold in its execution.
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Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge Of The Sith

Written by...Rod

Each man kills the thing he loves; some men do it with a sword...

War! shouts the opening scroll, and we hit the ground running - George Lucas seems to be saying yep, now we get to the good stuff. Much like Darth Vader, Lucas has doomed himself to a peculiar hell. It’s a true irony that the values Lucas himself instilled in a legion of young cinemagoers - rebel against authority! Explode regimes! Defy the powerful! Be the low-tech, low-rent outsiders fighting the inflated rich imperialist forces! - have come back to bite his hip quotient on the ass, even though Lucas had never altered his intent to re-invent cinema technology and simultaneously retain the old-Hollywood ideal of films for wide audiences rather than niche markets (the separatists of these films? Does that make the Jedi the movie brats? And the Sith the big studio execs? But questions like that bore me, frankly, and I plan to discuss just a damn film). Most critically in The Phantom Menace, Lucas’ experiments were not working, a film rife with witless edits, and a cool distance between the story and the elements. Lucas had not directed a film in twenty-two years, and the joints looked stiff to say the least. However, it is worth noting even at their worst the first two films were dizzyingly pretty, fundamentally clear and ordered, compared to the visual tripe, yawn-inducing cacophony, and breathless hipster gibberish (yes, The Matrix films, I am talking about you!) so many current action/special-effects films offer. But the man himself, through most of The Phantom Menace and many patches of Attack Of The Clones, was clearly having difficulty fusing, as progeny like Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi have achieved, vivid results in FX-fantasy film-making. There was too much distance between what he was asking the machines and the humans to do, an appropriate fault considering his subject matter. But with Revenge Of The Sith, a bit like Anakin’s shade rejoining Yoda and Obi-Wan at the end of Return Of The Jedi, Lucas reclaims his place with his progeny.

Lucas seemed uncertain who to sell the new films to; the excruciating aspect of The Phantom Menace was that it was so obviously intended to delight kids; all comic aliens and dumb-dumb droids fighting on what looked like a computer game golf course, scene after scene that felt perilously throwaway, and a cardboard Ruritanian setting. By far its best scene was the irrelevant but spectacular Ben-Hur riff of the pod race; by filching a classic of action, Lucas briefly managed something mythic and spectacular. Only with Liam Neeson’s death did some jolt of real violence, real feeling, come in, and this is important; although kid-friendly and only occasionally pandering - bloody Ewoks - the Star Wars films were grand violent swashbucklers built from a conjugation of the space opera aesthetic of E.E. Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs and dashes of the equally exotic but more adult, conceptual universe of Frank Herbert. Attack Of The Clones was infinitely better both as film-making and goofy fun, but in a disjointed fashion, stuck awkwardly with trying to develop yet not reveal a complex plot. More than any of the other films, it resembled a series of old Amazing Stories covers joined together, which is what I dug about it. Lucas played it with a dark whiff of potency, balanced by a tongue-in-cheek aspect, and seemed to say, c‘mon, this is fun, don’t sit there frowning; Jedi playing Joe Friday; Yoda’s sensei-style fight with Christopher Lee’s consummate silken villain; Hayden Christensen’s concept of Anakin Skywalker as a dopey teen was mostly deliberate, and the scene where he jumped onto his futuristic motorbike and made like Brando made me laugh quite loud. But the chief lack was in a clear through-line for a saga. The force of Lucas’ original films was in presenting clear oppositions - human-organic-spiritual values versus martial-technological force, where emotion, the unseen, was as powerful if not more so than all the steel and zap-zap gadgets in the universe - and then presenting unpredictable confusions, before powering to a mythic confrontation in which purity of both good and evil dies. This dynamic was unfortunately missing from the new series. As it was, for zippy sci-fi collages, the first was passable and the second pretty good.

Revenge Of The Sith is on another level again from AOTC; it re-engages with the central myth and reveals its plot thrust, and finally takes the cinema of pure movement and colour that Lucas established in ‘77 to a new level. There are still awkward scene interchanges that are a beat too late, some lines that are puke-worthy, some dud gags. Early in the film Lucas irritatingly cuts between great action and dull dialogue. But for the most part this is an extraordinary success of visionary film-making, more consistent than all its predecessors. Most thankfully, this resolution shows most clearly in the acting. This is the by far the best-acted of any Star Wars film, and the cast of genuinely fine actors at last have crucial human moments to put across, as opposed to watch, wait, and whack. Christensen, through the opening action, still displays an irritating lack of steel, but when he rejoins Natalie Portman, he blooms with real feeling, as does she. Though Lucas still directs them in stultifying medium shots and has them swap real silly lines - is this really the same guy who gave us Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith, Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips in American Graffiti? - the fact they are both good actors wins out. The rest of Revenge Of The Sith therefore moves with proper emotional commitment and connection. Suddenly these are real people, with real pain, real love, and real hate to enact.

Natalie Portman deserves praise. Somewhat bewildered in the previous films, and with only glimmerings of her trademark intelligence on display. She has disappointingly little to do here, but puts herself across with a sense of true dread and grief. Her need to believe in her husband and the possibility of a better future, and final horrified disavowal, is pretty damn good and deserved more screen time. A great weakness of The Phantom Menace and Attack Of the Clones was the lack, except for Christopher Lee as Count Dooku, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, and, briefly towards the end of AOTC, Natalie Portman - with her witty smile and delighted eyes clearly enjoying leaping around firing ray guns - of an actor who enjoyed plain hammy pantomime, and someone who, like Harrison Ford or Errol Flynn (or, indeed, Uma Thurman), could speak volumes with one saucy grin or hateful glance in the middle of a brawl. This is where Ewan McGregor delivers at last, for the first time appearing to be having real fun, perhaps because things are more serious, and he finds his inner swashbuckler. The film’s most difficult acting job in many ways belongs to him, to play a conscientious, intelligent, civilised hero who gets sufficiently pissed off to slice apart his best friend. His Obi-Wan finally reveals a touch of the bad-ass, and all the better for it. But chief kudos go to Ian McDiarmid - not a surprise, he’s always a mordantly hypnotic actor, and delights in gaining centre-stage at last. His gleeful baddie is matched, by Frank Oz’s always-inimitable vocal characterization of Yoda. Somehow, Yoda and the Emperor’s final battle feels like two real beings who properly loathe each other. I bet a good laugh was often had on this set.

Hayden Christensen improves exponentially as the film continues, from his painful diction, wide-boy sulkiness and mumbly romanticism in AOTC, to here finish as a superbly glowering, unyielding enemy of reason. Most conscious attempts at myth-making dine out on Greco-Roman models (as the Star Wars films did chiefly), Shakespeare, or the Bible, but here, rather astonishingly, it’s a Dostoievskian quality that underlies Anakin’s journey. Once he has made his choice of the Dark Side, he travels deeper into war with comrades and loved-ones because it is more painful to come back than to continue, and his growing hatred for part and parcel with his love for them; there is nothing, in the end, more painful than the censure of those close to you. This is the story of the creation of Darth Vader, after all, and the film has to deliver here or fail the whole series; fortunately, with Vader’s first words emerging in James Earl Jones’ unmistakable growl, his hoarse mechanical breathing, his lurching, oversized motions after tearing from his shackles, stricken with grief and utterly destroyed as a man even as becomes an unstoppable force, you get a scene played with relish and is one of those moments you go to the cinema for.

Lucas’ major dramatic choice for the series was to play the rise of the Sith as a pseudo-mystery. This was an element rather draggy and alien to the fast, flashy Buck Rogers-meets-Homer style of the series, and you had to be pretty well versed in all the films to appreciate the underflow of story. But it pays mighty dividends at last. The structure of the first three films is essentially reversed, and is far less audience pleasing. There is a perfection fit for mass consumption to Episodes IV-VI; rebels against empire, triumph against the odds, friendship over greed, self-determination against pre-ordination. Episodes I-III, tells the exact opposite tale; fate wins over reason, evil and manipulation over innocence and purity, violence over negotiation, hate over love. An idyllic world is royally ruined. Lucas’ major self-betrayal with The Phantom Menace was to pretend he wasn’t telling that story; it was a film with all the apparatus of a Star Wars film, but it wasn’t one. Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith are companion pieces, a good start to a great finish. ROTS is a vision of the slow rot of democracy, and even if it isn’t directly intended as a Bush satire - although it’s hard not to believe, the quotes are almost bald - it gives a pretty deft, if not exactly deep or intricate, summation of the traps of power politics. “Only a Sith talks in absolutes!” Obi Wan berates Anakin, a contemporarily pointed comment if ever there was one. And Natalie Portman delivers the best line with informed conviction: “So this is how democracy dies - with thunderous applause.”

Politics and ideas aren’t really the point of the Star Wars films; the real point is chiefly an emotional need to capture a sense of fantastic possibility and grandiose existence. But the films never quite lack an intellectual element. Pay some attention and there are quite rewarding as mythic formulations. The point to any myth of strength is in seeing real, common situations and feelings grafted onto impossibly vast situations and people of outsized strengths and ambitions. Revenge Of The Sith regains this momentum, and the original dynamic resurges, as hairy Wookies take on war machines, tiny old Yoda battles the Sith Lord, Obi Wan destroys a ferocious killing machine; the little guys, the thinking, the feeling, the selfless, the theoretically weak, are always somehow tougher than what tries to destroy them. Despite the hodge-podge of medievalist and Romanesque trappings in Lucas' space-opera scheme, it is still a cheerfully anarchic, flower-child vision.

The myth-emotion of the series was previously best expressed, Ewoks and Death Star-redux laziness aside, in the Oedipal final conflict of Return of the Jedi, between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor. The blank terror of finding the implacable masked enemy was one’s father and fate seemed to capture a very real male fear. It speaks volumes of the story’s source in the ‘70s when Lucas’ generation was still conscientiously rebelling against a generation of fathers subsumed in the military-industrial complex; The Empire Strikes Back’s twist of having Vader be Luke’s father simply made the control-disintegration, rebel-against-paternal-authority fantasy of A New Hope more crucial and personal. ROTS has a rueful warning for younger generations, of how easy it is to be so subsumed when your leaders manipulate you to commit evil in the name of good. Anakin, youth and talent seduced by promises of power, privilege, called to commit slaughter in the name of peace, to be delivered from fear and frustration, comes into focus as a figure of genuine relevance. Cleverly, ROTS, from its title play onwards, takes Return Of The Jedi and mirrors it; where in the final chapter The Emperor electrocuting Luke stirs Vader’s rebellion, here is reversed as the trap that pulls him in; Luke’s refusal to butcher his father is contrasted with Anakin’s conflicted but pleasurable execution of Count Dooku. The pre-ordained nature of the film’s arc is not a problem - knowing Achilles kills Hector only to die certainly does not make The Iliad any less riveting, indeed one of the peculiar attractions of myth is that they become more involving with familiarity, and as with The Iliad it is the knowledge everything is going to hell is what makes the beacons of human quality all the more important.

The previous episodes seem as quaint and minor as Nestor’s accounts of his sheep raiding days long before the siege of Troy. Old questions - how the hell did that leathery sleaze Palpatine get the best of Yoda and the Jedi? - are answered. The final battles offer cheer-along palpability, recapturing the Jungian arc, as wise elder (Yoda) and evil elder (Palpatine) fight to a temporary draw, and brothers (Anakin and Obi-Wan) slice and dice each-other in a bloody consummation. These cross-cut scenes are incredibly vital, and finally achieve Lucas’ strived-for fusion of drama and effect into a solid, artistic mass, until the sound and vision virtually melt off the screen. The whole arc of the story crystallises as Obi-Wan, murderous in hate and desperate in love, slices off Anakin’s legs and lets him burn to a deformed cinder. There’s a gritty realism, a jolt of horror and malicious pleasure, in seeing wise Obi Wan turn to a savage, sick with his friend and himself, walking away from a ruined stump of pure hate who properly deserves his fate. The sequence has a visual and dramatic punch unmatched in the series and in almost all of science-fiction cinema; only the dying time of Roy, the deconstruction of HAL, and Morbius decrying his murderous Id have a similar gut-level humanity. Truly, each man kills the thing he loves, and with a sword to boot. Lucas, for his dramatic limitations, has a sense of epic development and pay-off, which is what many imitation sagas lack. Finally the whole work arcs back to the single most memorable image of the first film, where Luke gazed at twin suns and wondered at all there was to be known in the universe; and Revenge Of The Sith delivers in answer of that wonder a view of much in heaven, earth, and hell.
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