Category Archives: Western

Blu-ray reissue: Dead Man (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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Rhymes with: “deadpan”. Then again, that could describe any film directed by the idiosyncratic Jim Jarmusch. As far as Kafkaesque westerns go, you could do worse than this 1995 offering.

Johnny Depp plays mild-mannered accountant and city slicker William Blake (yes, I know) who travels West by train to the rustic town of Machine, where he has accepted a job. Or so he assumes. Getting shooed out of his would-be employer’s office at gunpoint (a great cameo by Robert Mitchum) turns out to be the least of his problems, which rapidly escalate. Soon, he’s a reluctant fugitive on the lam. Once he crosses paths with a semi-mystical Native American named Nobody (the wonderful Gary Farmer), his journey takes on a mythic ethos. Surreal, darkly funny, and poetic.

Criterion’s 4K digital restoration shows a marked improvement over a previously released Blu-ray from Lion’s Gate (showcasing the late Robby Mueller’s stunning B&W photography ). Extras include footage of Neil Young working on the soundtrack, a new interview with Farmer, and an entertaining Q & A produced exclusively for Criterion, with Jarmusch responding to inquires sent in by fans.

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this bold, anarchic 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson uses his depiction of the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time.

In his breakout performance, Malcolm McDowall plays Mick Travis, a “lower sixth form” student at a boarding school (McDowall would reprise his “Travis” persona in Anderson’s (loose) sequels O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis leads a trio of agitators (revolutionaries) who foment insurrection against abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e., the draconian System).

Some reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). Politics aside, Anderson’s film could also be a pre-cursor to films like Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, The Chocolate War, and Heathers. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

Blu-ray reissue: One-Eyed Jacks ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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One-Eyed Jacks –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

 Marlon Brando only directed one film…but it’s a doozey. A “western” with numerous beach scenes and artful shots of crashing surf? That’s only a sampling of the unique touches in this off-beat 1961 drama (which began as a Stanley Kubrick project). It was widely panned, but has come to be anointed as a near-classic. It shares more commonalities with film noir than John Ford; not only in mood and atmosphere, but in its narrative (adapted by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham from Charles Nieder’s novel), which is a brooding tale of crime, obsession and revenge (which puts it in league with western noirs like Johnny Guitar and Day of the Outlaw).

Brando plays a suave bank robber who (unwittingly) takes the fall for his partner-in-crime/mentor (Karl Malden) after a botched heist. After doing hard time, Brando sets off in search of his old “friend”. The relationship between the two men is decidedly Oedipal (the Malden character is even given the helpful surname “Dad”). It’s one of Brando’s most charismatic performances (naturally, he gives himself plenty of choice close-ups), with some excellent support from Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, and Slim Pickens.

Criterion’s edition is a godsend for fans of the film, as it represents the first proper (and fully sanctioned) video transfer for home consumption. The film had fallen into the dreaded “public domain” for a number of years, resulting in a number of dubious DVD and Blu-ray editions all basically working with the same washed-out print. But now, with a restored print and beautiful 4K transfer, you can clearly see why DP Charles Lang’s work earned the film an Academy Award nomination (if not a win) for Best Cinematography. Extras include a Martin Scorsese introduction and several film essays.

Blu-ray reissue: McCabe and Mrs. Miller ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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McCabe and Mrs. Miller – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

 Some have called this 1971 Robert Altman gem an “anti-western”, but I’ve always thought of it as more of a “northwestern”. The setting is a turn-of-the-century Pacific Northwest mining town called Presbyterian Church. To call this burg “rustic” is an understatement; there’s definitely some room for urban improvement. All it takes is an entrepreneurial visionary, like gambler John McCabe (Warren Beatty) who rides into town one blustery day to find his fortune.

He quickly gleans that the most assured way to profit off the motley (and mostly male) locals would be to set up a brothel. The only thing he lacks is business acumen, which (lucky for him) soon arrives in the person of an experienced madam (Julie Christie). Once the two cement a (mostly) professional partnership, their enterprise really takes off…until evil corporate bastards intervene, in the form of a ruthless and powerful mining company.

As he had done with the war movie genre with his 1970 hit M*A*S*H, Altman likewise turned the western on its ear with this entry. Thanks to the great cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, the film is imbued with an immersive naturalism that wasn’t replicated until…well, Zsigmond (!) photographed Michael Cimino’s western Heaven’s Gate nearly 10 years later. Interestingly, Cimino’s film shares a similar “little guy vs. the Big Corporation” theme (sadly, we lost both Zsigmond and Cimino in 2016…both were giant talents).

Altman’s use of Leonard Cohen’s music remains one of the most wonderfully symbiotic marriages of sound and vision in American film (even more poignant now with Cohen’s recent passing). The new 4K transfer is stunning. Extras include a new making-of doc, and an Altman commentary track recorded in 2002.

Wolves, bison & bears…oh my: The Revenant ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)

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“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”

-from Apocalypse Now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.

Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.

The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition.

After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).

His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks.

The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.

What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout).

Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey.

In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a squartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review).

Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”

The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries).

I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries).

What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.

Gulch fiction: The Hateful Eight ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2016)

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*** OVERTURE***

(Hum your favorite Morricone song for 7 minutes…or check your email and come back)

Chapter One:

8 down, 2 to go.

Quentin Tarantino was the guest on a recent episode of AXS TV’s The Big Interview with Dan Rather. It was actually one of the more engaging and genuinely interesting interviews that I’ve seen to date with the iconoclastic writer-director (who is not shy about granting them and/or talking about himself ad nauseam-with minimal prompting).

One thing I learned was that Tarantino plans to make 10 films, and then he’s out. Apparently, this has been his plan all along; but it was news to me. Maybe he’s modeling himself after Kubrick? Then again, it’s likely that Mr. Kubrick didn’t plan to stop at 13 films; he had to stop there because he sort of…died. I’m sure it’s more along the lines of “going out on top”, which is understandable (especially if you’ve already made a bundle).

Q.T. also told Rather that once he is so sated, he wouldn’t necessarily retire from the creative arts altogether. More specifically, he expressed interest in writing for the stage. This would be a good move, I think, because he has a particular genius for penning great dialog; in fact I think it trumps his other filmmaking skills (formidable as they may be). He could handily become his generation’s David Mamet; he shares a similar gift for giddily profane pentameter (pair up Glengarry Glen Ross with Pulp Fiction sometime).

Chapter Two:

But for now

Which brings us to The Hateful Eight, which is (as the director helpfully annotates in the opening titles) “The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino” (just in case we nod off during the Overture and are suddenly awakened in startled confusion by the first of many gunshots).

The director remains encamped in 19th Century America, moving a decade or so past the antebellum South tableau he employed in Django Unchained. The setting is a wintry Wyoming. A horseless, snow-bound bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) flags down a stagecoach, chartered by another bounty hunter, who goes by the charming nickname of “The Hangman” (Kurt Russell, affecting an unabashed John Wayne impression throughout). Russell is transporting alleged murderess and bank robber Daisy Domergue (a scenery-chewing Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock. Russell warily takes the stranded Jackson aboard (along with his baggage-three outlaw corpses).

After picking up an additional straggler (Walton Goggins) down the trail a piece, a man claiming to be heading to Red Rock to assume duties as the new sheriff, the expanded party pulls into Minnie’s Haberdashery (sort of an old west Motel 6) to wait out a blizzard. Here they find a Whitman’s Sampler of western movie archetypes (Demian Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern) who may or may not be there to simply round off the “8”. I can say no more except…the mystery is afoot (if it’s an inch).

***INTERMISSION***

(You can go pee now. What remains of this sophomoric review will be here, waiting.)

Chapter Three:

In conclusion

As usual, Tarantino does a cinematic mash-up, evoking (to name a few) Day of the Outlaw, Stagecoach, Rio Bravo (again),  Lifeboat, And Then There Were None, Green for Danger, The Petrified Forest, Ice Station Zebra and John Carpenter’s The Thing (if you see it, you’ll see it).

You may have heard the film was shot in 70mm. Veteran DP Robert Richardson (in his 5th collaboration with Tarantino) does a yeoman job with the format; but this expansive scope is an odd choice considering that most of the action is in a finite space, using claustrophobic staging (and the bulk of the exterior shots are of a blinding snowstorm!).

There’s a terrific 90-minute chamber piece buried somewhere in here, screaming to get out of this epic-length film (175 minutes, if you see the “roadshow” 70mm version replete with Overture, Intermission and Exit Music). In fact, it’s that patented snappy Tarantino patter I mentioned earlier that saves the day here; otherwise the film has that “déjà vu all over again” vibe that has unfortunately taken root since Inglourious Basterds.

Q.T.-you’ve done revenge. Here’s hoping 9 and 10 are less hateful and more thoughtful.

***EXIT MUSIC***

Blu-ray reissue: Day of Anger ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Day of Anger – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Just when I thought I had seen all the noteworthy spaghetti westerns…this obscurity came a hootin’ and a hollerin’ into my saloon recently (even self-proclaimed cineastes like myself miss a few). I’m not sure what was distracting me when this film came out in 1967 (aside from being 11 years old) but it’s quite the buried treasure, from director Tonio Valerii. Genre icon Lee Van Cleef stars as a cold-blooded gunfighter (what else?) who becomes a mentor to a street cleaner (Giuliano Gemma) Then what happens is, well, the best I can do for you is: Charly meets Shane. This is one blown western, baby! But it’s much smarter than you expect it to be. If you dig Leone, you’ll love it. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray features restored prints of both the Italian and (shorter) International versions. Extras include a 2008 interview with Valerii, and new interviews with his biographer Roberto Curti, as well as Day of Anger screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi.

Circle Q raunch: A Million Ways to Die in the West **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June  7, 2014)

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Wild and woolly:  Seth MacFarlane in A Million Ways to Die in the West

In his new comedy, director-writer-producer-star Seth MacFarlane seems bound and determined to prove that not only are there (as its title suggests), A Million Ways to Die in the West, but that there are also at least a million ways to tell a dick joke. Not that there isn’t an appropriate time and a place to tell dick jokes; speaking as someone who used to get paid to tell dick jokes to hostile drunks, I won’t cast the first stone. And as a believer in the credo that “nothing is sacred” in comedy, I’d be the first to defend MacFarlane’s right to sacrifice good taste for the sake of a quick yuk. That being said, you should be forewarned: This is a film with something to offend everybody.

Setting his story in 1882 Arizona, MacFarlane casts himself as a neurotic sheep farmer named Albert, who is having relationship problems. After suffering the public humiliation of watching her man worm his way out of a gunfight with a rival rancher, Albert’s beloved Louise (Amanda Seyfried) has no choice but to break up with him (after all, “this is the American West in 1882”, as Albert reminds the audience throughout the film). So while Louise sets off to “work on herself”, Albert shares his romantic woes with his sympathetic friends Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), a dim-witted cobbler, and his fiancée Ruth (Sarah Silverman), a hooker who is “saving herself” for marriage (“After all, we’re devout Christians,” Ruth tells her frustrated beau).

It wouldn’t be a self-respecting Western parody if a Bad Guy Wearing Black didn’t show up right about now. Enter evil sidewinder Clinch Leatherwood (Liam Neeson) and his gang. We know he’s a bad hombre, because he shoots a doddering prospector on “2”, after announcing that the draw will be on the count of “3” for dibs on the poor old feller’s gold (which he was going to steal anyway). Leatherwood’s beautiful wife Anna (Charlize Theron), while also a member of the gang, hints to be of a more compassionate nature, first showing obvious disgust at what has just happened and then rescuing the prospector’s dog before her trigger-happy husband plugs it too. Yes, Theron is an Outlaw with a Heart of Gold, expressly cast to become Albert’s new love interest (MacFarlane may stoop to any level of adolescent silliness to get laughs…but he’s not stupid).

While the film is far from a genre classic (especially when compared to its obvious touchstone, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) MacFarlane’s strategy of “let’s keep throwing gags against the wall and see how many  stick” hits the mark just enough times to keep it entertaining  (you’ll laugh, but you’ll hate yourself in the morning). Like the aforementioned Brooks film, MacFarlane assigns his characters anachronistic dialog and attitudes to imbibe it with detached irony.

This is how he “gets away” with some of the more P.C.-challenged gags, like a shooting gallery game called “Runaway Slave” (“Oh, that doesn’t seem right,” Albert says with a grimace…before taking aim). Or Anna’s tale of being forced into marriage with her husband at age 9 (“It’s OK. I didn’t want to be one of those 15 year-old spinsters.”). MacFarlane isn’t below pilfering from Harold and Kumar’s playbook, with a hilarious peyote trip sequence. He even borrows that franchise’s secret weapon, Neil Patrick Harris (stealing every scene as Albert’s romantic rival). As far as Western parodies go? I’ve seen worse. And there’s something inherently funny about sheep. Baa.

Blu-ray reissue: Red River ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Red River– Criterion Collection Blu-ray (box set)

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift couldn’t have been more disparate in their respective approaches to acting, but it is precisely this “oil and water” dynamic that makes the relationship between their characters so compelling in Howard Hawks’ classic western. Wayne is perfect as a hard ass cattle rancher at loggerheads with his adopted son (Clift), who he feels is too “soft” and high-minded to be worthy of his legacy. It all comes to a head during a grueling, “make it or break it” cattle drive from Texas to Missouri, which turns into a sort of epic, land-locked version of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Outstanding direction, a smart script (by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee) and fabulous supporting performances from Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray and John Ireland (Ireland and Clift share a scene fraught with a surprising degree of homo-eroticism, especially considering that this was 1948). Criterion’s Blu-ray edition features the rarely seen original theatrical release (Hawks’ preferred cut). Oddly enough, it turns out that the version we’ve seen on home video and cable all these years was the preview version (also included), which runs several minutes longer due to sporadic inter-titles, which are replaced by Walter Brennan’s narration in the theatrical cut. Image quality is superb.

Deadwood meets Torchwood: Cowboys and Aliens **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 30, 2011)

Ah, summer. The high season of high concept films, pitched to the Hollywood higher-ups by people who are really, really, high. Hey now! Consider Cowboys and Aliens, the newest film from Iron Man director Jon “Vegas, baby, Vegas” Favreau. The title is the pitch. “Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford.” And, BAM! Green-lighted. Done deal. It’s almost eloquent, in its masterful conceptual brevity.

In actuality, there have been precedents (mashing up the Old West with science-fiction).

The Valley of Gwangi is one film that springs to mind-a guilty pleasure from 1969 that featured cowpokes wranglin’ a purple stop-motion T. Rex (Barney with teeth!) for a Mexican circus. Gene Autry’s Phantom Empire movie serial dates all the way back to the 1930s, which has the Singing Cowboy mixing it up with robots and denizens hailing from the underground city of ‘Murania’ (Queen Tika!). Back to the Future, Part III would fit in that theme park. Westworld and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension sort of count.

The film opens, appropriately enough, with a Mystery. Actually, it opens kind of like Hangover 3. A rangy 1870s gunslinger (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the Arizona desert with a cauterized wound, an empty holster, a non-removable, anachronistic hi-tech device affixed to his wrist…and amnesia. An absence of empty tequila bottles in the immediate vicinity would appear to indicate that there could be an interesting story behind all this.

He isn’t given much time to ponder, as he (Jake, we’ll call him) is soon set upon by some gamey ruffians with human scalps hanging from their saddles. Sizing up his wound and assuming his bracelet is a kind of shackle, the boys figure Jake might be worth reward money (not only do these fellers spout authentic Western gibberish, but they ain’t none too bright). Imagine their surprise when he instinctively springs into action and expertly takes ‘em all out, Jason Bourne style. So we (and Jake) have discovered one thing-he’s a badass.

Cut to the requisite “Man with No Name rides into dusty cow town” Leone homage scene (you thought they’d forgotten?). Meet our crusty yet benign saloon keeper (Sam Rockwell). Say “hey” to our crusty yet benign town sheriff (Keith Carradine…again). And I want to give a special shout out for the preacher man who ain’t afeared to handle a shootin’ iron (Clancy Brown, with his huge Lurch head). And no 1870s cow town would be complete without its resident posse of drunken asshole bullies, a whoopin’ and a hollerin’ and recklessly shootin’ up the place, led by the spoiled, arrogant son (Paul Dano) of the local cattle baron (Harrison Ford) who “owns” the town.

Daddy’s little angel makes a scene terrorizing the good townsfolk until Jake decides to take him down a notch. The situation escalates to a point where the sheriff has no choice but to arrest them both. Junior petulantly warns all that his Daddy will be very cross-and he’ll make ‘em all pay. Daddy does eventually ride in, and the whole powder keg is set to explode, when everyone gets sidetracked by an alien invasion (just in time, too-because the attack occurs as they are on the verge of runnin’ plumb out of wild West film clichés).

Despite the fact that I just saw the movie last night, I’ve already forgotten a lot of it. But I don’t think it really matters. I do remember lots of explosions and gooey strands of alien viscera hanging off the cacti like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Oh, and there’s something about a magic ring, and the end of the world (no, not really, I’m just checking to see if you’re still paying attention to this ridiculous film review).

If you really must pry (“I must! I must!”), I’ll say that what does ensue is basically a remake of The Searchers, with Harrison Ford’s character standing in for John Wayne, and alien abductors substituting for the Native American kidnappers in John Ford’s film. And there is the lovely Olivia Wilde, who plays the one person who could help Jake “remember” how he got into that bizarre state in the first place.

Is it worth seeing? That depends. If you’re a sci-fi “purist” you probably want to steer clear (too many potential tirade-inducing logic holes in the narrative). If you demand coherent story lines in your movies…you might not want to bother either (the film has six credited writers-‘nuff said). But if you’re in a popcorn mood, and ready for big, dumb, loud fun, with lots of action, serviceable special effects and a few decent chuckles-then you may want to take a peek (even if you don’t remember any of it the next day). Cowboys. Aliens. Daniel Craig. Harrison Ford…what more do you want?