Monday, September 18, 2017

Late Summer Western #15 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid **** (1969)

Watch enough movies you start to learn things about yourself.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of those, I prefer it to the other great Western of its time The Wild Bunch.  Peckinpah's film is about a bunch of old angry dudes who are cruel and hopeless. At least Scorsese's psychopath gangsters had a sense of humor.  Butch and Sundance, as played by Newman and Redford, take life with a grain of salt, smirking and wisecracking through life with a peculiar courage, but courage nonetheless.  They're outlaws because they got nothing better to do. They know the Old West is fading so they leave and give it a go in Bolivia. An existentialist tale for the weary; they're irreverence blended with bathos leaves a more lasting impression than slow motion violence. All to a Burt Bacharach score!  

Late Summer Western #14: Little Big Man **** (1970)

Little Big Man was based on the picaresque novel of the same title by Thomas Berger. The story is the life and times of Jack Krabb, a white man who lived among both Native American and White cultures. The film takes aim at the mythology Hollywood has championed in Westerns, namely: the triumphant narrative of winning the west. 

Little Big Man is American history as tragic farce.

Dustin Hoffman begins the films buried in makeup as a 121 year old lone survivor of the Battle at Little Bighorn. His story begins when Jack and his sister are taken in by Cheyenne Tribe after surviving a massacre.  Later Jack gets captured by the U.S. Cavalry and obverses religious hypocrisy, con artists, and the cruel nature of business. Back with the Cheyenne Tribe he witnesses a massacre committed by Custer's troops and tries to make it as a frontiersman.

Custer as played by Richard Mulligan is a complete buffoon, holding on to command only by his inane charisma. Obviously inspired by the Vietnam War, Little Big Man is one of the great anti-establishment films of its time.  

Arthur Penn's underrated direction balances a unique tone, hitting the line somewhere between absurdity and tragedy.

Hoffman pulls off the naivete and pathos of his character in several different vignettes; a film worthy of the current political climate.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Late Summer Western #13 High Plains Drifter *** (1973)

Clint Eastwood's 1973 Western High Plains Drifter bordered on being a straight up exploitation picture that reportedly offended John Wayne, a sordid morality tale on revenge and human nature. Eastwood plays "The Stranger," a loner who comes into Lago and within 20 minutes commits four felonies . . . and then the city fathers decide to give him carte blanche in running the town (a surprisingly prescient premise). He appoints a dwarf named Mordecai played by Billy Curtis as Sheriff and Mayor. The Stranger learns the town hides a terrible secret from its past and that three dangerous outlaws are approaching. So he enacts harsh justice on "Lago," exposing the town as a place of sinners and hypocrites.  Is he the Old Testament God? Or some avenging angel? High Plains Drifter is Sodom and Gomorrah set in the Old West; a viscous allegory that borders on dark comedy. Eastwood revels in his menacing performance. A cruel, cruel, Western. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Late Summer Western #12: Wind River ***1/2 (2017)

In the wintry and violent 2017 Western Wind River, Graham Greene plays a seasoned police chief who warns the young FBI agent Jane played by Elizabeth Olson, "This isn't the land of waiting for back up. This is the land of you're on your own."


Wind River refers to the Native American Reservation in Wyoming where the movie takes place. Jeremy Renner stars as Cory, a Wildlife Field officer who discovers the body of a young woman when out tracking one day. The FBI is called in to investigate the murder; they send Jane who is inexperienced, but determined to pursue the case. She enlists the help of Cory in her investigation. They have their work cut out for them.

Renner anchors the film as a character trying to come to terms with a tragedy from his own past. Life on the reservation is portrayed as tough, a place forgotten by 21st Century America. Inspired by true events, the oil boom of the past decade led to increased crime on reservations, criminal activity that typically targeted young girls. The law is designed so it's next to impossible to prosecute someone who does not reside at the reservation, leaving most of the missing person cases unsolved.

At 110 minutes Wind River moves along fast, feeling more like a 90 minute film. The acting and the dialogue are simple and to the point. A shootout scene begins without warning and devolves into brutal violence, one of the most striking sequences I've seen in a recent film. The main character is the land itself, all shot with a haunting beauty.

Taylor Sheridan has made another classic America film with Wind River, coming off of last year's socially relevant Hell or High Water. Both films do a great job of establishing setting, while creating characters that are believable and memorable.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Late Summer Western #11: Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid ***1/2 (1973)

Sam Peckinpah's  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid bears his unique cinematic signature: violence and anti-romantic sentiment come in a heavy dose. James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson are both excellent in the title roles, even though they were too old for their respective roles. The pacing of the film feels a bit off, and many characters are never developed.  Still, with Bob Dylan's music and Peckinpah's impeccable style, the film is full of depth and moments of grace.

Peckinpah goes against history, Hollywood history anyway, in all of his Westerns.  Dualities are everywhere. Pat and Billy are two sides of the same coin, their actions mirror each other, unclear where one character begins and the other ends. Violence enters into almost every sequence.

The supporting cast is eclectic. Bob Dylan made his screen acing debut as Alias. Harry Dean Stanton, Slim Pickins, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel, and Jason Robards all appear.  Characters come and go in every scene.

The version I watched was the 110 minute version from 2005. Legend has it there's a much longer cut only a few people have seen. The 2005 version hints at a masterpiece, yet lacks the full vision of The Wild Bunch.  Still, Pat Garrett and BIlly the Kid is a fantastic Western full of great moments and a keen sense of the sublime.

The film can best be summed up in an exchange between Pat and Billy:

Garrett: It feels like times have changed
The Kid: Times maybe, not me.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Late Summer Western #10: Chisum **1/2 (1970)

An agreeable "by the numbers" Western, Chisum features John Wayne teaming up with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to fight corrupt cattle barons. The story flows along well enough and it's a bit moving to see an aging John Wayne entering the final decade of his film career. The character sketches of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett are one dimensional, but nicely plays upon the mythology of two friends destined to become famous enemies.  Fans of Westerns will recognize players from classics of previous years. Highlights include a shoot out at the end and even some musical interludes. President Richard Nixon screened the film and praised it for its "law and order" themes and for the good guys prevailing over the bad (not sure if Billy the Kid was a good guy). The appeal to Nixon (and his fellow squares) makes sense; the 1970s were the decade of moral ambiguity, making Chisum seem a tad anachronistic. Still worth a look as a textbook example of genre.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Late Summer Western #9: Bad Girls ** (1994)

Bad Girls was a well intentioned Western that dared to be different by casting four female leads. Unfortunately, the movie is a complete mess. Andie MacDowell, Drew Barrymore, Madeline Stowe, and Mary Stuart Masterson star as four "fallen women" who end up becoming legendary gunslingers.  It's as if the writers took a crash course on Westerns and included every cliché imaginable.  Meanwhile, the action scenes are choppy and poorly edited. Anything good to say about Bad Girls? The four leads are all iconic actresses of the 1990s - so Bad Girls is a must watch for fanatics of the decade's cinema.  Robert Loggia appears in a few scenes as a grizzled (and incoherent) old dude. There's a Jerry Goldsmith score. According to IMDB the production was plagued with problems. It shows.