After enjoying the process of reviewing 3 films previously I’m carrying on with another Western trilogy, this time John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy, a chance to return to three classic films that I haven’t viewed properly in a long time. During which I have read up on how they function together and what they discuss singularly and together as a whole. Beginning chronologically with Fort Apache (1948) which I remember mostly for sewing the seeds for Ford’s later film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) which I’ll come to later as I explore the first third of the trilogy.
In my opinion the trilogy is strongest at its start and end, with a weak middle with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), my view may change after another watch. For now having seen Fort Apache (1948) I can clearly see that Ford know’s his American history, focusing this film at least during the Indian Wars just as during the time of production the Korean War only a few years from breaking out in the early 1950’s. Taking Custer’s famous Seventh Cavalry, renamed Fort Apache under the command of Lt. Col. Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) whose at the opening of the film is making his way to begin his tenure there. In a stagecoach with his daughter Philadelphia (Shirley Temple). He’s not shy in expressing his frustration in his new posting in the wilderness, practically sent into oblivion to put him out-of-the-way for reasons we will soon begin to understand. A man whose world’s built on social order and the structure that comes with it, he’s a man easily ruffled. Whilst his daughters ready for adventure with her farther out in the frontier. We don’t even reach the Fort before we meet freshly graduated 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) awaiting an escort to the Fort. The first of many social insults for Thursday to endure, his presence is unknown to the sergeants who’ve arrived due to the broken cable. Also unaware of Philadelphia’s growing attraction to the Lt.
Fort Apache is again filled with actors from Ford’s stock company creating for the audience a welcome set of faces on the screen. From Ward Bond to Victor McLaglen, who are not just used for comic relief, they become integral to understanding the structure of the world that Thursday is exploring and trying to take control of. As much as John Wayne is given top billing with Fonda owns this film, the ideas are all liked back to him, his actions affect the plot and all those around him. Whilst Wayne’s Captain Kirby York takes the brunt of it he does help to ground the film and sell it to the general public, not that takes much effort, his own star power rising over the past decade since Ford rescued him from the world of B-movies.
Turning to life of the Fort we have two worlds, one of domesticity and one of the soldier, the two can co-exist but following a set of precise set of rules that Thursday is constantly fighting. Coming from another class he’s a gentlemen of West Point training and high society etiquette, each with their own set of rules that are meant to exist in perfect sync. Whilst the reality of domestic life on the frontier which adapts to the Army fort it can work. Lead by Mrs. Mary O’Rourke (Irene Rich) who sees knows she and other women have little place outside, take over the home, once crossing that boundary a soldier must follow another set of rules and regulations. First meeting them all at a dance with the other men, Thursday’s taken aback by the perceived lack of discipline, so swept up in his own arrival he forgets it’s George Washington Day 18th February, reminded by one of the only men who has the confidence to talk back to him – York.
Another strong example of this clash of worlds is when Thursday wants to escort his daughter back home, on learning that she has left to visit Lt. O’Rourke, the man the family and the audience know to be who she will marry. Thursday doesn’t see the young O’Rourke to be suitable to marry due to his social position, despite his West Point training, even through presidential approval, it’s not enough that the highest power in the land can afford a man to go up a class in society. It can’t be earned, it’s a birthright in the eyes of Thursday. There’s no problem for the rest of the family, who also see that his uniform is practically meaningless under the private residence of the O’Rourke’s, nearly causing an argument.
I now want to look at that seed that was sewn for Liberty Valance, the line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. After what we hoped would be a peaceful resolution between the United States government and the Apache. York’s meeting with Cochise’s thought to be enough for them to return to the reservation and get changes underway. The racism in Thursday prevents the talk of peace going any further than the crossing of the border, when he can lead a charge to kill the renegade Apache, solving yet another issue of the never-ending Indian problem. By this point I had forgotten that we see them all ride off into battle and all but fall under a 4 to 1 massacre. Not just an underestimation of the enemy, a complete disregard of cultural differences and promises previously made to ensure their return.
It’s not a pleasant sight to see, all those men we have come to know and love, ride off into the vast emptiness of Monument Valley to face a death that could’ve been avoided. The recording of that battle is not what we would have hoped but does ensure that the legacy of an officer’s maintained and also that of the Fort and ultimately the Army. York makes the bold decision in his report, not seen on camera to be complicit in the lie that must be maintained for a better history and that of the West to be told. Helping build the morale of the country, something which has been done which each conflict that the United States has entered, rewriting the events to convey a myth that can be shared for generations. Essential to the American story, when the facts don’t fit the legend why bother. With all the images, paintings and social impact of Thursday supposed sacrifice on the battlefield, he has become a hero just by fighting with his boots on, it doesn’t matter what lead him there. York knows that he can’t fight that, it’s bigger than him, bigger any man in the uniform.
Ford knows the power of the story telling and the American story that he’s help to shape into the cinematic form that has become its own legend and part of the greater myth of the West. I’m still not looking forward to Yellow Ribbon, even with the drunken scenes, I just can’t see how it will even come close to the complexity of the Apache that dives head first into the fabric of the genre.
My fears for what I thought would be a string of comic events was all but washed away coming away from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) the middle piece of the Cavalry trilogy. I could see why I saw this as potentially being the weaker of the three. Yellow Ribbon acts as a celebration of the Cavalry. Opening with narration over the vastness of Monument Valley in beautiful Technicolor. Ford is very much home in the desert landscape that stretches for what seems like a limitless distance. His playground to get out his actors and re-enact his countries past.
Taking his cue once more from Custer, who this times named to have fallen after The Battle of Little Bighorn (1976), a major blow for both the U.S. Army and the country during its long campaign to see the Native Americans rounded up onto reservations. The treatment of the nations is the complete opposite of Fort Apache. No longer are they respected or feared for the damage they can do. Now they are a nuisance that must be resolved. We’re told that a number of plains tribes have put aside old rivalries to come together to fight the army that’s trying to pen them into land they aren’t interested in. The failure of Little BigHorn really hurts, any future defeats aren’t allowed.
Yellow Ribbon is not so much concerned with legacy as it is with the history that it hopes to make. Instead there’s a focus on the people who populate the unnamed fort where we Captain Nathan Brittles (Wayne) is 5 days away from retirement. He’s not so much concerned with what he is leaving behind but the future he’s going off to. With the focus of the film being his last patrol of the area before his retirement. Before he heads out we get to learn about his relationship with the men. First what is a long-standing friendship with Top Sgt. Quincannon (McLaghlen), you get the feeling they go back a long way. However it’s his time with both Lt. Flint Cohill (Agar again) and Second Lt. Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) new to the Ford Stock Company) who themselves are fighting for the affections of the only eligible woman on the fort – Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru). The chemistry between the three makes for some great scenes, not so much sexual tension. It’s a charming fight between two young men for a woman whose far maturer than both. It’s also the origin of the film’s title, a fictional tradition that neatly ties into the richness of the film. A symbol of a woman showing her affection for a soldier. Matching the yellow handkerchief that was once part of the standard uniform until 1872 (four years before the film’s set). Ford takes creative licence along with the strong influence of Frederic Remington’s depiction of the accessory, that evokes a certain romanticism of the army that has carried through the classic cycle of the Western.
“Never apologise, It’s a sign of weakness” another layer of masculine code that is laid down by The Duke, part of his image that defined his on-screen persona. Something that many men have tried to live up to during his life-time. Today however the idea of never apologising is both laughable and disturbing, that in itself is a strength in modern man. As a male myself I believe that the ability to own up to your faults or errors shows a sign of great strength. To understand you’re in the wrong and admitted is today respect, that way you can build on itself and grow as an individual. A sure sign that the image of man as defined by the duke is slowly being chipped away, becoming something of a dinosaur. Just saying that is depressing, however a raised awareness mental health in men shows that you have to understand and be in touch with your feelings instead of hiding behind a persona of a masculine mystique that can trap a man down the route of potential depression and even suicide. Looking at Wayne’s image of a man I can only take so much of it use for myself, mostly a sense of confidence and the ability to not take yourself so seriously, which he did much later in his life.
Whilst life on the fort is very pleasant, there’s a time for regulations and a time to relax and understand there’s more to life than the uniform. It’s out in the open that we see the cavalry showing what they’re made of. Out on patrol, with the addition of two women – the major’s wife Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick) and Olivia Dandridge in female uniform and riding side-saddle. One complains of the rotating between riding and walking, whilst the older has had no stability in the last ten years. Both being escorted to a stagecoach to be taken East and away from very real dangers out in the open. The women reflect the negative side of a military life, one more from marital experience, whilst the younger is more frustrated.
Action finally gets underway each time we encounter either Apache, Southern Cheyenne etc, as much as they are pretty much faceless and nameless, they are ever present in the environment. From the cliched yells as they ride into battle to the broken English, building on the image that Ford had a hand in creating for the Native American on film. When not on-screen the patrol’s one of character and discipline, set against the backdrop of Monument Valley from butte to butte we traverse the desert for what feels like forever, I wouldn’t mind that in a Ford film any day. The riding reminds us that we are away from the security of the fort, open the elements and dangers of the open West.
Yellow Ribbon is very much a celebration of the cavalry, we didn’t have time for that in Fort Apache looked at the legacy of campaigns and the wider history that’s written. Yellow Ribbon looks more closely at the people who are in the uniform, mostly of Brittles wise old captain who has seen his share of warfare on the frontier. Wayne gives one of his best performances, something that Ford had a knack of doing on countless collaborations, maybe it was all the goading on set that forced him to give his best, or knowing that this man-made him who he was so owed him his best. Now I look forward to Rio Grande (1950) with a renewed excitement, knowing that the trilogy is a solid set of films that are all very different, showing varying sides of a history that was repeated and reflected during the production of the three films.
I’ve been itching to catch Rio Grande (1950) completing the cavalry trilogy, which came out of a contractual obligation with Republic studio. Ford wanting to make his pet project The Quiet Man (1952) was allowed to be made on the provision that he make another Western first. The director not one to just make a slap-dash film gave this final cavalry outing the time it deserved. Falling back on the character of Kirby Yorke now a colonel and posted out to Fort Rio Grande on the Texas/Mexican border we find the man who was once ensuring that the legacy of another senior officer remain in-tact. Here he has concerns of his own past that are brought to light. Grande focuses on the York family in particular. Noted as the first of 5 films they would make together, a pairing that worked very well on-screen. The only woman who could truly hold her own in front of The Duke, and one that he found to be his favourite too.
Tonaly looking back at Yellow Ribbon there’s a real shift from celebration of the uniform to that of reflection of what life in the uniform can be like. The consequences of past action or military engagements, how they effect those around you on a personal level, pretty deep stuff for a Western of this period. There’s also a return to the beautiful black and white cinematography, connecting it back to the world of Fort Apache where we last found York, Allowing us to focus on the action and drama without the distraction of colour.
From the opening dialogue free scene we know we are in the world of the military, the anxious wives and mothers waiting for their men to return home from battle. Looking onto find them in the column of exhausted troops returning home. Ford again focuses on the community that is directly effected by the cavalry, or any armed force. Due to his time in the Navy’s photographic department, reflecting his experiences in the most American of genres. He turns what could be a wild West scene easily into any conflict and any time in America’s military history. Handled with great sensitivity. Not one line of dialogue can express the emotions going through the women and children waiting for fathers, husbands and brothers to return home safely. It’s here we learn that York has a son whose just been expelled from West Point, the same school where only a few years before 2nd Lt. Michael Shannon O’Rourke (John Agar) who had to fight class distinctions with Colonel Thursday. The younger Trooper “Jeff” Jefferson York (Claude Jarman Jr.) who then went back to enlist as a regular. Showing determination to ensure he sees a military future and carrying on his families legacy in uniform. The younger York doesn’t have that social stigma but could potentially carry another one – a West Point failure. The news of his failing in maths doesn’t come as a surprise to the father, which could be seen as a trait that he has passed onto his son.
Among the other enlisted men we have the youngest men of the Ford Stock Company, which are used successfully for lighter scenes and depicting the men in uniform with faces we can recognise and relate to. Daniel Boone (Harry Carey Jr.) and Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) allow us to get under the surface of what it takes to get into the uniform, what makes a man in the cavalry. Essentially average Joe’s who want to make a life for themselves. Becoming essential to the plot as it reaches the 3rd act, showing that solider with our without stripes and medals is needed on the field of battle.
It’s the addition of Kathleen York (Maureen O’Hara) which has the potential to turns things upside down, carrying with her a deep-rooted resentment of her plantation being burnt to the ground during the Civil War. Her main reason for being on the fort, to collect her son from the cavalry, something she learns is easier said than done. Not just needing her signature, but that the willingness of her son to also sign, which form him would be a sign of giving up on himself, essentially a sign of weakness. Her resentment towards York, extends also to Sgt. Maj. Timothy Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) who carried out the order to burn hers, among other plantations in the Shenandoah Valley, part of a strategy to cripple the Confederacy at the heart, if the farms are scorched, no food can be grown to feed the army and the men fighting within them. Taking place over a 5 month period in 1864 under the orders of General Ulysses Grant. Seen in the context of Rio Grande as regrettable but necessary actions needed to speed up the wars process in the favor of the Union winning the war.
Looking at the depiction of the Native Americans who again are focus of the external conflict, the Apaches are again reduced to being vicious faceless, nameless pests for both American and Mexicans on both side of the border. When they are heard to be chanting by Quincannon they are seen as just a nuisance to be quelled with a threat. This is quickly undermined with an attack of three combined nations heading over to rescue to captured Apaches. There’s no effort to see their side of events, just something to be stopped at any cost. A cost that could lead to a court martial if the orders to bring their rein of terror to an end. Verbal orders which are carefully delivered as to avoid legal complications if they were to go horribly wrong.
These orders reflect the then contemporary policy towards Korea, if orders were made public of the countries intervention into the country were to go wrong. The social and political implications would be far greater than the result. Keeping the operation quiet until known to be a success and an American victory was far more important. Colonel York experiences the same dilemma. As much as he wants to carry out the orders, he knows the weight on the consequences o the mission failure on a personal level. I found this situation fascinating, how many failed political decisions that have been hidden from public scrutiny, probably very few with a decent press.
Concerning the York family dynamic we have a father whose hard on not just himself, understanding that historically he’s lost his family based on orders he was given that broke a family that was already split down the middle politically. Kathleen’s presence brings all of these emotions of guilt, honor and duty into question when it comes to his own family. The uniform comes before his own life and those of others, he has to follow the orders of his superiors without question, it’s the chain of command that has cost him his wife and son for 15 years. With the arrival of his son – coincidence I think not, see him begin to soften to life as a parent whilst maintaining his position. Whilst Kathleen softens over the film’s duration to realise that both the men in her life are in uniform and that comes before family. By the end of the film she sees herself more as a military wife who understands the importance of the uniform. Again ending with a scene that relies only on emotion, as the men return from another campaign, she looks on and waits for husband and son to return, finding the colonel on a travois injured, reaching out for his arm as they walk into the fort. Nothing mores needed to convey how far thy they have both come together.
Looking back at the trilogy they each explore different facets of the cavalry. Whilst celebrating they look at legacy of campaigns, the individuals involved and the impact they will have on history. The celebration of life on the fort at all levels and aspects of life from new recruits in training to those about to retire. Until the final installment Yellow Ribbon is the most romantic of the trilogy, Rio Grande pours it on thick musically with the Sons of the Pioneers and the carefully lit scenes with between Wayne and O’Hara. Ford doesn’t miss a trick, even if the last installment was purely by accident, creating a trilogy before the term franchise was even a thing in cinema, it was the actors who were the real attraction not so much the reliability of the content that guaranteed success at the box-office.
There are some films that are worth waiting for, building them up yourself into being something really worth watching. I felt, well still feel somewhat the same about Marjorie Prime (2017), one that I’ve been looking out for since it’s release. The central ideas are something that affected my family directly, my Grandad suffered and died from Alzheimer’s disease, that has now increased the chance of the whole family of developing the truly awful disease that robs everyone of their loved one over a long, protracted, grueling space of time that whatever you do, you know the final outcome is saying goodbye. Marjorie Prime was a rare chance to see the disease and the issues surrounding it to be discussed in a different context.
I usually try to avoid such films as they have a tendency to bring up emotions and memories that I don’t really want to revisit. Still Alice (2014) was a rare a beautiful exception of how the issue can be carefully dealt with from the sufferer to the family who have seen their loved one slowly disappear. I didn’t really get that from last nights film that placed Marjorie (Lois Smith) into the not-to-distant future. Still aware that she was having lapses in memory and accidents that she had no control over. A truly humiliating experience that no-one looks forward to as your body slow breaks down and personality slip away. It’s never a pretty sight.
In this future we find Marjorie talking to what has become a synonymous Prime hologram in the form of her departed husband – Walter (Jon Hamm) in his late 30-40s. A robotic character that initially asks a lot of questions, you could say too polite at times. As with all artificial life forms, learning as he goes along. His main purposes is to stimulate memory in the patient. Taking the form of a familiar person from the patients life, be them alive or dead is not explained. What we learn is through daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and partner Jon (Tim Robbins) who are otherwise full time carers for Marjorie. The daughter naturally unsure and disturbed by the presence of her deceased father in the house. Whilst Jon is more open to the possibilities of the technology, how it can help sustain and keep the Marjorie they know with them for longer. That’s not an easy task to say the least, as Jon recalls more information for Walter to understand Marjorie and encourage recall, this could easily be open to manipulation, there are even details pf another child that are imparted, but advised never to talk about. Is he trying to build up an understanding in the hologram towards Marjorie. Could the constructing of a person be entirely be through memory, the experiences we have. Here recalled through a third person who wants to both protect his mother-in-law whilst also wanting an authentic Walter in the room, bridging the gap between artifice and the reality of the hologram. Ultimately relying on second-hand knowledge of memories that can easily be distorted in translation. The concept of a holographic aid to help stimulate memory is fascinating, anything that can stimulate memory is worth exploring. If available today it may even be employed in the care sector. Whilst disturbing to loved ones, it may just be worth it to see a memory bring some life back into their face.
We don’t really see that much in the way of suffering from the disease, there’s confusion over events being recalled but nothing that stops you in your tracks, disturbing you, even drawing out a tear or a memory you thought you’d forgotten. There’s a lot of conversation about Marjorie, yet when she’s there she seems very lucid and in control. The technology is really what’s being discussed not so much the patient, which fails to miss the effect that it has on the patient who should be of even greater focus.
After her death, marked in a silent scene of her carer Julie (Stephanie Andujar) being driven away from the house we see the film take a massive shift that takes some head-scratching to understand A few scenes to mark Tess’s grieving, before she’s talking to her mother again. It takes a few minutes to accept that this is another Prime, here to help Tess through the grieving process, or has she also developed dementia, it’s really not clear at all. At this point I’m feeling pulled away from what was an interesting film, if only we spent more time with Marjorie before her death. Instead we head on towards a series of brief scenes that mark a number of dramatic events that are quickly explained.
The speeding up of pace really hurts what has the potential to be a thought provoking piece of science fiction. We just scratch the surface of what the technology can do. Based on a play, the final scene kind of make sense but are too abrupt for the film medium, it needed to be expanded to show how the holograms/primes have the potential to help us during difficult times in our lives. I felt lost at the end and that’s what I take away from this film, which is really unfortunately when there’s so much potential to the material.
Over a month ago I saw American Animals at the cinema, having not seen The Imposter, I wanted to hold back my review of both until I’d seen them. There is over a months gap between seeing both films which will explain the introductions to both reviews. I felt I could go into more detail with Animals as there was more for me to consider, that’s not taking away from the brilliance of the earlier film.
I’ve just seen what could be easily seen as a game-changing documentary. The form’s tried and tested sometimes requiring reconstructions in part to illustrate and make certain points being explained more accessible to an audience. Director Bart Layton has taken the form in new direction, the combination of interviews and 3/4’s of the film being reconstruction. Admittedly I’ve not seen many feature-length documentaries to really to understand it fully, when I do it’s usually based on a musician, Supersonic (2016), Mavis! (2015), Senna (2010), all of which rely on archive footage and interviews to interrogate the subjects at the centre of the work. American Animals (2018) goes a few steps further, using one element of the genre and blending it to create something new. Dreams of a Life (2011) is the only piece that comes close to using the method to such lengths.
Focusing here on the 2004 Transylvania University rare book robbery from the institutions library, which honestly passed me buy, or was not reported over here in the UK. I was also 15 that year and had other things on my mind. For four first years/freshers their lives were about to change forever after undertaking a daring fascinating heist. The sheer audacity of the task is something that really has to be understood and in the processed taking for a through all the emotions that come with it. First meeting the originator Spencer Reinhard, an art student who appears to be very remorseful and reflective on his youth that has forever changed his life. The idea for the heist comes from a the library induction – not the most exciting part in early university of life, I skipped mine both times. Spencer’s took him to a special section, which I’m sure every institution has to a certain extent. This one however holds some of the rarest items in America, books so rare that an appointments. Spencer’s captivated with a rare book of ornithological paintings, the desire to handle these rare items is tangible. He tells us that famous artist have somehow how struggled during theirs in order to make great work. Is this his great act to have these priceless items his great struggle, is the effort he puts in all part of his artistic legend.
He can’t go into this day-dream alone, we meet Warren Lipka the live-wire and adventurous one who takes the risks that no one else will. We meet him first from being shown his tattoo of a dinosaur attempting to switch off a fan light. He doesn’t or didn’t take life too seriously. We can see that the attention to detail in the real-life thieves and the actors who played them in the reconstruction’s done with care. So far meeting Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters who we really get to know as what could easily be mistaken for characters in a standalone film. You can see a really strong male friendship with a mix of antics and semi serious planning into what at that stage they could still back out of.
Starting with some cinematic research; a collection of library rented heist films to get an understanding of the planning. I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema episode on the heist movie that breaks up how the films of the genre’s constructed. We have a clip from The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The only flaw with all this entertaining research being that it could have all ended there and then. Each film as it builds up through the planning, the recruiting of the team to the execution always ends in tears. The law of the land and social morals always win through, members of the team die or are lost along the way, or even worse give the game away. The romanticism of the genre only generates ideas and the passion in them, when all the while I was thinking, didn’t they see how they ended.
As the plan progresses they realise that the team needs to expand, we meet in turn Eric Borsuk the brains to get them in and out securely and the finance guy – Chas Allen who both initially think that these two guys are crazy to go through with this audacious plan. Yet they succumb to the thrill of what it’s all about, if it can be so carefully planned they can get away with the perfect crime, something that lies behind every premeditated act. Any sense of reality falls away until much later in the film. As the film progresses we spend more and more time in the reconstruction, very little with those being interviewed, only cutting back to particular points where their four men’s stories contradict do we get to see that conveyed visually, no two sides are the same, as with any number of accounts, each unique to the participants, as we go over what happened throughout its run-time.
If you’re not familiar with the robbery there’s a lovely twist that’s spared from the trailer as the robbery’s played out twice (almost). When fully underway do we see that these young men are little more than children who are in over their heads. Starting to understand the consequences to their actions. Tensions ratcheted up as we understand the potential human cost. A robbery that sounds as audacious looks as it was made for the screen, not the inspiration for. Much like the more recent Hatton Garden diamond robbery during the 2015 Easter bank holiday which has since inspired at least 2 films in quick succession. The robbery here as slick as the films that inspired the students is not as reality would prove it to be. As the films that inspired them, the overlooked endings come back to bite them as their Consciences begin to eat away at the young men. Wrapping up the film on a sombre note, a number of hard lessons are learned, families are affected, lives altered forever or everyone involved. I’m left the film after being taken on a number of thrills before being brought back down to earth as traditional cinematic story telling cleverly blends with the facts of documentary that are understood to easily be contradicted, showing that the very nature of the truth is not as simple as it the definition tells you.
It’s been well over a month since I watched American Animals and now the time has come to digest The Imposter (2012). I can’t ignore the fact that I didn’t know of it’s impact, be that the content of the film or its critical appraisal at the time of release. Personally the impact on me is rather different from American Animals. Both however are shocking in the true stories which they are based upon. It’s the form they take that really define them.
Again I’m coming from a lack of experience when it comes to talking about documentaries. The form of The Imposter is far more convention, a combination of interviews and re-enactment, just not to the scale that has made Animals redefine what the genre can do. It’s the true-life story that has determined the journey we go on. Beginning with Frédéric Bourdin whom we immediately question his motives, why did he take advantage of a family that had lost their son and brother. Set up like a true crime piece with all the family discussing who Nicholas Barclay, a cheeky 13-year-old who knew how to get his own way, loved by all but could be a trouble maker, nothing really out of the ordinary for a young teen pushing the boundaries. Then going missing from his Texas home in 1994, before apparently being picked up in Spain by a stranger.
The version of events that we are first given seem very convincing, we’re sold this story, much like the family who are completely duped by this serial liar that takes everyone, as we later learn has carried out this countless times around the world. No average person can understand Bourdin’s motivations, even his pathetic explanation, we are left bewildered that even at the age of 22 he had caused so much distress. Leaving a wake of more distress for the Barclays by suggesting that the mother and her late son had killed and buried the younger boy.
The use of the private investigator Charlie Parker adds another layer, not just for allowing the story to blow wide open to the media. The director kept him on to investigate the possibility of a body being found, pushing the ethical boundaries of what is possible on film. I couldn’t believe that as we were seeing the family discuss the murder inquiry, the lie detector tests whilst in other scenes this determined man was out there with a pick-axe. Just mind-blowing to place the images together. I wonder of the families reaction to seeing the finished film. It shows that Layton’s prepared to take a risk, follow a line of inquiry and see where it leads. I wonder how his relationship with the family was affected after the films release, like they have been exploited towards the end to see if there’s truth in a rumour that could open up more than just old wounds.
Ultimately Layton allowed the facts drive the documentary, acting more as an investigator than a film-maker, allowing it to form out of his curiosity for the subject matter. Both a creepy individual and suspicious family are exposed, no-one comes out clean at the films close. Much like American Animals, they all get what was coming to them, in another unbelievably true story. I am left wondering where Layton will go next?
A couple of months ago in the studio I was having a discussion about my work. I was working on the refrigerated wagons at this point, the film Wild Wild West (1999) purely from a visual perspective thankfully. I knew the film had a bad reputation, even with Will Smith in the lead It had at least something going for it. So I decided to seek it out and at least watch for some inspiration, see what has gone before and see what happens. Well for the moment I feel like Hans Moleman who was accidentally locked in the Kwiki-Mart whilst Apu went off for 5 minutes of partying. Returning to ask for the 4 minutes back (one minute to spare), well I wasted a good part of my morning to this awful film. I would have rather been at the party instead.
Sadly I can only protest and wish all I want, or I could carry on writing and see if I can get something more positive with the rest of my day. A review that tries to understand the stilted mess of a Western/buddy/Science fiction fusion of a clusterf***. This venting feels pretty good but it’s nothing If I can’t put my frustration into something more coherent than a protest of foul language. So where to begin. The fact that this is Will Smith long before he made a string of stinker’s in the last decade this could easily be written off as a blip after Enemy of the State (1998) before going onto pick up an Oscar nomination for Ali (2001) and another Men in Black film the following year. He’s riding high off the success of his Fresh Prince of Bell Air role that catapulted him through this period. If anything he’s the one whose let down by the material he has to work with. A script that tries to hard to be funny and visuals that try even harder. Yes I get it this is a world where technology is new and very much inspired by HG Wells. From the primitive hearing aid (ear horn) sunk into the head of not so scary General McGrath (Ted Levine ) to the using a head to project the last image they capture d on their retina before being beheaded by a flying disc. It’s supposed to be creative and fun but really blurs into the distasteful all to often.
Smith is badly opposite Kevin Kline, who yes can be funny with the right material too, that doesn’t help him. I think the film makers were going for a progressive depiction of white and black pairing in a Western setting. Despite this they have no real chemistry, natural comedic timing together, they just don’t sit well together. Unless they are going for the odd couple with US Marshals, it still doesn’t work for me. We have the gun-toting traditionalist in Smith’s James West whilst Kline’s Artemus Gordon relies on technology to get the job done, preferring his tool kit to his gun. Another observation that has become more prevalent is the fact the gun is now seen as almost out-moded and used by a black man, whilst the white progressive is relying other technology and methods to get the job done. The White settlers are still seen as superior even after they have freed the black slaves.
Visually there is far too much going on here, what’s supposed to be for gags just fills the screen too much , with too much effort going into making the contraptions work either in camera or post production. Not once did I laugh out loud at any of these gags. Instead they fell flat on their face, one after the other. Spending too much time in the detail of each piece, the fast paced editing doesn’t give you time to enjoy them. I think someone had too big a budget to spend and just thought you know what, lets do it all and cram it in there, they’ll love it. Another final distasteful nail in the coffin is Kenneth Branagh‘s Dr. Arliss Loveless a disabled disgruntled Southerner who wants to reverse progress, tearing up the old boundaries and go back to 1776, when the West was still to be won and land still to be purchased. That much I can buy into, where it goes badly wrong is the fact they he’s wheelchair bound and using that clearly to his evil advantage, painting the image of all disabled war veterans are bent on destruction and evil ends. His character gets worse even to the point that he has spider legs built into the base of his chair. The only way that Branagh was able to play this part was to ham it up to the max, having more fun than you’d expect.
The lose plot of the film does have some foundation – loosely I add. The Southern states after the civil war were uneasy and naturally very unhappy after the surrender. The actions of Loveless are overly exaggerated to say the least. The only figment of historical fact is President Grant also played by Kline who eventually nails in the golden pin that links up the transcontinental railroad, which I must admit is almost funny as he attempts three times to hammer it into place. Otherwise it’s all complete nonsense that tries too hard to entertain, falling over backwards to make us laugh but throughout I was bored stiff. I feel for Smith who was trying desperately to make the script work. The contraptions, be they on the train, the giant spider etc do reflect the era but could’ve have worked if everything wasn’t a joke. If it was a sci-fi thriller not this comedic mess. There have been a number of westerns that attempted to blur genres, some more successful than others. Cowboys & Aliens (2011) was just pure fun, whilst The Lone Ranger (2013) was a bloated and bordering on offensive, whilst the more recent folly and to me offensive to the countries history – A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) that just went too far too often to be funny for more than a few minutes.
So what can I take from this film? Not very much really. Avoid it at all costs and try to settle with Smith’s single being the only saving grace. Apart from that I’m scratching my head for something positive. The larger contraptions maybe help inform the finished aesthetic of my own work, I could be doing some visual research in the future… who knows.
In the last month I’ve not really been in any decent kind of employment, having seen my last temp position come to an end in September, I’ve had a few bits here and there to see me through so it’s not all bad. I had an interview for a job I really liked the sound off. Then after pulling up at home after a day at the studio I received a phone call, I hadn’t got the job, losing out to someone working in the industry. I can’t argue with that. Leaving me deflated really, so near yet so far. I needed something to pick me up after that blow last night.
My first viewing of The Martian (2015) I certainly enjoyed it but was left frustrated and confused at Ridley Scott’s change of creative direction.
“It just doesn’t fit with the rest of Scott’s films thought which has me scratching my head at times. Maybe he’s taking a new direction or just taking a break before he goes back in for more Blade Runner and the Prometheus which should keep him going for the next few years. Is this his Trance (2013) as Danny Boyle has done before getting back on it.”
This I couldn’t settle for a few years, just taking it as a successful blip in his long world building career of films. Now I’m starting to see it as part of a larger picture of his work in a new light and also a really big and simple reason – because he can and wanted to so he did. He has the power and if he wants to make such a film, why not. He doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed into a particular category of filmmaker because I say so, if anything I’m probably in the minority of film fans to have held this opinion. If anything I now see The Martian for something rather different. Not just a nice uplifting distraction from my own problems, although that does help. I just sat down and waited to be entertained by a film that once left me well entertained but baffled.
Thankfully I’m no longer baffled, that’s the first thing I should mention. Allowing me to just accept this future where N.A.S.A. had finally reached the planet Mars and were half-way through a 5 mission – the Aires program that would be exploring the red planet in more detailed over it’s unspecified lifetime. We are thrown into a team lead by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) that are out in orange space suits in the endless desert that is Mars. What appears be just another Sol – space day on Mars, routine repairs, samples and maintenance are underway. Nothing out of the ordinary there with a team that clearly get on well, we hear banter between them over the radio. Little do we know there’s going to be little conversation on the planet for much longer. An awful reminder of the dangers of life is space is heading their way, a storm that none of them can stand. A decision’s made to abandon the project and base and evacuate to the Aires in orbit above. It’s a race against time to get on the planet’s surface where they can make an earlier than planned trip home.
Well 5 out of the 6 can make it home, left in the storm; Mark Watney (Matt Damon) thought to be dead after being hit by flying debris, how could anyone survive that? Well they underestimate the spacesuit and the power of blood clotting – science in action. Science really is at the forefront of this film. Not in the mind-bending way that has you scratching your head in Interstellar (2014), leaving your blown away by what you’ve just been told, accept only on surface level. Here in The Martian it’s brought down to earth (if you pardon the pun) so we can all understand what’s going on throughout the film. Watney being a botanist put his expertise into action, doing his best to extend his stay on the planet. Digging into the food stores to find potatoes that he hopes to cultivate more from. But how on a planet that doesn’t support life (ignoring the then recent news of the discovery of water locked away under the surface). Converting one of the main spaces in the base into a greenhouse, constructing his own method of producing water (something to do with the engines) and using human waste as a basis for compost to grow his own crop. It’s an inventive method that might not be so far off where fiction might soon be fact, it’s thinking on your feet in action.
What I can still standby is what makes this film work, which was and still is the star power of Damon who has really become one of the most reliable lead actors around today. his charisma alone could hold this film together if you cut this down to a one man piece, just seeing how he survives on the planet. How he copes mentally with the isolation and not giving up on the his ideas and the communication with Johnson Space Centre, Houston that allow him to progress. However if it was just him alone we would lose a massive chunk of what this film is about. The combined endeavour of all involved in getting one guy home who the world once thought to be dead. We wouldn’t have the Aires 4 team coming to terms with the news that their friend and colleague who they believed to dead is in fact still alive. The combination of these 3 locations build up a more rounded picture of a rescue attempt as it grows out of shock and discovery before becoming an international effort of ideas and ingenuity to rescue one man.
Tonally I was originally put off by the unusually upbeat pace of the film from all locations. Damon’s video diary of his time on Mars and his growing distaste for disco music. Ultimately it reflects or reflected the upbeat feeling of the time it was made, we didn’t have Brexit or Trump or all the other disasters that now are hanging over us. It shows that if we think positively we can achieve anything. Even N.A.S.A can bend and flex it’s own rules at times when the cost of leaving a man is unthinkable to write off. Leaving me with one real criticism, the blatant product placement at times from Sony, which is part and parcel of modern film funding, get a sponsor here and there and you find the odd product on the screen for their troubles. Overall I feel far better about this film. It doesn’t have to be dark a dreary to be a Ridley Scott film, we have a whole other world created for us, a credible future that appears to be in reach, if only we believe it to be.