Films

Rudderless (2014)


I’ve been looking forward to Rudderless (2014), if anything just to see the chilled out cooler than cool Billy Crudup after seeing him in the Jackie and 20th Century Women (2016), in both films he wasn’t playing the lead, but you know your in safe hands when he’s on the scene. The concept for Rudderless is rather deceiving really, without giving away the dark twist right now we’re thrown into what could be just another film dealing with parental grief. Something that no parents wants to experience, burying your own child goes against the rules of nature, it should be the other away around, but life has a cruel way of twisting things for some people in life.

For hot shot businessman father Sam whose just sealed an amazing deal at work he wants to celebrate with his son, now studying at the local university. We meet Josh (Miles Heizer) first, recording another track, you get the feeling he’s done this a lot, with all the kit he has in his dorm. He wants to be left on his own, something we should have picked up on much earlier than the we do. We don’t expect Josh to not turn up, even after his reaction to the request, just putting it down to a strained relationship.

Sam’s whole world is then turned upside down as the news broadcasts images of the latest school shooting, it’s his son’s University, and his worst fears are confirmed. Plunging him into a state of grief that ends his marriage and a complete change in life. We see him initially fall off the rails, drunken denial. Two years on when we find him again, starting a fresh in a yacht, having left his job, you could say he’s living the single man’s dream, but he’s broken, in a job that is just pin money to him, not caring if he rolls up drunk one day to the next. The grief for his son has effected him massively, to the point that for the last two years he’s been merely existing. He only begins to finally grieve when his ex-wife Emily (Felicity Huffman) drops off a few of Josh’s things from his room, complete with guitar and CD’s. Naturally bringing back memories for him that he soon starts to delve into, beginning to understand the son they both lost.

We learn that Josh had a notebook of songs, matching the recordings that Sam connects to, the recordings act as a way to keep his son’s memory alive. He begins to learn then, understand his son and his musical gift more, the grieving process is finally on the move once more. Taking him to a bar where he soon plucks up the courage to perform one of his songs. It’s a massive step, going from learning of his music to performing and sharing it with an audience that would not otherwise have known about him. Catching the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin) whose like a stray dog who won’t leave Sam alone. He wants to know more about this mysterious guy and his music. Just what Sam isn’t after right now.

Persistence finally pays off and they are soon performing together, this young guy is looking up to this stranger who has captured his imagination. Quentin is perfectly played by the late Yelchin whose a ball of nervous energy and anxiousness. He needs to perform and focus his energy to get his life moving in a new direction. Even becoming a pest to local music shop owner Del (Laurence Fishburne) whose more than happy to see him keeping occupied. The duo soon expands into a full-blown band called Rudderless that learn all of these songs, not knowing their origins, taking them as being Sam’s work. Even we are unaware of the truth behind them.

It’s only when ex-girlfriend Anna/Kate (Selena Gomez) reappears to confront Sam for using these songs, revealing the twist that changes the tone of the film from one of celebrating a dead son to that of yet another disturbed young killer on a mass-shooting. Josh it turns out was the gun-man who killed 6 before he eventually died/was killed (that’s never explained. Things become more complicated when the band are offered a slot at a festival, the first outside of the bar after months of performing where they had been growing in popularity and confidence.

The idea of splitting the art from the artist is one that is as old as art history. Can we appreciate the art of someone with a dark past, one that’s seen to be unacceptable today or during their lifetime. The past few years we have learned of revelations in Hollywood of sexual harassment from high-profile personalities, their careers in ruins or just on hold (it’s still too early to tell). How do we now the work of these people, the accusations of what went on behind the scenes. I personally find dilemma a lot with Kevin Spacey’s work; was he mis-behaving on all his films, or just a few? Who really knows, they have become tainted. So does the music of Josh’s when the truths learned, does it take on a new meaning or just bring a different context to it. Is the context of the work or even the author/creator/writer/performer separate from the finished piece? For the musicians, it’s too much, the relationship has been based on a lie, one that we are let in on earlier then the band, we’ve had time to process what Sam has been going through, his position and reasons. The band have no choice but to back off and start again, leaving him with the music and the memory of his son.

Rudderless begins as a journey through grief set against the backdrop of being another mass-shooting, which continue to shake America. There’s a conscious decision to steer away from such a loaded subject to focus on the individual, bravely focusing on the killer, who himself was a victim that day in the events of the film. With-holding that fact allows us to see Sam as just a grieving parents, not a parent of a killer which would not attract even investors to eve make the film. The decision allows us to see the human cost to the forgotten and the emotions they go through are just as valid. It’s a decent film that’s not afraid to push that boundary, with some nice acoustic tracks to understand the deceased. Ultimately the question of artist and artwork is one that can only be answered by the individual, how do you perceive the work, can you make the leap from one to the other and still enjoy the work.

Advertisements

Christine (2016)


Originally I was considering reviewing Christine (2016) in connection with Network (1976), which is indeed strongly linked to, or even the Anchorman films which all explore pushing the boundaries of news broadcasting in a changing landscape of chasing ratings. A modern of  American culture, a portion helped elect and is doing it’s best to keep Donald Trump in the White House. However if I was to cloud all those films into a review a much smaller film it wouldn’t being doing it justice. At the end of Network the media messiah that is Howard Beale (Peter Finch) who helped save a news channel from going off the air, whilst losing his own grip on reality to the media hungry Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and the board was killed live before a studio and far larger home audience. Not in the name of saving face, but in the name of ratings, pure and simple. After months of being manipulated and abused for his rantings he had become a loose cannon that had to be stopped and in style so those that love him would see that he didn’t die in vein.

That was only a film, that predicted the extremes to which news broadcasters would go in seeking out an audience at any cost. For Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) she was a reporter working in a climate of broadcasting that was about to change in the early 1970’s. Did Network’s writer Paddy Chayefsky draw influence from this tragic event that was Chubbuck’s suicide that was broadcast to the Sarasota area of Florida. For a moment creating a wave of sensation surrounding her suicide. I like many other would have come to the film with this knowledge, knowing that she would eventually take her own life. We waiting tentatively, not out of a morbid fascination like when people slow down in traffic to gawk at traffic accident. It was to understand how she came to that point, that extreme low in her life leading to her final moments being broadcast live.

We find her working on her latest piece in what looks like a clunky edit suit, working with the tape hours before it’s broadcast. Concerned about the edit, the look and her own approach to her interviews. Clearly taking her job seriously and passionately. Working closely with Jean (Maria Dizzia) for most of her work, the only close friend she really has. They are team that captures the more serious side of the community, the stories that really matter, not the latest car crash or fire to happen in the neighbourhood. Hall creates a character this is not someone you can really warm to, but definitely one to be concerned about.

Like many news stations of the time there’s a need to increase ratings, their position (something you only hear about in this sub-genre of films), currently 8th, which is of great concern for station boss Michael (Tracy Letts) whose concerned that they are months away from being taken off the air. He’s not in the same league as the executives in Network (1976) who have more at stake, a bigger share, more money to be made or lost. This is a small-fry local operation that wouldn’t be missed. Christine is rightly concerned by the phrase – “if it bleeds, it leads” which doesn’t take too much imagination to work out their new motivation. The rest of the on-air talent are equally concerned. Not like the chauvinist buffoons in San Diego where Ron Burgundy runs the show, instead the revel in the guts and gore.

For a while she tries to carry on at work, eventually getting a ham-radio in the hopes of picking up something worth jumping in on for a big scoop. Away from work her life is falling apart, she needs an ovary removing, before she’s even had the chance to meet someone and have a child. Made worse by her virginal status and alienating ability of self-deprecation that pushes her away from any real human contact. Her home life isn’t much, better ling at home with her mother who doesn’t understand her own daughter. A mother daughter relationship that is very fraught at times, unable to communicate for being under each others feet. Combined with what it now known to be suffering from bi-polar disorder, if diagnosed she could have lived a longer, hopefully happier life.

Back at work the arrival of station owner Bob Anderson (John Cullum) hanging around to nab some talent for another station he’s just bought tips her over the edge. The combination of ratings grabbing stories that would compromise her own journalistic integrity and the potential of a career move that could bring happiness and a brighter future. All this begins to crumble as it culminates in her inability to open up to others. A victim of her own circumstances that had slowly been devouring her with no light at the end to hold on to.

The film tells a slightly different version of events, constructing a volunteering side to her that sees her performing socially conscious sock-puppet shows for children in hospital. If she can’t help herself, maybe she can save someone who has yet to fall into her depressive cage. Christine purchasing of a gun takes a lot of time, surrounded by so many pieces, she’s sold the story of being protected and made aware of the dangers around her. She has long protected herself mentally, this becomes just an excuse to being a step closer to taking her own life. One suicidal thought is all she needs and away she comes with a small gun before she’s finally ready.

Visually it’s a very sparse film, designed to take us back to the early 70’s. It’s very minimal design, with a focus on the news station, it’s cheap and nasty at time, not a part of America we are used to. Set against the back-drop of the close of Watergate, when the nation had finally seen the country leave Vietnam, their own president had been found out to be a liar who would go above the law and try and hide his crimes. It’s a bleak picture of a country that is drawn to the darker side of life, which news broadcasters are just tapping into. Christine is swallowed up in that moment in time. Why focus on such a dark moment on modern broadcasting? To highlight that suicide can happen to anyone if pushed to the brink. If we don’t listen to those in need. If you feel you are please don’t let this happen to you, it nearly has for me a few times. I won’t let that happen again, reach out and get some help, it’s the first, hardest step on your way to a better future.


Pleasantville (1998)


I was wondering when my first post or even film review of 2019 would be making it’s way to be shared with you all. Along with what would be the first film to be watched off the year, that title goes to an OK film noir, however my attention was consumed by Pleasantville (1998);a film that I was only aware of during the second half of last year. It was a combination of the technical wizardry and the concepts discussed in the film. You can’t quite call it science fiction or even a coming of age film. It a combination of the two with a nice dose of comedy. The lines between reality and fantasy are truly blurred here as two teenagers David and Jennifer (Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon) are transported to a classic TV show from the 1950’s – Pleasantville where everything is just cosy, safe and predictable, the very opposite of life even when it was produced in the realm of the film.

My first thoughts was a segment in The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror IX when Bart and Lisa are transported into the television (courtesy of a piece of uranium in place of the battery in the remote) sees them moving from channel to channel. Spending most of their time in the violent world of Itchy and Scratchy. Before the film even begins we are introduced to a channel dedicated to classic TV series, much like Talking Pictures TV here in the UK where I find a lot of great films to watch. A clip of the fictional show is even played before we enter the colour world of reality. The aesthetic is now a little dated but you get the feel of a different time being only a channel away of taking you back to a simpler time. It’s pure nostalgia really, able to take a look at a different era of TV or film, an escape from the present day or for me a chance to explore an untapped reserve of films that I have yet to watch.

In that respect you could say I’m like David except I did choose to escape to the past with my TV viewing, instead it was more likely an incarnation Star Trek to get me through my adolescent years. He knows the world of Pleasantville like the back of his hand, it’s his own personal world where everything makes sense, allowing him to shut off from the world outside. Unlike his sister Jennifer who is more extrovert shall we say, wanting to explore and take chances. Her increase in popularity has enabled her to get a date with the most popular boy – standard American high school nonsense really and she’s going with it. Unlike her introverted shy brother who can’t even talk to a girl.

They only enter Pleasantville after an argument that results in a broken remote being fixed by an old-timer TV repair guy Don Knotts who supplies with them a 50’s space age remote that transports them into the black and white world of Pleasantville where they assume the characters of the main families children. In order to escape, David believes they must play along and take his lead using his knowledge of the world to survive without effecting things. Like an away team in Star Trek trying not to interfere with the natural order or future of another race – the Prime Directive. However it’s not really that situation, it’s a constructed world by a television production company, with actors delivering lines by writers, completely a product of its time now with two massive changes from the future.

At first the interactions are harmless, we see how perfect this world is, luring David in for a time to stay, here he can shoot a basket ball in the net with little skill, presumable before he couldn’t. He can’t play along forever, we notice him telling his boss Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels) that he can do more than one thing in Bud (David’s role in Pleasantville). He inadvertently teaches Bill that he has free will, a concept that goes beyond the writing of a family TV serial that didn’t promote such a value. He’s the first of a few characters to slowly change and embrace of world of colour.

Now here’s where things really get interesting. The changing of colour from monotone shades to full blown technicolor. The first people to change are a number of teenagers who are naturally and biologically more prone to change, first undergoing a sexual awakening that liberates them from the constraints of the monotone world. More open to learning and understanding more from both David and Jennifer who share their experiences. They have been beyond the two roads that make up this world, they know of their job prospects, the threat of global warming, unlike the teenagers here who know far less, they are children in comparison to these god-like beings from the future and colour. The only other adult to undergo this change is the mother – Joan (Joan Allen) who at first is ashamed and unsure about exploring what are ultimately very human and universal experience that you shouldn’t be ashamed to have. Placing her almost in the same world of Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) in Far from Heaven (2002) in a world bathed in colour where a private life of of a housewife explodes in front of her in a respectful homage to Douglas Sirk. Where her emotions have to be bottled up and restrained against a backdrop of conformity.

Traditionally when colour and black and white photography are both used in a film, it’s a method of determining a different reality, one of the real and the fantasy. Never have the two really been combined like this. Filmed photochemically, each frame that shared both colour and monotone images had to be retouched by hand, a painstaking task, that today could easily being executed on a computer. The effect here is seamless as the images become more complex as the narrative progresses to a point where we are brought to a point where segregation in a white neighbourhood. Lead by Big Bob (J.T. Walsh) who wants to maintain the norm, escape the rain and have things just as they once were. The idea of change scares him, like a number of the white male neighbourhood who at first are curious but soon turns to fear and uncertainty. Their responses are laughable, a shirt that was burned on the iron due to human error, whilst another came home to have no dinner in the oven or on the table. The expectations of routine and stability are threatened by late 20th century progress that encourages everything they haven’t even thought of. They are a product of a very different time that’s only separated by only 40 years at the time of the film’s release.

Ultimately the town of Pleasantville is an extension of David’s fears in the real world to get stuck in and experience the life that his sister has done. OK not to same extremes but with more willingness to be in touch with your emotions, take chances and see where they take you. The black and white world here offers a security he once had as a child that no longer exists. They become a third parent to him, spending so much time with them that he can recite dialogue, recall facts about the show without knowing what’s going on around him. A final thought to all of those  films and TV shows from the past and attack them or see them as products of their time. They may no longer have the same values be them political or sexual. If we were to go back and correct or censor then we would learn nothing from them. There would be no way to track our progress of how we got to where we are today, how times change from the dawn of these popular forms of culture that reflect out times. Another danger as David discovered is that you can’t take all your values from the past, you have to make your own mind up in the present.

 


Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Revisited


A few months ago I decided to explore the original Mad Max trilogy before it was expanded into what is now an anthology of films. During that process of re-evaluating the films, reading them as Westerns and how the relate to one another I realised I needed to revisit the most recent addition to get a fresh reading of the film. I want to correct my errors and hopefully expand my understanding. 

I’m really pleased to have finally seen all 4 parts of the Mad Max Anthology as it’s now known, able to see how the original trilogy progressed before regressing into cash in for children. However I said all that a few months ago. I couldn’t finish the year without completing the set. Before I really dig into Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) I reread my original review, firstly I forgot I was lucky enough to see it in 3D which is something I’ve not done for over a year. With an overload of action, explosion it’s perfect to have been viewed in that format.

This was my biggest error: “I’d say Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) re-boot is more of an amalgamation of the three earlier films. With the past built into flashbacks the other two are built-in in terms of borrowing elements here and there to recreate that world for a new audience.”

This makes no sense really.George Miller has updated the aesthetic whilst staying true to the punk apocalyptic style that makes it so unique and tantalizingly dangerous to not watch. A style that was truly defined by the time of The Road Wrarrior (1982), which moved the action from just before human society collapsed before jumping forward into a world of makeshift vehicles that had to both protect and attack. Tanks with attitude. Here we are just thrown into what is just another day in this world, we have to accept it for what it is. One that is barren, destructive and deadly to all those who don’t follow the rules of the few. Max’s (Tom Hardy) car has been retained – the V8 Interceptor if only for lineage, it has also ensured that whoever starts out driving that car, it’s going to be Max.

Moving on I can that as much as this has Mad Max at the title character, he takes a back seat for most of the film, allowing it take a refreshing feminist angle in the sci-fi/action genre. Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who leaves the Citadel where film began is believed to be en-route for a routine fuel run. Only to take a different course and bid for freedom. Taking with her 4 young women who we learn are the property of Immorten Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who bears stronger resemblance to The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) who again wore a mask, almost a Darth Vader type that relies on makeshift technology to sustain him. Immorten Joe is essentially a dictator who through his own pain has deflected it to those below him, becoming an almost god-like figure who can incite fear just by his presence. Controlling access to water, decent food and even his own bloodline, which he views more as property than a family. The 4 women are essentially sex-slaves who have now broken free on their way to the promised land of The Green Place. Another vague term that could mean anything in this future, an idealised Eden or even Tomorrow Morrow where the kids from Beyond Thunderdome (1984) hoped to reach. Those who escape have held onto a dream of freedom.

The goal of reaching The Green Place is the drive for Furiosa and the women who’ve made a desperate and dangerous bid for freedom. Behind them they have Immorten Joe and his army of spiky cars, trucks and anything else on wheels (not forgetting the rock guitarist who maintains a steady rhythm for a war cry as they head into battle. Once more we have entered a regressed state of civilisation as those who want to seek out a better life, even if it’s a glimmer of something better, a paradise in the desert.

So where does this leave Max? Who for the first act is all but the prisoner of Immorten Joe who has him hanging high above as bait over a car during the charge of fire to reach Furiosa. Who after a while breaks free and makes himself known to the women. At first he’s very much on the defensive, this is default Max-mode, untrusting of anyone, plagued by flashbacks, and just wanting to get out trouble to be on his own again. Before he can even consider that he has to help those in need first. Again the reluctant hero who comes to the rescue. Not that Furiosa needs much rescuing, even her disability doesn’t stop her driving a tank and shooting a gun. Having a assumed a classically male role in film she’s very much Max’s equal. Turning to the 4 women they are in different states of mind, all happy to be on the run, free of their past lives, however for some it offered security which their future may not offer.

Once again I saw the film in its standard format of colour, I’ll lookout for a black and white version. However in its absence we’re treated to a beautifully rendered series of scenes in heavy blues, which have been digitally altered to emphasise the 4 women, they signify hope of a better future, almost angels in a world of despair, able to bear children. It proves that digital film can if used subtly can improve the film. I’d be wrong to say Fury Road is anything but subtle for long. It’s full of bright exciting action sequences that have been enhanced by the increased sophistication of special effects since the last film was released 30 years previously. I just hope they don’t get the Lucas treatment a few years down the line.

Ultimately Mad Max: Fury Road is a very modern take on character (not a franchise) that has retained its essential ingredients whilst infusing it with a feminist sensibility that doesn’t take anything away from the Mel Gibson incarnation of the 1980’s. We have a disturbed man who wants to survive on his own terms is reminded of his humanity every so often. Saving those worst off. He may still save the day but never takes the glory, he leaves that for those who most deserve it, that’s the mark of a true hero. It’s still very much a Western too, the barren landscape, the reluctant hero who rides (well drives) in to save the day. But he cannot stay among them, troubled by his own demons that he must learn to live with on his own or tame in the wilderness.

 


Munchausen (1943) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)


This double review is entirely inspired by a Fandor video posted a few weeks ago regarding Terry Gilliam and his use of Carl Yung’s theories on dreams. There’s a section on his 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen which I want to explore. It would be unfair to do so without looking at the 1943 original made under the Nazi controlled UFA, a film that is able to shake of the past far easier than most of the propaganda produced under Goebbels. Now lets see how the two films sit together.

Munchausen will probably be the only film of the Third Reich that can still be enjoyed today. A modern equivalent could be Tale of Tales (2015) which combined 3 adult fairy tales to unfold within the same reality. Munchausen is a very different film. Firstly being a product of Goebbels to celebrate 25 years of the UFA production company, at first glance it doesn’t appear to have any real connection to Nazism. Used as pure escapism during the Battle of Stalingrad, becoming a very expensive distraction just before the war was about to take a turn for the worse. Beginning at 4.5 million Reichmarks before increasing to 6.5 million. All of that money is on the screen through the special effects and lavish set design. Seen as a the German The Thief of Baghdad (1940) which at times I was reminded of, special effects that maybe dated but still magical on a first watch. Also made in Agfacolor, a process I’ve only just heard off.

The film is loosely based on 3 texts dating back as far as 1785 to 1920 to become a product of the Third Reich and pure fantasy. A fairy tale for a generation that has been shaken from the defeat of WWI to the rise of Hitler to reshaping the country in his radical ideas, the war that he has then engaged his country in. Whilst behind the worlds back committing some of the worse crimes known to humanity. In the midst of that we have a film that can be seen away from all of that history that has very little in terms of propaganda. Whilst it was re-cut twice due to censorship to promote the Aryan ideals it has become an curious oddity in cinema today.

At first I was confused by the setting, first catching Munchuasen (Hans Albers) dancing in Georgian dress with the first of a string of women – Sophie (Marina von Ditmar) wanting to make his move, is this the tone of the film, a dirty old man wanting to have his way with every woman he meets. She confusingly drives off home, after an exterior light’s switched on. This I came to understand was the present day for the film. Returning the next day with her fiancé to learn of the history of Munchausen from another era. We believe that this man is merely a descendant of the more colourful character. He’s own life’s raised to a legendary stature, no one could possibly understand what happens even if retold. The only way to understand is to be taken there along with him. Even if he’s just in the garden for the day.

We’re taken on a number of tales beginning with his return home with his right hand man and only true friend – Herzog Karl von Braunschweig (Michael Bohnen) that follows him across the film and his antics across Europe. It’s a life that is both eventful and hedonistic. Every opportunity to go into battle, place a wager with the Sultan of Turkey is worth going on with. His long life is ensured after a wish is granted by life long foe Fürst Potemkin (Andrews Engelmann) an almost wizard like figure who uses magic and potions to ensure his own life is secured for own desires.

Munchausen lives in a cinematic world of magic and wonder. The films director Josef von Báky trying to catch up with special effect heavy films as The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Thief of Baghdad that swept audiences off to other worlds with effects that we can forgive today for the lack of sophistication. As much as I can see the strings in the more ambitious Munchausen I was blown away by the drive to create this world. Also a nice change to watch a film that relies more on photo-chemical process and the good old fashioned trick of the eye. Other times it’s just plain crazy, the effects reflect the heroes personality, bold and adventurous and full of passion for all he does the women he loves.

It’s definitely an oddity from a very dark period in European cinema that stands apart, with incredible amounts of money thrown at it. Clearly an adult film that has lost most of its edge, becoming more like a Mae West at times. I can forgive all that when I’m enjoying the imaginative worlds that are created purely for a nations distraction when it needed it most, a superhero for his day who ultimately knows when he should return to the small state of us mere mortals. Or are these tales just dreams of a life that’s desired by a man who failed in his own life. Unlike the characters legacy’s far darker where suffers of Munchausen’s embellishing, the very opposite of the syndrome that bares the same name, where the sufferers creates attention for themselves with fictitious medical conditions. The character’s message is obvious, live life to full, dare to be bold and share your life story with all who will listen. Now I’m looking forward I want to see how the most recent version by Python Terry Gilliam compares. His use of special effects and his own unique aesthetic which works well with this material.

Just over a fortnight since I saw the German original, I’ve been patiently waiting to see when I would being catching the Terry Gilliam remake. I hoped it was around the Christmas break if I’m honest, something that this is out of the ordinary to escape with. Well I certainly did escape, more or less back to the original. For a time I was looking for when it would be referenced and when, which is not a good way to spend your time with a film. I think the best thing to do is use the Fandor argument to explore the individuation found in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) in the second half of this double review at some point.

It’s still necessary to see how the two films differ from one another. Firstly this is very much a piece of entertainment but the very much in the unique style of Gilliam who had long since made a name for himself away from Monty Python. I can see how the earlier film has lends itself to the directors unique style with ease. In some cases it feels like he’s just reworked certain scenes and moments into his version.

Despite the reworking of moments he comes at the material from a very different angle which I admired. A play of his life/stories being performed whilst an invasion is going on by the Turks (not the best depiction 30 years later) of a Belgian semi European walled city that is just about to surrender to the superior forces. When out of nowhere the infamous Munchausen (John Neville) storms in like a gunfighter to seeing his own legend being blurred beyond all recognition of the facts, portraying a string of lies that if not corrected soon would distort his legend forever. Instead of a history lesson for a neighbour, this is a man putting his own account out there for the public to decide whether he is the real thing is just a fraud. At first he is almost laughed off the stage by an audience who came into escape a conflict on their own doorstep. Taking the context of the original films production and work in it into Gilliam’s version who knows his film history. Here he has a larger more captive audience who can decide the fate of his legend.

Taking over the 2nd act that begins in Turkey trying it’s best to rework the drinking bet, when the Baron puts his life on the line, wagering that he can source a better drink than that of his host and enemy the Sultan (Peter Jeffrey) whom he offers his freedom and as much gold as the strongest man can carry. If he fails he’s beheaded. He has only an hour to ensure his life, Hopefully his trusted companion Berthold (Eric Idle playing dual roles of Desmond playing Berthold stage) whose the fastest runner known to man, leaving a trail of dust behind him/ The whole effect is technically more accomplished yet has less heartfelt. There’s a loss of wonder as it’s built up too much. Originally the character’s introduced from a distance in mid motion before we even get to meet him. Like all the other supporting characters we’re thrown in the deep end and expected to know. Maybe it’s my prior knowledge that requires they be set-up in the same way here.

The Turkish bet is the first of a number of scenes that are reworked here to greater technical achievement. The level of special effects is far more sophisticated yet by today’s standards again charming which still very much appreciate. What is however lost is the philandering, wandering eye and gentlemen that Munchausen was in the originally. That aspect of his character is all but confined to one extended sequence that his new to this film. When he arrives with the curiously open-minded Sally (Sarah Polley who follows him to bring back reinforcements) to Mount Etna (not the Italian volcano) land of the fire-some gods lead by Vulcan (Oliver Reed) whose bored and beautiful wife Venus (Uma Thurman) is enthralled by the visitor, dancing into the heavens only to incur the typical wrath of Reed who kicks them into a Pinocchioesque scene. Otherwise the hedonistic side of his personality has all but been suppressed.

Instead we are left with a much older man whose constantly chased by death whose shooed away by Sally who looks up to him as a fatherly figure that has given her hope. The individuation dreaming has kept Munchausen alive for years longer than mere mortals. We meet him much older than the Dorian Gray man of his past has long given up the spell of youth to finally die an old man. The curse of immortality has caught up with him in this film. The dreams that acted as an escape from life have lost their thrill for him. The dreams if youthful adventure have since lost their appeal

What we see is not so much a collection of dreams but one big dream that moves from location to location building up a narrative that brings his supporting band of men together, now also older and tired they eventually wake up and follow him back to the walled city where The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce) who tries to keep him out. The journey is not without fun and the standard Gilliam world logic playing with scale that works perfectly in this 18th century setting of big wigs and pirates. What threw me is the twist that leaves us swept away by the adventure, the reunion of Munchausen and his men is the real journey taking in the weird and wonderful locations that defy logic once more.

I’m left still wanting to see the original more than anything that has far more heart and fun to the film than Gilliam’s that as much as it works in his own language it’s not really his, he’s not made it his own, simply updating it for a new audience. The original will forever stand alone as an oddity that aimed to mimic other film studio’s around the world, the bar was raised and UFA met it and enjoyed the journey set against a time of great conflict around the world.

 


Sorry to Bother You (2018)


It’s been a very lean year for my reviews of new films. In fact I I’ve only reviewed 3 in total this year. With the release of Sorry to Bother You (2018) it could fall into some of the writing or creative categories. Leaving that comment to one side what made me want to finally discuss this film. In short it feels like Starship Troopers as directed by Terry Gilliam which is an interesting combination when it comes to rapper turned director Boots Riley with his long gestating debut. If I’m honest this wasn’t on my radar for a long time, until I saw the trailer, bright, colourful, funny and conceptually interesting. I was sold.

Set in a reality that really isn’t that far from our own. We find a couple living in the garage of Cassius Green’s (Lakeith Stanfield) uncle, they already owe 4 months rent. He needs to get a job and fast. I know the feeling myself. There’s only so much goodwill that even family can give before they say enough is enough. He finds work rather easily with a telemarketing company – Regal View that’s attempts to sell magazine subscription among other things to unsuspecting customers. The tone of the first act of the film is heavy on comedy, the lengths that Cassius goes to in order get the job, faking trophies and relying on friends to act as references. You have to admire his initiative at least, which his new boss does before hiring him. Reflecting how easy it can be to get a job in telemarketing – I have very little sympathy or time for those calls or the industry.

That disdain doesn’t stop me getting to know Cassius’s colleague who give him some strange advice – use your white voice. Cue the over overdub that’s acknowledged in the film. First coming from Langston (Danny Glover) who knows what he’s talking about. It’s another to this reality, it’s completely mad but makes sense here. If you have the right white voice you can be on the way to be on the way being a “Power Caller”. The structure of the job reminds me of pyramid schemes where you can work your a** off for peanuts whilst those further up the business the reap the rewards of your work. All of his calls initially see him literally dropping into the space of the unwitting customer, making that feeling of awkwardness all that more real. For those working for Regal View they’ve had enough and want to unionize, that way they can stand to the man and get better pay and conditions. Again I’m not a member of a union but when you see Cassius and his colleagues struggling as they S.T.T.S (Stick to the Script) to ensure a sale. Pay only comes with commission, something I will never even entertain in a job, that reliance on a steady income is far more important than relying on a sale to support you.

Once Cassius has found his white voice he’s find his calling, it’s a gift, the gateway to a whole success. Using a white voice (David Cross) he can cross the perceived racial divide that has prevented him and other black people from living the American dream. I’m reminded of Get Out (2017) when Chris Washington’s (Daniel Kaluuya) lulled into a white world where the black people around him are not themselves, they’ve been brainwashed and harvested for the most desired body parts. Boots Riley stays with this idea and taking it further in a reality where Black people know they acknowledge they’re social position, finding ways to adapt in this white mans world. The overdub is just one element of world that could easily happen today, from the freak social media frenzy’s to the game show where contestants literally get the s*** kicked out of them for prizes. Actually how far off are we from this being a reality? However the most important element of this world is “Worry Free Living” that offers to house and employ you, taking all the stresses of modern life away from you. Rumours are already circulating but get nowhere in a world obsessed with ignorance and sensationalism.

Success is bittersweet after a crazy montage of high-fives. After the first wave of union action lead by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), seeing him leave his colleagues to a life of success that comes at a moral cost to everyone in his life. At this point we don’t know what “Power Callers” actually sell. There are rumours around slave labour, which are later confirmed as we follow Cash to the top floor where all the suits and power sellers hang out in spacious offices and cordless headsets. It’s an idyllic corporate workspace for the white man and anyone else who can succeed to excel. At a cost however, one of the Regal View’s top clients – Worry Free Living as owned by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) a corporate giant who could easily mirror a Silicon Valley CEO so caught up in his concepts that morality has past him by. Cash crosses over into another world where money becomes more important than whats going on in the real world. Signing his conscience away in return for a better lifestyle. He loses his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who had since joined the unions fight. She has no respect for him now that he has sold his soul to the devil. Detroit’s far from the ideal black woman standing up for her rights as we see at the preview to her show, using her own white voice to reach an audience who she believes might otherwise overlook her art.

Cash finally comes to his senses after a massive wake up call from Lift who invites him to join his company in a role that is incredibly disturbing. Involving a plan that sees another step in which the fabric out society is at risk. He’s even left wondering what is happening to himself after they finally meet. Again its pure madness as they truth finally comes out before falling on deaf-ears, leading Cash to try and use the language that he had been trying to avoid. Sorry to Bother You is non-stop on the laughs at times, all cleverly written to roll of the tongue, with some brilliant visual gags too. Thankfully it doesn’t just rely on the comedy, it comes with its own fair of shocks for the audience that again remind me of Get Out at times. Accompanied by a punchy soundtrack that lifts the film up even further. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films of the year that’s not afraid to bite back at the culture of capitalism, racism and the media, it’s all fair game and nicely done too. It’s definitely one I’ll be revisiting if only for the laughs.


Young Guns (1988) & Young Guns II (1990)


Just over a year ago I watched the first Young Guns (1988) which I found to be an interesting film. I was entertained by this take on the Lincoln County wars, emphasising the role of Billy the Kid around the cattle barons war. I left the article wanting to seek out the sequel (purely out of curiosity mainly) completing the characters journey. Below is my original review followed by my thoughts on the sequel.

Another western that I thought I’d never really watch or review. I do remember hearing some enthusiasm for the film at art-school, but thought little of it, wanting to explore the classics of the genre more at the time, which to a large extent I have since achieved, now I’ve got a few to revisit. I have since considered catching Young Guns (1988) not really knowing much about the film beyond it looking like a chance to refresh the genre, which was beginning to happen during this period such as Silverado (1985) and Pale Rider (1985) at least Clint Eastwood could be relied upon to deliver. I also saw this as a spin on The Magnificent Seven (1960) formula, bring together a group of gunfighters and send them out to save the day, which isn’t far off what happened, just without the pathos or myth-making magic which it achieved.

What’s achieved is my curiosity being pricked up, which is all you need sometimes to engage with a film. First I was drawn to the late 1980’s music video aesthetic, it was clearly aimed at a young audience who had no real interest in the genre, something for older generations who grew up during its hey-day. During this period there are glimmers of something special coming through. Another point was having the other Martin Sheen son as the lead, as Emilio Estevez was already established in film, compared to the more prominent Charlie Sheen whose actually written out of the film at around the half-way point, which also shows as how much hated being on a horse, staying long enough to get a starring credit and a paycheck.

Looking further a stronger historical connection that I found, helping when I realised that it depicted both Billy the Kid – William H. Boney and L.G.Murphy, who both appeared in Chisum (1970), skewed more for John Wayne‘s lead character during the Lincoln County War (1877-8) one of the many cattle wars of the period. The same events basically unfold but from a more relatable point of view – the young men who knew John Tunstall whose killing, that originally started the war. Instead of Chisum who was rightly worried about Murphy’s increasing ownership in Lincoln County. He’s nowhere to be seen or heard in Young Guns which is either a poor choice historically, or consciously written out to focus on those directly effected by the shooting. Having too many characters to focus on would make it a broader less engaging film. 

With such a young cast who had yet to really make a mark in film it allows these six actors (ignoring Estevez) into careers of some longevity, which did happen for Keifer Sutherland, son of Donald Sutherland, which probably helped during casting. The rest of the cast I can’t say I have really seen before this film. A 50% success rate is still good going though. Placing them in this MTV-esque Western which works in some places and not in others. The music video feel of the film really has dated, the soundtrack really doesn’t work today, it attempt to set the tone but feels out-of-place, it’s neither nostalgic or dramatic, with time it’s just been lost. The casting of Terrance Stamp as John Tunstall just doesn’t work for me. Playing the “Englishman” which is over emphasised at times is really unnecessary for the audience. It’s trying to pit Englishman against Irishmen which really is just circumstance to me, just drop the point and move on. Also Stamp looks very out of place, just delivering his lines without looking awkward on-screen. I think he’s glad he was killed off after 20 minutes. He obviously leave a mark on the men – The Regulators, who start off to war.

Turning to The Regulators as characters themselves who are fully fleshed people who you can engage with. With the emphasis on Billy the Kid the assumed leader post Tunstall’s death, the historical figure that most in the audience would have heard of compared to the cattlemen who are known to those interested in history. For me it comes from reading beyond the films. As a character himself he owns the film and Estevez owns the role, really having fun, making his mark on the role whose being done justice. Looking to Charlie Sheen’s Richard ‘Dick’ Brewer who probably seen as the winger of the group who pushes everyone further before he’s killed off. Two of the Gun’s Josiah Gordon ‘Doc’ Scurlock and Charles ‘Charley’ Bowdre (Kiefer Sutherland and Casey Siemaszko) are given the love interests which don’t take over from the main plot, if anything they make them richer characters, they have more to lose as they reach the finale. I must also touch on the Navajo character ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) whose half Mexican, whose allowed screen-time to discuss the American Holocaust, specifically the massacre at Sand Creek Reservation (1864), despite the fact that he would never have been there, as he wasn’t Cheyenne or Arapaho. Showing how Native American past can be recycled and jumbled to suit a script.

Young Guns reminded me of other super groups in the genre which brought together the best of the best in their fields, or even misfits such as The Professionals (1966), The Wild Bunch (1969) up to Silverado. Guns joins that long line of super groups toting guns. Long before the Avengers and DC universe films that bring together superheroes. Except everyone gets on and they have already met, cutting out a lot of exposition allowing for us to get on with the plot and see this group of young men just get on with it.

Historically I was vaguely aware of Billy the Kid’s involvement in the Lincoln County War, afterwards I feel a little more informed and refreshed, there’s more to it then the side we see. It’s small event of a much bigger, dirty, violent history, also adding the myth of the West that has been reshaped by cinema. There are a few nods to the fabric of the genre, Patrick Wayneson of The Duke takes on the role of Pat Garrett, to Jack Palance as Murphy which you can see he’s enjoying far more than Stamp was. It’s not the strongest of films for a number of reasons which I’ve discussed, however it is fun, engaging with filled with action, you’re supporting the young men as they fight for what is right which makes up what is lacking at times. A product of its time which you can forgive its many flaws leaving me wanting to catch the sequel now.

If I’m honest I’ve been having mixed feelings leading up to watching Young Guns II (Blaze of Glory) (1990) which brought back the remaining members of the Lincoln County regulators. Partly recast and rewriting the history in a mish-mash fashion to suit a theory that Billy the Kid survived into the 1940’s. At first I thought what the hell was going on here, a rider reaches a road, is this a cross with time travel or what? My next thought was is this going to be another Little Big Man (1970) that was recounted via the oldest living Native American. Or even a Blackthorn where we find Butch Cassidy (Sam Shepard) living a new life in self imposed exile. Instead this is based on an account that saw a Bushy Bill attempt to prove he was William H Bonney fighting for his pardon by the governor of New Mexico. It was later dismissed and thrown out of court.

This is the direction we were going down, at first it threw me, why are we doing this, why not just carry on where we left off. Was this an attempt to stamp a definite mark on the screen legend of the Kid, which is not a bad thing. Coming at the audience with a curveball, the obscurity curio as a basis for a film that I already scratching my head at. I knew this was another retelling of the final days of the Kid for another generation. For me that will always be Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973) which personally is the definitive version. Guns II director Geoff Murphy even went as far as clearly replicating some shots from Peckinpah, thankfully it’s just a few from The Wild Bunch. Never the less it shows a lack of originality to produce a clear personal vision instead of relying on a flawed master of the genre’s past.

A massive flaw is that the film goes as far as rewriting the past for Pat Garret who previously appeared in the original, now we see him portrayed by William Petersen a younger actor, compared to the older Patrick Wayne. As much as these films take place in the same landscape, they see the events as very separate. Was the inclusion of the older Garrett which felt like a cameo when he wasn’t even a sheriff during the Lincoln County War or around during those times. He was a friend of the Kid and even a mentor for a time. All of this is washed away for a confused cameo before being rewritten as a villain of the this confused sequel.

I can’t help but compare Guns II to Pat Garret and Billy the Kid it would be impossible to separate the two. At times they do draw strong similarities. However the main difference is that the two films have very different points of view. Just looking at the titles of the films, Pat Garrett is filled with mixed feelings in 1973, wanting to do the job for money and power, yet knowing that he’s hunting down and killing an old friend of his. The kid is always seen being a cocky and confident, able to shoot and talk his way out of trouble. Nothing much changes there in Guns II as he rescues his friends before riding on down to “Old Mexico” where they hope to hide out. Whilst Garret is practically bribed into taking on the job and changing his personality over the course of one scene, there’s no time given to his decision it just a shocking reveal that left me confused.

The time we spend with the guns is worthwhile as we catch up Doc (Sutherland) and ‘Jose’ Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips) who have taken different paths. It’s tries to be a young mans films, with new faces with the Kids mirror image – Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh (Christian Slater) who buts heads with him all the time. Whilst farmer Hendry French (Alan Ruck ) and Easterner Tom O’Folliard (Balthazar Getty) wants a taste of gunfighter life. Both really unaware of all that entails. Eventually they all saddle up and ride on as Garrett and his men (not him riding on his own as 1973’s film showed him on a personal mission). The film aims to be bigger, more action filled than Peckinpah’s laconic version. Ultimately its a follow up to a bold and successful action film for the new MTV generation with a set of actors who are making a mark on Hollywood. Unlike the old timers in 1973. This is a sequel that’s riding high on the hopes of the first for better returns at the box office. It wasn’t even saved by a nodding cameo from James Coburn who gave his best in a role the small role.

For me it fails miserably. Knowing about the historical figures depicted in the two films now being so confused and coming from a strange angle really doesn’t help the legend, it hinders it, with a put on “old man” voice and heavy make-up. If anything it’s an all for one, one for all tale that sees friends fight it out to the end in the West as the had done previously but with not so much satisfaction. The weight of history didn’t even get in the way for the makers, instead they screw it over and hope that we’ll buy into. Frankly I’m considering a refund.


The Book of Life (2014) Coco (2017)


It’s been well over a year since I first attempted to watch The Book of Life (2014). Switching off after only a few minutes, writing it off as just a kids film a little else really. It took the DVD release of Coco (2017) for me to finally track down the earlier film and see if I could watch them both. Well I’m half way through what is another double film review, with a focus on the shared of the Mexican festival – The Day of the Dead. My thoughts on both are below.

For most non-Mexicans the very idea of a holiday about the dead is too dark to swallow. However if films has me taught me recently it’s not as bad as it all sounds. My first interaction was as late as the opening of Spectre (2015) as Daniel Craig’s Bond as he evades his latest enemy during an exciting street festival in celebration of the festival. That’s probably the same for most of the general public. You would have otherwise had to visit Mexico during its duration one year to really understand and embrace what’s actually an ancient holiday that has evolved overtime yet stayed true to the roots of remembering the dead. A three-day festival that begins on 31st October, culminating the day itself on 2nd November (at the time of writing it was celebrated 1 week ago). What can take up to a year in preparation, families and loved ones build memorials, alters and buy gifts to decorate the graves of loved ones. The nearest Christian faiths come to this is All Saints Day 1st November, which celebrates all known and lesser-know saints, so a bit more exclusive to those special people of the faith.

As I began The Book of Life for a second time I wanted to see it through, I had forgotten just where I turned off. I had accepted that I’m not really the intended audience for this film. It was the character design that first caught my attention. The school children arriving at the museum felt too rubbery yet unique, maybe this is to distinguish them from the characters who we’re supposed to be really investing in. When the more attractive and decidedly more confident tour guide Mary Beth (Christina Applegate) takes over, they’re sneaked in through a secret entrance to a Mexican display. Hoping to engage these young teenagers with a love story – rather than dull historical facts that would lose their interests. We’re shown a few stories before settling on one surrounding the Day of the Dead.

A festival that honestly shows a stronger warmer connection to their departed loved ones. Explaining that loved ones stay in one of two worlds in the afterlife – when just departed a colourful world of the remembered and another of the forgotten. The concept is both comforting and disturbing, reminding us of the power of memories to ensure that the departed will still exist among the living in the form of either memories or stories that are carried down through future generations. Of course film is the ideal medium to ensure you remembered long after you die, yet it takes a someone to watch a film to acknowledge that someone once forgotten lives on.

A wagers made between La Muerte (Kate del Castillo) overseer of the remembered and ruler of the forgotten Xibalba (Ron Perlman) that focuses on who a young Maria will marry, either a sensitive young boy Manolo who loves his music over his families bull-fighting heritage, or a macho boy who wants a moustache Joaquin who wants to be courageous. The three of them are thick as thieves, the freeing of pigs is the last straw for her father, who sends her away to a finishing school, only to return when she has come of age. The design of the Mexican’s is much more detailed, wireless marionettes that are flawlessly animated in the very heart of Mexico. We are no longer in a dusty old museum in America, this is a world away from what we believe we know about the central American country. The outcome of the wager would determine who looks over either of the two worlds once and for all.

Time passes and the children grow up, Manolo (Diego Luna) into a promising young bull-fighter, if only he would kill the bulls he defeats. Whilst Joaquin (Channing Tatum) has become the bravest, revered soldier to live among them. His chest covered in medals, including one that ensure eternal life (given to him as a child by Xibalba), giving him an unfair advantage in the wager and Joaquin an unwavering strength in all his fights and scrapes. Something that Manolo just doesn’t have – pitting human against superhuman, whose a woman to fall for.

We enter the middle of the film now as both men compete for Maria’s heart and hand in marriage. The act is full of warmth and gentle jokes, most meant for the children, whilst a few land and are intended for us adults. We hope that Manolo get’s the girl, it’s his journey that sees him push harder to win her over, not so much relying on a heavy chest of medals and a moustache to hide behind. The animation again is flawless throughout, what may looks like caricatures and some appear to heavy to realistically stand up. The adulthood depicted reflects the daunting childhood view from below, whilst keeping the tone and plot understandable to the younger audience who are drawn into this wonderfully inspired version of Mexico.

It’s a series of snakes bites and bandits that bring us hurling into another world of actions, drawing inspiration of Romeo and Juliet and Manolo makes the ultimate sacrifice before facing his demons to be reunited with his love. We explore the world of the remembered as one giant non-stop carnival, something that only animation can really achieve and produce such awesome sights. Surrounded by family, some he knew so well, and others he only heard about, the memories of them still very much alive. It’s a comforting sight to see that we maybe reunited with all those that we have lost. Manolo has to face his fears and accept who he truly is for a chance to be reunited with Maria after learning of another twist in the film.

Leading to a finale that is packed with fun and plenty of action that again only animation can achieve, a few surprises along the way. It shows how a festival can be really explored showing both great respect for another culture, whilst also having plenty of fun along the way. If I was to have one complaint about The Book of Life it would be in the casting, trying to please two audiences as it combines a Latin and North American cast. Part of me wanted the makers of the film to go completely authentic, a rich Mexican story with half of the main cast being of Latin American origin. Or am I going to far, being politically correct, wanting Mexican’s to play Mexicans etc, to be true and authentic to what the film is about and does so well.

Now I wonder the more recent Pixar film: Coco measures up, do the same faults arise? How does the plot explore the festival at a time when relations between the United States and Mexico are so fractured by the threat of a Trumps wall being built across the remainder of the vast open border. All my questions will be answered soon enough.

It’s been exactly a month since I caught the earlier film whilst Coco has been waiting patiently on the shelve as life has been happening in between along with a number of other films. Now I can say I’ve caught them both. The latter Pixar film which only earlier this year earned itself two Oscars has really moved me today, probably slightly more than The Book of Life did a month ago.

Before I address the use of the day of the dead theme it’s hard to not ignore the clear differences, released on a few years apart, they would have shared at least a year in production. The styles are very different, one very stylistic and not constrained as much to an in-house style. Reel FX Creative Studios were able to go to town more on creating characters that very much part of their own unique world. Whilst Pixar have a certain duty to see that their character designs conform to a certain style. It can be argued that you can’t compare a character from Coco easily to one from say Up (2009), technology has allowed the development of character design to change overtime. They are more humanised with some caricature elements, embellishing some features.

Another point is that the focus of the film is not so much with the celebration of the day of the dead. If anything is more coincidental, with the events happening on that day instead. Miguel’s (the focus of the film) family choose to celebrate at home, away from any musical interference. Music again plays a very integral part too. Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) much like Manolo (Diego Luna) wants only to play music, it’s the families wish to carry on the family trade, be that bull-fighting or as for Miguel a shoe-maker. Miguel is a young boy, staying very much in the tradition of childhood heroes at Pixar, although they are known to go for adult fish and Monsters. Maybe the focus on the child has allowed for a wider audience, you don’t need to be an adult to understand how to win your families approval, whilst winning the heart of the woman you love may take a bigger leap for a child. Not to say that child can’t understand the need to find your true love, keeping the focus on the love of music in Coco is where the film stays.

Visually (away from character design) the film is more steeped in reality before delving into the rich Mexican heritage for the land of the dead once more. I’m glad that it wasn’t a non-stop carnival or I would have given up right there and then. Instead we have another magical world that shows that the studio is continuing to push what they can do It’s very much a unique and colourful vibrant, however it’s not so expansive as the earlier film. It relies the dead having to exit and enter the land of the dead as if it were Disney Land, starting with Main Street before waiting for the 12 O’clock parade. It reminded me of Zootopia (2016) with its beauracracy before we meet Miguel’s deceased family. It’s a reunion thats reflected in the earlier film also, even sharing the same hate (not love) for music. I felt that there was a reliance of too familiar iconography.

The boys entrance into the land of the dead is through what he believes to be a guitar that belonged to his great-great grandfather, believed to be the late singer and actor Ernesto de la Cruz  (Benjamin Bratt), a hero of the boys. Accidentally arriving he needs his families blessing to return to the land of the living. A blessing that he wants allowing him to play music. His family won’t give it to him, so he sets out on his own to find de la Cruz a man who he believes will give him the blessing that will set him free. There’s only one catch, he has until midnight before his body transforms into a skeleton, whilst in the earlier film Manolo is already dead before he returns back to out world.

Miguel’s followed by an unlikely character – Hector (Gael García Bernal) who the boy believes can lead him to the singer. One of the many who are on the verge of being forgotten and disappearing completely. The concept of grieving his handled far more sensitively. For a deceased person to stay alive in the afterlife they need at least their photo to be displayed to stimulate memories with the living to be passed on. The emotions piled on after a twist in the plot is revealed that audiences can’t help shed a few tears at. Pixar know how to tug at the heart-strings, not only are we exploring a very sensitive subject at a level that everyone in the family can understand they add another contemporary layer that you can’t escape.

Both films richly explore the festival using both male characters, The Book of Life is not restricted by the trappings of a studio steeped in history with story and character requirement and just delves into an adult story told at a level that the family can all enjoy. Whilst Coco is playing more with emotion far more effectively, coming from director Lee Unkrich that made a generation who grew up on Toy Story cry on a number of occasions (no matter how many viewings) in Toy Story 3 (2010), they know what they are doing with their eyes shut. It’s hard to say I have a preferred film they are equally effective, I cried at both at times which is something I’m not afraid to admit, I was emotionally engaged both times, proving that the films work perfectly. I would be more than happy to drop by these films anytime.


It Should Happen to You (1954)


It’s been a while since I’ve seen a George Cukor film, even longer for a Jack Lemmon who makes his screen debut in It Should Happen to You (1954). I was also struck by the lead – Judy Holliday who I knew went onto have a decent career after her supporting role in Adams Rib (1949), in a role that she made her own. Able to make herself noticed to both Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who encouraged their longtime friend and director Cukor to give Holliday a chance. A few years on from that first film she can clearly be seen to be leading comedic actor with great timing, able to play the dumb blonde stereotype.

No longer the down-trodden housewife who snapped in an attempted murder trial from Adams Rib, now she’s an absent-minded young woman wanting to make a name for herself in New York. Gladys Glover wants to literally make a name for herself. No longer waiting on someone else’s orders or time, making her own mark on the world. After meeting documentary maker Pete Shepard (Lemon) in Central Park, she starts to take control of her own life, or so she thinks. Dreamily staring at a billboard reading “Your name here” taken literally by Glover, now everyone passing through couldn’t help but notice her name at least. On the face of it, it’s insane to want to take up advertising space to read your name. However this was in a time before reality TV and the internet which can create overnight sensation, turning an ordinary person into a sensation for all to notice. How could a film over 60 years old still hold such relevance today, lets explore further.

After the brief encounter in central park, Glover begins on her fame to fame, tracking down the advertising agency that owns the billboard. Her pronunciation of her name is a first hurdle in reaching the man who can make her dream a reality – for three months minimum anyway. Before the signs even up and complete she makes her presence known, correcting the sign painters, who don’t seem to question the obscurity of the design, which could be part of a far larger advertising plan being launched in New York.

To anyone else the name “Gladys Glover” painted in giant text means nothing beyond the name of an individual. Of course to Pete, who when we meet him again has moved into the same apartment block as fame hungry woman. He’s able to put to the desire and result together and understand her intention with more thought behind his response. What appears to Gladys as an opportunity to be known is completely insane to Pete who can only seen a desperate and rushed act to be known. Originally the concept of her name being on the billboard was just laughable, which product would she be advertising? How can an unknown name be powerful enough to sell? Having her name blown up in a large public space creates attention, but how do you use that attention once it’s created. It baffles a rival who wants the prime location for legitimate advertising. Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford ) will do anything to get the space for himself. At first the dream of fame is still too strong to give up without a fight

That attention begins to come to fruition when she’s out shopping (with the carefully positioned billboard in shot) she’s ambushed in an autograph frenzy. The question I wanted asking was “what are you selling” instead is a kind of mania of her, with no real reason beyond her name entering the public’s consciousness, now they can put a face to the name. She could be a new star of the stage or screen in the making that they’ll be introduced to the world. Or she could just being an innocent attention seeker whose about to get in over her head.

Now her life’s about to change when she’s mentioned on a TV show, the latest conversation piece. She jumps on it, making the story an overnight sensation, unwittingly changing her life forever. Soon after she appears on the TV on a  carefully choreographed piece of early television with the intent to show her up for the lunacy of her idea. Having to read unnaturally from a cue-card becoming an overnight sensation. The laughter at her inability to perform for an audience is used to the still young media to their advantage. Appearing on a panel show that reveals her lack on social awareness, whilst blissfully unaware of the effect that she’s having on the public. She has become the first reality star, a victim of her own creation from the moment she paid for three months of advertising.

Adam’s and co begin to see the advantages of their once rival, working with her, encouraging the promotion to their own advantage. Creating a brand of the All American woman with their own products. Becoming a pawn in an advertising campaign that at first delivers all that she wanted from her dreams. Having made her a name for herself, now she has to accept all that goes with her level of stature. Unaware that she’s being manipulated and used for others gain, which Pete can clearly see but can’t get through to her. Just as he’s about to lose his girlfriend (who he can’t really talk to) he can see her slipping away into the playboy hands of Adams who ceases the opportunity to move in on a clearly vulnerable woman whose ignorant to the negative impact of her own choices.

It all comes to ahead as she embarks on a promotional tour, starting at an airbase where a plane is being name in her honor. Her eyes are slowly opening up to the reality that has taken her away from the simple things that made her life her own. Coming to her sense and back down to earth using the last of her fame to return to the life that she really wants. One grounded in reality away from fame, able to have a life in the privacy of her own home. It Should Happen to You is a comedic precursor to the reality star culture we have today that creates somebody from nobody’s. The desire for fame from no particular background or achievement’s desired more than ever in the past 20 years. From the documentaries that following average people in situations to those that are carefully scripted for sensational effect. The power of the Big Brother reality game show has changed lives and the landscape of popular culture forever. Gladys Glover maybe a fictional star, yet she comes from a culture that at the time carefully crafted and tailored the stars on a conveyabelt system promising a life of dreams, wealth and fame are touch much to pass up. Cukor explored the trappings of fame in the first remake of A Star is Born with one of the first victims to suffer hard from the pressures of fame. Judy Garland became the first of many to be groomed and pushed for a life in the spotlight that eventually lead to a life of addiction before taking her own life. Gladys Glover got off lightly, finding her feet and away out back to home, something that Garland never found after the success of The Wizard of Oz.

 


Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) & Rio Grande (1950)


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.