Films

The Tin Star (1957) Revisited


I’ve been meaning to return to The Tin Star (1957) for a while now, an under appreciated Western by Anthony Mann without James Stewart, his first Western without Stewart due to a falling out between the two of them. I wonder how he would have approached this role, making it the 8th together. Instead turning to Henry Fonda, a longtime friend of Stewart’s making for the film we have today. Paired opposite a young pre-Pyscho Anthony Perkins which itself makes for interesting reading.

I could come at this review as a could have been different with James Stewart but that would be doing a dis-service to decent film that takes on the apprentice/master relationship. Something that has been done countless times, to become a man you must be able to defend yourself. Here however you don’t need the guns to do so. They are simply tools, something that fresh-faced Sheriff Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) has to learn the hard way. When bounty hunter Morgan ‘Morg’ Hickman (Henry Fonda) arrives with bounty in tow he wants only to collect his money and leave, keep to himself and cause no trouble. His very presence in the town causes a stir with the establishment and business that have supported Ben who took over at little notice. “This is a law and order town” is mentioned a few times to warn Hickman off interfering on his way. This is not the Clint Eastwood bounty hunter whose very presence scares those he’s about to shout down and collect on. This town has moved on from this model of keeping law and order. It’s follow the law and live by the law. Yet we still have the classic Dead or Alive posters which contradict that thinking. criminals are still wanted, however the arrive is a different matter. Hickman’s  presence spreads fast through the town, no rooms at the only hotel, no room for his horse at the livery stable (on the edge of town). They don’t want him to stay, he’s a reminder of a different time, he’s outmoded.

Instead of being filled with rage, like many of Stewart’s roles, there’s no build up of emotion, not big release that leads to great dramatic scene. Instead he holds his own in a town that resists him. Taking up lodgings with another outsider Nona Mayfield (Betsy Palmer) and her mixed race son Kip (Michel Ray) a curious boy who wants only to play with others. Not having many friends due to his Native American heritage (which isn’t really mentioned outside the house). Getting off to a rocky start, it could have increased in tension however it’s dealt with calmly the next day surprisingly well.

The main focus of the film is making a sheriff out of Owens who wants to assume the role with more confidence, something that he is lacking. This could also be seen in the actors hidden sexuality, hiding him true-self on-screen to conform and get work. Can only a heterosexual male become a sheriff? His skills with a gun are rough around the edges, it takes Hickman’s presence, a former sheriff himself to help him. It’s a reluctant help, after being pleaded by the sheriff, not the image we’re used to in our law enforcement out in the West. He’s still a boy who needs to learn the ways of being a man. It takes another to teach him. We get the classic target practice scene, not played so much for comedy, more to see how far he has to go. He wants to prove himself to the town and his woman – Millie Parker (Mary Webster) who wants him to take off the badge to live a safer life, unlike her father who died with it on.

Another test comes in the form of Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand) one of the ugliest men you could get caught up in a fight with. A man who should really be wearing the badge, instead he tests the sheriff to the limit. When a posse’s formed to catch two men responsible for the deaths of two elder men, he leads the mob mentality, which is stirred up. Owens seems powerless to really do much about him. If Ben can overcome him, stand up to the brute he has come a long way, learning how to hold himself in public and as the law. The bully of the playground has no one left to push around.

The real test comes as the posse are out chasing no-one after setting a light, Hickman has resisted the lure of the reward on the two wanted brothers Ed and Zeke McGaffey (Lee Van Cleef and Peter Baldwin), again mixed race with Native American heritage, these two face the full force of racism, whilst young Kip joins in from a distance playing sheriff on his new horse. Hickman is able to put his drive for money to one-side when he knows Kip’s caught up, becoming a father figure to him. Not forgetting his sheriff in-training Ben who just wont listen to reason, stay out of it and be safe. The life he wants is fraught with danger and heartache, which can be avoided. Instead he’s headstrong and blinkered, riding in to prove himself. Ultimately, no guns are used to safe the day and bring in the two men. Even when they face a lynch mob, guns are threatened not used, showing that can be used as tools not just weapons  for protection.

Tin Star is the beginning of a decline for Mann who had made some classic Westerns with Stewart, this could have been up there. Gary Cooper makes for a strong replacement in The Man of the West (1958). However from there on in it’s down and out, if we ignore a tense The Heroes of Telemark (1965) for a brief return to form. Here however we have a small budget film that tries to get into the characters, some more successful that others. There’s a lot going on in this 80 odd minute film, it’s tight with a bit of excess around the edges. I know I’ll be revisiting in future thanks to a fine performance from Fonda which gives it some weight and experience.

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Hostiles (2017)


It’s awards season and I’ve started early this year, not that I think that Hostiles (2017) is gunning for any awards, just the timing of the release in cinema’s. Nonetheless it’s a Western which means only one thing, I’m there. Booking the tickets even with a few warm reviews I decided I had to see this for myself. Based on the manuscripts of Donald E Stewart about an army captain who reluctantly takes on a mission that changes his politics. Now this is how Soldier Blue (1970) could have gone, but decided to be more literal. I also found a few links to The Searchers (1956) which I’m always looking to explore through other films.

After years of internal wars between the White settlers, who had been shaking up and re-organising the country into a shape that more resembled their own destiny, we forget about the soldiers and people who were caught up in the Indian Wars that have left the Native Americans greatly diminished and broken. Hostiles attempts to address some of those issues in this Revisionist Western. Beginning by reverting to classic form – a Comanche raid on a family who are massacred, it’s straight to the point, gruesome and sets the tone for what is to come. Leaving wife and mother Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) alone to bury her family, potentially altering her outlook on life too. She could have easily allowed racist tendencies to creep in and understandably too. It’s too later for Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) who is an embittered racist who has seen more than his fair share of bloodshed whilst in uniform. Easily seen as an extension of Ethan Edwards if he stayed in uniform. Yet his racism comes from another place, that is never really explored, leaving us to question how did he becomes this monster who could hate Native American’s that boils over when he discovers his family massacred, raped and captured also by Comanche’s. Blocker is given one last mission under threat of court-martial for refusing, to escort a now elderly Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back to their home land of Montana. Part of me thinks this is a test set by his commanding officer Col. Abraham Briggs (Stephen Lang) wants to see him suffer, to test his politics before the decorated officer retires. A big “Screw you” you could say.

The last time I saw Studi was as another historic Native American Geronimo in the 1993 film, here much older he gets slightly less screen time than his white colleagues who dominate. Showing there is still away go before they are given a fair representation in the genre. However they were portrayed with compassion unlike the Comanche who’re reduced to an obstacle to overcome – somethings never change. I’m not too surprised either, it’s a long ingrained part of the genre that is hard to shake. To achieve that they will have to be a Native American in the directors chair, with an un-compromised voice. That said The Cheyenne’s that are depicted with sensitivity, we can see they’re spirit has been broken but theirs hearts haven’t, which is the extent of the Cheyenne’s suffering is really explored.

The focus as always comes from the white man- Blocker whose our Ethan Edwards filled with racial intolerance for the Cheyenne that he has to escort across the open country. It’s his journey that we follow which has an interesting effect on him. Much like Edwards, he knows his foe very well, having learned to speak Cheyenne, he knows the enemy intimately, maybe too well. With the pomp of leaving his fort one last time he has his foe chained up, there’s no trust for the elderly warrior who puts up with this indignity. He wont rise to the bait, a decent man knows when he’s been defeated. This last throughout the discovering of the burnt out homestead where we find grief stricken Rosalie Quaid, everyone in the party can understand her pain. Pike delivers a heartfelt performance, you can really feel her pain, I wondered if she would cross into racial hate, making Yellow Hawks journey home even harder. Would her grief match the hate that of Blocker’s? Playing a vital part in Blocker’s transformation by the films close.

We start out of the fort with a small Master Sgt. Thomas Metz (Rory Cochrane) stricken with depression, Corp. Henry Woodsen (Jonathan Majors) who has been proud to serve with Blocker Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons) fresh out of West point ready to prove his superiors he’s worth his rank and French recruit Pvt. Philippe DeJardin (Timothée Chalamet) who has no real experience in the army. The small group meet resistance early on in the form of the Comanche who are the first of many obstacles on their long journey that has an effect on the number of men in uniform. Taking on Rosalie Quaid, could easily be seen as a burden to them. It’s the aftermath of these events that start to open up Blocker’s view of the world, starting to question his thinking. Finally confronted when he takes on army prisoner Corp. Tommy Thomas (not a very original name) (Paul Anderson) under the care of Sgt. Paul Malloy (Ryan Bingham).

Thomas is the equal of Blocker, yet he has used his racial hatred to kill a Native family whilst not under orders. Purely for them being there. A cold-blooded killer who shows no remorse for his crime, would Blocker have done the same out of uniform or has his uniform given him licence to kill and get away with it. The security position and rank have been enough, to go as far as Thomas would be a point of no return for the captain, or is this the next part of his life outside of the protection of the uniform.  The Indian Wars and Frontier nearly closed he would be a monster in civilised society, an Ethan Edwards in fine clothes.

There’s a lot of ground covered both literally (and spectacularly on camera) and thematically, from racism to man first killing to forgiveness. It goes along way to get us to Montana and it’s not an easy ride with a lot to think about. Filmed over the last year it can now be easily seen as a response to America today, as it becomes increasingly alone in its world view. The development of a wall on the Southern border with Mexico. The political divide is stronger than ever with a President who you either trust implicitly or question his every tweet. Blocker is leaving one life behind for another, does he want to bring his past life to his future. Hostiles attempts to deal with a very contentious issue and does a good job – on the white man’s side. Whilst the Native American has to just accept his place in the film and history on the chin. I wish the Cheyenne had more time to talk, to explore their position, instead they are just lead and protected by the army that’s trying now to do right by them. It reminded me lastly of Cheyenne Autumn (1964), the depiction of the Southern Cheyenne joining those in the North, which is more apologetic than Hostiles that draws it out of the characters slowly, not so much the director. I can only conclude that Revisionist Westerns will only be apologising with white actors in the lead role rather than the Native’s who depiction and capacity in the film is still being determined through the winners history.


Taxi Tehran (2015)


I had no idea that I would be driven (pardon the pun) to review a film so early into the new year. More so by a foreign documentary, focusing more on the subtitles to stay up to speed. However when it came to Taxi Tehran (2015) watched at a time when protests in Iran have gone on for nearly a week now after promises of reform have not gone away in the memories of the voters who brought Supreme leader Khamenei, who will do anything to suppress the public from having a voice. It was the voice of a single director in 2010 was given a 6 year jail sentence and a 20 year film-making ban that includes distribution, promotion even a travel ban unless of religious grounds. In the eyes of the West this was against all that it means to be a filmmaker, the agency to express oneself creatively, in the case of   Jafar Panahi cinematically. He has since made a few films under the ban that have been made in very unorthodox yet still very creative, first releasing This is Not a Film (2011) on a memory stick to Cannes before making, an extended home video of him under house arrest,  at times jumpy and confusing, Panahi is owning the camera on this  film set and prison. Before moving onto Closed Curtain (2013) a brief return to conventional film.

That same year Taxi Tehran was released, filmed from a number of camera positioned in a taxi he drove around. Documenting the passengers and the lives that they bring with them to the car. The aim to help expose the suppression of Iranian film censorship tries to cover up the realities of life in the country. I could give an overview of the film but I feel that would not really do it justice at all. Even at its short length we seem to spend at lot of time some passengers. We’re thrown in the deep in with two very different passengers, a man and a woman from different parts of society, the man very vocal on capital punishment for most offences whilst the teachers in the back is willing to listen to the criminal in order to understand them, looking at the root causes. Coming from a profession that nurtures and listens before passing judgement. Whilst the man, who we learn is a mugger – or so he says, sees that as fair and just to kill thieves. These two passengers set up the clear differences that are in Iran, opening out eyes to those living in the country, who aren’t representative of the oppressive government.

With the arrival of a smaller passenger, a DVD bootlegger who in the West we wouldn’t think about encouraging his crimes of piracy. However Panahi has another take on it all. The bootlegger doesn’t take before he blows the drivers cover, talking opening about his “business” to the director who does nothing to stop him. What he sees and we learn is that the bootlegger is bringing in culture, films that are otherwise banned, ideas and images that would have to be censored if they came in through official channels. For a while the two “work” together to help the distribution of Western culture reach the masses. Interrupted by the wife who hopes that her injured husband doesn’t die. In tears he records his last will and testament to ensure his wife gets everything, not left homeless. For a few moments I wonder if the gentlemen has died in that backseat, has he ensured his wife security. I have to reminded myself none of this is scripted, only the end credits come close to that.

Things lighten up with in the form of two elderly ladies and a bowl of goldfish. They must reach their destination of a spring before noon, they lives literally depend on the fish making it to the water. They are delightful to listen to as they bicker and worry over a superstition. Even in Iran you can find dotty old ladies, showing wherever you are in the world, somethings are universal. They soon leave us to spend time with the drivers niece, a very precocious young lady who knows her own mind and is not afraid to tell everyone. She wants to talk to her uncle, who she clearly admires, yet doesn’t understand his situation. Her class has been given a month to make a movie. I thought he was going to give the same advice he gave to the bootleggers film student customer – not much except to find his own material. Instead we have this wonderful perception of what film is, the film censorship that she clearly doesn’t understand (blames it on her teacher). Wanting not to end up like her uncle her direction with the camera is more inline with government policy, without understand it’s origins or meanings. We learn how contradictory they are, ties for bad men, not depicting reality, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, depicting a fantasy that escapes everyday life, instead of responding to it. Now I know why Panahi was banned.

He takes time out to talk to a man whom he grew up with, who hopes will be able to assist him. It’s disturbing how close people are in this part of Iran. It’s not so easy to send people you know to a possible death sentence. It reminded me of how quick justice can be dealt with as we saw in A Separation (2011) that sees a man almost wrongly convicted of murder, when all the facts are stacked against him. All he wants to do is look out for his family. His next passenger is a flower-lady, a soon to be disbarred lawyer, whose as open-minded as our driver, they share each others pain. Both know what is going on the country, they are more than aware of what goes on behind closed doors. I wish we could’ve spend more time with her. Instead picking with the niece whose eyes are slowly opening to the complexities of life in her country.

We see that even in the space of just over an hour, life in Iran is rich and diverse. Filled with laughter, joy, great pain and sorrow, as it is in any other part of the world. Panahi is shining a light on that world that his country would otherwise not like us to see. It’s an eye-opener, yet at times not surprising. After seeing Ai Weiwei’s show at the Royal Academy a few years ago I was left speechless at times. Himself fighting the suppression of his own government that wont allow him to speak. Both artists are fighting their own wars on the different fronts. Maybe the protests might one day lead to the directors ban being overturned. He’s clearly loved by all that know him as he once against risks it all for his passion and believe in breaking with censorship that only inhibits him to make films. It’s a refreshing film that doesn’t shy away for a minute from the truth, something his government shy’s away from.

 


Soldier Blue (1970)


I’ve been meaning to watch Soldier Blue (1970) for sometime, know it came out the same year and shared some themes with Little Big Man which took more of the satirical angle of the genre and the politics of the day. I come away glad to have seen the film at least, I was considering a double film review to see how they both work together, but in reality they don’t unless you take both the massacres that are depicted; working as analogies for the Vietnam War which I’ve been learning about thanks to the BBC4 documentary series, which could be summed up easily in a few sentences when you look back at the conflict that really shouldn’t have taken place. Becoming an embarrassment both at home and internationally.

The function of the Western is to make sense and explore America’s consciousness, by looking back at its past to understand the present, how far they have come and also to celebrate, which at times can be problematic as we move further forward from the original events. Our view of history changes as we develop and change out thinking, new evidence comes to light, public opinion changes too. Blue made at a time when the American public wanted a complete withdrawal, the 1968 Nixon promised just that during his election campaign, which he eventually delivered on. The Western here is functioning on less than subtle level here, and at times very literal too, which is never a good thing for any creative endeavour. I could see the politics dripping off its liberal sleeve.

Beginning as a routine delivery of gold with a small troop of cavalry soldiers, with the addition of newly freed Cheyenne captive, Kathy Maribel ‘Cresta’ Lee (Candice Bergen) dressed in white women’s clothes ready to rejoin civilization. Sitting there in silence whilst the men are ogling her, hoping to make a successful advance, not the best way to return to white society. It’s not long before they’re ambushed by the Cheyenne who massacre them. We are seeing the power of the enemy first, before the U.S army has a chance to flex its might muscles at the finale. Leaving only two survivors, Cresta and Pvt. Honus Gent (Peter Strauss), both running from the action below. We learn how very different these two people are, the approach they take to the aftermath and their eventual leaving of the site. The ex-captive has no real concern to raid the dead soldiers in order to survive, taking all the water she can get…nothing really wrong there. Whereas Gent sees the act as desecrating a war site and the dead, placing his values above survival whilst still being respectful. Both want to survive but have very different perspectives.

Gender roles here are reversed here, usually the male is foul-mouthed – which is partly why the film has an 18 rating in the UK (although that could be reduced to a 15). The more Christian soldier’s shocked at the language that she comes out with. It’s refreshing that an actress is given such colourful lines, leaving Gent in the female role, even though his uniform suggests in the male role of protector, a soldiers trained to kill and serve his country but is giving way to a woman who understand the landscape and culture they are traveling through. Cresta is able to navigate her without relying on a river that would leave them vulnerable, discern which nations they interact with, she’s the scout who takes command.

Later on we encounter a goods wagon owned by Isaac Q. Cumber (Donald Pleasence) who we learn is really an arms trader using his wagon to conceal his real purpose in the West, to make a fast buck out of the conflict that is waiting us at the end of the film. However I notice a massive plot hole here which I will turn to later. Cresta is more aware of what is going on and ultimately sides with her Cheyenne family who have not harmed her physically, psychologically we can see where her loyalties lie – with the native, or the savage in the eyes of white civilization. I found Pleasence’s more enjoyable compared to Will Penny (1968), he’s not playing the mad preacher, more the capitalist out to make money from whoever he can find. I just wish we saw more of him, saying that his character did serve a good purpose in showing up the political divide between the Gent and Cresta.

The relationship that develops between the two I feel was a little manufactured to please the studio who made the film. However it allows a conversion to take place within him showed how far Gent travels emotionally and politically at the films close. You could say Cresta made a conscientious objector out of him, protesting about the conflict he’s supposed to be favour of by the colour of his uniform. The relationship may not be all that redundant after all.

Now for the plot hole which are a few, the years supposed to be 1864, during which time most if not all Indian wars were paused to focus on the Civil War between the North and the Southern states. However Gent mentions that he lost his father the previous year at Little Big Horn to the Sioux – which was in 1876, during the height of the Indian wars. Whilst the Washita Massacre took place in 1868, 3 years after the close of the Civil war. Another plot hole revolving around the gold that was stolen with the suggestion that it would be used to buy rifles, which itself make sense however when we meet Cheyenne chief Spotted Wolf (Jorge Rivero) of the he does not want to go to war. They do have rifles, but no mention of a recent purchase. All we learn is that the Cheyenne like all nations have an understanding of trade and how to operate within the White man economy whilst still being mostly free of the capitalist world itself.

The massacre itself is a thinly (emphasis in thinly) veiled metaphor for Vietnam, I’m sitting there thinking, yeah I get it. It doesn’t have the subtlety of Little Big Man of the same event that was more desensitised and was actually led by Custer who led both campaigns. The special effects here are poor, with dummy heads clearly being used and left in shot, it’s all for shock value which becomes more entertaining when that’s nor the point and lets down the film when we know it’s all leading upto this one-sided battle. Even if the cavalry rode over the U.S. flag before killing every man woman and child their weapons could reach, the fact that the Cheyenne didn’t want to fight, it’s all pretty much lost in the mess. It wasn’t really enough to laugh as I was just disappointed really let down after all this build up, the journey Cresta and Gent have been on, wondering if they would make it back to civilisation at all, not how I want to feel about a Western. 


Convoy (1978)


I watched Convoy (1978) purely on the basis it was directed by Sam Peckinpah, not so much it’s based upon the song of the same name. Taking the lyrics and expanding it into feature-length film. My only other experience with the song being played on an episode of The Simpsons, thinking it was a tune written by the writing team. Finding out when this came in the listings that it actually exist as a track in its own right. So I took the plunge to see how Peckinpah could expand what is essentially a novelty song into what is basically an extended music video with the directors own trademark touches. However I could see early on that this was to be his last neo-Western and sadly not Peckinpah’s best. Sitting back I began to take this all in.

So, trucks or as we call them in the UK – Lorries don’t have the same cultural importance as they have in the states. It’s true both vehicles are the life blood of keeping the countries going, distributing and delivering up and down the countries keeping business happy, healthy and running. Without them both would be massively affected, which we can’t avoid, we can’t take them for granted. Now we also have Peckinpah to consider, when he works in the present his view of the world of bleak, the Wild West there a romantic loss for a bygone era, he wants to be part of that somehow. Convoy placed in the present we have to think harder to understand the modern language that constructs the modern West which we are exploring.

The Trucks replacing wagons that traveled the then untamed landscape and frontiers of America, here lead by Martin ‘Rubber Duck’ Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) who along with a fellow truckers Bobby ‘Love Machine’ ‘Pig Pen’ (Burt Young) and Spider Mike (Franklyn Ajaye) who couldn’t shake crooked Sheriff Lyle ‘Cottonmouth’ Wallace (Ernest Borgnine) who will do anything to arrest them or see them out-of-pocket. Drunk on power all that his rank would allow him to get away with. Translated to the West a crooked sherif stopping a wagon train getting through, charging them financially and “legally” when and however he can. abusing the power of the law until it truly backfires when the truckers rebel in a truck stop, beating up three cops including the Sheriff who is out for round two after already taking a nice bribe from them. They’ve had enough, snapping and take out their built up anger and resentment out on them.

The brawl marks the start of the overuse of the slow-motion shot, every fall, punch, action, and reaction’s slowed down, the director of photography had to be really patient on this film, adjusting the speed multiple times for every other shot. The technique looses all meaning from this point, before this film it was a signature of his work, emphasising the act of violence, here it’s just looks silly. He could easily have been making the film just a few minutes longer, not that it really made much of a difference. Last used effectively by the director in Cross of Iron (1977) which really benefited from the overuse, an ultra violent setting and the themes explored were a major part of the films power to convey the message of PDST. I can’t move away from the point without touching on his physical state, by this point he was affected by his alcoholism and drug addiction, you can see how his vices were effecting his work. If he was sober this work could have been so much better for it.

Saying that minus the addictions this could have been a better film, it relies too much on the novelty song to tell the narrative, the narrative and the song are one and the same. The reliance of the lyrics and the track really doesn’t allow it to stand on its own. Peckinpah had become lazy by this point and has just let the lyrics act as narration at points. I wanted to be interested in the ever-growing convoy of trucks that joined the cause that had grown and spread from one state to another as they aim to reach the Mexican border as did the Wild Bunch nearly a decade earlier but for different reasons. This was an escape of the system, the injustices of the unscrupulous law and the working conditions of the working man – the truck driver.

I was preoccupied by its visual connection with Sugarland Express (1974) which is a superior film, again with a convoy that time of police cars following an escaped convict with his girlfriend Goldie Hawn. Complete with old-timer cop – Ben Johnson who never left the rear-view mirror. Borgnine is clearly enjoying the role, his mustache the finishing touch to this corrupt man who will do anything to get ‘Rubber Duck’ behind bars. Whilst Johnson’s tired and wants to go home, but can’t rest until he has his prisoner back. Where they really differ if the energy that convey, both set in the South it’s a working class society that’s being depicted. There’s a youthful energy in the earlier film that really gets you excited. Whereas Convoy wants to be more political, making a statement about working conditions, the sense of fun that is in the comradery of these men over the radio they share, allowing them to swell in numbers.

I haven’t even touched on the depiction of women in the film, first meeting them at the truck stop, the two we follow throughout have more power of their destiny’s. Widow Woman (Madge Sinclair) a truck driver herself whose in the only truck to come off the road, thinking she would be die early on, instead she is rescued by her male counterparts. She is respected by them. Not so much for Melissa (Ali MacGraw) a photographer who has her own mind, free to express herself but still mainly seen as a sex-object, she even hides in the cabin of the trucks when things get rough up front.

Ultimately it’s a flawed film that might have been better off in the hands of another director. There is a clear vision is that is let down by the reliance of a novelty song that restricts it, making it a forgettable and flimsy film. There’s potential but falls short at times, relying on slow-motion. You can see the actors are having fun driving into things, but why, that’s what I want to know. I don’t think I’ll be returning to this later work by Peckinpah anytime soon, which is sad as I have always enjoyed his work.


Will Penny (1968)


When it comes to Charlton Heston in Westerns it’s a mixed bag for me, having a few classics to his name. Known more for his Biblical work which suits him more, or his more just readily associated with them, either way I’m really got in the saddle with Will Penny (1968). Initially thinking it was going to be like Monte Walsh (1970) which again looked at aging cowboys who were coming to the end of the lives in the saddle, or so we thought. I was quite taken with the film, taking two of the genres bigger supporting actors are given this quiet film to relax and get comfortable.

Looking at Will Penny you can see it’s definitely a precursor to Walsh who follows on from the earlier. Focusing on Heston’s film for now I want to look at how he has made this cosy domestic Western. For a cowboy we see very little of the rugged open country that we associate with the genre. At the opening of the film we see cows being driven to a station, rounded up ready to go off to slaughter. We only hear of the promise of the train, which we wait for, whilst wages are paid out to the men. It’s virtually unseen to have the bureaucracy of the cattle drive on display. It’s generally get the cows the market, blow off some steam and see how much money’s left over before you join up on another drive.

It’s the next job which we focus on, where the men are heading off to. Two men Blue and Dutchy (Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe) are making plans to find another drive before winter sets in, another cowboy is wanting to get the train to see his father one last time. There’s no place for having a good time here, it’s about keeping the money coming in, not spending it as fast as you can. The realities of Frontier life without any of the Hollywood trappings. Penny (Heston) is one of the more experienced men on the drive, who can’t easily being driven to violence before losing his job, he just wants to survive and do his job. Now Penny’s supposed to be playing older than he is, in his mid 40’s he still looks too young, relying on grey hair dye and the elements to age him up. It’s true life expectancy wasn’t that good in the frontier, however Hollywood is pushing it slightly.

He eventually rides off with Blue and Dutchy who we next see camping when an Elk’s spotted in the distance, fresh meat for the taking that leads only to trouble. The three men fight over it when an unscrupulous Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his boys who claim the game for themselves. One played by Bruce Dern in an early screen appearance setting the tone for his career. The gang lead by the fathers twisted interpretation of the good book taking the eye for an eye passage too literally. The death of his son he wants to avenge along with his sons who wont give up their quest for “justice”

Being a rare domestic Western there was more time given to Dutchy’s self inflicted gunshot wound. He’s not left for dead – for long anyway. Taking him to a small farm where the Penny and Blue want to get him to a doctor. Advised by the farmer best to let him die, come and have a drink instead. There’s little drama in these scenes, its pure conversation. Dutchy romanticses his accident to passing mother Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and son whose shocked at the story, taking his boasts at face value, painting Penny in a poor light. All moving at a steady pace, with no sense of urgency before they reach the town of Alfred where he does finally get care, where we leave him and Blue for a long time.

The focus now on Penny who finds himself a job, after bringing back the dead predecessor, again no drama, only that implied by the dialogue. Employed by Alex played by Ben Johnson whose settling into the older roles comfortably. We think that Penny can rest easy now for the winter just around the corner, his troubles are just about to begin. With the appearance of Mother and son once more in his own cabin, he wants to go easy and fair on them before his return. Even after she held him at gun point. Reflecting how hard it must have been for traveling families to defend themselves out on the frontier. Meeting himself with a bloody encounter with Quint and his boys. The group aren’t the hardest of men I’ve seen in the genre, acting like Native Americans would have been depicted, jumping around, throwing Penny around. Pleasance is strangely suited to the role known for the playing the bad guy this looks like fun for him. They leave Penny for dead in the now snowy Rocky’s, its survival time for him.

Arriving back and taken into his cabin, nursed back to health, we discover a more vulnerable side to Penny and the predictable build up of a romance between him and Catherine. It’s these scenes in and around the cabin that make it takes us into the home and the family dynamic like never before. Of course there have been many families, either warring against one another or all grown up, dysfunctional and feuding. Here these a sense of new love and discovery, without even knowing it. Brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Quint and his boys, disrupting the dynamic, Penny now a prisoner, Catherine a sexual object to be played with. I’m reminded of the forced dance scene in Day of the Outlaw (1959) when the passing renegade soldiers lead by Burl Ives men who are finally allowed to let off steam, treat the most desirable woman Helen Crane (Tina Louise) as little more than a rag doll, showing no respect for her. The scene is drawn directly from. It’s just as painful to watch as the woman can do little or nothing about it. Made worse by a woman who came with the men who does nothing to stop it.

Falling back into the rules of the genre the hero has to save the day, if only to save his dignity and self-respect, with the help of Blue and Dutchy who appear out of nowhere its time to get the guns out and finally sort the Quint family out. Allowing domesticity and reality to set back in, Alex and his men ride into view and the mother and son have to face reality, not just of where they live, but with who. Penny is reluctant to settle down, feeling his life has not allowed him earlier to do so has left him emotionally at a disadvantage. Unsure if his own skills could support a family, knocking his confidence greatly, he has to carry on alone, riding off into the wilderness, this time out of choice, he had the option to make a family, a life on a farm. His own inadequacies, perceived or real hold him back. A more honest ending, for the film and the man who would have rode away with her, decides not to. A mature and hard decision to make narratively and emotionally for the audience. With reluctance I accepted his decision, nothing in his life has prepared him for a family, running away scared, better off he may think, still he leaves a potential family and lover to survive alone.


Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017)


When you think of biopic’s of film stars from cinema’s golden age, your mind doesn’t immediately think of Gloria Grahame who was more of a major supporting actress. Yet she’s an integral part of the glitz, the glamour, some of the most loved pieces of Film Noir, Grahame’s femme fatale’s lured in the unwitting men to their doom. I can’t personally imagine her not being part of It’s a Wonderful Life (1947) a precursor to her film noir era. Her career was sadly cut short by her unconventional private life, which is touched upon in a surprising love story that brings the actress back into our consciousness. I’ve been keeping a close watch on Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) waiting for the reviews to come out, all thankfully being glowing. The title is admittedly long-winded, acting as a draw to this sweet film that shines light on a secret of Hollywood we are more happier to learn about.

For a while I couldn’t imagine Annette Bening in the role of Grahame until I found the trailer, we can see that she has really been studying the actress to deliver a loving gesture. From the soft voice to the hidden depths of the woman who most know from her screen roles. Like most in the audience, this was my way into learning more about her, building up a stronger image and appreciation for her. I am already on the lookout for a revisit of In a Lonely Place (1950), if this film has done anything, it’s to delve further into my love of film and discover more. If film can do that alone it has been a success.

Based on the memoir of Peter Turner – played by Jamie Bell we’ve been allowed into the private lives of a couple who had a brief relationship during 1979-1980. First meeting Grahame as she’s preparing for a theater performance, her face hidden from view, creating a mystique for Grahame before her collapse which leads her to be reunited with Peter whose surprised by her request to recover in his Liverpool home. Wanting to be close to him during her time of vulnerability. No longer is she playing the part of the damsel in distress, a role that has been played by her own contemporaries multiple times.

And so begins our journey back and forth in time as get to know this couple as they meet, get to know each other and fall in love. Framed as flashbacks that takes us softly back into the films not too distant past. The transitions takes us gently back in time that you don’t realise it until we meet a healthier Grahame whose about to meet Peter. It’s a light journey, nearly as light as the softness in Bennings impression that takes the edge of the fact we are watching one actress play another. I had to research how Grahame looked in later life and it’s a very close representation and a very convincing performance. We have a mature woman whose not afraid to have fun with a much younger man – as her own past would prove. The audience is so used to the older man in a relationships with women half their age, when the roles are reversed here, it’s not even questioned. Of course there are scenes early on and you have to think, are we really going there? It’s otherwise accepted, love is the underlying emotion that carries the film through.

Staying in Peter’s family home we find Bella and Joe (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) who keep their son’s feet on the ground. Walters really makes the scenes in the home so much warmer for her just being there, brings us into the family kitchen. A warm loving family who as much as they fight, pull together for the unexpected guest upstairs who has turned their world upside down. The revelation of Grahame’s cancer is dealt with sensitivity, doing what they believe is best for her.

Focusing on the time we spend with just the couple I noticed that some of the scenes were clearly shot on a soundstage – the time in LA, yet I didn’t care. Its a story of film made in that universe completely. I was looking for the seams in the rear-projection – if it was used at all, I wouldn’t care if it was either. Instead I was focused on the relationship as it grew deeper, forgetting the obvious age gap at time. The gap in age was touched upon between them making for some very hard scenes, you want these two to stay together, not wanting to jump forward  to the dying actress in the spare room.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is quite simply a lovely film, well-directed, the two leads Benning and Bell are giving great performances. Benning in particular who loses herself to Grahame, which is incredible to watch. Part of that is in the hair, once golden blonde, which becomes it’s own character at times, an important element for the actress, even if she didn’t intend it that way. Scenes towards the end I noticed her use of her hair, aiding her performance at times (or maybe it’s just me). I wish I could say more, the best way is to see it for yourself, It full of warmth, love and nostalgia for not just the relationship but her own past, how this chance relationship could easily be a dream made up the hills of Hollywood.


Parkland (2013)


After watching Jackie (2016) I have become more curious about films that depict or revolve around the assassination of J.F.Kennedy. Just recently catching Parkland (2013) that depicts the aftermath again, but from the viewpoint of 3 points of view. This historical event broken down to the personal level was something I had to look into. Jackie took a very focused look at how the Presidents death affected the now grieving first lady Jacqueline Kennedy who we only see briefly in Parkland, still not much of a focus for film in general at this time. The mystique around her and these events are still maintained. Only seen from the sidelines, kept away from the main focus of this films version of events. It also takes a more linear and traditional viewing into the aftermath.

I was curious to know how these events unfolded on the ground away from those surrounding J.F.K the bystanders who could only look and watch as they saw a visionary yet divisive leader’s life was ended. Parkland chose to focus on Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti) who was the only one to have filmed the shooting, a precursor to our fascination of recording horrific events, the need to share, be apart of something potentially bigger than yourself. We first meet him, allowing his team at a clothing manufacturer to take the day off, wanting them to share in this special occasion. He practically encourages everyone to leave their desks for the day like a public holiday has just been announced. Another focus being Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico (Zac Efron) working at the Parkland Hospital, who later attempted to save the life of the dying President. Whilst secret service veteran of 30 years Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton) is trying to piece together what happened on his watch.

I feel I’m taking the position again with Parkland as I had with Compulsion (1959) which I feel both films could have done more. Focus was rightly given to those at the scene. You felt early on for the impact of the events had on Zapruder who filmed the events on his super 8 camera, which was meant to be a record of a great day when the President was visiting the town, only record his death. Before he spent most of the day with Secret service agent Sorrels who knows all of this happened on his watch, he has to ensure they catch the killer as soon as possible, his career depends on it. The pressure is tangible between Sorrels and Zapruder whose driven around to get his film developed and copied to ensure that the investigation continues. These are rushed and intense scenes creating a sense of real urgency that is needed.

The same sense of urgency is felt in the emergency room of the Parkland hospital where we meet Dr. Charles ‘Jim’ Carrico played by Efron whose faced with the presence of a dying Kennedy, brought in with hopes of saving him. Naturally shocked and slow to react, I found myself thinking, “get on with it, save him” then you understand does he, this is the President, no ordinary patient, what you do here could change history. I felt sorry for Efron, not words I thought I’s be saying, given only a handful of scenes, sure they are important to the film as they bring to life what happened in those precious moments. However we don’t see the emotional impact this has on him, or really the whole team around him, Instead moving onto infighting between the local police and Secret Service over who has jurisdiction over the body. Yes it’s important, yet at the same time, you have a medical team in shock, they have lost the President on their shift, all they could do was not enough. Couldn’t we see them after the finished their shifts, perhaps going home to their families, drinking some scotch.

Interestingly we spend time with the Oswald family, not so much Lee Harvey, himself we only see at the time of his own death. Meeting his brother Robert (James Badge Dale) whose naturally shocked by the accusation and the possible realisation his brother has committed such an act. We meet his mother Marguerite Oswald (Jacki Weaver), the only defender of a man whose believed to have been a Russian double agent, a traitor to the end of his life. Creating her own conspiracy theory in hopes of saving him from prison. Being in the company of the Oswald’s is something I do appreciate, seeing the cost of these events on a family level. Two families ultimately have been directly affected over the course of the film. It’s a controversial decision to depict Lee Harvey Oswald’s funeral as we hear coverage of the President overlapped. The Oswald’s are not generally seen as a family in terms this historical event, both deserving a decent send-off, we see ultimately everyone with, contributing to the burial, whilst over in Washington, the world watches another, everything carefully arranged in the days have passed by.

It’s a rushed film that is over in a flash, no sooner is the President dead, are we burying the assassin, an odd way to end a film that tries to bring life to those outside of the White House. A massive undertaking of an event that at the beginning shows promise and gets carried away with the few who were actually at the parade itself. Not to take away from the trauma/shock and days they experience after, however it doesn’t follow through for those at the hospital. The F.B.I. are brought in towards the close as they attempt the destroy evidence that would later come back to haunt them. Not their finest hour, that had to be shown up once more. I’m now looking out for other films at focus on this event, to see how they deal with the assassination, which point of view do they take and how they fit with the other films.


Blade Runner 2049 (2017)


I think like everyone who first heard the news that a sequel was in the works to Blade Runner (1982) I was naturally very cautious. There have been a slew of sequels/reboots etc recently of modern classics made so long after the original that it becomes too much to even consider how a new film could follow on from a much-loved film. Then I saw Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve which I found to be one of the best piece of science fiction in a long time to be seen on film. None of the standard flashy techniques or effects, everything paired down, to help inform the tone, that sees a female linguist fight to make first contact with visiting aliens. Wanting to use words not violence that is usually associated with the genre in the past, shoot first, ask questions later. On learning that the Villeneuve  would be at the helm this film, alongside Ridley Scott as producer, it was a massive reassurance that the not so long-awaited/muted sequel to the 1982 classic would be in very safe hands.

Honestly it’s been a while since I’ve seen Blade Runner, the final-cut seen as Scott’s definitive vision of the film. The lingering images from the film meant its something special, which is going to be hard surpass. Last night, a month since Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was first released, yes I know it’s a long time coming and I’m glad I’ve finally seen what in short is a worthy sequel without trying to outdo the original, which would have been wrong to even try. As I’ve mentioned before in countless reviews, the trailer can really affect a film before you go and sit down to watch it. Here the marketing team have put edited together a misleading piece that allowed me to be blown away by the full 2 and 1/2 hours film. Wanting to focus on Harrison Ford‘s role in the film.

I could never forget the opening sequence of the original, the all-encompassing eye and the burst of flame that reflect within. The never-ending model miniature city-scape and flying cars that zoom across, its a future that we fear but want to explore to see whats in the depth. Film noir had met the future with all the bleakness you can have wanted. A film that is both hard to really top or even live up to. I feel that Villeneuve has  definitely lived up to the challenge bring his own sensibility for the serious, insightful whilst maintaining the look, the legacy and the concepts.

Anyway enough of the build up, time to look in more detail at the film. I already knew from a few vague descriptions of the film that Ryan Gosling played a replicant working as a blade runner who we see on his latest mission touching down in a vast farming facility, ready to capture his next rogue replicant. There’s no pretense as to whether or not he’s a replicant unlike the original which had you guessing until the end the true identity of Rick Deckard until we get the unicorn at the films close. There’s less ambiguity at this point, we know who we are dealing with and following as he uncovers a new case that has the potential to change the balance of power in this dystopia. A skeleton of a former replicant is found with some surprising marks that are found during examination.

With K we see more into the Blade runner life, not just the found em and kill em aspect which we had before. Instead the life of a replicant, the regimented de-briefs/recalibrations which are scarily effective as Gosling just loses himself to this role. It’s quite intense to watch, the repetition and testing that goes on to ensure he’s inline and ready to function to the best of his programming. Very much the slave to his master, yet free to enjoy his time off. Spending most of that with his holographic Joi (Ana de Armas) who confined to the projector. It was the first reminder of another science fiction characters – the first of many reference – as I found in Arrival. The Doctor (Robert Picardo) or Emergency Medical Hologram/E.M.H. in Star Trek: Voyager whose confined to the holographic emitters in sick bay, a prisoner of his own programming and limitations. Until much like Joi they are given their freedom – a mobile Emitter or it’s Blade Runner equivalent. Carried by the program or the end-user. The E.M.H. character was exploring his sentience, whilst Joi was just discovering her new found freedom outside the apartment. We get under the skin, well the zeros and ones of how she perceives the world around her. Later touched in a a sex scene that reminded me of a very similar scene in Her (2013), technology connecting with another, via a biological host. Again this is explored more sensually from Joi’s perspective which made the scene more engaging to watch.

K’s investigation takes in some familiar places and faces (not Ford just yet) which again really gives the film stronger foundation that just being in the same universe, we meet old characters and others who reminds us of the original along with other little nods. If only briefly they contexualise what happened in the prologue which explains the 10 day blackout when most files from that time were erased. It doesn’t leave any detail out and woven nicely into the script without seeming forced. However on reflection that opening of the film, tried too hard in places to replicate the original tone that was then original, maybe this is more out of uniformity for the film. The world itself is very much the one I’ve visited before, relying on model miniatures to create as much of it as possible, allowing you to engage with the physical in this possible future which we maybe nearer too than we care to admit. Not only does it rain but it snow constantly too.

Turning to the Tyrell organisation, now under the weird control of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who sends his favorite replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) out to hunt down. We see so little of Wallace that I didn’t feel his presence in the film, Leto is again having a lot of fun with the role. Whilst Hoeks has a meaty role that makes her mark on the film. The henchmen of the piece, nothing stops her from getting what she wants, showing us that you don’t need to male, butch with scars to get the job done, you can be incredible feminine in appearance and still make your presence known, much like K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) whose more fierce than Deckard’s predecessor.

Looking back at this very rich piece of science fiction that gracefully nods and acknowledges the original, it doesn’t try to repeat the past plot, instead it builds and expands with ease into this world that I wasn’t expecting to find. When Ford finally makes his first appearrence, which is for about 20 minutes or so of the film it feels natural, all the build up to find him. He doesn’t try to own the film or take it away from Gosling whose in complete control. The trailer wanted us to meet him early on, without knowing why. K’s investigation is a slow burner that had me glued in silence to the screen. I had returned to a world I had once explored with awe that has been expanded, getting our fingers deeper into this world. I do however miss Vangelis ‘s inspiring soundtrack, we do have Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer who do a more than respectable job in his strange absence. My only fear is that if ever there was another sequel, which again leaves me uncertain, I would hope that Villeneuve is somewhere within its production. I would also ask that this sequel would be allowed to breathe before anything happened, to find a place and be appreciated for what it is and has achieved.


Compulsion (1959)


I  caught this film yesterday and it’s stayed with me and not for the right reasons. Originally recorded for viewing because I thought it would be interesting to see both Orson Welles and Dean Stockwell who I’ve recently discovered when I wrote a film talk on Sons and Lovers (1960) at the start of the year. During the time I couldn’t shake his pent-up performance from my mind. Also the fact I was editing clips which he was heavily involved in. Coming to Compulsion (1959) on the off-chance to see what he was like outside of   Jack Cardiff’s direction. Also it was a chance to see Orson Welles again, in what could easily have been a two-scene cameo which he was practically reduced to towards the end of his career.

Now I tend to write 1000+ in my reviews now, I’m not so sure I have enough to go that far today, but I need to express my frustration with this film that could have been so much better than it was. Based on the 1924 Leopold-Loeb case, two students in Chicago who were tried for the sadistic, motive-less murder of another student. This thinly guised film (attempted to avoid a lawsuit) fails to actually depict the murder or even suggest with great effect that these two young men – Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie A.Straus (Bradford Dillman) who were followers of the Nietzsche theories, which produced to narcissistic individuals with superiority complexes. Not your average cocky student who feels the can take on the world and disprove the established. Carrying with them a philosophy that placed them above their contemporaries who were enjoying the student life of the 1920’s. Even with these personalities, not the most likeable of characters, you wanted to understand who they were.

First meeting them on a late night drive after robbing a house, Artie dares Judd to run over a man walking home, just for the thrill of it, setting the tone of the film. These are young men who have no regarding for general morality that we all live by. When they fail to kill the man in the street – Judd can’t carry out Artie’s order, something is holding him back. No matter they find their kicks off-screen, the murder as we learn of the murder and kidnap of Paulie Kessler, the victim in their “perfect crime”. It’s only when another student discovers the body (working for the local paper) in the morg do we learn somethings not quite right. At this point its a slow burner until Judd realises that he hasn’t got his glasses, they’re on the dead body. It’s only now we start to realise what might have happened.

The investigation soon gets underway, lead by District Attorney Harold Horn (E.G. Marshall) whose building up a case, but is waiting for the two boys to see who cracks first. The cockiness continues, even when they are found out and the stories they made up start to crack under scrutiny. What I don’t understand is why a District Attorney would be leading a criminal investigation, shouldn’t that be the police who build up a case before its even goes to court, landing on the D.A.’s desk?

By this point we haven’t even Welles’s character, a successful lawyer who never lost a capital case in his long career, a perfect role for the only “hero” of the film Jonathan Wilk  who is only known by his reputation, building up his first appearance on screen. From the moment he arrives the film is his, bring with him all the experience of his past roles, able to play the older man with 40 odd years of experience. I’m reminded of Inherit the Wind (1960) released the following year a purely court-room affair, set in the same era. The scenes are more fairly split between the two lawyers – Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March). However in the earlier film, there’s not half as much a war of words, sure they are a few disagreements and objections, but there’s not enough passion from both sides. I think partly due to the editing of the film. Made in favor of Wilk who practically given the rest of the film, with the two men on trial. Horn is left with little to do, not even his closing speech to the judge, which would have made for a longer and more impassioned film. To see why these two men should have hung. Aimed as s pro-life film, without any real counterargument for balance, letting down the film and the Marshall who had little to do in the court room besides shout.

Was the murder filmed of Kessler even filmedm or just suggested before we find the body? Given the tone of the film it could have been done in shadow at least for dramatic effect. However Anatomy of a Murder (1959) the murder is not seen on camera, we only learn of it on the arrest of the violent husband Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), was it censorship that got in the way of making a good film even better in the case of Compulsion? Leaving us with a film that has the potential to be so much, along with the script (cut or otherwise) this film could have been longer, darker and ultimately stronger.