Films

The Killing of Sister George (1968)


If you look at my most recent film reviews you’d think I’m stuck in the 1960’s at the moment. It’s just so happen to have gone that way recently. I chose this film purely on the basis of the director   Robert Aldrich who has a varied and interesting filmography, who during the 1960’s had a really strong period of directing, OK there’s a few missteps but no-ones perfect. Most known for his work concerning the darker sides of relationships and the tensions within their dynamic. With The Killing of Sister George (1968) he makes a return to the theme of fading/faded fame. After the success of rival sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) that pitted two women both no longer relevant to the public, relying on their past for currency to try and restore themselves. Of course more famous for bringing together Bette Davis and Joan Crawford who famously hated each other. Together on-screen they produced fireworks, on set a few more went off too. Brought to life recently in Feud: Bette and Joan that dramatised the events leading up to their only film together and there after. It seems that Aldrich couldn’t shake the theme, returning to it after the success of The Dirty Dozen (1967), which allowed him to set-up his own production company. Sister George if often cited as he favourite film and you can see why, a lot of energy has clearly gone into it.

The fictional soap Applehurst, all looks rather quaint now, aging actress June Buckridge (Beryl Reid) fears that here role on a long running soap opera’s being killed off. The worst fear for a lot of aging actors even today. William Roach, the longest-serving actor in Coronation Street feared he’d never recover from his stroke, only to be killed off. Now in his 80’s you could easily understand why. Yet fans of the longest running soap still love this character, even if the actor now takes a less prominent role in the soap. It’s the fear of the unknown, not having control over a character that you have shaped, breathed life into for the est part of your career – such as Roach who has made the role his own and probably the only one of his career, in short he knows little else in terms of his acting career. To be cast-aside without even consulted, the sense of belonging and power you have believe you have on the program is nothing. We are a few steps away from Jane Hudson (Davis) whose own career was cut short by puberty and fickle audience tastes. A theme that anyone in the entertainment world can easily related to.

This fear of lack of relevance, having to start over again brings out the worst in June as we find out, a regular drinker and alcoholic we see her reach new lows that don’t go unseen by the BBC. Sending round Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) to put the fear of god in her. June takes out her frustration on who I first believed to be her long-term lodger a much younger woman – Alice (Susannah York) who takes a lot of abuse. June’s in fact the male of a lesbian relationship. Part of the controversy caused by this film on it’s release in the late 60’s, a year after homosexual sexual offences had been de-criminalised. Of course aimed at men, the subject would still be very raw for the general public, getting used to seeing more overt displays in public of homosexual men. Women were pretty much ignored, making this film slightly easier to make and depict women more than co-habiting. The open secret relationships of the entertainment world are the first to be revealed. An industry generally more excepting of people’s private lives.

June or George’s downward spiral is long and dramatic, mirroring a character from a modern day soap, not the twee show she was soon to be axed from. An alcoholic who gets herself in trouble with the Catholic church to making her lover do unspeakable acts in fits of rage. A woman whose clearly passed her prime and in denial about it, needing the approval ratings to boost her delicate ego that’s supported by her drinking. Ruining everything that matters around her. Unaware that the world around her has changed. When Croft arrives we see another side to her, one that wants to please yet ultimately suspicious of the power that she holds.

There are clear comparisons to Jane Hudson who we see long after the carpets been pulled from under her. Here it’s just about to happen, this is the beginning of the fall-out professionally and emotionally. desperately needing to be taken seriously, to not having to be voicing a cow in her next job. A major difference between the two women in this later film is the relationship, one that’s sexual with undertones of fractures, whilst the Hudson sister’s based on a rivalry that has been boiling over for years ready to explode. Aldrich has taken the same dynamic and sexualized it to great effect, we don’t need to men for fireworks to go off. As we have seen more recently more female-centric films (still not enough though) allowing for drama that’s not revolving around a man.

I have to mention the sex scene towards the close of the film between Croft and Alice, as awkward as it is at times to watch, it soon becomes Count Dracula sitting over his next victim who waits to be liberated from one life to start another. Croft who has been eyeing up her latest prey for the duration of the film is now ready to swoop down and take a bite. Easily read as seeing Lesbians still as group a people to be feared unlike gay men who are now to be seen and ridiculed on-screen.

Both leads are well suited for their roles, York’s Alice the younger woman whose perfect for the role, after being turned down by Julie Christie, who he’s clearly still looking for when he found York who portray’s a victim of domestic abuse yet still able to break free of the cycle which would only get worse. Whilst Reid is clearly enjoying the role of George, the insecurities of an aging actress are all there, the ego, the resentment and bitterness that comes when your passed over or tossed aside. A role that was turned down by Angela Lansbury and eyed up by Davis on the hunt of her next Oscar, something Aldrich wanted no part of for a third time. I can see where the controversy that surrounded the film. A clear shift in tone for Aldrich who was well aware of changing tastes in America and France, wanting to push boundaries himself. A year before the release of Midnight Cowboy (1969) that made the depiction of Sex and Drugs acceptable to the modern audience. The Killing of Sister George was one of those ground-breaking films that paved the way for American New wave to get underway in the 1970’s.

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The Trap (1966)


Since delivering a film talk about A Kind of Loving (1962) I’ve been exploring the kitchen sink dramas of the early-mid 1960’s a purely British genre of films that explored modern life for the average person. Generally set up north and generally involving getting someone pregnant out of wedlock – a big deal back in the day. The backdrop to all of this was the gritty urban back-streets, the factories that were the backbone of modern Britain. Most produced by one studio – Woodfall and three directors who had varying success before moving in different directions. Definitely a collection of films to look out for, drama without the budget and still having an impact.

One of those Woodfall films – A Taste of Honey (1961) a comedy drama about a teenage girl Jo (Rita Tushingham) who falls pregnant after a cheeky romance with a black sailor Jimmy (Paul Danquah) whilst on shore-leave. Who was both exploring her burgeoning new adult feelings and giving into these new urges without really considering the consequences of the romance that ultimately left her pregnant and needing to then support herself. Whilst at also struggling to put up with her alcoholic mother Helen (Dora Bryan) who brought real comic timing to the film, both acting as relief and the reality of her home life not being as perfect as films of the time would have you believe. Yes you can find the odd alcoholic parent on film, but not the extent they are seen having an effect on a young daughters life.

So after a year of exploring this brand of British I noticed a more unusual film The Trap (1966) starring Tushingham also and Oliver Reed in a pioneer era Western, and even more unusual it was a British production. Set during the same era as The Revenant (2015), Man in the Wilderness (1971) and Jeremiah Johnson (1972) a pretty much untapped source for Western genre story telling. Instead focusing on post Civil War era. There’s a lot of history pre-civil war to be explored. The Trap is a rare look at British settlers in the undeveloped San-Francisco – the landscape still untouched from the gold mining boom that was probably going on elsewhere in the landscape of this film. Instead we focus on the trappers – namely a French trapper La Bete (The Beast) played by Reed with a confused accent which you learn to live with.

What really drew me to the film was the idea of a mute girl – having seen The Shape of Water (2017) on it’s release, which was a performance more reliant on acting skills than the delivery of dialogue, it allowed Tushingham to really push herself and rely more on reactions to her acting. Playing a young woman once rescued from Crow who rapped and killed her family. The shock of the events left her mute for the rest of her life. You wonder whether she will ever get over the shock and find her voice to speak again. Yet the magic of these mute roles is that a big part of you doesn’t want her to speak, it would just ruin the effect. All the build up to be destroyed with her voice. Probably raspy at best and strained, why inflict an audience with that reveal. Like most mute characters the condition comes from a place of childhood or past truama leaving them mute. The doomed hero of The Great Silence – Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is left with a permanent scar and disability after witnessing his families murder. Whilst more recently Eva Green‘s Madeline in The Salvation (2014) has her tongue cut out by the hands of her captor Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). The muteness of these characters does not comes from a natural disability, but one inflicted through a violent past that they must learn to live with.

For Eve (Tushingham) she is forced into a marriage of circumstance to save a family from ruin. When La Bete comes for a large sum of money from the richest man in town – (Rex Sevenoaks) whose more than willing to hand over the money to save his family. Whilst his wife (Barbara Chilcott) taking on the role of the man here uses her questionable inititative and hands over the help – Eve a woman whose unable to question her position or task. Her class does not allow her to. We see other women earlier on being auctioned off to the highest bidder, brought over on a steamboat solely for the wifely property to the local men. However this transaction is free and ensures a families future – not picked up again at the end of the film either. Leaving Eve in the care/custody of La Bete, a brute of a man who knows everything about hunting, trapping and how to survive in the wild and little about women beyond his yearning for a wife. A perfect match for the overly masculine Reed who chews up the part with relish. Life in the wild is not something that comes naturally to Eve, who slowly adapts to life in the wilderness.

Her wits are needed when a traumatic hunting accident leaves La Bete at her mercy and care. Having first to fend off a pack of wolves, before becoming a nurse and ultimately his wife in more than name. It’s a challenge that fills the third act of the film. Being pushed to her own limits to ensure that Le Bete survives the Winter. Coming out in Spring to be closer than before she has still suffering from her past that prevents her from truly being his wife. Sending her out further than she imagined, out in to the arms of her old enemy – The Crow who are more Christian than she would expect. Their depiction may not be the best, however they are shown in a more positive light, as they rescue her and nurse her back to health. Not all Native American’s are the same as the film suggests. Would this be enough to break her self inflicted muteness or will she remain silent forever. A scene near the close of the film shows potential for an outburst from Eve who later realises what she needs to be happy in life.

The Trap is not best Western, let down by it’s budget mainly. It does however allow for a focus on pure acting from a then young Tushingham who is mainly all smiles and frowns. Her face is straining to express emotions at times. Usually these roles really show what a actor is made of, here we can see she’s at the edge of her range. There are times she does rightly carry the scene, however others she’s clearly struggling most of the time opposite the literal giant of Reed whose loving being out in the elements. It’s another take on the woman as victim at the hands of the savage. The savage becomes a white trapper here who understands the land just as well as his Native counterpart. A curio of a Western that has to be seen to see how a foreign country views the American West, instead of focusing the traditional they switch to the Davy Crockett era that’s refreshing for the audience.


Rio Conchos (1964) Revisited


If I’m honest I had no reason before now to really return to Rio Conchos (1964). It was inspiration for an early piece of work that I’ve made. The unfinished mansion of the confederates who had fled after the surrender at the end of the civil war. I could see the potential in the building, even looking at how it was first framed, from behind the pillars on the porch we have no idea what state the new home is in. The focus of the work has been put into the entrance, emphasising the need to display the power they had once lost back over the border. A need to assert power and stature in a foreign country was clearly essential for Col. Theron Pardee (Edmond O’Brien). This time around I wasn’t so much drawn to the mansion, that drive has been fulfilled, allowing me to focus on what was just a chance to return to a curio of a Western that had faded in the memory.

The memory had become so fragmented that the mansion was really all I remembered. Leaving me to truly rediscover what is really another chance to explore the influence of The Searchers (1956). From the opening scenes I could see clear comparisons between them. We see a number of Apache’s being gunned down just as they are about to pay their respect to the dead they have brought out to cremate. We find James Lassiter (Richard Boone) hiding from view. He enjoys the killing, showing no respect for these Native Americans wanting to say good-bye. If there were more Apache’s he would surely have carried on until he had no more rounds of ammunition. Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) whose stopped by Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) who can see that this same emotion is all-consuming in the man on a mission of search and destroy.

The very next seen we found Lassiter sleeping in the burnt out homestead when he’s found by Union Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and his men. Not so much for killing the Apache’s, more so the gun he used. This could easily have been an alternate version of The Searchers – Edwards, a Confederate solider who we learn wasn’t present at the surrender. Also he could have been so grief-stricken that he stayed in the also burned out homestead and avoided the 7 year search, which would mean no film. It’s a version of events that’s taken up in Conchos instead, who without a supporting community and family a search was never carried out. Lassiter does however know who killed his family, not that we learn this until the final act of the film.

Brought into face justice at a military outposts that doubles as refuge for families making their way West. Everyone is living in a world if fear, something that Lassiter has experience first-hand, changing his outlook on life. A selfish shell of a man who resents the union for winning the civil war and the Apaches for killing his wife and child. Left to rot with his old friend and partner Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who I saw as another Mexican stereotype whose allowed to be a little more than the sidekick at times.

Now for the subplot, the rife used by Lassister had previously stolen, before being sold on. Captain Haven want’s to track down these stolen weapons, hoping to use a gunpowder as bait to bring them to the guns. Something he feels he can achieve if he enlist the help of his newest prisoner. An unorthodox method that sees them cross the border. The prisoner sees this as an opportunity to test his luck, bribing them to also release Rodriguez, a ruthless man who will do anything as long as he gets his own way. Waging his own war against the victors of war as he carries out one last campaign.

Made during the early days of the civil rights movement we have Jim Brown’s Sgt. Ben Franklyn a rare Black soldier, depicting progress in the Union army, a victory for the freed slaves and taking note also of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which had an all black unit of men. Here they’re mixed, reflecting the hope for better integration within the contemporary U.S. army. Here Franklyn, named after one of America’s founding fathers plays a fairly decent sized role for a traditionally white-centric film and role. He’s able to freely express himself to his superior, no fear of reprisal, carrying out orders and most importantly he gains the respect of Lassiter who a few years before fought for his continued life as a slave. 

Moving the focus back to Lassiter whose not afraid to make personal sacrifices, he’s on a mission, one that even he doesn’t really know about. We finally begin to see a more human side of him when they’re surrounded by a band of Apaches who surround another burned out house. A house that only holds reminders of a past that he has yet to resolve. When we see him turn from killer to protector. He becomes the other in order to help them get away. Even their captor, a Squaw – Sally (Wende Wagner) who he begins to see more as a woman and human being to protect. She loses the image of Mexican Apache to become someone to be protect. She’s the Debbie of the film, whilst Boones – Ethan Edwards has begun his long journey to redemption and hopes of moving on. He faces one last challenge, to fight his Confederate past when he’s brought to Rio Conchos, the new base for Pardee’s men south of the border. Becoming Confedardo’s. Hoping to rebuild and return for another chance of glory that has rejected them.

The final act is full of emotional and physical pain for everyone left alive. Visually it’s a little hard to make out at times what is going on, shot in day-for-night conditions for the finale as they tied up men who by this point has been dragged by Apache horses. A form of torture ordered by Blondebeard (sounds more like a pirate than a Native American name) Kevin Hagen who we learn killed Lassiter’s wife and child. The Scar of the film is finally revealed and is just as mean as his white opposite who came for him. It’s a dramatic fiery mess that draws to a close what has been not so much boiling over but simmering for a while. Boone plays the sneaky under-hand kind of man, layered with grief and anger, not quite a hero or anti-hero, he just wants what is justice in his eyes and that’s all that matters.


Okja (2017)


I honestly thought I would never see this Netflix original. I’m not a fan on the streaming service or any streaming service you have to pay for. I know I am clearly in the minority when I say this. As much as you can potentially have all the films and TV at your finger tips I believe it takes away that sense if anticipation, waiting for a film or TV program Plus I’m horrified by the idea of box-set bingeing, how can you enjoy a whole season of a show in the space of a few hours/days and hope that you can actually remember it all. I’m lucky to be able to watch Westworld on a weekly basis, I’m happy with that set-up. Maybe I’m old fashioned that way. I can wait and enjoy the pay off when it’s something special. Also the notion of having a physical collection to enjoy that you build, a personality curated collection of films that I have, I’m really proud of that, which I can both enjoy and inform my ever-growing appreciated of the medium of film. That’s not to say my way is best, it does rely on having physical space to hold the collection, something I struggle with at times now. I wouldn’t have it any other way though. As much as it’s looking like the future of the film industry I hope there’s still a place for theatrical released work before a home release a few months later.

However over this weekend I have watched two Netflix Originals – that I was previously resentful off, because I felt excluded (yes I could just subscribe and watch), it looks like there’s very little/no chance of a physical DVD release of both The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) and Okja (2017). I took the opportunity to catch these both. I found them both to really worth my time, engaging, funny and professionally produced, no different to theatrically released work really. Showing how much competition there is between these new companies and the old-guard who are still fighting the TV industry. Where the once little up-start that was just a flash in the pan has become a respected competitor around the world. Actors now move between the two mediums with ease without losing respect, no longer the odd guest-role on a series. Or even starting out in TV before landing in your first film, it no longer matters and why should it as long as your entertaining and stimulating.

So enough of the rant and on to the chosen film – Okja (2017) which I’ve finally been able to catch. Now I came to the film an Omnivore, very much so and still came away one. I know my sister a vegan was really engaged with the themes raised and I can understand and respect that. However it will take a lot more than a film that that acts in part as supporting the vegetarian/vegan lifestyle – pro-animal that didn’t stop me enjoying the film. If anything I was drawing parallels with Starship Troopers (1997) the satirical science fiction which relied on the use of commercialism to convey a dark message about industry. With Okja it’s focused on the food industry and the media manipulation over the audience. With Tilda Swinton playing Lucy Mirando, the face of the Mirando Corporation that has declared a solution for solving the food problem for the growing population – a unique and new discovery, a new breed of pig that they have been keeping under wraps. Mirando is a clever media manipulator who knows how to run a campaign to to her companies advantage. Obsessed with image, we see her being inaugurated as the new CEO of the company, it’s an event or a media circus, all an incredible distraction from the real purpose of the press event.

We jump forward 10 years to the forests of South Korea where one of 26 giant pigs have been reared. I’m left wondering at this point why are they all sent different countries and not in pairs to breed, so no massive farm just a single giant pig. That’s the first plot hole I found.  The pig, which has since been named Okja has become the sole companion of Mija (Seohyun An) who sees the pig as her friend/pet. They have bond that can’t be broken, which we see in the early scenes they share together. This isn’t just some oversized animal for comic effect, we come to invest our hearts into this CGI animal who is the focus of the film. Sadly I found at times I was distracted by the quality of Okja whose appearance varies, sometimes rendered seamlessly, you can see the hairs on the pigs body. Whilst at other times she just looks unfinished for medium shots, which at times really distracted me.

Away from those niggles we really start to see how much has been invested between Mija and Okja who are soon torn apart from each other when she’s deceived by her grandfather, whilst Okjas transported by the corporation’s divisional head office before returning to America. You could make a whole short film out of the chase and rescue sequence, full of comedy and action that easily rivals and sometimes surpasses the mainstream Hollywood. One of the upside of being funded by Netflix has to be the free-reign to do as you please. As long as you turn in the product they are not fussed. The chase and rescue introduced the AFL (Animal Liberation Front) which I found to be a vert confused group whose aim was to free animals from being harmed. Yet as the film progresses they allow harm to come to Okja which doesn’t make much sense. As much as they feel remorse for what they are doing they still allow harm to another living thing, and carry out violence on others themselves – a flawed group.

There are no real standout performances from those you’d expect to find. I found Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance to be overblown, making the most of the few scenes he had. Whilst Tilda Swinton’s to be just a standard Swinton role nothing that was much of a stretch for her. Seohyun An‘s performance is the only one that really stays with you, full of emotion, you understand her anger, frustration when her friend’s life is at stake. Doing anything to see her again, that’s what you want to see and get in her determination, it feels more than just a role to her, she believes the ideas in the script. In all honesty it is a thinly veiled film that promotes animal rights, which is not a bad thing, we have an entertaining film that is both dark and emotional. We go places where we would hope not to go allowing the film to reach it twist filled conclusion that’s ultimately full of optimism.

Now will I go Vegan or Vegetarian? It’s hard to give up a whole part of my diet for reasons that are shared by others. As much as I respect, I’m not ready to do that. Coming from a butchers family it’s part of my history. Animals cruelty is never something to be taken lightly as we see in Okja, however if an animal that’s raised to be ultimately for human consumption it’s something I see as part of food chain that’s regulated for their safety. A food chain that has become more mechanised and increased for the growing populations. I feel that there is a place for everyone to sit at a table with different ideas/taste of the food they eat whilst respecting others.


The Homesman (2014) Revisited


A few years ago I came away from The Homesman (2014) with a negative opinion of the film. I was left cold by the twist in the final act that left me wondering why would they do that to Hilary Swank‘s character. Without thinking it maybe a faithful adaptation of the source material by Glendon Swarthout, which is where my frustration must be properly directed not to actor/director Tommy Lee Jones. Soon after watching the film the DVD was off the shelve and out of my mind, written off as a bad film. That was a few years ago, allowing me to come back and give the Western another chance. I remember being too critical of it, not looking at the beauty that was on the screen. I’ve come away from this revisit feeling far more satisfied, maybe I needed that gap of time to reflect and think, lets give this another go. One of those better decisions made on a whim which has paid off. So why, just why has this film got better with age for me.

Firstly I was struck by the films visual beauty, it’s been a while since I’ve seen a recent Western that has captured the vast openness of the landscape with such delicacy. Placing man on horseback only adds to this splendor. For a time we’re allowed some romanticism of the West before this land is finally tamed. Leaving a sketchy plot to be fleshed out again for me. Beginning with spinster Mary B Cuddy (Swank) a god-fearing woman who works her farm and becoming desperate to find a man and settle down. The reason for her permanent marital status soon becomes blindingly obvious. Her over bearing god-fearing nature, doesn’t make her wife material for single men wanting to make a mark on the land. As much as we understand the reasons for her rejections, you can’t help but feel bad for her. She wants what everyone else has. Social pressure is not on her side either, living alone at her age can only be frowned upon or the talk of the town.

I’m reminded once again of other independent women in the genre, a whole band of women try to make their way across a trail in Meeks Cutoff (2010) relying on two man to lead the way, who are essential lost and clueless. We are left wondering if they make it to the end of the trail. That’s of no concern for Mrs Jorgensen (Olive Carey) and her daughter Laurie (Vera Miles) in The Searchers (1956) who are left waiting for men to return from their 7 year search for two younger women. Both are able and willing to make a life in the West, domesticating the space around them. Cuddy is more than able to survive, but now that’s no longer enough. We see three women lose their grip on their mental faculties, developing conditions that clearly need help that is beyond the abilities of their families or townspeople. Again I’m reminded of The Searchers if only briefly, a rag doll that’s mothered one of the disturbed women like one of those found at an Army fort, rescued white women from Native Americans, clearly disturbed, but drawn to the doll that was once Debbie’s. Clearly a substitute for lost children and a reference to the genre’s past.

We’ve not even met George Brigg’s (Lee Jones) who is still a way off, allowing us to really get to know Cuddy unable to find a husband, takes up the opportunity, fighting against public opinion to take on the task of Homesman, carrying these three troubled women over the Missouri River to Iowa where better care awaits them. Cuddy may appear to be a strong women, yet there are moments of weakness, wondering how much she has taken on alone. Why does she do it, is it distraction from her spinster life, a chance to prove herself in the eyes of god and maybe meet a man who wants her at the end of the trail. With her characters fully fleshed out, we understand and empathise with her.

Now we can meet Briggs a man who’s not off to the best start, smoked out of a sod-house that he’s broken into. Everything we learn about him we struggle to take at face value. It’s only through his actions that we begin to trust him. His meeting with Cuddy can only be seen as miraculous leading him to take the job of helping ensure that 4 women make across the open country. Even today the Wild West is still perceived to be a man’s world, as much as Cuddy wants to go it alone, she still relies on a man for security. She asks for little else from him expect his word to complete the journey under threat of God’s wrath. Or it maybe the promise of $300 at the end of the job.

Either way it’s a long journey that is met with a few obstacles along the way that lead up to the twist I had completely forgotten – Cuddy’s death. The reason I all but gave up on the film. It wasn’t a fever, but a suicide. Unable to go on living as a spinster and a giving into her natural urges and not staying true to her faith. Leaving Briggs with the women to look after, something he hadn’t signed up to, however he rises to the challenge, causing a change of character in him, which surprises me.

I can still see the feminist connections between The Homesman and Unforgiven (1992). Here we have a man working out of obligation for a woman, Cuddy’s takes control, causing a limited role reversal to occur. Whilst in Clint Eastwoods film, three men come to avenge a woman who they hardly know. Taking payment for a job to exact justice that the law won’t deliver for them. Both films see women attempt to take control of their destiny’s in a male dominated landscape. Also looked down upon by society, the prostitutes for their profession whilst Cuddy has become a social concern, without really helping her. Ultimately it’s the men who save the day in both films, they carry the guns and the knowledge to save the women and return to a state of living outside that where women exist. Staying with Homesman to conclude the closing scenes see a transformation to become a better man unlike William Munny whose lost to the violence that was once his life. It takes more time with a woman to soften a man of the West, or the modern West.


A Quiet Place (2018)


Never have I been asked by the makers if a film to stay silence. A short piece ran before A Quiet Place (2018) began. Asking for no food, no phones, no talking. They might as well have added that no one else is to be admitted to the screen after the film has begun. Obviously the filmmakers are taking a leaf out of Alfred Hitchcock‘s book. Requesting that no one be allowed to enter once the Psycho (1960) began. With a focus more on cinema etiquette once a film has begun. As much as cinemas rely on the sale of refreshments after a huge chunk of the ticket sales are deducted. The request at the start of A Quiet Place reminds us to keep quiet and actually watch the film. A huge part of this film functioning is the reliance on silence, if the silence is interrupted by a rude cinema goer than they potentially ruin the atmosphere that the film has constructed. I even asked my friends to stay quiet, we had a nice hearty meal before we went in, allowing to really focus on the film.

What drew me to A Quiet Place to begin with is the lack of traditional dialogue that allows a conventional film to progress. Instead we have an apocalyptic universe in which blind monsters rely on the slightest noise to find and kill us. It’s too later for most after less than 100 days, the monsters with extremely acute hearing have decimated the population. It’s only the clever few who have been able to remain alive. Adapting to an almost quiet existence where even the slightest sound can draw out one of these monsters and end it all for you. Cue the Abbott family who we meet in a general store, tip-toeing around to find some much needed supplied before heading out.

If you thought that the projectionist has not been playing with the volume, it is deadly quiet and for reasons that are too soon revealed to the audience and reminding the family how important it is to remain silent. It helps that one of the character’s is played beautifully by young deaf actress Millicent Simmonds, who plays a deaf teenager who the family have recently had to adjust to her perception of the world. Usually film has treated the disabled as the other, the victim who we pity, not celebrate or embrace until more recently.  The reminder of the need for silence becomes too deadly real for the family as they return home. It takes a battery operated toy to bring home that fact before we are even 20 minutes into the film.

Jump forward a year and we have time to take a breather – a quiet one. We see life on the mid-Western farm that has become more than just a home, carefully constructed base to stay quiet, nothing is left to chance as they have adapted to a life of quiet fear. Oh and did I mention, the mother Emily Blunt is now pregnant, bringing with her the potential for real danger, once the baby arrives which will bring a whole load of noise. Don’t worry they have that one covered too, literally nothing is left to chance, having to go to some unorthodox lengths to stay alive.

What is never far away is the threat of the these monsters that are lurking in the woods. Leaving the audience incredibly tense, there’s very little relief in the tension, a minimal soundtrack and even less dialogue. We have to rely on subtitled sign language, we are part of this world and there’s no escape for us or the family. It’s far more immersive that just having them talking in whispers which would defeat the object of staying silent, leaving them vulnerable to being killed in no time.

Each member of the Abbott’s are given or less equal screen time, we see how they experience this changed world. how they have all adapted to this silent world. Being just over a year in this world, adapting to it is easier for the parents who have to protect their family more than the average family in the noisy world. The aftermath of the opening sequence stays with all the family as they try to survive another day in the silence. Everything comes to a head on the final day as father and son (John Krasinski and Noah Jupe) go fishing/male bonding/survival training leaving a daughter guilt ridden and a mother heavily pregnant at home. It leaves everyone vulnerable to the blind monsters who we finally get to see more intimately, we understand how they function, the incredibly sensitive hearing really on show. Revealing a twist that connects Reagan’s deafness and the monsters together which leaves you waiting for the big finale that is really drawn out and that’s not a criticism. If anything it really leaves you wondering how and when it all pays offs.

The finale feels really drawn out, maybe that’s due to the almost silence, we have nowhere to hide either. Accepting that we have to see this through to the end, A family that has been brought to the edge and living through a silent hell pulls together to ensure that they do all they can to survive. With a few extra twists that leave me and my friends ready for a nice relaxing drink and a chance to breathe. Experiencing the world of noise as we leave the screen takes a good half hour to adjust to our surroundings. As if we have been given back our hearing. Just moving a chair reminds me that it would bring on the monster, the sound of coffee being ground up is too unsafe in the world I’ve just left. When we finally get sound in the closing minutes that breaks the silence it comes as a massive relief.

A Quiet Place is easily read as a metaphor for those facing parenthood, the fears and anxieties that comes with that. The daily decisions to ensure your family are safe in the outside world. OK it’s an extreme here, but that’s what a good horror film does, heighten emotion for the effect of scaring the life out of you. It’s not just a thrill, each build-up of tension is gently relieved if only momentarily before that fear of the unknown dangers of the outside world return to remind you, it’s not as a safe as I thought it was. For me it was a real breath of fresh air. I rarely watch a horror, however the reliance of near silence was the added element that attracted me to want to see this exciting film that demands your silence for it to work, to function as it was intended, listen and understand so you can see the outside world with new ears and eyes, more cautious, more alert.


Field of Dreams (1989) Revisited


I’ve just checked my original review for Field of Dreams (1989) it was nearly 4 years ago, a film that even then struck a chord but not in terms of my written expression for it. As time has passed my critical thinking (and maturity) have allowed me to come back to this film and at times be really moved by it. I think also life experience allows you to view the things you have differently. That and an increasing love for Burt Lancaster which I’ve mentioned a few reviews back. Now I can go into more detail with a film that maybe a little heavy on the schmaltz which can be a hallmark of either a really cheesey or a filmmaker that really knows his craft.

Now I’m not the most religious person, the notion of there being a heaven is mostly a comfort for those I have lost and said goodbye to. A coping mechanism, however that may turn out for me I’ll have to wait until I kick the bucket myself. I’ll let you know if I can, just watch for the sign, I’ll let you know nearer the time. Now imagine a possible gateway to heaven, a heaven for long dead baseball players to return to this world. Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) has come across one of these gateways, completely by accident. A man whose own relationship with the game is fraught with personal regret. Hearing voices is only the beginning of Rays journey of discovery.

There’s something rather quaint about the film, nearly 30 years old, like myself next year, it has aged gracefully, as have I. It has an innocence of a simpler for a whisper from the heavens of a baseball player to grab Ray’s attention and set him on a course that changes his and his families lives forever. A modern miracle for our times is being written, ok that maybe going a bit far, but he has received a message from a higher power, one that can enter and leave our existence at will. He’s soon compelled to build a baseball pitch on the edge of his corn field, putting his families future at risk over an impulse that he can’t shake. If sport or baseball were a religion, which to huge portion of America, Baseball is a big part of so many lives, then Ray is building a church, if at first for no reason other than the whisper of  “If you build it, he will come.”  A line that could be used as an excuse to build almost anything you can think of. But we know it’s a baseball pitch from the prologue that sets up Ray’s backstory. A collection of archive footage and doctored photographs that place both Ray’s younger self with his father. I can see the actors who play the baseball players are also added subtly for added realism, they are part of the fabric of the films history, not just getting actors who look like these old time heroes.

With the pitch built it’s waiting time, after so the families life-savings are exhausted, what was it all for? A chance to play catch with his young daughter or to wait for that “he to come”. We don’t have to wait long for Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) to turn up lout of nowhere. Amazingly it was the daughter to first witness this miracle, not Ray. The innocence of a child, still open the possibilities of life and the wonders that are out there to be discovered. Ray soon follows to see who this guy, who could have just driven up to check out the pitch, really is. There’s already a sense of wonder, something special emphasised by the soundtrack, the heavenly tones of the church out in the corn fields of Iowa where life just passes by. The next night more players are on the pitch – the Chicago White Sox A team are out there now, all the old faces of an era that has begun to fade into the memory of an older generation.

It really is seeing is believing in this film, you have to see the miracle to believe, something that Ray’s brother in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield) is not prepared to do. Seeing only what is in front of him without that added belief that allows faith to take hold in a person. Instead only interested in the realities of life, his sister’s families impending financial ruin. wanting to buy them out before the bank pulls the farm from under them. Just as things become more real, they become more interesting for the audience. A heated debate on a Terrance Mann book compels Ray to go out of his way to track him down and bring him back home to see a game. A weird thing to do, an author who has now shunned the limelight of celebrity, working on computer programs for kids, the recluse is hard to win around.

Mann played by James Earl Jones brings real experience to the film, not just his place in film history as Darth Vader but sense of having lived a life full of change of upheaval, wanting to do what was right during at the time. When Ray meets the reclusive writer it’s a war of words and a shared experience that allow this pilgrimage to continue. It’s not very often you can use religious words in a review that actually translate so well. Moving on from Boston to find Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham (Burt Lancaster) who they learn has already passed on. Again I had forgotten that he has died before we have even seen him on-screen. Built up already in previous scene, a collection of bar stool interviews that paint a full and sad picture of Lancaster’s last theatrical film role. When we meet him, we have travel back in time, a cheeky reference to the era’s films before we meet an elderly doctor walking alone, with a hint of Irish in his accent we have Lancaster and we are under his spell once more.

Trying to persuade a ghost to join him and Terrance for a match is a lot harder than we think, instead we have to wait a little longer for another miracle. As we reach the close of the film the schmaltz is poured on a lot thicker to make the non-believers in the film realise what has been going on all along. It’s a film that relies on the faith to work, to really suspend your disbelief and just wonder what if. Well you don’t really have to go far, just go to a small independent cinema when they are playing a release or a classic film for a season they are curating. They have the power to bring back to life, if only for the duration of the film these stars of the screen who have long since died. Trapped forever in celluloid that has the effect of giving them immortality. The screen is a gateway for them to return, just as the players use the corn to remain hidden and rest before coming out to pitch a few more rounds or whatever the terms are. When Terrance is invited to join them, is he being taken to meet his maker or is he just old enough to understand whats going on. Does he have enough life experience to understand the meaning life of life of what is in store for us. We will never know. Field of Dreams maybe laughable for some, for me I was sold by the miracle that happens before for Ray, his family and Terrance who all are willing to believe. It speaks to a part of me that hopes there’s something in the next life, if there is one.


Pursued (1947)


Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.

Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.

Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.

We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.

The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.

Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.


In Order of Disappearance/Kraftidioten (2014)


I’ve just shared a Museum of Modern Art post of a video that was an introduction to the Western genre. Not that I need much of an introduction, It’s a massive love of my life. What I was fascinated with was the question that the narrator/curator posed towards the end of the 13 minute video. Is the Western dead? Well looking at my first review of the year and films I have lined up to watch at home, I can safely say that it’s very much alive. Last night I was caught off-guard with Norwegian film – In Order of Disappearance/Kraftidioten (2014) that’s a million miles away on the surface of being a Western. Then I only have to think about films such as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014) which flipped the genres gender conventions to create something refreshing. Released the same year In Order of Disappearance continues that reinvention of the genre. Moving the tropes and placing them in the snow of Norway.

We begin with a middle-aged couple, Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) is dressing for an award ceremony in his honor – citizen of the year. All for doing what – clearing the roads with his impressive snow-plow. Making our efforts in the UK to survive even just a week of snow look pathetic. A landscape that he has tamed, an immigrant who has made the land his own, as has accepted him as one of their own.  So far it’s nothing out of the ordinary, a society has accepted a stranger. It’s the brutal scenes later that night, two younger men are grabbed at an airport, result in one being found dead the next morning. On learning that the dead man Ingvar (Aron Eskeland) is the son of Nils and his wife, being told that  he died of an overdose. Something that the father doesn’t believe. Similar to a young man being found dead after a gunfight in the West, labelled a gunfighter after never picking up a gun in his life. A verdict that Nils won’t accept lying down, unlike his wife who wants to mourn and move on.

The screen cuts to an untranslated title card with a cross and a name, I learn that this is form the film is going to take, it takes a few times to see these title cards. Nils accidentally learns the truth about his son’s death he’s given a new purpose in life – to avenge his son. He’s the Norwegian Paul Kersey from Death Wish (1974) with a more focused reason for getting his gun out to take out the men behind his son’s death. It’s hard to believe that this man, whose only a few more years from retirement is full of vengeful energy that at times can be darkly comedic. Never underestimate the power if grief when it’s channeled through anger that sees a life being avenged far beyond the violence that took the first life.

The title cards allows the film to be broken up into chapters, one murder per chapter allows us to see a staggered progression. Nils is making his way through a mafia group lead by an emotionally driven Greven – Ole Forsby (Pål Sverre Hagen) a man-child who we learn has taken over the family drug business, having been spoiled as a child. A combination of his position and upbringing create a monster who we wait to lash out. All this is easily translatable to the West, the man with all the power, controlling a town, the local economy in his pockets, surrounded by men who are both dangerous, stupid and not to be trusted.

Unbeknownst to the mafia who believe this is a war between rival gangs, not a single man on a deadly mission to exact justice for his son, things become more complicated. With the arrival of the a Serbian on a drug run he gets caught up actually starting a war. It’s a level of violence that Nils was not prepared for. He’d already tried to get to Ole with no success after his assassin tried to manipulate the situation for himself. It’s easy to make the comparison again to the West, a lone man tries to avenge his son, knowing he’s getting closer, killing Native Americans or a gang in town, working from afar, an unknown can work more effectively. However the unconsidered variable could bring rival gangs or nations into what potentially could be a war.

Nils finally strikes where he can really hurt Ole, by kidnapping his son, unaware of the complexity of his situation he’s not just invited Ole and his men, but the Serbians lead by Papa (Bruno Ganz) which is a clever piece of casting, the old guard meeting the new and less experience, no less dangerous. You really have to be paying attention to the deaths and the relationship between the Ole’s men, how this ultimately affects the final outcome. It’s a quick battle before the arms are finally lowered, enough blood has been shared, leaving the survivors tired and wanting to just get on with the rest of their lives in peace.

In order of Disappearance does what it says on the tin, an orderly death count that builds up the tension between three different groups in a landscape that could easily kill anyone of them. Much like the Western it relies on the independent man to stand up for himself, take law into his own hands to see that justice’s done. However as with life, its more complicated than that. The first few deaths are treated more lightly, as they mount up we see less of them or they become more brutal, but the results are always felt. The release of tension at the end is well earned in the freezing landscape allowing you to breathe again. To say the Western is dead is giving up too easily, look hard and read between lines of films released today and you won’t have far to go.


The Swimmer (1968)


For a while now I have been seeing Burt Lancaster as an actor whose more than just an actor. Every film he’s appeared in he bring an aura of majesty and mystery. As if he’s a legendary figure from the heavens who has graced us with his presence. He was born to be a leading man you could say. Even from his early films he had the ability to leave his mark on the screen, even when he wasn’t present. I’m not so much drawn to his physical presence, more the aura that he creates. His performances were always compelling, even when the script was poor, tearing out its pages and delivering a something far better. Drawing the audience under his spell. Looking over his credits I can see that once he began to really mature as an actor he rarely put a foot wrong. Being it as Wyatt Earp in The Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) to his mesmerizing Oscar-winning performance in Elmer Gantry (1960). He wasn’t afraid to take on challenging material with directors such as John Frankenheimer one of Hollywoods more liberal thinkers. Before forming an interesting working relationship with Luchino Visconti which I really want to see more of. So why all this praise of Lancaster you may ask? I find that as he got older, he too like his work matured to the point that even when he’s on screen for a few minutes in Local Hero (1983) he brings with his something intangible by just being to the screen.

I want to focus my attention to the cult film, The Swimmer (1968) from his back catalogue. On the surface it looks very much like a product of its time. It’s not your standard piece of Hollywood film of the time. With the new wave just getting underway, this could be seen as a conservative attempt to reach a new audience with a familiar face. Lancaster who had been on the screen for just over 20 years had not really shown much sign of aging. When it comes to The Swimmer who can see he’s starting to get a middle-spread, not that it stops him from making s film where his only costume is a pair of trunks. Gone also is the trademark hair, it’s all down and floppy. He’s more concerned with character than his own image, his consideration for his craft has deepened. He’s not acting with his heart on his sleeve, these are the sleeves of the character he’s inhabiting.

The plot is pretty simple really, Ned Merrill (Lancaster) decides to swim his way back home, plotting a loose course across the Connecticut countryside stopping to swim through his neighbors pools. That wouldn’t be most people’s first choice of travel. It does suggest he’s a free-thinker, ready to try something new. Allowing us to make our way through the film, meeting all walks of life on the way. It also better reflects the culture of the time, the free thinkers, opening your mind to new experiences. This is as free as the affluent are going to get, traveling the back way home and having a cheeky splash in a few pools along the way, sounds like fun. 

Ned’s idea’s met with bemusement and excitement as he announces his plan, it doesn’t take long for the sun to go behind the clouds. Filled with enthusiasm he begins to the trail, named after his wife, Lucinda who he mentions all the time, as he makes his way back home to her and his daughters playing tennis. He paints a wonderful image of the perfect family life, one that he sells to everyone he meets along the way. First encountering Julie Hooper (Janet Landgard) who he invites to follow him. We learn that she once baby sat his daughters years ago. They have a long association that he hopes he can deepen. Today these scenes play very differently, he’s not just another older guy going for the young innocent girl. In the light of the Weinstein is scandal, the scenes take on a more sinister tone. Thankfully Julie is able to save her self from a fate that too many have fallen for. The classic screen convention of older man and young woman/girl is not allowed to develop, there’s a break to reality, fear enters her mind and the audience allow her to run away.

Already we are seeing a man whose begin to come undone, he can’t control himself. For her she sees a man she once had a crush, now older and full of ideas that don’t make sense to her modern and maturing way of thinking. Ned moves on through garden after garden some visits are longer than others, where we learn more about him, none of it leaves us assured of his past or future. When he comes to an empty pool he can’t just skip it and move on he has to imagine it, everything has to as if he were really swimming. It’s a disturbing scene, joined by Howie Hunsacker (Bill Fiore) who can’t swim is lead with him, taking on a paternal role to the boy, allowing us to see another side to him.

Visually the film is very soft, the vaseline is smudged over the lens at times to create a dreamlike quality to the film, a dream that Ned is creating of the perfect life of the suburban man who we believe has it all, a beautiful wife and children whom he loves dearly. A job in the city and money, everything the middle-class aspire to achieve in life. We have to listen carefully for the cracks to begin to show. The swimmer begins to limp from pool to pool with a memory that fails him, whats happening to the man, has he lost his mind? Every scene after the first stop is constructed to slowly chip away at him mentally and physically to reveal a broken middle-aged man who as we learn by the end of the film hasn’t got it all. In fact his own may not even be his, his wife and children are now just a memory to him, a projection to his friends and neighbors who paint a more realistic image of the modern family, one that could be broken and dysfunctional.

I didn’t know what to expect from The Swimmer, I knew there would be pools, a few parties, but not the revelations along the way. The undoing of the man we thought we knew at the beginning of the film. Where did he come from, we’ll never know for sure. Clearly a vehicle for Lancaster who as much as he is on display doesn’t indulge in that fact. It could easily be re-written as a one-man play that delves into the mind of the modern man who constructs the ideal image he wishes to project, yet it’s those around him who chip away at him to reveal a broken man who crashes back down to reality. I said earlier that this was a product of it’s time, which in part it is, visually. Conceptually it is more relevant now, as we each construct images on social media of ourselves for the world to see. Hoping our audience will buy into the images and lifestyle we are projecting. The challenge that Ned sets himself opens him up to his eventual undoing, behind the profile is a life as anyone else’s.