Films

Marjorie Prime (2017)


There are some films that are worth waiting for, building them up yourself into being something really worth watching. I felt, well still feel somewhat the same about Marjorie Prime (2017), one that I’ve been looking out for since it’s release. The central ideas are something that affected my family directly, my Grandad suffered and died from Alzheimer’s disease, that has now increased the chance of the whole family of developing the truly awful disease that robs everyone of their loved one over a long, protracted, grueling space of time that whatever you do, you know the final outcome is saying goodbye. Marjorie Prime was a rare chance to see the disease and the issues surrounding it to be discussed in a different context.

I usually try to avoid such films as they have a tendency to bring up emotions and memories that I don’t really want to revisit. Still Alice (2014) was a rare a beautiful exception of how the issue can be carefully dealt with from the sufferer to the family who have seen their loved one slowly disappear. I didn’t really get that from last nights film that placed Marjorie (Lois Smith) into the not-to-distant future. Still aware that she was having lapses in memory and accidents that she had no control over. A truly humiliating experience that no-one looks forward to as your body slow breaks down and personality slip away. It’s never a pretty sight.

In this future we find Marjorie talking to what has become a synonymous Prime hologram in the form of her departed husband – Walter (Jon Hamm) in his late 30-40s. A robotic character that initially asks a lot of questions, you could say too polite at times. As with all artificial life forms, learning as he goes along. His main purposes is to stimulate memory in the patient. Taking the form of a familiar person from the patients life, be them alive or dead is not explained. What we learn is through daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and partner Jon (Tim Robbins) who are otherwise full time carers for Marjorie. The daughter naturally unsure and disturbed by the presence of her deceased father in the house. Whilst Jon is more open to the possibilities of the technology, how it can help sustain and keep the Marjorie they know with them for longer. That’s not an easy task to say the least, as Jon recalls more information for Walter to understand Marjorie and encourage recall, this could easily be open to manipulation, there are even details pf another child that are imparted, but advised never to talk about. Is he trying to build up an understanding in the hologram towards Marjorie. Could the constructing of a person be entirely be through memory, the experiences we have. Here recalled through a third person who wants to both protect his mother-in-law whilst also wanting an authentic Walter in the room, bridging the gap between artifice and the reality of the hologram. Ultimately relying on second-hand knowledge of memories that can easily be distorted in translation. The concept of a holographic aid to help stimulate memory is fascinating, anything that can stimulate memory is worth exploring. If available today it may even be employed in the care sector. Whilst disturbing to loved ones, it may just be worth it to see a memory bring some life back into their face.

We don’t really see that much in the way of suffering from the disease, there’s confusion over events being recalled but nothing that stops you in your tracks, disturbing you, even drawing out a tear or a memory you thought you’d forgotten. There’s a lot of conversation about Marjorie, yet when she’s there she seems very lucid and in control. The technology is really what’s being discussed not so much the patient, which fails to miss the effect that it has on the patient who should be of even greater focus.

After her death, marked in a silent scene of her carer Julie (Stephanie Andujar) being driven away from the house we see the film take a massive shift that takes some head-scratching to understand A few scenes to mark Tess’s grieving, before she’s talking to her mother again. It takes a few minutes to accept that this is another Prime, here to help Tess through the grieving process, or has she also developed dementia, it’s really not clear at all. At this point I’m feeling pulled away from what was an interesting film, if only we spent more time with Marjorie before her death. Instead we head on towards a series of brief scenes that mark a number of dramatic events that are quickly explained.

The speeding up of pace really hurts what has the potential to be a thought provoking piece of science fiction. We just scratch the surface of what the technology can do. Based on a play, the final scene kind of make sense but are too abrupt for the film medium, it needed to be expanded to show how the holograms/primes have the potential to help us during difficult times in our lives. I felt lost at the end and that’s what I take away from this film, which is really unfortunately when there’s so much potential to the material.

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American Animals (2018) The Imposter (2012)


Over a month ago I saw American Animals at the cinema, having not seen The Imposter, I wanted to hold back my review of both until I’d seen them. There is over a months gap between seeing both films which will explain the introductions to both reviews. I felt I could go into more detail with Animals as there was more for me to consider, that’s not taking away from the brilliance of the earlier film.

I’ve just seen what could be easily seen as a game-changing documentary. The form’s tried and tested sometimes requiring reconstructions in part to illustrate and make certain points being explained more accessible to an audience. Director Bart Layton has taken the form in new direction, the combination of interviews and 3/4’s of the film being reconstruction. Admittedly I’ve not seen many feature-length documentaries to really to understand it fully, when I do it’s usually based on a musician, Supersonic (2016), Mavis! (2015), Senna (2010), all of which rely on archive footage and interviews to interrogate the subjects at the centre of the work. American Animals (2018) goes a few steps further, using one element of the genre and blending it to create something new. Dreams of a Life (2011) is the only piece that comes close to using the method to such lengths.

Focusing here on the 2004 Transylvania University rare book robbery from the institutions library, which honestly passed me buy, or was not reported over here in the UK. I was also 15 that year and had other things on my mind. For four first years/freshers their lives were about to change forever after undertaking a daring fascinating heist. The sheer audacity of the task is something that really has to be understood and in the processed taking for a through all the emotions that come with it. First meeting the originator Spencer Reinhard, an art student who appears to be very remorseful and reflective on his youth that has forever changed his life. The idea for the heist comes from a the library induction – not the most exciting part in early university of life, I skipped mine both times. Spencer’s took him to a special section, which I’m sure every institution has to a certain extent. This one however holds some of the rarest items in America, books so rare that an appointments. Spencer’s captivated with a rare book of ornithological paintings, the desire to handle these rare items is tangible. He tells us that famous artist have somehow how struggled during theirs in order to make great work. Is this his great act to have these priceless items his great struggle, is the effort he puts in all part of his artistic legend.

He can’t go into this day-dream alone, we meet Warren Lipka the live-wire and adventurous one who takes the risks that no one else will. We meet him first from being shown his tattoo of a dinosaur attempting to switch off a fan light. He doesn’t or didn’t take life too seriously. We can see that the attention to detail in the real-life thieves and the actors who played them in the reconstruction’s done with care. So far meeting Barry Keoghan and Evan Peters who we really get to know as what could easily be mistaken for characters in a standalone film. You can see a really strong male friendship with a mix of antics and semi serious planning into what at that stage they could still back out of.

Starting with some cinematic research; a collection of library rented heist films to get an understanding of the planning. I’m reminded of Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema episode on the heist movie that breaks up how the films of the genre’s constructed. We have a clip from The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The only flaw with all this entertaining research being that it could have all ended there and then. Each film as it builds up through the planning, the recruiting of the team to the execution always ends in tears. The law of the land and social morals always win through, members of the team die or are lost along the way, or even worse give the game away. The romanticism of the genre only generates ideas and the passion in them, when all the while I was thinking, didn’t they see how they ended.

As the plan progresses they realise that the team needs to expand, we meet in turn Eric Borsuk the brains to get them in and out securely and the finance guy – Chas Allen who both initially think that these two guys are crazy to go through with this audacious plan. Yet they succumb to the thrill of what it’s all about, if it can be so carefully planned they can get away with the perfect crime, something that lies behind every premeditated act. Any sense of reality falls away until much later in the film. As the film progresses we spend more and more time in the reconstruction, very little with those being interviewed, only cutting back to particular points where their four men’s stories contradict do we get to see that conveyed visually, no two sides are the same, as with any number of accounts, each unique to the participants, as we go over what happened throughout its run-time.

If you’re not familiar with the robbery there’s a lovely twist that’s spared from the trailer as the robbery’s played out twice (almost). When fully underway do we see that these young men are little more than children who are in over their heads. Starting to understand the consequences to their actions. Tensions ratcheted up as we understand the potential human cost. A robbery that sounds as audacious looks as it was made for the screen, not the inspiration for. Much like the more recent Hatton Garden diamond robbery during the 2015 Easter bank holiday which has since inspired at least 2 films in quick succession. The robbery here as slick as the films that inspired the students is not as reality would prove it to be. As the films that inspired them, the overlooked endings come back to bite them as their Consciences begin to eat away at the young men. Wrapping up the film on a sombre note, a number of hard lessons are learned, families are affected, lives altered forever or everyone involved. I’m left the film after being taken on a number of thrills before being brought back down to earth as traditional cinematic story telling cleverly blends with the facts of documentary that are understood to easily be contradicted, showing that the very nature of the truth is not as simple as it the definition tells you.

It’s been well over a month since I watched American Animals and now the time has come to digest The Imposter (2012). I can’t ignore the fact that I didn’t know of it’s impact, be that the content of the film or its critical appraisal at the time of release. Personally the impact on me is rather different from American Animals. Both however are shocking in the true stories which they are based upon. It’s the form they take that really define them.

Again I’m coming from a lack of experience when it comes to talking about documentaries. The form of The Imposter is far more convention, a combination of interviews and re-enactment, just not to the scale that has made Animals redefine what the genre can do. It’s the true-life story that has determined the journey we go on. Beginning with Frédéric Bourdin whom we immediately question his motives, why did he take advantage of a family that had lost their son and brother. Set up like a true crime piece with all the family discussing who Nicholas Barclay, a cheeky 13-year-old who knew how to get his own way, loved by all but could be a trouble maker, nothing really out of the ordinary for a young teen pushing the boundaries. Then going missing from his Texas home in 1994, before apparently being picked up in Spain by a stranger.

The version of events that we are first given seem very convincing, we’re sold this story, much like the family who are completely duped by this serial liar that takes everyone, as we later learn has carried out this countless times around the world. No average person can understand Bourdin’s motivations, even his pathetic explanation, we are left bewildered that even at the age of 22 he had caused so much distress. Leaving a wake of more distress for the Barclays by suggesting that the mother and her late son had killed and buried the younger boy.

The use of the private investigator Charlie Parker adds another layer, not just for allowing the story to blow wide open to the media. The director kept him on to investigate the possibility of a body being found, pushing the ethical boundaries of what is possible on film. I couldn’t believe that as we were seeing the family discuss the murder inquiry, the lie detector tests whilst in other scenes this determined man was out there with a pick-axe. Just mind-blowing to place the images together. I wonder of the families reaction to seeing the finished film. It shows that Layton’s prepared to take a risk, follow a line of inquiry and see where it leads. I wonder how his relationship with the family was affected after the films release, like they have been exploited towards the end to see if there’s truth in a rumour that could open up more than just old wounds.

Ultimately Layton allowed the facts drive the documentary, acting more as an investigator than a film-maker, allowing it to form out of his curiosity for the subject matter. Both a creepy individual and suspicious family are exposed, no-one comes out clean at the films close. Much like American Animals, they all get what was coming to them, in another unbelievably true story. I am left wondering where Layton will go next?


Wild Wild West (1999)


A couple of months ago in the studio I was having a discussion about my work. I was working on the refrigerated wagons at this point, the film Wild Wild West (1999) purely from a visual perspective thankfully. I knew the film had a bad reputation, even with Will Smith in the lead It had at least something going for it. So I decided to seek it out and at least watch for some inspiration, see what has gone before and see what happens. Well for the moment I feel like Hans Moleman who was accidentally locked in the Kwiki-Mart whilst Apu went off for 5 minutes of partying. Returning to ask for the 4 minutes back (one minute to spare), well I wasted a good part of my morning to this awful film. I would have rather been at the party instead.

Sadly I can only protest and wish all I want, or I could carry on writing and see if I can get something more positive with the rest of my day. A review that tries to understand the stilted mess of a Western/buddy/Science fiction fusion of a clusterf***. This venting feels pretty good but it’s nothing If I can’t put my frustration into something more coherent than a protest of foul language. So where to begin. The fact that this is Will Smith long before he made a string of stinker’s in the last decade this could easily be written off as a blip after Enemy of the State (1998) before going onto pick up an Oscar nomination for Ali (2001) and another Men in Black film the following year. He’s riding high off the success of his Fresh Prince of Bell Air role that catapulted him through this period. If anything he’s the one whose let down by the material he has to work with. A script that tries to hard to be funny and visuals that try even harder. Yes I get it this is a world where technology is new and very much inspired by HG Wells. From the primitive hearing aid (ear horn) sunk into the head of not so scary General McGrath (Ted Levine ) to the using a head to project the last image they capture d on their retina before being beheaded by a flying disc. It’s supposed to be creative and fun but really blurs into the distasteful all to often.

Smith is badly opposite Kevin Kline, who yes can be funny with the right material too, that doesn’t help him. I think the film makers were going for a progressive depiction of white and black pairing in a Western setting. Despite this they have no real chemistry, natural comedic timing together, they just don’t sit well together. Unless they are going for the odd couple with US Marshals, it still doesn’t work for me. We have the gun-toting traditionalist in Smith’s James West whilst Kline’s Artemus Gordon relies on technology to get the job done, preferring his tool kit to his gun. Another observation that has become more prevalent is the fact the gun is now seen as almost out-moded and used by a black man, whilst the white progressive is relying other technology and methods to get the job done. The White settlers are still seen as superior even after they have freed the black slaves.

Visually there is far too much going on here, what’s supposed to be for gags just fills the screen too much , with too much effort going into making the contraptions work either in camera or post production. Not once did I laugh out loud at any of these gags. Instead they fell flat on their face, one after the other. Spending too much time in the detail of each piece, the fast paced editing doesn’t give you time to enjoy them. I think someone had too big a budget to spend and just thought you know what, lets do it all and cram it in there, they’ll love it. Another final distasteful nail in the coffin is Kenneth Branagh‘s Dr. Arliss Loveless a disabled disgruntled Southerner who wants to reverse progress, tearing up the old boundaries and go back to 1776, when the West was still to be won and land still to be purchased. That much I can buy into, where it goes badly wrong is the fact they he’s wheelchair bound and using that clearly to his evil advantage, painting the image of all disabled war veterans are bent on destruction and evil ends. His character gets worse even to the point that he has spider legs built into the base of his chair. The only way that Branagh was able to play this part was to ham it up to the max, having more fun than you’d expect.

The lose plot of the film does have some foundation – loosely I add. The Southern states after the civil war were uneasy and naturally very unhappy after the surrender. The actions of Loveless are overly exaggerated to say the least. The only figment of historical fact is President Grant also played by Kline who eventually nails in the golden pin that links up the transcontinental railroad, which I must admit is almost funny as he attempts three times to hammer it into place. Otherwise it’s all complete nonsense that tries too hard to entertain, falling over backwards to make us laugh but throughout I was bored stiff. I feel for Smith who was trying desperately to make the script work. The contraptions, be they on the train, the giant spider etc do reflect the era but could’ve have worked if everything wasn’t a joke. If it was a sci-fi thriller not this comedic mess. There have been a number of westerns that attempted to blur genres, some more successful than others. Cowboys & Aliens (2011) was just pure fun, whilst The Lone Ranger (2013) was a bloated and bordering on offensive, whilst the more recent folly and to me offensive to the countries history – A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) that just went too far too often to be funny for more than a few minutes.

So what can I take from this film? Not very much really. Avoid it at all costs and try to settle with Smith’s single being the only saving grace. Apart from that I’m scratching my head for something positive. The larger contraptions maybe help inform the finished aesthetic of my own work, I could be doing some visual research in the future… who knows.


The Martian (2015) Revisited


In the last month I’ve not really been in any decent kind of employment, having seen my last temp position come to an end in September, I’ve had a few bits here and there to see me through so it’s not all bad. I had an interview for a job I really liked the sound off. Then after pulling up at home after a day at the studio I received a phone call, I hadn’t got the job, losing out to someone working in the industry. I can’t argue with that. Leaving me deflated really, so near yet so far. I needed something to pick me up after that blow last night.

My first viewing of The Martian (2015) I certainly enjoyed it but was left frustrated and confused at Ridley Scott’s change of creative direction.

“It just doesn’t fit with the rest of Scott’s films thought which has me scratching my head at times. Maybe he’s taking a new direction or just taking a break before he goes back in for more Blade Runner and the Prometheus which should keep him going for the next few years. Is this his Trance (2013) as Danny Boyle has done before getting back on it.”

This I couldn’t settle for a few years, just taking it as a successful blip in his long world building career of films. Now I’m starting to see it as part of a larger picture of his work in a new light and also a really big and simple reason – because he can and wanted to so he did. He has the power and if he wants to make such a film, why not. He doesn’t need to be pigeon-holed into a particular category of filmmaker because I say so, if anything I’m probably in the minority of film fans to have held this opinion. If anything I now see The Martian for something rather different. Not just a nice uplifting distraction from my own problems, although that does help. I just sat down and waited to be entertained by a film that once left me well entertained but baffled.

Thankfully I’m no longer baffled, that’s the first thing I should mention. Allowing me to just accept this future where N.A.S.A. had finally reached the planet Mars and were half-way through a 5 mission – the Aires program that would be exploring the red planet in more detailed over it’s unspecified lifetime. We are thrown into a team lead by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) that are out in orange space suits in the endless desert that is Mars. What appears be just another Sol – space day on Mars, routine repairs, samples and maintenance are underway. Nothing out of the ordinary there with a team that clearly get on well, we hear banter between them over the radio. Little do we know there’s going to be little conversation on the planet for much longer. An awful reminder of the dangers of life is space is heading their way, a storm that none of them can stand. A decision’s made to abandon the project and base and evacuate to the Aires in orbit above. It’s a race against time to get on the planet’s surface where they can make an earlier than planned trip home.

Well 5 out of the 6 can make it home, left in the storm; Mark Watney (Matt Damon) thought to be dead after being hit by flying debris, how could anyone survive that? Well they underestimate the spacesuit and the power of blood clotting – science in action. Science really is at the forefront of this film. Not in the mind-bending way that has you scratching your head in Interstellar (2014), leaving your blown away by what you’ve just been told, accept only on surface level. Here in The Martian it’s brought down to earth (if you pardon the pun) so we can all understand what’s going on throughout the film. Watney being a botanist put his expertise into action, doing his best to extend his stay on the planet. Digging into the food stores to find potatoes that he hopes to cultivate more from. But how on a planet that doesn’t support life (ignoring the then recent news of the discovery of water locked away under the surface). Converting one of the main spaces in the base into a greenhouse, constructing his own method of producing water (something to do with the engines) and using human waste as a basis for compost to grow his own crop. It’s an inventive method that might not be so far off where fiction might soon be fact, it’s thinking on your feet in action.

What I can still standby is what makes this film work, which was and still is the star power of Damon who has really become one of the most reliable lead actors around today. his charisma alone could hold this film together if you cut this down to a one man piece, just seeing how he survives on the planet. How he copes mentally with the isolation and not giving up on the his ideas and the communication with Johnson Space Centre, Houston that allow him to progress. However if it was just him alone we would lose a massive chunk of what this film is about. The combined endeavour of all involved in getting one guy home who the world once thought to be dead. We wouldn’t have the Aires 4 team coming to terms with the news that their friend and colleague who they believed to dead is in fact still alive. The combination of these 3 locations build up a more rounded picture of a rescue attempt as it grows out of shock and discovery before becoming an international effort of ideas and ingenuity to rescue one man.

Tonally I was originally put off by the unusually upbeat pace of the film from all locations. Damon’s video diary of his time on Mars and his growing distaste for disco music. Ultimately it reflects or reflected the upbeat feeling of the time it was made, we didn’t have Brexit or Trump or all the other disasters that now are hanging over us. It shows that if we think positively we can achieve anything. Even N.A.S.A can bend and flex it’s own rules at times when the cost of leaving a man is unthinkable to write off. Leaving me with one real criticism, the blatant product placement at times from Sony, which is part and parcel of modern film funding, get a sponsor here and there and you find the odd product on the screen for their troubles. Overall I feel far better about this film. It doesn’t have to be dark a dreary to be a Ridley Scott film, we have a whole other world created for us, a credible future that appears to be in reach, if only we believe it to be.


Bone Tomahawk (2015) – Revisited


It’s been a few years since I first saw Bone Tomahawk (2015) at the cinema, my friend enjoyed it far more than me. I could see by his visceral reaction, definitely a horror fan who had been thrilled by the dark experience of this Horror-Western. My mind was still lingering on the graphic images of violence, the splitting of a man down through the legs after a scalping. Not your average western in terms of the images that you’d generally get to see. As I reflect back on this film I am again reminded of how it references The Searchers (1956), how the themes more so in the case of this later film have been weaved into this captive rescue Western. I needed to revisit to build on my understanding of what’s become an interesting oddity in the genre.

My original review was based on my initial thoughts less than 24 hours from taking in the film, I don’t have that experience so much to rely on now. I came to this viewing with an expectation of knowing that image would be waiting for me. That didn’t put me off either, instead I was getting myself ready and excited to be taken back to those moments in the screen 3 years ago. I remembered the lines about how many arteries in the throat that needed to be cut in order to kill and a man, delivered so dry as a normal conversation, all part of the job that was so sloppily carried out by two robberies who got what they had coming to them. In-fact most of the dialogue’s written to reflect more the time period than contemporary America. Laced with a sense of decency and politeness that would usually be found back East, civilisation is making its way West.

The opening of the film takes us briefly into this dark world of cannibalism, meeting a dark figure in an out of focus shot that gruesomely kills the older of the two fools to walk through the sacred ground of the not so sacred Troglodytes that roam this region of the Wild West. Before cutting back to Spring Hope, a frontier town that where we meet the main characters of the film. The slow pacing of the dialogue reflects the atmosphere of this almost too polite town. Arthur (Patrick Wilson) man laid up on the sofa for 12 weeks with a broken leg faces a period of great boredom if it wasn’t for his nurse wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) doing her best to take his mind off the pain. Still enjoying his marital duties in one scene, telling us this is not your standard Western, we’re being taken into the domesticated West where couples could make a life for themselves. Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) is a law man whose known to be trigger-happy when pushed. Joined by his back-up deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) making up a classic double act. We also meet the Ethan Edwards of the film Mr Brooder (Matthew Fox) a gentleman on the surface alone, go a little deeper and you find a racist with a gun that’s waiting for an excuse to shoot them dead.

With the scene set, there’s still no sign of these Troglodytes until the next morning after a black stable boy has been found brutally murdered and the jail found completely empty. Civilsation has been tainted by the dark forces which we are still yet to see or fully understand. We get a brief description from resident Native American The Professor (Zahn McClarnon) who shares all he knows about this dark off-shoot of a Native American tribe that no-one dares mention. Taking a dark path that even he won’t take to help them. Here the use of the Native American’s used to replace the radical Islamist terrorists who have been radicalised and subverted their own holy book The Quran to explain their insane actions upon the rest of the world. The only Native present in the film’s seen as a respected part of the community that no longer sees him as a threat, instead he’s been assimilated onto their world.

Unlike the Troglodytes that we are still yet to meet. The four men we met earlier set off into an eerily cold Wild West, scenery we know to know to be synonymous with the genre yet there’s something different in the air this time. We have no soundtrack to accompany this wide open space, just our thoughts of the impending danger they are about to find. First having to contend with the stubborn Arthur who shouldn’t have left his home, wanting to find his wife. Whilst his old rival Brooder feels duty bound to rescue her too. Whilst the sheriff and deputy buddy act gets underway. Hunt tries to keep them moving and in line, Russell really suits this role, as he swagger’s around the wide open landscape, it like he’s come from that time period. Again playing the leader, whilst Jenkins Chicory is a beautiful homage to a Walter Brennan type chatting his way through the nervous wait of the long journey.

Our wait is a long one, it’s painfully nail-biting at times as we finally enter the caves of the Troglodytes, it’s not long until they are first ambushed after seeing such a hopeful start to the rescue mission that for a while goes so terribly wrong. The two survivors join Samantha in a cave of torture, there’s no other words for it, just waiting for the inevitable. If not for the limping husband Arthur who by rights should have been killed by now hobbles along to save the day. What they see confounds their belief system, members of the Christian community unable to comprehend what theses cannibals are doing. Survival is the only way forward, it’s gruesome for everyone who have to make choices they would never consider back home.

My thoughts on the connection to The Searchers is somewhat different, there is a search which is more defined and much more restricted, no scope for the open vastness of the mythical space such as Monument Valley. We have a more open discussion between the characters on racism. The era of hating the Indian is over in this Western, it’s time to focus on the future, find this relic and rescue the defenceless woman, who this time can talk back. The heroes (if you can call them that) are shown and seen to be interacting in the others environment, far more than in previous films, you have to explore and ask the question – why would people do such things? before you can leave with your life. Brooder who is clearly the Ethan of the film’s sidelined here, allowed to travel with the men, however his actions are more directly questioned and fought against. Whilst Ethan has to the power to walk all over those who ride with him for a most of the film. It’s his presence and knowledge of the Comanche that make him both valuable and a danger to those who are searching for the Edwards daughters after the raid.

Leaving Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) to question his thinking and eventually persuade him to rescue and not kill Debbie (Natalie Wood) who he believes to be tainted, no longer a white person after her time with the Comanche. Brooder is more generalised racist who has let his hatred for Native American’s seep into that for other non-white nationalities that see him become a loose cannon with the men. His gentlemanly guise is a thin veil for something that fine clothes and manners cannot hide. Whilst Ethan (John Wayne) wears is it plain-sight in his speech towards even his distant family. Martin who he rescued as a child, who had since been adopted, is seen as a mistake in his eyes, he’s no kin of his. It takes the course of the film for him to change his view.

So what’s my view on Bone Tomahawk now? It’s still a film that leaves you taken aback, the images stay with you, the ideas are now even stronger, I’ll probably sleep better having got that first viewing under my belt. It’s a very rich film that gently plays out until you’re hit with the horror of the other that America is still dealing with today in terrorist attacks and the attempts to prevent Mexican’s and other South American’s crossing the border. It’s a very prevalent film that speaks of a nations fears that won’t go away anytime soon.


Paris, Texas (1984)


I’ve been meaning to watch Paris, Texas (1984) for quite sometime now. Only being aware that it was a modern classic and seen as a modern take on The Searchers (1956) where once again I will be coming from as I explore and try to understand what is a beautiful film no matter the reading you take from it. I know now that my next piece of work will be based on the John Ford/John Wayne classic and how it’s influence on film ever since. My exploration has now taken me to Wim Wenders classic, having only seen one other of his films and more recently his Polaroid exhibition at the Photographers Gallery last year.

So where to start with Paris, Texas, I thought it would be straight-forward modern retelling of the Western classic. That was before we met Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) who in the opening scenes collapses from a mix of heat exhaustion and dehydration. The desert has not been kind to this tall gangly man who remains mute for the first 30 minutes of the film. Relying on his gestures or lack of them to discern what he wants. When his brother Walt’s (Dean Stockwell) called to come and collect his once thought dead brother from a small hospital in the middle of the Texan desert. Texas is the first real link to The Searchers where we find the film is loosely set, the backdrop of seven years of wandering. The silence is at first worrying, has Travis become a mute, or has he been psychologically afflicted, uttering no words, relying on his strained relationship with his brother to communicate. You can only feel for them both as Walt tries to reconnect and understand his brother who just can’t keep still at first, twice he bolts before finally making the trip West to California.

Hopes of flying home are soon dashed when Travis needs to stay on the ground, he’s a complex man who we are beginning to understand as he slowly opens up to us and his brother who we learn has been bringing up his nephew as his own child for the past 4 years. Travis has been wandering for the past 4 years, but why. The journey home on the open road doesn’t pass without a few bumps along the way. The location of Paris in the state of Texas is brought up a few times as they both reminisce, a plot of land that he had hoped to have truly made his home. The wandering cowboy making a small part of the world his own, a homestead for the family he once had. Still holding onto the more fragile parts of his past for later his return to Walt’s home and being reunited with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). All this could be read as Aaron Edwards (Walter Coy) bringing home his wayward brother Ethan (Wayne) from the wilderness after the civil war. At this point I’m beginning to see how the classic has been reworked.

Back home he begins to open up to his son, both are unsure of each other, one leaving without reason or notice, feeling abandoned, whilst the other deeply troubled by his own behaviour. A cowboy just riding off into the sunset, much like Shane yet without the young boy crying out for his return. His presence would ultimately be detrimental to those around him. The family home – which could be replaced with the Edwards homestead is equally uneasy and full of memories for Travis who begins to make up for lost time with his son who begins to allow this stranger back into his life. I feel that so many of the scenes in this film could easily be shared here, but that would be too extreme. However the father son relationship that is at the centre of the film is only suggested in the Searchers, could Lucy (Pippa Scott) or even Debbie (Lana Wood and Natalie Wood) yet unable to express that connection would have broken the Hays codes that restrained films so badly in the 1950’s. Wenders doesn’t have any of that to consider, his family have raised the boy as their own without question, and without with-holding the truth either.

The blossoming of the father-son relationship is at times both heart-warming and very moving as they begin to see each other as part of one another. An invite to walk home together is brutally snubbed as only a child can handle, whilst Travis can only look on with rejection. It’s a family home-movie that seen to be most revealing. We meet the mother Jane (Nastassja Kinski) who had a passionate relationship with a much older Travis. The images are too much for him at time to bare. For the audience it’s our first chance to see Jane, a part of his life that has only been spoken about, shaping our view of what this character means to them.

Travis finally decides to take things into his own hands, after being told more about Jane by Anne (Aurore Clément ) who had raised Hunter as her own. Jane for the past 4 years has been depositing money on a monthly basis in a bank in Houston. That’s all he needs to seek her. After spending just over half the film trying to find himself and pick up where he left off, does the real search begin. Leaving with his son in tow they head for Houston hoping that they can find one person in a city of thousands. A beautifully simple translation of plot elements for a modern audience and setting. Father and son grow closer as they get closer to finding Jane who Hunter believes he’s spotted. The search is now on, following a 7 year olds hunch they hit the road in hopes that he’s right, or face waiting another month.

Finally reaching the car and a quiet building Travis enters into a world he knows little about. This the Ethan of the film does enter the Comanche Camp and finds his Debbie very much alive and well. Working in a peep-show, another form of prostitution. Unlike Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who was able to save the young girl from a downward spiral, our Travis here is prevented by a wall of glass and a telephone, that affords him the safety to get to know the woman he knows he’s hurt, scaring both her and himself into their own separate wildernesses. What follows are some of the longest scenes I’ve ever watched, pure conversation between two people, only a phone line connects them, the truth hopefully will break through.

Let’s go Home Debbie – Ethan’s final lines of dialogue, the hatred in him has now melted away, allowing him to see the girl, the niece that can be saved. He can now see the hope in her to bring her back to civilisation. Whilst he’s still left to wander, unable to be part of the family. Travis gives up his position to reunite his son with his mother in an equally moving ending to the latter film, Believing this is the right thing to do by his son, finally putting Jane first after what was an emotionally abusive relationship built on a destructive passion that couldn’t last. There maybe no racism but there’s plenty of anger that still has to be dealt with internally for the quiet man who drives off into the night. Ending a film that is deeply melancholic, reaching into the heart of America’s deserts to reunite a family that ultimately cannot be together. Sam Shepherd‘s simple script has taken a classic formula of the search and rescue Western and transforming it into a tragic romance between a couple that had no chance of being reignited. I just wish I’d seen this classic years ago, now I’m left wondering how many more rich films have been inspired by such a complex Western that I maybe still in the midst of my own search for some time to come.


Mad Max (1979) & The Road Warrior (1981) & Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1984)


It feels like a long time since I’ve got my teeth into the influence of The Searchers (1956) in film. How one little Western could really effect so many more after it’s release as just another John Wayne western, nothing to go crazy about at the time. And then the first batch of film directors to leave film school had discovered this under appreciated masterpiece, for some they really couldn’t let go, or John Ford and Wayne couldn’t let go of them. One of those was George Miller who has recently been able to go back to this anti-hero and explore him further to great success. I can’t to see where Mad Max goes next in the apocalyptic future that has breathed fresh life into an already cult classic of a film.

I’m about to undertake another extended film review, looking at the original trilogy of films, reading them as Westerns and where I can as being influenced by The Searchers, something of a preoccupation in my film watching. Beginning with the original 1979 that I was told by my dad that one of my uncles thought was crap on release. I wanted to see for myself why did he think that? I wanted to put that opinion to the test. My first watch a few years ago, left me wanting more, all the crashes, explosions and fast-paced action was all I wanted. It felt far longer than it actually is too. Looking back I found I was watching a different film, same images, but with a different set of goals in mind. Not just a refresh in the mind, but also to find the Western iconography that connects a seemingly throw-away road movie to the great American genre. A genre that can easily be transplanted to the vast Australian outback. I was surprised that the cast mostly speak in an American accents, reminding me of the dubbed English audio found in Spaghetti Westerns. Being an Australian production and cast, even made on location in the country. Maybe this was a decision to help sell the film to an international audience.

Set a few years in the future, a decidedly vague choice by Miller to keep the audience guessing, how long do we have to wait for this prediction to come true, hopefully that would never happen. We’re thrown into the start of a police chase, two interceptor cars are ready and waiting for a car to come into view. One car with a cautious officer who can’t even stand the odd swear word from his partner – a man clearly out of his comfort zone but wanting to keep the peace on the open roads of the Aussie landscape. It’s a car chase that will have massive effects for this squad of interceptors for the duration of the film. The couple in the car carried the leader – Night Rider (Vincent Gil) of a biker gang that is ultimately killed whose legacy brings forth bloodshed and violence.

We first meet the gang as they ride into town, much like a group of riders on horseback, their motions even on two-wheeled vehicles are arranged like the four-legged animals would once have dominated this open space. The bikers bring with them a brand of violence that can only be delivered on two wheels, the maneuverability and ease to all murder and rape to be carried out on the innocent. They are vicious men who show no mercy to thier victims, they’re sadistic and shocking even today.

We haven’t even met Max (Mel Gibson) whose face is kept out of view until he makes his entrance saving the day, showing that he’s not one interceptor to be messed with. Along with his partner Jim Goose (Steve Bisley) who loses his cool when he learns that their latest suspect – Johnny the Kid (Tim Burns) has to be released. All part of a rigged system that works in favor of the criminal, having no apparent evidence creates the illusion of a rigged legal system. Leading Goose to his eventual demise and a strong Searchers reference, after a few scenes that built up to the gang getting revenge him for his treatment of the Kid, a more reluctant and innocent member of the gang, dressed in more civilian clothes leads Goose to what could be seen as an Indian raid. Scar’s Comanches delivering their revenge for his mistreatment. Even leading up to the car explosion he’s reluctant to commit the act. Could the kid have been captured and adopted into the gang, being pushed to prove himself to the rest of the gang, most importantly to the new leader Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne ) whose growing tired of him. The following scene goes further than Ethan Edwards entering the massacred homestead of his brother’s wife and family. We are never shown the extent of the human cost, left only to our imaginations. It’s believed to be too painful. Miller goes a step further, taking us into the hospital room, changing the shot to reveal a bed with a bed sheet over a raised framework. Max investigates, discovering the charred remains of his partner who he’ll never work with again.

From here on out we see a once law-abiding interceptor (I say that loosely as they were the law), Max becomes a man on a mission. The drive to see justice done, is forced upon him by the killing of his wife and child. He has nothing else left to live for except to use the security of his job and uniform to see that justice is delivered. Even resulting to methods not too far off what the gang would use themselves. He becomes the very thing he hates in order to ensure his wife and child’s death was not worthless. The impact of their deaths is too much for him to just sit down any more.

We are seeing the origins of a man whose destined to live a solitary life in the outback of a future that is still uncertain. I am left wondering how do we get from Mad Max to Road Warrior. Are there a number of biker gangs that take over, how does civilisation crumble to become a rare group of people who will do what is necessary to survive. All will be revealed in the middle film, which I feel is the strongest of the original trilogy. We will see how Max has transformed into a loner who wants nothing more than to be left alone like a gunfighter who knows Indians, or in this case bikers.

It’s been a few weeks since I watched the original Mad Max, which laid the foundations for what has become an Australian classic. George Miller returned to the well to produce a far more futuristic and dystopian future, using the first now as a firm foundation into what could easily be and has become a franchise (albeit 4 films) with its own unique language, which has been carried through more recently to the belated remake/reboot/sequel (I’m still not sure where it fits in but I bloody love it), a far more bombastic entry than the original entries.

Now back to the first sequel, now I remember mostly the exhilaration of watching The Road Warrior (1981) more than anything else. It was a case of re-watching to remind myself. Even the ending was a complete surprise. Opening with a short prologue that explains where we, it’s vague enough to be in the distant future, carefully and with pathos placing Max, making use of footage from the first film and archive footage from past conflicts to paint a bleak picture of how the modern world collapsing, irretrievable by the governments even then. I wonder how things would work out now with a trade war between America and the rest of the world. The fake news and underhand activities of a clandestine Russia who are unable to take responsibility for what’s clearly their own actions. Or will global warming beat all of us to the point where we self destruct?

With the prologue setting the tone we’re thrown into another road ambush between Max and a gang of bandits on bikes and cars, kited out with spikes, cross-bows and anything else they can use to inflict death on. We witnessed what was clearly the final days of what we would call civilisation as it began to crumble. Now it’s Max against the world, taking on the role of a future gunfighter replace the standard horse for a car with all the bells and whistles to survive and outwit his opponents on the open road. Riding alone if it wasn’t for with his dog, man’s only true friend. We catch a small box under the chassis with switch, the first loaded gun that we thankfully see fired later on. Ultimately he outwits these bandits, meeting Wez (Vernon Wells) whose part of a far larger gang. Clearly main adversary of the film, taking on the position last held by Toecutter, both are pretty much the same character, hell-bent for the same things in life. Wez is however far more dangerous with a short fuse, once lit has to be allowed to blow.

Clear of the first incident Max encounters a real character – The Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence) who really steals the show. Another man out there in the wilderness, trying to survive. Complete with a unique gyrocopter that allows him to escape the mayhem below. He could easily be the mad inventor sidekick if Max would only let him into his life. Max has now become a lone wolf, unable to really connect to others enough to trust them. It’s a dog eat dog world that relies on having your wits about you. One false move and your dead. For Gyro the stranger in his life is a breath of fresh air and sees in him the opportunity for some excitement instead of keeping his vehicle safe. Both men who have seen a lot since the modern world collapsed.

Gryo leads Max to where he can get his hands on more fuel, the main commodity in this dystopian world. Found in a much desired complex heavily fortified and wanted by The Humungus (Kjell Nilsson) and his gang (including Wez). It’s a constant state of war for those with the oil that they have found and will do anything to hold onto. The rag-tag band of men, women and a Feral Child (Emil Minty) are not afraid to fight, only on more civilised terms, they haven’t let the end of the world affect them too much. They are essentially good people just trying to survive. Those with all the riches in the area, whilst the uncivilised punk riders are the Native Americans of this world. Circling the compound on an almost daily basis, doing what they can to chip away at the defences of the last refuge for the oil tanker which means hope, stability and ultimately survival. The compound could easily be seen as a fort of the last of the civilisation, trying to hang onto what makes them human. Could they be the last hope for humanity in this corner of the world.

Now I remember the original deal that Max makes with the compound when he nears with one of their wounded, as much gas as he can carry in exchange for their dying man. The deal/contract doesn’t last long enough to be fulfilled before an ultimatium is made by The Humungus which determines the future of the community that have been fighting to survive for too long to give up. The tanker in exchange for their freedom, a fair deal for some, not for others and only 24 hours to make their minds up. The catalyst is ultimately the stranger among them – Max, with his unique set of skills and experience he is their Shane who can save the day. If only he chooses to stay with them is up to him. His world is far different than that of Shane who has to leave in order for civilisation to thrive. He’s very much a loner who still has a heart that has to be found before he can make a difference. One key scene in a make-shift garage between him and the communities leader Pappagallo (Michael Preston) whose able to get past all the leather coat hard-shell to find the man whose no different from anyone in the compound. It’s a classic scene that allows audience to understand Max more. Of course we have the original film to draw upon for his back-story.

In terms of Western comparison, it’s all there in the action, swap horses for cars, trucks and bikes, all pimped out with a rustic punk aesthetic, they aren’t just vehicles, they are weapons, homes before they are transport. All culminating a jaw-dropping finale that feels like it last forever. Breathtaking stunts that have produced a string of sequences that sees a huge swathe of characters meet a fantastically bloody end. Each one unique and grisly, there’s no need for repeats, it looks like George Miller was playing, when in-fact it would have been carefully laid out to look like a male fantasy of road carnage. This is what I remember the unadulterated violence, the tension of these scenes that show how precious this commodity really is to the survivors of this future.

Looking forward to the next and final installment we are left with a far shorter epilogue, learning that the narrator is in fact the Feral child, which is a precursor for Beyond Thunderdome (1984) and the commercial sellout I’m now dreading it to be. If only the trilogy wasn’t that, but a nicely compact two-parter that has an origin story and well-crafted sequel that feels very much like a Western in the classic form that feels far more modern, a conflicted man who doesn’t want to make connections with others, yet knows he has to help others in need. The law enforcer in him is not dead yet. Miller has crafted a visual language that draws on the then present, retrofitting it for the a future that is both alluring and incredible dangerous to enter.

I’ve been putting off the third installment for a few days now, making excuses not to sit down, until I thought, lets just do this and get it over and done with. What I felt was going to be the Millers Return of the Jedi, with plenty of money to spend now with lots of stipulations to gain the biggest return. With two major elements to sell-out, first you have a big name of the moment with rock star Tina Turner who herself had just made a successful return to the music world with her latest album, a second wind in her long career. Whilst the real Jedi factor is the kids, to reach the widest audience – appeal to the kids. True this is 15 rated film in the UK, that wouldn’t stop it getting lower ratings across the rest of the world.

Again my memory of this film has faded overtime, thinking it was far longer and much better than it actually is – I’ll get to that later. With a bigger budget at least it was still filmed on location in Australia than over the Nevada desert. The tone of the film’s set in the opening scene, a pilot and son in the cockpit of a small plane hijacking a camel drawn car. Discovering it was once again Bruce Spence in a similar role, hoping that this would be a true link to the previous film ultimately made no sense as the Gyro Captain who in the prologue took over leadership of the group that escaped in Road Warrior. Why would he leave them with only a child. Understandably his on-screen chemistry was too much to pass up for a cheeky cameo, or an attempt to make a connection to the last film that just got confused in the edit.

I couldn’t stop thinking of the recent reboot/sequel – Fury Road, how I badly compared this last entry as being the strongest influence on it. In terms of visual style it’s very strong, however it has more in common with the middle entry. I need to revisit and put that error right. Miller’s world has certainly been expanded with the bigger budget. First with Barter Town, where we find Max who was the owner of the camel drawn car wanting to get his vehicle back. Entering a dark world where remnants of the society we have known have been held onto and bent in order for survival of the fittest. They have regressed to a state of law and order that wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Wild West. Max through sheer persistence with The Collector (Frank Thring) who takes him to meet the leader of Barter Town, no not the saxophonist, this is 80’s sexy minimalist style. The big reveal of Aunty Entity (Turner) whose open to a deal, that’s after he proves his worth to her.

If you’d been wondering what the hell the title of the film meant, you don’t have to wait much longer, a throw-back to classical justice of Greece or Rome, a giant metal dome where all arguments are settled. A deals made for Max to get The Blaster (Paul Larsson) in the arena. Part of a larger scheme to disrupt the power play between the two classes that make up the town. The underworld which literally holds that power than keeps the town alive is in the hands of two people with the combined name of The Master Blaster. A little person – The Master (Angelo Rossitto) the brains, whilst The Blaster is the braugn. Together they are not to be messed with in the pig-s*** infested underworld. Connected by a metal framework over The Blaster’s shoulders. Essentially Max in a pawn in a bigger problem that he’s more than happy to get involved in for his own gain. Much like in Road Warrior, the stranger than enters with his own agenda is happy, however he’s bitten off more than he can chew.

Barter Town is an in-depth expansion into the apocalyptic future that Miller has been bringing to life. You could see it as just another collection of people just trying to survive the only way they know how. However the complexity of this town is explained away all too easily in the dialogue – namely Dr. Dealgood (Edwin Hodgeman), there purely to explain and dumb-down the rules for us of this town so explicitly we don’t really have a chance to understand on our own terms.

Our town in the Thunderdome is probably as violent as the film really gets before recycling the finale from Road Warrior. The confined space to fight in, the crowd that put themselves in danger just to see someone die is a sure sign of the regression of modern society to return to more primitive methods to settle a score. It’s the only gunfight of the film that ends, well it doesn’t really end, it leads to a form of torture. They didn’t really need Max, he was just a catalyst who discovered he still had a conscience.

You could easily break this film into two smaller films, two scripts that have been brought together in the development process. Once Max’s sent on his way to his death, much like Clint Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) without the drawn out pain and suffering that helped make the film. Max is later found by a young woman who drags him back to a hidden paradise populated by just children with a language that first time around was interesting, now it’s just annoying, reminiscent of the more sophisticated language used in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork who invented a form of slang of Nadsat that takes some understanding to really enjoy the novel and film. Miller’s kids are abandoned remnants of society who’ve been left behind during the escape from the worlds destruction. Believing Max to be their savior, a pilot who has come back to take them to Tomorrow Morrow another paradise that gives these young people hope of a better future. The children are on the whole annoying and just human copies of Ewok’s essentially, only now you wish you couldn’t understand them.

Sadly we like Max are stuck with these kids who some eventually accept as not being the pilot of their dreams, having a built a narrative around this now god-like figure. We’re pulled back into the desert as half of them have gone off in search of this Tomorrow Morrow. Max knows that first they’ll encounter Barter Town which if left unattended would be exploited and killed, maybe worse things. The children of a paradise are about to enter Deadwood or Tombstone essentially. Reluctantly Max becomes a parent to these feral children who begin to overrun the underworld, rescuing The Master who has lost his place in their society, treated little more than the pigs who now surround him.

A signature ending of a car chase then ensues, the only difference is that they are chasing a car on train track, changing the dynamic of the chase, a large cannibalised vehicle’s path restricted by rail, falling into the hands of Aunty Entity and her gang who are in pursuit. It looks like a sure thing, a recycling of events from the previous film, nothing is really fresh at this point, just a change in some of the elements, more children than ever. The level of violence’s reduced to almost nothing, even for a 15 rating with the odd explosion and arrow being shot, it’s just tame for a Mad Max film, let alone an action film that you’ve come to expect from this trilogy that has been made safe by the inclusion of more children. Why didn’t he feral child from Road Warrior pop up to bit someone, at least that would have been more violent.

The addition of kids and more kids has had a knock-on effect to the overall quality of the film that entered far too much into music video world. I can forgive the casting of Turner who I’m a fan of, she really owns the part and has a real presence, becoming part of this postapocalyptic world. Maybe if the children came to more harm, maybe we would have a more exciting film on our hands. Not a mess of what is two shorter films that resulted from two much studio interference asking for more of the this and less of that. The violence in this world made it dangerous, worth exploring, shocking an audience who wanted more of the same, but got something that catered for the wrong audience.

I can’t write the film off completely, there are some interesting things going on, some scenes really get your attention. In terms of the overall trilogy and the Western genre that I began this extended review looking at, Miller has used it as a framework to look at a possible future when the West was still not quite won. If an event of such explosive proportions were to strike, civilisation could easily regress to a simpler state of operating. The need for survival becomes more important that the structures that we create. Yet for the pockets of humanity that are left in this future who are trying to rebuild cling on to these simpler models to get on their feet. The goal then is to stay alive and hopefully rebuild a future that can resemble a past they once had. The trilogy starts out strongly with the opening entry working as an origin story before we really enter into a dark world where it’s survival of the fittest where anything goes. Then entering what could have been a better entry and the potential for more if they hadn’t listened to the studio too much. It’s still a strong unique trilogy that offers a bleak view of the future without coming directly out of Hollywood, whilst using the tropes of the Western as the bare bones of a different world view.


The Hallelujah Trail (1965)


Probably the only comedy western which like many others first think of is Blazing Saddles (1974) which still holds up today – mostly. I decided to take the plunge into the sub-genre with another Burt Lancaster led film The Hallelujah Trail (1965) which I was for years avoided, comedy and Western can be really silly, becoming boring. Admittedly I laughed a few times here and there, but not enough to say this is a comedy that I’ll be returning to in a rush. I did however see it through and considered some of the themes that it raised, even comedy’s of varying quality can raise some issues to discuss.

The Trail is one of the few films to actually give decent screen time to the Temperance Movement – the Feminists of the 19th century, with a focus both moral decency and more rights for women. They have always received a raw deal in a male dominated genre. Maybe it’s in light of the #MeToo movement that I’m able to this coming through more. Previously the genre has seen them as basically party-poopers who want to stop the men having any fun. Twice in 1939 we see them trying to change their society in their small way. Trying to lecture Joe Clemens (Frank McHugh) in Dodge City, luring him away both alcohol and violence. Partly helping him stay out of trouble in Errol Flynn‘s absence. The intervention doesn’t hold for long, the lure of the violence next door becomes too much to handle. Also seen as a comment of gender, if a man can’t take part in a fight and hold his liquor, is he really a man. Whilst over in Stagecoach a prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor) is driven out of town by the Law and Order League, which could be argued to be a good thing. A town with no prostitution is always better, however that label has only been inferred in various readings of the film. Once The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) enters, his advances to Dallas are first ignored, she knows she’s no good, tainted even, we never know the real reason, it’s all inferred by the audience who decide her past from the clever dialogue and acting. Whilst Sam Peckinpah uses the South Texas Temperance Union in The Wild Buch (1969) as merely something to be shot at. He hates them enough to see them killed in the street indiscriminately by Pike Bishop (William Holden) and his men. They are lost to the crowd that are caught up in the crossfire of the bank robbery that goes wrong.

So somewhere in the middle we have the young attractive women in Hallelujah Trail led by Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) who uses their sexual power to overcome the soldiers at the for they are staying at. A political rally that encourages the band to play along and even cannons to be fired. Enough to alarm Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) returning from a mission, is alerted to the noises back at the fort, mistaking them for an Indian invasion. The film sets out to place the army – in turn the men on the back foot, they cannot have full control of the events in this film.

Here gender roles are flipped if only for comic effect in the year of 1867 when apparently the Indian wars are over, the Plains Indian’s have all be penned off to reservations, the problem has been solved in a mere two years since the end of the Civil War, a little too simplistic and incredible inaccurate. If anything the wars continued well into the 1870’s before the “Indian Problem” was finally and dramatically resolved at Wounded Knee in 1890 with a few arguments over treaties around that same period. The film wants to quickly brush the “Indian problem” under the carpet to allow the Sioux to break out in search of whiskey that’s been promised to the town of Denver.

At the centre of the film is a fight over who gets their hands on the said whiskey. The Temperance league wants all 20 wagons worth to be poured into the river. Whilst the men wanting it, just want to safely arrive to avoid the oncoming drought that’s heading their way. Whilst the U.S. Army just wants to ensure it’s safe passage, whilst also trying to keep the peace between these two sides. That’s before the added element of the Sioux wanted the gifts they’ve been promised on a yearly basis being delivered. A standard part of the original agreements, tonnes of money, food and gifts to pacify them in turn hoping to encourage them all to adopt a life of farming. In short a lot of people want that booze. Lastly we have the Irish who are transporting 10 of the wagons, who have labor grievances that they want to take up with the trail leader Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith) an upstanding tax paying citizen and Republican.

Everyone but the army are out for manipulating the situations to suit their own goals. Understandably water in the area is scarce and not always as clean to drink as alcohol. Whilst the women who have both their looks, age and gender on their side to try to manipulate the situation in an attempt to instill abstinence in the men across the country. Of course in a comedy that doesn’t always go according to plan. Massingale is not as clean and sober as she wants to appear to be. Whilst the Sioux are rightly out for what they’ve been promised. Sadly their on-screen depiction is far worse than usual. Not only are white actors playing the chiefs, whenever they speak the narrator translates over them, even any sign language is mocked by the narrator. They are again seen as 2 dimensional people. Their goal maybe more appreciated by the audience whilst still reducing them to children in the process. Following the smell of booze that for future generations can ruin a life on the reservation.

There are moments such as the gunfight in the sandstorm which after a few minutes becomes tiresome. Well staged and meaningful in wanting to get the laughs. We get that the confusion from sides stops anyone dying because they have no clear view of the perceived enemy. It pretty much sums up the film, no one wanted to really be there making it. Lancaster was contractually obliged to take part at a reduced salary, not getting on with Remick, the jokes rarely hit the marks. If anything it’s just become very dated to watch. There are moments that stand out but very few. It’s raised slightly by some of the cinematography that achieved some daring pans above the action as it passed under the camera. However it’s essentially a comedy dud. With sole exception to the Temperance movement that’s blurred with feminism if only briefly and back-tracked on at the close of the film. There’s a lot going on in a here and it’s far too long to really call a comedy. The main problem is that it needed another script draft before reaching the screen, leading it to be an overly ambitious film that could have been so much better.


Rango (2011)


Another day, another Western, I’ve not written so much in a week in a long time. My third Western in a row, something must be going on for me to write such volume in over a year. If I’m honest I’ve been avoiding Rango (2011) for years, thinking that the combination of Johnny Depp and Westerns was going to be a bad idea. That was after the awful The Lone Ranger (2013) that saw him turn the iconic character of Tonto into nothing more than a bloated stereotype, showing that he had no or little respect for a nation that he claims to have family heritage. Both directed by Gore Verbinski But before catching him in a far more interesting multi-layered quirky Dead Man (1995) which breathed some new life into the genre thanks to Jim Jarmusch a director that I’m beginning to warm to. So you have a director to thank, oh and a very brief trailer for this film that made me think, maybe, just maybe I should give this film a chance.

For a kids film it’s a pretty good introduction to a genre that is generally watched by an older generation that grew up with it during the classical period of the genre. Something I am still very jealous about. I do however had good access to some of the best films that the genre produced and the opportunity to read into and beyond the images that captivated a whole generation and a country that holds as part of their culture. So what does Rango do that captivated me so much tonight. Beginning in a contained space I was reminded of a very early Pixar short, a snowman trying to get to the attention of a girl sunbathing in another snow-globe across the shelf. Rango is very reverential of both animation and film as a whole. It’s a spoof with real heart.

The titular Chameleon is essentially a dreamer who has everything he believes he needs in life, escape to his own fantasy world. That’s until his glass world’s smashed, his whole world is literally brought crashing down into the middle of an Arizona/Utah highway where he meets what looks like an Amardillo on its last legs, complete with trye tread running through its body. Advising him to cross to the other side of the road to find water. For some reason – common sense he doesn’t, after seeing what happened to the soon to be dead animal. Early on you can see that the quality of animation is incredible, not knowing at this point that more animals are going to be find in the Wild West town of Dirt, remember this is a kids film.

The town of Dirt works on two levels, one set in the desert with little to no water left to keep the assorted animals that would populate the desert come to inhabit this town that mixes classic 19th century with contemporary features. It’s all done with love and a heap of fun so adults and kids can really enjoy this old Western town. We’re told that we’re witnessing the final days of the dreamer Chameleon who somehow lands on his feet. A stranger who walks into town, soon becoming the sheriff – following a long line of failed men who have died in quick succession trying to keep this dying town alive.

A clever reflection of both the present and past, the lack of money’s mirrored in the drought that has become the sole currency that these animals know and need in order to survive and live. Controlled by the puppet master mayor Ned Beatty a voice I shall never forgive for being Lotso the Bear in Toy Story 3 (2010), a perfect bit of casting for the turtle that has Dirt in the palm of his hands. Rango has used his gift of performing to his advantage, talking his way into a new life that could very easily come undone in the wrong situation. Depp here is perfect in the role, you could say it’s another version of his bumbling Captain Jack Sparrow who finds his way in and out situations based purely on luck really.

In the West you need a little more than luck, you need a mirage that takes produces a charming tribute to Clint Eastwood when his likeness is found not far from a golf buggy. Known as the The Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant) our not so heroic Chameleon has to save the day. It would be a bit much to ask a young audience to buy a mirage of The Duke sadly. The world that Rango’s inhabiting continues to delve into nostalgia of the genre, set around Monument Valley where the animals adventure to find the water that we learn has been stolen, a fun alternative to the classic gold that has been, if you’ll pardon the pun “mined to death” in the genre. It becomes more accessible to kids who may no little or nothing about the West beyond cowboys and Indians that have come to be the defining image of the genre.

Overall Rango is really good fun, which you want for a kids film, with beautifully detailed scenery, the modelling of the characters is equally strong. They are each unique and come with their own backstory, I can remember a chicken dressed as a veteran confederate soldier with an arrow going through one eye and come out around the back of his head. The very logic of his being is even mentioned, these are just citizens to be seen in the background they are integral parts of the town of Dirt. I come away from the film thinking, why did I wait so long for what is a loving animated romp that works for both adults and kids. Sure it’s not a classic, all I know is, I wont be avoiding it in future, instead looking forward to catching it.


Westward the Women (1951)


It’s always refreshing to see a different side of the Western, a genre dominated by the male, who according to cinema tamed the West for civilisation to out and make it home for everyone back east. However that’s not really how it went. Of course there are plenty of notable male figures who went out there and mapped out the uncharted landscape that was once home to Native American tribes that were more than just an obstacle to overcome (not as the genre would have you believe). Women were part of the families, the farmers, the homesteaders that came out West and made it their own along with the men. Westward the Women (1951) may take certain creative licence in the making of the film. However they too are an essential part of the American story that needs to be addressed and celebrated. Sadly not as much as we would hope. Seen as the figures that stay at home, the dancers or prostitutes that need to be saved, or stay out of sight until they need to save our hero from himself. They have been able to tame their men, not so much the landscape that they would’ve had to travel in the process. These women are the un-celebrated pioneers that made it possible to pit down roots out West and unite the States. Westward the Women goes someway to redressing the balance of their depiction on screen, even within the confines of the early 1950’s I can see some boundaries being crossed.

A land populated with just men was obviously not going to work for long, 4 years was long enough for those in California around 1851 – set exactly a century ago, we see an America that has just started to really be discovered, the fur trade had come to an end, the Cattle trails were about to take off, we had left the gold rush behind. Waiting for the civil war to break out a decade later. There’s a group of men who have been working for Roy E. Whitman (John McIntire) who has been able to make a success of the valley he has cultivated and worked for years. His men need what they have been lacking for quite sometime – sex. There’s no amount of drinking, gambling or fighting can substitute the loving of a good woman. Reinforcing the union of marriage on-screen, we see Whitman recruit the only man who could possibly bring a wagon train of women from back East to marry 100 sex-starved men. Turning to Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) who wants nothing to do with women, the prospect of bring back a large number alone is not something he would freely sign up for. We all know he doesn’t need much convincing when a large fee is waved in front of him.

Next thing we know we are in a hall in Chicago, recruiting 150 single women, prepared to travel across dangerous open country to marry men they have never met. Warned of the dangers, we see that not even half of them are prepared for what is ahead of them. The civilised life is all they know, wanting to shake it all loose for something new and unexplored. There not all your typical American’s we have a more international cast, reflecting the different nationalities that made the West their home. I was wondering how the process of recruiting would be carried out, freely signing up and warned of the dangers is what should be expected, not one woman balks at the prospect. Showing that these women at least are willing to meet the men on a level playing field. Before we leave to make the long journey men are recruited separately by Wyatt with one rule – stay away from the women, which makes perfect sense. As little interaction between the guides and passengers would stop any trouble breaking out. Touching on the potential drama that could arise.

Wagon’s begin to roll, there’s a sense of purpose and drive in the women, about to set off for a new life. The easy part is now over. After a few days in wagon train boot camp they set off. It’s a rather muted affair, there’s not soundtrack that lifts the mood, in-fact we have none throughout, a brave choice that allows the women to own the film and the journey. It’s a journey that could easily have taken the route of Red River‘s (1948) long and torturous cattle drive. Seeing Wyatt begin to take on the hardened leader that won’t see his rules broken. Ultimately he’s left with a few men to see them through. Along the way we see the women encounter multiple obstacles that are each given decent time to unfold. That includes the obligatory romance for Wyatt and one of the women – French woman Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) which feels unnecessary at times. We even have moments where the film could easily pass the Bechdel test, with men restricted they’re forced to talk about the trail and all the trials that come with it.

There’s another journey that Wyatt goes on, that of a growing respect for the women he’s been leading. It’s not easy to learn either, as they take on more and more of the work, to the point that they have to support a wagon that looses a wheel on an alkaline desert, whilst a woman’s in labour (yes we see a pregnant woman on-screen – she wears a larger shirt). They all know what needs to be done and just do it. Shocking the two remaining men in the party. Depicted on-screen as equal if not better than the men at times, having had to prove themselves in the male gaze.

Meeks Cuttoff (2010) is one of the few films that depicts strong women having to make the perilous journey West. Far bleaker than this earlier film that does it’s best to show the women to not be weak, feeble creatures who can’t compete with the men. Kelly Reichardt‘s later film depict women who are more than capable of working alongside the men and even surpassing them. William A. Wellman‘s film is far broader in approach, there’s little time for character studies of all the women in the wagon train. We do however see that they can pull their weight, they are no longer supporting players in the plot or the film as a whole. Ultimately they only relinquish their gender roles for a few months before entering a life of domesticity. Even when they choose the partner from just a photo, they’ll have little control once they settle down into married life.

With over 50 years between both films we have seen as massive change in the depiction of women in the Western. They are no longer just the stay at home wives, they are part of the fabric and history, able to stand up and be as good as the men, sometimes better. Sadly the quality of the films today is still patchy – Jane Got a Gun (2015) with all it’s good intentions is a mess of a film, wanting to give the woman more agency and lot of baggy, fragmented backstory. Unlike the more refined focused Brimstone (2016) that allows a mute woman Liz (Dakota Fanning ) who see defending herself and her family to a satisfying conclusion, her back story is broken up into a more cohesive form with religious overtones that makes sense as the film progresses. Westward the Women is at the beginning of a small strand of the genre that focuses on women that has been lagging behind for far too long. It’s a shame it’s taken so long.