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The Pumpkin Eater (1964)
Psychological diversions of the nouveau riche
Anne Bancroft stars as a British housewife, suffering from depression, seemingly addicted to having children, and betrayed by her philandering husband (Peter Finch). The script is by Harold Pinter, adapted from a novel which, via a first-person narrative, takes the woman's point of view, and the dialogue is nicely 'Pinteresque' – people repeating lines back at each other, awkward pauses, unanswered questions, veiled insults, etc. The performances are all good, and there are visually arresting edits, deep focus shots, and extreme close ups of faces. The vaguely jazzy music is wistful and stately, coming as it does from George Delerue, who scored the roughly contemporary 'Jules et Jim' (which, in its combination of slow pacing, emotional dramatics and smooth black and white surface, perhaps shares some similarities with this picture.) But the film as a whole ends up seeing like an ultimately rather insubstantial British upper-middle class version of Antonioni's 'L'Avventura', full of unpleasant or just selfishly uninteresting characters wearing nice clothes in fashionable London houses and country retreats. Hence the review in Time Out magazine that sees the scene of Bancroft's breakdown in Harrods as a kind of parodic summation of the movie: the chic-swathed angst of the wealthy. The slightly soapy plot is treated for the most part as serious drama, but does have its satirical aspect (probably due to Pinter's script), though this never really makes itself fully apparent. I guess 'The Pumpkin Eater' needs to be placed in the context of the British New Wave – dramas about 'real people', frankly discussing controversial topics such as abortion and infidelity, as opposed to films with generic, historical or fantastical subjects. And it does, though not that explicitly, deal with certain feminist issues in a way that was probably quite unusual at the time.The main problem is that the privileged lifestyles of the characters makes it all feel like an in-depth, expertly crafted examination of the selfishly introspective psychological diversions of the nouveau riche (nothing much is made of the one intrusion from outside this social world, the strange moment when Bancroft is visited by a ragged door-to-door 'prophet', who seems to preach a 'gospel' of sexual liberation); and one ultimately wonders whether the subject deserves such close attention.
Valdez Is Coming (1971)
valdez is coming
Like Martin Ritt's 'Hombre', made a few years earlier, this was adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, and, like 'Hombre', it presents as its hero someone from an oppressed minority who is forced into a confrontation against heavy odds, due to the violent actions of some unscrupulous characters who hold him in racial contempt. Happening across a shooting party, Mexican lawman Bob Valdez is forced into a confrontation with an innocent army veteran, a black man accused by the rancher who's leading the party of a murder he didn't commit. Stricken with guilt at having killed the man, Valdez tries to get the rancher to give him $100 to compensate the dead man's Native American widow; however, he's met with contempt and physical violence, and the main part of the film sees him taking his revenge. (Although one should note that it's not straightforward revenge, as Valdez is acting as much to prove a point – to make the rancher accept his guilt and show some concern towards the oppressed – as he is to avenge a personal slight or injury.) Less downbeat and more unbelievable in its development than 'Hombre', this is nonetheless a film I wanted to like, and one which certainly has something to lift it above your average western. It's not a 'message' picture, as was the vogue at the time ('Little Big Man', 'Solider Blue' et al); rather, its revisionism is gentle and easy to miss, often just a seemingly throw-away line (asked when he hunted Apache, the titular hero replies "before I know better"). The fact that Valdez is a Mexican also runs counter to the usual western clichés of those 'over the border' being either caricatured bandidos (Calvera from 'The Magnificent Seven' and General Mapache from 'The Wild Bunch') or poor, oppressed farmers, essentially innocent but often incapable of defending themselves without the help of white mercenaries (again, we can turn to 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Wild Bunch' for examples). Indeed, an exchange between Valdez and his old friend Diego, where Valdez impersonates the rancher who will prove the villain of the piece, nicely captures the mix of scorn and idealisation which characterises the white man's view of the Mexican: "well, you're a good greaser, Diego. As long as you're a good greaser, I treat you fair and square – yes sirree, Diego, you people sure know how to live: singing, dancing, screwing – you don't worry about nothing." It's one of the best moments of the film, in part because it's so understated, yet underlain with a certain dramatic tension: having begun wryly, ironically, Lancaster delivers the final line with what is almost a sigh; a shift to a new, quiet seriousness and determination which is signalled by the faint rattle of Morricone-esquire percussion on the soundtrack, and which sees him ride out on his horse for his near-fatal second encounter with the rancher.
Given all this, it's unfortunate that the Mexican is played by a white man in make-up, although I'd accept that, back in the 70s, there were less bankable Latin stars of the kind who crop up in Hollywood films today (one can imagine Benicio del Toro playing this role, for example). Not that Burt Lancaster's make-up is particularly bad; and, after all, the fact that he played the hero of Robert Aldrich's 'Apache' in similar 'brown-face' didn't prevent him from giving a very fine performance in a very fine film. His blue eyes do look a little out of place here though, and the henchman character, 'El Segundo', looks like a pantomime villain, with hair that sprouts in huge, wild tufts on either side of his head, and dollops of face-paint which make him look like Laurence Olivier's Othello. Indeed, several of the protagonists also look distinctly like 70s TV characters: I'm thinking primarily of the woman Valdez kidnaps, and her man, the villain of the piece.
Particularly in the second half of the film, 'Valdez is Coming' threatens to become a rather tedious revenge/chase movie, though the plot is slightly more complex than this. Nonetheless, there is something rather pulpy about the way that Lancaster turns from put-upon minor lawman to brilliantly competent guerrilla fighter, shooting a man from a 1,000 yards, easily picking off the numerous armed riders sent after him, and sneaking into the heart of the enemy camp without anyone noticing. It's particularly noticeable partly because of the understated, resigned quality that characterises his performance in the initial stages of the film: moving slowly and speaking carefully, almost deferentially, Valdez is a character not exactly resigned to his lot (which is being treated with open or concealed contempt by his white neighbours) but understandably cautious about being too outspoken. From the moment he pulls his old army gear from under the bed and starts to growl, "Valdez is coming," he is suddenly athletic, hyper-alert, and a crack shot who never misses the target. Imposing such a cliché on what could have been a reasonably realistic look at life in the Old West means that the film fails to live up to its initial promise. The end result is a rather uneasy compromise between action-movie set-pieces and something more thoughtful and interesting. Still, it's worth an hour and a half of your time – even if that's for what it could have been more than for what it is.
Ulzana's Raid (1972)
a re-revisionist western
In 1954, Robert Aldrich directed and Burt Lancaster starred in 'Apache', a re-consideration of the negative role accorded Native Americans in the western film. Just under twenty years later, they re-united for another examination of the same subject, but the revisionism this time was as much a response to the kind of film made possible by the likes of 'Apache', as it was to the old myths of whooping villains (a la 'Stagecoach'). Attention is paid to creating an almost deadpan examination of the minutiae of life in the west, with a literate script depicting the complex moral dilemmas that were faced in a time of rough-and-ready law-and-order and rampant racism. Not only the settings but the characters are more believable than was the norm for the western at the time (and, given such recent efforts as the re-make of '3:10 to Yuma', is the norm today as well). Thus, we have such closely thought-through detail as the army scout shooting himself and the settler he's escorting back to the fort, to save them from being tortured by the Apaches, and the tactical manoeuvres centred around how long horses can last during a lengthy pursuit. In addition, the scout played by Lancaster isn't (as he probably would be today) the 'cynical', 'world-weary' character who must redeem himself by some heroic action; rather, he's a competent professional, a man who lives with an Apache wife but who doesn't buy the 'Little Big Man' myths of the peace-loving noble savage– a hippie era antidote to the racism of 'classic' westerns that actually presented a view just as distorted as theirs. 'Ulzana' is far from a one-man film, though, and it's the relations between Lancaster and other characters that make it such an interesting picture. Most notably, there's the idealistic young officer (Bruce Davison) who leads the expedition to chase Ulzana, the Apache who's fled his reservation in frustration and is leading a war party to rape and murder local homesteaders. The son of a clergyman, the young man believes that it's "an absence of Christian feeling" that's led to the situation of mutual enmity between white men and Native Americans; however, when he sees the aftermath of Ulzana's raids (for instance, a mutilated settler has a dog's tail placed in his mouth; as Lancaster wryly observes, Apaches have a strange sense of humour), he quickly swings to the opposite view, and wonders how Lancaster can have dealt with the Apache for so long without hating them. The fact that men could be so cruel offends his notion that man is essentially good ("made in God's image") – particularly so when members of his own cavalry troupe start to mutilate the corpse of Ulzana's teenage son. Lancaster, though, sees through the bullshit, implicitly pointing out that such a 'humane' viewpoint over-simplifies the questions of culture clash caused by the white man's invasion of Native American territory. It would be easy to characterise the tribes as mistreated innocents suffering at the hands of bloodthirsty colonialists (the hippie view), or, as the young officer does, to believe that a little talking and good-faith would sort things out, and that both sets of men could exist together in peace, motivated by similar feelings of love and brotherhood, following 'good moral principles' in harmony. What that ignores, though, is the brutality present in the tribal culture (at least, in that of the Apaches, who were feared by other tribes as well as by the white men); commenting on the rape of white settlers, several characters note that "they don't treat their own women much better." A culture that is based around rites of manhood (as documented in 'A Man Called Horse') and the feats of male warriors is not all that dissimilar to that of bloodthirsty white men masquerading behind Christianity, 'the American way', or simple lust for land. Yet just as one is not going to be able to 'understand' the Apache by caricaturing them as evil, heathen savages, one is also not going to be able to understand them by trying to view them as surrogate white liberals: there is a difference, an otherness which should neither be romanticised nor ignored. Appropriately enough, all Ulzana's dialogue is presented, unsubtitled, in his native tongue: no cushy Kevin Costner characterisations here. One might characterise this nuanced approach as re-revisionism: a corrective both to the old Hollywood myths which everyone by now knew to be untrue, and to the new hippie myths which were perhaps more 'worthy' but were also riskily naïve.
Prelude: Dog Star Man (1962)
dog star man - by brakhage
(note - the review refers to the entire film, rather than to the four parts (+ prelude) considered separately.) a brief note on structure might be in order - as much as the film can be said to have a 'narrative' (which in any case is more in the order of the epic or the myth, rather than the 'story' of traditional film-making), it concerns the rise and fall of the dog star man (though the title can be taken two ways: either as the name of the man, or as a conflation of the three main visual threads of the film - a man, a dog, and a star (the sun, shown both in archive and original footage). the man undertakes a physical journey up a mountain, where, accompanied by his dog, he chops down a dead tree: various dreams and remembrances (of his child and his wife) combine with sense impressions of the landscape around him (mountains, trees, snow, clouds, sun), as well as less obviously referential visual patterns created through superimposition and handpainting on film. the prelude combines footage from the four following parts and is concerned, broadly, with the cosmic - much use is made of footage of the sun (the 'star' of the title). part i introduces the footage of the dog star man, a woodsman (brakhage himself) climbing a snowy mountain with his dog, and chopping down a dead tree. part ii superimposes onto footage of a baby (one of brakhage's children) a riot of colour and rapidly changing visual phenomena, achieved thru the technique of painting on film, a kind of animation which he intended to approximate 'closed-eye vision' - i.e. what one sees when one closes one's eyes. part iii, a 'daydream of sex' is visceral and supremely physical, mixing footage of the sexual act with blood and organs - most notably, a beating heart. part iv returns to the woodsman, whose journey up the mountain comes to seem increasingly futile; trapped in an endless ascent, with no hope of reaching a summit, and made, through looping, to continuously chop at a tree which never falls, the man collapses on the ground, grimacing in agony, his wild long hair giving him a caveman appearance - the struggles against nature and physical limitation are unchanged from man's early beginnings. a mystical quality briefly emerges, hinting at some kind of hope, as the man reaches for a nightsky of twinkling stars, but these stars are, in reality, full of molten, deathly heat, as we see from the footage of the sun.
that's a very brief outline of what 'happens' in the film, although inevitably, in order to provide some sense of cohesion, i've perhaps imposed a too-schematic narrative outline on a film which lives moment by moment, as a profoundly immersive and visually busy experience. it's almost as if the absence of sound is made up for by what might at first seem to be an OVERcrowding of visual event; and watching the film silently, as intended, provides a very different experience of how one experiences the medium - not only is one's eye trained to become more active, more able to discern connections, cohesions and fractures. therein lies the main problem with trying to describe 'dog star man' - for, fundamentally, the film teaches one how to read it itself, as it progresses: no amount of preparation will really equip one to the same degree as this instantaneous visual training. in that sense, the film is, like the best avant-garde art, a PARTICIPATORY piece, an experience which the viewer can share - but to do so, they must work, they cannot sit back and let the film-maker tell them something. this makes watching 'dog star man' a very personal experience, and the film itself is a very personal piece, showing the most intimate details of brakhage's life, the most intimate and extreme details of his fears and hopes. but at the same time, it has an epic scope rarely matched in conventional feature films. it is about the simultaneity of the local and the cosmic, about the struggle for security, for a home base, and the dangers and rigours of manual labour, of making one's way in a world full of overwhelming sense data, a world that shapes one and that is shaped into being by sense perceptions, rather than existing as something 'already there' which one can schematise, organise and make sense of.
moving in, from outline to detail, we might ask 'what do we have here'? and to answer that question would require a whole book (a frame-by-frame analysis is out of the question!) but, in brief, we can say that we have: perception nature repetition cycles recurrences man in the cosmos light movement the body organs sex fluid secretion the breast the penis the axe the tree the eye/ man as mythological figure an epic made from home movies the handmade handscratched handpainted the sun's molten leaps clouds passing the ascent the struggle up the mountain interludes lightness the woodsman playing with his dog (who, as we know from 'sirius remembered', decomposes in a quite horrifically beautiful way)/ back from the sense of narrative based around character development to the epic cipher figure yet with an utterly intense focus on the body inside and outside its environment (the dog star man, the woodsman, is brakhage himself but his motivations are not considered in the sense of a 'character study', though the preoccupations ARE very much diurnal - his baby, his home life sex, the mountain near his home, his cabin (in part iv), manual labour, struggles and fears in the moment revealing huge cosmic dramas) its environment snow falling thru and landing on trees twigs branches hand drawings of crystals superimpositions snow caught in hair snow struggled through and slippery hair skin organs blood opening and shutting the mouth beating of the heart blood red black/ we can say that we have the elemental (which is never, really, elementary)
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
I think you have to see this film very much a product of its time: the 1970s, as every one knows, were a time of film-making excess (or boundary pushing, whatever you want to call it), and 'Cannibal Holocaust' is probably the most notorious horror/exploitation film from that period. Gritty, unflinching looks at the cruelties men are capable of, like the films of Michael Winner, with somewhat confused moral messages, often involving the intrusion of evil white men into the territory of natives who prove to be just as brutal in retaliating to the atrocities committed by said white men. It's often unclear just how we are meant to take all of this, and, while such uncertainty accounts for the films' unprecedented power, their deeply unpleasant, 'impure' feel, it seems somehow reprehensible (if no less reprehensible than Hollywood's increasingly overt glorification of violence, if it's to save cute little kiddies and is done by your favourite action heroes).
So to 'Cannibal Holocaust'. Even more than Winner's more mainstream work, it's a misanthropic film, but, like Winner's, its targets appear a little confused. As another review I've read has noted, it sets up its crew of film-makers pretty much as straw men (while it may be true that news-crews exaggerate, manipulate, distort, etc, I find it unlikely that they'd go as far as to massacre pretty much a whole village), and thus muddies the message. Furthermore, while the anthropologist, Proff. Monroe, becomes the jaded voice of reason later in the film, earlier, he's not exactly a pillar of virtue, shooting several members of one tribe in cold blood so as to gain the trust of another tribe. The idea that 'Holocaust' is attacking the 'Mondo' films (some of which actually did stage shocking events) is rendered unlikely by the fact that, with it's attempt at verite-realism, it comes across as a Mondo film itself (at least, in the final, 'documentary' section).
In making this film, it seems, Deodato deliberately plays up and questions his own role as exploitation film-maker (though by doing so he unwittingly undermines himself as well). When, in the penultimate scene, the TV executive orders the footage to be burned, one wonders if this was not the very same attitude held by those who tried to censor Deodato's work. For a film that exists seemingly to confront (and arguably, to exploit) the depths of human depravity, cruelty and violence, the Professor's stance (wanting to suppress the footage) seems protectionist, censorial. Surely it would make more sense to expose the film-makers for who they were (as is Deodato and the script's intention)? After all, their earlier documentary 'The Road to Hell' has been shown to have been faked, to some extent, yet people will believe it be real - would it not make more sense to expose the film-makers (and by extension, the culture of exploitative reporting that they embody)? Furthermore, Deodato's attitude to the native tribes is confused. We're supposed to sympathise, or at least, to understand, the actions they take towards the film-crew, to see them as justified; while they react with initial suspicion towards Monroe, it never looks like they're actually going to eat him, but the massacre in a hut pushes them over the edge. Yet what to make of the native 'savagery'? In one (infamous) scene, the crew come across a naked woman, impaled on a pole. Alan smirks, seems to be enjoying the spectacle, but is then told 'you're on camera' and immediately changes to a face of concern, pronouncing that this is the result of some barbaric sexual ritual, from a people who hold virginity as almost sacred (earlier on, in the film's first truly shocking scene, we've seen a native murder an adulterous woman by sexually mutilating her). Obviously, this is supposed to be yet another example of the thrill-seeking filmmakers' callousness and exploitativeness, but at the same time, it's unclear what moral attitude is being taken vis-a-vis the natives' 'uncivilised' practices. True, the girl may have been killed in this way because she has been raped by the film-makers in the preceding scene (although it's unclear whether it's the same girl), and the tribe's attitude to sexual 'impurity' demands such a grisly response, but that doesn't make the actual act of execution any easier to stomach.
And of course, there are the scenes of animal cruelty. We see a muskrat have it's throat slit, and hear its screams of agony. Is this supposed to be just a fact of life - look, meat-eaters, this is the suffering animals go through to get you your meat - or just another cheap trick? Monroe shows a little distaste, but doesn't seem too concerned. The disembowelling of the turtle is shocking (you see its legs move even as its insides are being cut out), an effect enhanced by the score, but would it be appear any more palatable (excuse the pun) if it was done with care, rather than lip-smacking relish?
At one point, a TV executive tells Monroe "Today people want sensationalism; the more you rape their senses the happier they are" (of course, she hasn't seen the actual footage yet). I don't think anyone could come away from 'Holocaust' feeling happy, although they might well feel that their sense have been raped. By pushing things just that little bit further, the film does succeed to some extent in exposing and challenging our attitudes towards extreme violence. It is strange how we find something like 'Holocaust' shocking and deserving of censorship, but have become immune to the horrors and deprivations we see daily on our news screens. Of course, Deodato IS exploiting his violence, just as his fictional film-makers are, and I suppose one could argue that the film's value lies as much in the issues that he DIDN'T intend to raise as the ones that he did.
Interesting but flawed
It's hard to imagine this film being much of a success, despite starring Brad Pitt. It's a long-haul: slow-moving, intensely melancholic and sombre, dealing in grey-paletted landscapes and skyscapes, pauses, silences, things unsaid as much as things said. Still, it's been critically successful, and it address questions pertinent to today's society. Fame. Hero worship. The desire to be someone else, as an escape from the drudgery of your own life ("do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?"). The realisation that that someone else is "just a man," just like you, and that he perhaps struggles with the same sense of drudgery and hopelessness, as you do.
Notably, the film conveys a sense of the drudgery and sheer hardship of life in the west that many films miss, and, unlike most other westerns (with the exception of 'True Grit'), the dialogue often feels authentic slightly grandiose, perhaps stilted to our ears almost Elizabethan; slow, deliberate, unusual, and just right.
Roger Ebert comments on the bleak emptiness of the landscape (like McCabe and Mrs Miller, it was shot in Canada- all huge grey skies, desolate waving wheat-fields, snow, ice, and mud), and how, because of this, because "the land is so empty, it creates a vacuum demanding men to become legends." As in the Russian drama 'The Return', the landscape becomes almost a character, or at least a driving force which partially dictates why the characters behave how they do and what courses of action they take.
I say this partly because no explanation is sought, or offered, by anyone in the film, for the gang's actions. This is simply what they do - perhaps to avoid the drudgery of working in a grocery store, like Bob, or making shoes, as Frank suggests he will do; perhaps for the money, to give themselves a chance of a fuller life. Perhaps simply because, in this environment, doing anything feels almost like a random act. The film is detached from the characters, and the characters are detached from themselves. At one point, Jesse speaks about watching himself from outside: "I look at my red hands and my mean face... and I wonder 'bout that man that's gone so wrong." The state governor comments that, while some say Jesse's crimes are revenge on Republicans and people who wronged his family, his victims didn't seem to be chosen on account of their political persuasion. In other words, he's no political rebel. He's just an outlaw, who does what he does - who knows why? That's not important to the governor. He wants the man captured, not to understand his motivation. The film should go beyond his concerns though, and examine the latter..shouldn't't it? Doesn't it?
I'm not convinced that it does, and more context of the sort hinted at in the governor's two or three lines might have helped. For all the film's desire for historical accuracy in detail, in the bigger picture it's rather sketchy. I'll return to these criticisms later.
But, still, it's a film easy to admire, for several reasons: the use of space, and silence, building tension in long, drawn-out dinner-table conversations. The inexorable build toward death, like Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in the West', a dance of death - or a slow, deliberately paced walk towards it. It feels like something winding down: everyone is aware of impending confrontation, but unable to escape from it. People face their deaths with stoicism, as if this is what fate has dictated for them, as if it is their role to play: the gang member Pitt shoots in the back for real, or imagined betrayal; James himself, who glimpses his assassin in a mirror but makes no attempt to dodge the bullet's path.
It will probably be admired most for its performances: Casey Affleck's insinuating, awkward hero-worshipper, at once understandable and pitiable - bullied, insecure, unloved - and at once somewhat contemptible, annoying and disturbing. Pitt's James - aloof, detached: melancholy, for no clear reason, at one point he hints at his desire for death, for suicide. "Once you've looked over the other side, you'll never want to go back into your body," he says. Or something of the sort. Then shoots holes into the ice.
Ultimately however, despite this admiration, it's hard to like, much less love. It is characterised by the same aloofness I've just discussed in its protagonist. Jesse's occasional mentions of the soul raise the possibility of a deeper philosophical strain (which might be somewhat out of place, given the dour 'factual', 'realistic' nature of the film, such as the vomit that smears Bob Ford's suit when he falls over on a saloon floor)- but it remains merely a suggestion, adding to a vague impression of some sort of inexplicable sadness. Of course, James is not simple: a psychotic family man. But there's a lack of insight into his character, and the other characters in the film. They seem to remain ciphers who simply exist, rather than fully fledged human beings who act. James' family seems barely to exist, except for occasional shots to show that he has one. The film observes dislikeable characters doing dislikable things; the audience is left to judge, but are not given that much to base their judgements on, despite the slow pace. The film's attitude to its legendary titular character is unclear: do we admire him? He's a cold-blooded murderer - surely just as much of a coward as Bob Ford. Or is he let off the hook because he's Brad Pitt, because he's brooding and handsome and has a family? Ultimately, the film is indifferent - neither tragic nor exciting, just generally glum, it gives the impression of saying more than it actually does. It had the potential to be more than it is, and is thus an interesting, perhaps necessary, but flawed movie.
3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Passable entertainment riddled with problems
The assumption seems to be made too often nowadays that the western was 'killed', if not by the Spaghetti western boom, and if not by expensive 1980s failures such as 'Heaven's Gate', by Clint Eastwood's 'Unforgiven' in 1994, with its grimy town, unpleasant/flawed/complex characters, and relentlessly downbeat myth-busting. Not only this, but it needs to be 'reborn', and critics seem to arguing that '3:10 to Yuma' is the film to do that. At first glance, a strange movie to fulfil this mission - it's yet another Hollywood remake, though thankfully not of an absolute standout like 'High Noon'; instead, Delmer Dave's minor classic from 1957, a tense, taut little film focusing as much on characterisation and psychological drama as on gun play, which ratchets up the suspense in a way clearly influenced by 'High Noon'. At second glance, how this film could rebirth anything is a mystery. Everyone's praising the performances, from Russel Crowe as the murderous/thoughtful/charming/witty gang leader to Christian Bale as the fallen-on-hard-times/war veteran/family man/rancher who has to put him on the train to Yuma prison to Ben Foster as Crowe's psychotic, blue-eyed lieutenant (interestingly, one review I've read elsewhere suggests that Foster tries to suggest a homo-erotic edge to his character's relationship with Crowe, but Crowe's interpretation of his own role shuts this avenue off). True enough, they're good, as would be expected - but nowadays, I'm beginning to feel that a lot of 'good performances' are given not so much in service to the story and the film as to ensure an Oscar nod - cynical, I know, but it's a feeling I just can't shake off.
A major flaw is apparent in the inconsistencies that riddle the film, inconsistencies that, in a movie which is attempting to be a psychological drama as well as an action movie, strike a particularly jarring note. For instance, why does Crowe's apparently cold-blooded, ruthlessly efficient killer return to the posse, including an injured Bale, an incompetent doctor and a 14-year old boy, having just killed 3 Indians, when he could have easily got away? Why does he help Bale in the final shoot-out, when he could easily push him into the line of fire or slip round a corner and leave Bale at the gang's mercy? And finally, why does he shoot 6 gang members (in a feat of gunsmanship far more unbelievable than Clint Eastwood's in the Dollars films, or the climax to Unforgiven) when they've rescued him? Then put himself back on the prison train to Yuma...then whistle for his horse? Dude, where's the logic? And I'm not even going to start on Peter Fonda's impossibly leathery, tough old bounty hunter, who seems to be impervious to close-range stomach wounds...What's more, as well as these serious motivational and plot inaccuracies and anomalies, there are wildly over-the-top action sequences which jar with an attempt in other parts of the film to present a more 'realistic' version of the 'Wild West,' the climactic gunfight being the worst offender, closely followed by a horseback chase through a mine.
Anyway, let's go back to the assumption that the western is dead. I don't see why: of all genres, it has always seemed to me to be particularly rich, offering numerous opportunities for explorations of themes relating to masculinity, civilisation, violence, crime, the relationship of individual to community, the imposition of values in a lawless country, the development of a problematic, rough-and-ready approach to justice and morality arising out of physical necessity...etc. What's more, many of these ideas are relevant to today, as 'The Proposition' (which I think we can characterise as a western, despite the Australian setting) showed, with its exploration of colonialism. To be sure, '3:10' touches on some of these ideas. The trouble is, it touches on them in a very obvious, crude, non-naturalistic way, through dialogue that is almost psychobabble; the film-makers don't seem to have learned the lessons of old westerns which would have for blunter, less well-expressed, more homespun philosophies. I can think of two examples from Peckinpah: Joel McRea's "all I want is to enter my house justified" from 'Ride the High Country' (one line expressing so much of the motivation behind the heroes in both Peckinpah's, and other's, westerns), and William Holden's "let's go" from 'The Wild Bunch' - just two words and a glance before striding out to certain death (which could be walked away from) - the "a man's gotta do" cliché taken to its furthest extent so that's it's maybe not even a moral decision, more of an existential act of defiance.
My main criticism is that this is a conflicted film, striving at once to take the western back to something more traditional, as Kevin Costner's 'Open Range' did, and to accommodate the more excessive touches introduced by the Spaghettis and the more downbeat, 'realistic' touches which were developed to perhaps their fullest extent in 'Unforgiven' (this attempt at 'realism' is quickly subverted by the numerous far-fetched, inconsistent, nonsensical elements). Not sure whether he wants to deliver action-packed box-office Hollywood product with big stars, or a showcase for these two stars to flex their acting muscles and earn some Oscar nominations, or a serious western, Mangold in the end creates a compromise which doesn't fully realise any of these options, despite the critics' almost unanimous praise.
The Departed (2006)
Good film, lacks a certain something though...
A remake of the 2002 Hong-Kong film 'Infernal Affairs', this will inevitably be remembered as "the film that got Scorsese his Oscar", rather than on its own merits. Nevertheless, it's still a good movie, entertaining and with an excellent plot. Jack Nicholson overacts with his familiar anarchic streak, a mad glint in his eyes, mixed in with an occasional hint of cold-blooded menace. Hardly a believable turn, but good fun nonetheless. Leonardo da Caprio is all tortured angst, and very good at it too (the beard helps, making him look about 10 years older). Matt Damon is less convincing - he's made more sympathetic the 'Infernal Affairs' character, and, well, he's just too much of a 'good guy'...Maybe I only say that because I saw the 'Bourne Ultimatum' recently. Mark Whalberg's smaller role is well done; Martin Sheen doesn't really have much to do.
Having seen 'Infernal Affairs' first, I was inevitably going to compare this to it this 'remake'. The plot is pretty similar, but it's been 'Scorsese-fied' - you could argue that it's as much down to the screenplay as the direction, but perhaps the screenplay was influenced by a perception of Scorsese as 'auteur', so tailored towards his preoccupations and styles. Who knows, I'm ignorant of the collaborative (or otherwise) process that went into the making of this film, I'm just speculating. Let me clarify what I mean by 'Scorsese-fied': stuffed full of language (c word, f word liberally splashed through it), sexual references, references to the church, lashings of bloody violence (everytime someone's killed - a major character, anyway - they invariably end up lying on the floor in a big pool of blood. What is it with Scorsese and pools of blood? End of Taxi Driver, the bounty hunter character in Cape Fear, blah blah.) Although Infernal Affairs was unsubtle in several respects (it had a big streak of sentimentality running through it which, from my limited experience, seems to be a characteristic of some of Oriental films), it in a way made something more interesting, 'deeper' out of the story. THere it was connected to Buddhist notions of the cyclical nature of life - there was a quote from a Buddhist text at the beginning of the film, and this cyclical thing was pretty obvious throughout (and even more so if you watch the IA sequels). So we were left in no doubt that the cycle would go on - even if the protagonists died, others would take their place, and the game between cop and criminal would continue, as would the killings. That wasn't stressed nearly as much in 'Departed', particularly with the ending, where Damon's character pops it (rather a ham-fisted touch, I felt, particularly when the camera swept up from his body to a shot of a rat in the window, in front of the view that we saw Damon looking at several times in the film, the view that represented his conflicted desires to be both cop and criminal, or whatever it symbolised).
Another thing 'Departed' lacked was the fascinating relationship between head cop and head criminal, a mixture of friendliness and hatred. Sheen was a peripheral figure, and it's hard to imagine Costello, as played by Nicholson, having a particularly complex relationship with any other character: too cartoonish and OTT for that. His death at the hands of Damon (a cold-blooded murder in the original) becomes an emotional reaction to Nicholson's desire for him to be a son-figure, which comes out of the blue and, well, just doesn't convince.
What is Scorsese's intention with this remake, then? Is he trying to simplify it into just another cops and robbers/gangster movie? Is he trying to do a 'Heat' and show that there's little difference between those on the right and those on the wrong side of the law? (There is a line somewhere which makes this point - Costello: "When you decide to be something, you can be it. That's what they don't tell you in the church. When I was your age they would say we can become cops, or criminals. Today, what I'm saying to you is this: when you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"). Maybe he's just addressing his familiar preoccupations with male violence, repressed Catholic guilt, sexuality (not such a big part of this film, though there is a scene in a porn theatre), hints of racism ("Twenty years after an Irishman couldn't get a f*cking job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That's what the n*ggers don't realize. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it's this - no one gives it to you. You have to take it") - though to be fair, for once, there is a black character in the film who does more than get shot or appear on a street. The opening voice-over raises the familiar church/criminal options, the desire to amount to something rather than be just another poor person in the city, mixed in with the desire to belong to a close-knit community, to feel like you belong: i.e. the criminal fraternity (a big part of 'Goodfellas') - "I don't want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me. Years ago we had the church. That was only a way of saying - we had each other. The Knights of Columbus were real head-breakers; true guineas. They took over their piece of the city." But these themes aren't really addressed or expanded on as the movie continues, as we instead get to see Nicholson chomp on the scenery, often in a way that's played for gruesome laughs. There's just a feeling that something's missing - fine though this film is, it's not Oscar-worthy: my theory is that it only won at the Academy Awards because the academy feel guilty for short-changing Scorsese back in the years when he made acclaimed, ground-breaking movies. But it's not bad; not bad at all.
A Cock and Bull Story (2005)
Oh, how post-modern, darling...
The publicity and acclaim for this film circles round the notion that director Michael Winterbottom is filming an 'unfilmable' novel (Sterne's 'Tristram Shandy'), making a witty post-modern exercise in cleverness with in-jokes, references to other films and echoes of other films about the making of films (Fellini's 8 1/2), inane comic banter, etc. But, for me, that that smacks of defensiveness and self-justification, a worry that the way this book has been approached is something that might have sounded good in practise, but doesn't work well in theory because it is too flimsy a way of working, too narrow a view of what the book is about to construct an entire film around. I'll expand: in fact, the first 20 minutes or so make a decent stab of filming the book, switching backwards and forwards in time (breaking the linear narrative structure that most films tend to use in a far more complicated way than the flashbacks you sometimes get), having Steve Coogan (as Tristram) give direct to camera addresses as he narrates the story of his character's life, and with different actors playing the same characters (Coogan, as Tristram, announces that he is also going to play his father, as there is a 'family resemblance' - a nice touch whereby he acknowledges that he is acting but remains 'in character') - certainly not that conventional, but not as irrelevant as the rest of the film, which comes across a bit like an episode of Ricky Gervais' TV series 'Extras' without the sharp social observation and cringe-worthy brilliance.
The problems start when, without warning, in a pregnancy scene, we suddenly hear 'Cut' and see the film crew, whereupon we are rushed backstage as Coogan, now playing himself, goes to various meetings, doesn't have sex with his girlfriend, deals with a journalist who knows that he DID have sex with a pole-dancer (this a particularly puzzling incident, treated in a surprisingly casual way), cracks jokes with co-star Rob Brydon, complains about his costume, and so on, ad infinitum. We see Coogan and and Brydon sitting in a viewing theatre, along with various other people involved with the film's making, commenting on the rushes of the film they're making ("that battle looks like it's been filmed with about 10 men") - of course, this is a scene which is actually in the film we're watching - oh how clever and postmodern... - such touches abound. It's all very obvious, and must have sounded good in theory - "we'll echo the dislocation of the book by making a dislocated film", but it really doesn't work in practise. In one scene, Coogan is being interviewed about the film he is making:
Tony Wilson: Why "Tristram Shandy"? This is the book that many people said is unfilmable. Steve Coogan: I think that's the attraction. "Tristram Shandy" was a post-modern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about. So it was way ahead of its time and, in fact, for those who haven't heard of it, it was actually listed as number eight on the Observer's top 100 books of all time. Tony Wilson: That was a *chronological* list.
The problem with this is that we're not sure how seriously to take it. Is the joke, poking fun at Coogan's lack of knowledge of the project he's at work on, merely there for a laugh? Is Winterbottom making his points through interviewer Wilson's mouth (in which case, wow. Yes we know it's ahead-of-its-time, but is there any intrinsic value in that?) Is it a comment on the way we try to categorise and pigeonhole 'greatness'? Such ambiguity characterises much of the film - nothing wrong with ambiguity, but it helps if it has a discernible purpose (even if that purpose has to be dug out carefully, with an intellectual scalpel). To me, what we have is ultimately the sight and sound (oh! film-related reference! did you notice?) of a smug and self-satisfied director making yet another in-joke to be trendy and post-modern about being trendy and post-modern...
This impressions is exacerbated by the glimpses we get of what they're filming (a battle scene, Stephen Fry as Parson Yorrick, Coogan as Tristram suspended in a giant womb), which suggest that it would have been a much more satisfying viewing experience to make 'the film of the book' rather than the faked behind-the-scenes/acted film masquerading as documentary of the making of the film of the book...
So, to sum up. The plot summary here on IMDb says this: "interruptions are constant. Scenes are shot, re-shot, and discarded. The purpose of the project is elusive. Fathers and sons; men and women; cocks and bulls. Life is amorphous, too full and too rich to be captured in one narrative." This last sentence is roughly what Stephen Fry says when he suddenly pops up to explain what the novel is 'about'. It's a bizarre moment - almost as if Winterbottom is worried the audience won't 'get' what he's doing, so he's trying to smooth their brows and reassure them that there's a point to all this. But I'm not convinced it needed to be done this way - for me, all the behind-the-scenes ramblings doesn't really get us anywhere. The book was packed with incident and character - this has a fair amount of incident, but few very interesting characters (especially as we know that Coogan and Brydon are playing fairly unsympathetic versions of themselves and are thus 'not really like that'), and if all it's there for is to say, if it can condense the whole book into just the one idea - that life is too full to be captured in one narrative - then I'm not convinced it's worth doing.
The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Whoosh! Bang! Crash! Wallop!
What's become a spy-film franchise big enough to be compared to the Bond series (there's a link on the Orange homepage asking 'who's better: Bourne or Bond'?) is now onto its third film. For those who, like me, found 'The Bourne Supremacy' an inferior film to 'The Bourne Identity' (mangled and meandering plot; the lack of surprise and sense of mystery that the first film had; Paul Greengrass' frantic direction, suited to gritty documentaries like 'Bloody Sunday', but maybe not to a Hollywood action film), the good news is that 'Ultimatum' is a better film, though still not as good as the first. Greengrass' zingy, constantly-moving camera-work, deployed to add a 'gritty' edge to the fight scenes in 'Supremacy', is again present, though here it seems to be used often as not to cover up improbabilities such as Bourne jumping, superhero-style, improbably long distances from roof to roof. Damon remains tight-lipped and pretty much expressionless throughout, playing the role of assassin to perfection but skimping on the softer, vulnerable side that would allow us some emotional engagement with him which is rather lacking in the film (something brought out more in his relationship with Franka Potente's character in the first film and the beginning of the second). It's pretty much action all the way - one long adrenaline trip, frequently driven by John Powell's insistent repeated theme in the orchestral score. To accommodate this, the plot is stripped down and simple (basically: Bourne goes after baddies; Bourne fights baddies; Bourne goes after more baddies in search of who he really/originally was, and how he became the assassin Jason Bourne). There are numerous set-pieces: dodging a shooter in Waterloo station; scooter and roof-top chase in Tangier (the most extended, and perhaps the best, of all of them); and finally, climactic action in New York. Also, you got appearances by good, respected actors: David Strathairn, the mellifluous voice intact from 'Good Night and Good Luck', but the role very different; Scott Glenn; Joan Allen; Julia Stiles (thankfully not turning into the love interest here, though playing a fairly major role); and, to trump them all, Albert Finney, who really doesn't have that much to do but provides a suitably serious cameo. In the end, you may wonder whether it adds up to more than the sum of parts - the answer is probably no, but it's an entertaining enough summer blockbuster and it'll keep you suitably occupied for a couple of hours in the cinema.
Evan Almighty (2007)
This is a completely different film to 'Bruce Almighty' - far more family-oriented, and Steve Carrell has none of Jim Carrey's manic, oddball, dangerousness (or irritation factor, depending on your point of view). Aside from the presence of Morgan Freeman as God, it's not really a sequel at all. Most Hollywood comedies nowadays come with a message - it's a surprise just how blatantly they're now being hammered home, almost overwhelming the comedy : it's possible to sit through a comedy film which has not a single genuine laugh in it - just a few mild chuckles, in-jokes, and so on. Maybe we've just been spoilt by the glut of jokes in Shrek. Or maybe this is just a badly-written film. Birds making messes on people numerous times - people falling over numerous times - check. This one's focus turns out to be environmental - John Goodman's big bad congressman cutting corners to develop precious unspoilt land - at one point he makes a comment (can't remember actually what) about not standing in the way of 'progress' - with a hint at global warming/environmental damage, perhaps? The other side of the message is about the modern man whose worries about his appearance (something God mentions, and which we see during the, erm, 'hilarious' scene of Carrell pulling hairs from his nose - Mr Bean, but less funny?) and doesn't spend enough time with his family - building the ark enables him to spend time with them, and, at the end of the film, hiking through the unspoilt countryside, they could be pioneers from the old days...Well, maybe that's taking it a bit too far. But the movie's insistent on returning to old-fashioned values (anyone notice the scene where Evan's bearded appearance is compared to Abraham Lincoln?) - including Christian ones: the Christian emphasis is pretty overt (though not stiflingly so, for those who don't subscribe to Christianity).
Due to this emphasis on family values etc etc, it's appropriate that Jon Stewart's cameo on a TV screen, featuring an item on Evan in his Daily Show, has him becoming (or maybe just being) the cynical sceptic who laughs at Noah building his ark - like everyone else who mocks Evan, the implications is that these sceptics, those who don't believe in the unusual/the supernatural/God, can be aligned with the sceptics who got washed away in the Biblical story. (Stewart, in the 20 seconds he's on screen, fits the role like a glove (OK, it's not really a role, he's just doing what he does on TV all the time) - for those who can't stand his self-satisfied smug cynicism, it might not be such a bad thing if he got washed away...But that's besides the point). Of course, this couldn't happen in a modern film - cuddly old Morgan Freeman may play a few mischievous jokes on Evan, but it's all for his own good, and he's far too dignified to sweep a few hundred people away in a flood.
Overall, what I'd expected really. Give it a miss.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Little more than a "mood" piece
It's hard, at first, to fathom why this film is so successful - perhaps it's because people think they've seen a 'meaningful' film - it lacks violence, sex (apart from a brief, off-screen reference and another brief scene in a strip club), swearing, and a clearly delineated plot, unfolding in a leisurely, low-key, melancholy, soporific fashion. So sure, it's not M:I3, but that doesn't automatically make it high art, or even a particularly good film, either. Too often Coppola seems content to let the camera sweep smoothly over night-life shots of Tokyo, or linger over Johanssen and Murray's serious faces, with perhaps some music sweeping over to make one think one's watching something 'meaningful.' (In fact, surprisingly for a woman director, Coppola seems to exploit the (admittedly beautiful) Johanssen somewhat - a long amount of time is spent in which the camera gazes on her, often partially clothed (though not nude or bare-breasted), and I was particularly troubled by the opening shot of her behind, which seems to have very little to do with the rest of the film apart from offering titillation for the audience.) The dialogue, which could have saved the movie, often fails to live up to expectations - the central scene, mentioned by another reviewer, where Murray and Johanssen are lying next to each other on the bed, and he gives her his thoughts on life, is quite touching, but he doesn't end up saying anything of much significance, just some bland generalisations about life/experience, and we never really get too many character insights. It's too elusive, too much concerned with surface, despite the fact that so many of its fans praise it for going deeper than most blockbusters. At times I felt I was watching an extended commercial, of the kind that seem prevalent nowadays - seductive visual images with meditative music transposed over the top, calming in a new age meditation kind of a way, but ultimately not saying much.
Here's a brief summary of the movie: Johanssen is bored and lonely in Tokyo because her husband (a photographer) is away all the time and thinks she is a snob. She's not sure what to do with her life after completing her philosophy degree at Yale, and wanders around the city, aimlessly searching for meaning. Murray is a washed-up film star doing whiskey commercials in Japan for a week. His phone conversations with his wife reveal a seemingly warm relationship, though as the film continues it becomes clear that he's going through something of a mid-life crisis; she's wrapped up in the kids and the trappings of domesticity (seen in the faxes she sends through about shelves and carpets), he's almost not needed, and life has lost some of its spark. Fairly predictably, he tries to rekindle with Johanssen, though - thank God - platonically. (In fact, this was one of the best aspects of the film - it resisted the temptation to become a romantic drama and instead enabled a slightly more perceptive look at human relationships in general. Probably the falsest part of the film was when Murray slept with another woman - it felt contrived and added little to plot or atmosphere.) In the end, though, he has to return to his family, Johanssen has to continue her search for meaning alone, and Murray's biggest act of rebellion is telling his wife he wants to start eating Japanese food. The problem is, they feel so aimless anyway that it's hard to feel too much sympathy for them - they're rich, with access to facilities which millions across the world could only dream of, and both have loving (if perhaps distanced) spouses - it could be argued that Coppola's analysing the emptiness at the heart of modern society, despite its wealth and power, but because the film is so elusive, it never really manages to summon itself up to SAY something - though it gives the impression that the viewer has been through something meaningful. Another problem is the treatment of the Japanese, which, as several other reviewers have noted, rarely rises beyond fairly cheap comical stereotyping - a far more potent analysis of the lack of understanding between cultures and the barriers constructed by language and custom could have been undertaken which would have added a whole layer of meaning to the film that, as it is, is only hinted at (as much by the title as anything).
There were many ideas, themes and threads only hinted at in the film, which, if developed further, could have ensured the experience that so many seem to think this already is. As with much contemporary artistic product, I feel that people are quick to praise LIT as wonderful because it so much as touches on deeper themes, whether or not it fully realises them or develops them in a convincing way. What should really be the benchmark should be art that actually succeeds in not just suggesting ideas beyond the vapidity of the mainstream, but carries them through and causes us, for example, to take a fresh look at the familiar (as opposed to us just leaving the cinema and saying 'how beautiful, how thought-provoking, how ARTISTIC, it must be a masterpiece').