Tag Archive: Westerns


Unforgiven1

When they’re wronged, most people feel an immediate need for justice to right that wrong. When someone steals, we put them in jail. When someone kills, a handful of states (in a barbaric practice) will kill in return. And while putting someone in jail can keep them from stealing again and executions can keep someone from killing again, is that justice? It doesn’t restore the stolen property. It doesn’t bring the dead back to life. It simply appeases our need to feel that something has been done even if nothing productive came out of the act itself. And the idea that we then commit violence for violence’s sake becomes terrifying and that paradox of how to make right that which is wrong lies at the core of the mature and thematically complex anti-Western, Unforgiven.

When someone is assaulted or violated in some physical manner, society’s focus tends to be on the aggressor of that violence rather than the victim? And while it’s important to ensure that these acts can’t occur again, why is that the epicenter of our attention? Why isn’t it the person that’s hurting? They are the ones who suffered the most, not the society that punishes the action causing the pain. And, while their names may be invoked in the quest for “justice,” too often their actual needs are swept under the rug. And throughout Unforgiven, men seek “justice” while the woman whose brutalization sets the film in motion never has her world returned to normal.

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TheManWhoShotLibertyValance1

When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

Not all Westerns are brow-beating boy’s adventure tales. Although your typical cowboys and Indians tale was the purview of John Wayne and John Ford, the genre has expanded its horizons over the years. Brokeback Mountain turned the natural beauty and gorgeous location shots of the Western into a tragic story of forbidden love. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven was the striking anti-Western which explored the psychological consequences of violence and revenge. Television’s Breaking Bad may be a modern drug crime drama, but anyone who’s seen the show’s long shots of the open Arizona desert (or this season’s rousing train robbery) knows where it’s roots lie.

2007’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward of Robert Ford from director Andrew Dominik transforms the American Western into an absorbing, existentialist psychological drama. By taking one of the most famous figures of the American West and turning his infamous murder on its head, The Assassination of Jesse James avoids the biggest risk faced by all historical dramas. Rather than focusing on the “what” or “how” of history, it examines the why. By making the Western into a gripping character study, The Assassination of Jesse James is one of last decade’s best Westerns.

At the tender age of 19, Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) was accepted into the notorious James brothers gang, led by the charismatic Jesse James (Moneyball‘s Brad Pitt). Robert is a shy and sensitive young man with more education than your average gunslinger. He has worshiped Jesse James his entire life. With a list of similarities between himself and the storied criminal that he recite at whim, Robert is Jesse’s biggest fan. He even has a stash of nickel novels stashed under his bed celebrating a fictional side of Jesse’s outlaw life. So, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime when he’s given the chance to run with his hero. Naturally, it all goes downhill from there.

Robert Ford quickly learns that living the life of an outlaw isn’t as glamorous as he imagined. His hero worship for Jesse earns him the ire and cruelty of his criminal comrades (played by a wonderful supporting cast including Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Sam Rockwell, and Garret Dillahunt) and the immediate suspicion of Jesse himself. After taking one humiliation after another from Jesse and crew, Robert finally gets it in his head to kill Jesse at the behest of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and must wrestle with the moral minefield of deciding to shoot his former leader for fame and wealth.

One could be forgiven for thinking that a film with such dark themes shouldn’t look this pretty. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a gorgeously shot film at an almost Malick-ian scale. Although the film makes use of lengthy expositional montages (to get across some of the more historical information of the film), it never feels too stale or dry because the lighting and coloring of the film is phenomenal. If a film is going to run for 2 hours and 40 minutes, it’s got to have a lot going for it, and the always stunning cinematography kept you glued to the screen.

The film also acts as an engrossing meditation on responsibility and guilt (in a similar vein to last year’s marvelous Margaret). Although history has come down rather harshly on Robert Ford (hence the film’s somewhat ironic title), The Assassination of Jesse James paints a far more sympathetic portrait. Yet it also refuses to absolve Robert completely of the role he plays. Instead, we see a tightly wound, complex tale of hero worship gone wrong, how deep loyalty binds us, how far we go to protect ourselves, and even some slight homoerotic undertones (that perhaps I’m reading too deeply into).

Casey Affleck earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination (Javier Bardem obviously deserved the win that year for No Country for Old Men). Robert Ford has been painted as one of history’s most notorious cowards. Casey Affleck captures Robert’s wounded pride, his obvious obsession with Jesse, his growing remorse about his decision to kill Jesse, and his overall shame about the path he walks. With great performances in Good Will Hunting and Gone Baby Gone, Casey Affleck has matured into a great actor that surpassed his brother Ben with aplomb.

Brad Pitt is also wonderful. His Jesse James is an almost mythical figure, a monster from a child’s cautionary tale. Although the film takes great pains to let you know this legendary bandit is a human being like the rest of us (we see him playing with his children, doting on his wife [Mary Louise Parker], and enjoying the company of his friends), Brad Pitt never lets you forget that Jesse is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. If he has the slightest reason to suspect betrayal, he’ll kill you without batting an eyelash. Brad Pitt channels Jesse’s paranoia, his mercurial charm, his ability to inflict fear and loyalty into everyone around him, and ultimately his weariness with the world around him. 2007 was a great year for Oscar nominees but it’s hard to believe that Brad Pitt wasn’t nominated.

The film is also buoyed by its wonderful supporting cast. Paul Schneider (Parks and Recreation) shows why he was such a believable roue in All the Real Girls as the rakish Dick Liddle whose voracious sexual appetite helps put the eventual downfall of the James gang in motion. Jeremy Renner (The Avengers) made one of his most high-profile pre-The Hurt Locker roles as Jesse’s cousin, Wood Hite, who gets his jollies from bullying the sensitive young Robert Ford. Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt plays the type of cowardly, in-too-deep role that has been a mainstay of his career as another member of the gang who may or may not have been planning to betray Jesse, and of course Moon‘s Sam Rockwell continues to show why he is one of America’s most under-appreciated character actors as the Cheshire cat grin-bearing Charlie Ford.

It’s difficult to stress enough how unconventional of a western The Assassination of Jesse James ultimately is. Although it delivers moments such as a train robbery, shoot-outs, and stunning vistas of the untouched American west, those genre touchstones are ultimately secondary to exploring what drove Robert to murder and perhaps telling one man’s side of the story after 150 years of having his name smeared. The consensus among Western purists is that the film is “too slow” and “too talky,” but for people who aren’t even big Western fans in the first place, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have the potential to change your mind about the genre forever. Don’t let this underappreciated gem slip under your radar.

Final Score: A-

I feel like I say this at least two or three times a month but it bears repeating. I’m not generally a fan of dramas before the 1960s (film noir is the major exception to that rule). 95% of the time, the Hays Code just kept them from being interesting. They’re all too (especially in comparison to modern dramas) clean and sterilized. So, it’s always great when I come across a non-noir drama from that era that still holds up really well even by today’s standards. Thanks in large part to a phenomenal performance from James Dean and a shockingly progressive story about racism against Mexicans in the 1920s-1950s, George Stevens’ inter-generational epic Giant was a fascinating (if flawed and extraordinarily too long) look into a time when the cinematic form was finally able to be a little more aware of the tragedies going on in the world around them (rather than serving as a reflection of the societal ideal and ignoring the uglier truths of American society) as well as taking an opportunity to tell a more morally complex and mature tale than the usual Hollywood fare of the time. If we only take the films nominated for Best Picture into account (because The Searchers wasn’t nominated but was easily the best film of that year), Giant was easily better than the over-the-top adventure tale of Around the World in Eighty Days.Giant’s not a perfect film, but I was shocked by how rarely my more cynical side wanted to come out to heckle the more idealistic/romantic side of period dramas of this era.

Taking place over nearly three decades on a nearly 600,000 acre cattle ranch in Texas, Giant is a sprawling film that unveils its ultimate message on greed and pride over the course of three and a half hours. On a trip to Maryland to buy a stallion, Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Rock Hudson) meets the beautiful and independent-minded Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), and after only knowing each other for two days, they marry. Bick takes Leslie back with him to his family’s massive Texas cattle ranch which Bick runs along with his masculine and domineering sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge). Bick maintains a rivalry with a surly and shiftless cattle hand named Jett Rink (James Dean) who inherits a small plot of land on the Benedict estate when Luz dies in a horse accident. Jett’s infatuation with Leslie as well his unwillingness to sell back his inherited land to the Benedicts causes an unspoken strife among the families. When, several years later, Jett strikes oil on his plot of land (and becomes one of the wealthiest men in Texas), Jett’s fortunes rise while the Benedicts slowly begin to decline and their class snobbery suddenly begins to reverse. Faced with either selling his land to Jett or giving up the family trade of cattle to pursue the oil business, Bick decides to enter the oil game even though he doesn’t achieve the same kind of wealth as Jett. Throughout this, we get a recurring subplot about the horrendous conditions that the Mexican ranchhands working Bick’s land must face and the complete lack of empathy from all of the white ranchmen (and eventual oil barons) considering their plight. Only Leslie seems to have any sympathy for them, and twenty years later (when she and Bick have grown children), the eldest son Jordy (Dennis Hopper) marries one of the local Mexican girls causing a local scandal which forces Bick to come to terms with his own prejudice.

Despite the film’s absurdly exhaustive length (serious cuts could have and should have been made to this film. Just because you’re movie is about Texas doesn’t mean it needs to be as big as Texas), Giant had plenty going for it. First of all, James Dean could have had a career as huge as Marlon Brando’s if he hadn’t died in a car accident at the age of 24. Giant was the second film he received a Best Actor nomination for (though, honestly, he was a supporting player in this film) and (despite being in the wrong category) it was well deserved. He brought a wounded, brooding sensitivity to the role. Their was such a fierce naturalism and realism to his performance that he was acting in an entirely different style and class than everyone else in the film. This was the turning point from the classical Laurence Oliver style theatrical acting of the past to the more modern, method style employed by a lot of the top actors of the 60s and 70s (Brando, Nicholson, Hoffman, etc). James Dean was at the forefront of that, and it’s hard for me to believe that Yul Brynner was better in The King and I. James Dean was acting circles around everyone else in the movie. That’s not to insult the performances of Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. They just came from an entirely different school of acting. Rock Hudson also had a more sophisticated sensitivity and Elizabeth Taylor’s intellectual ferocity was a refreshing mix-up from most of the women of the day. However, there was zero romantic chemistry between Hudson and Taylor (though perhaps I’m reading too much into that because I know that Rock Hudson was gay. However, James Dean was bisexual and he just dripped with sexuality).

While the Best Director Oscar certainly should have gone to John Ford for The Searchers (he wasn’t nominated. The Academy really fucked it up that year in that regard), George Stevens’ win that year is at least bearable. Giant is full to the brim of breath-taking shots of the Texas plains, and his camera (and film) patiently capture the transformation of these plains from tens of thousands of cattle to an endless lane of giant oil rigs. Similarly, the film captures the dichotomy between the ever-growing wealth of the Benedicts and Jett compared to the endless poverty and subjugation of the peasant Mexican farmers. It manages to accomplish all of this without going into huge grand speeches and when Bick realizes the error of his ways, it comes at a natural pace (and he isn’t completely cured so to speak). As mentioned, George Stevens’ wrested brilliant performances from his leads and knew better than to try and restrain the fiery James Dean with the contemporary conventions of that age. At the end of the day (and I don’t know how much credit to give to Stevens and how much to give to the cinematographer), Giant is simply a gorgeously shot film. If only he had known to put the same sort of care into editing it down to a manageable length.

Seriously though. This movie is more bloated than Lawrence of Arabia (the next movie in my instant queue, Doctor Zhivago, is another three and half hour David Lean film. Oy vey). If George Stevens (and his editor) had shaved like forty five minutes or so off the 201 minute running time, this could have been an “A-” film. As it stands, it’s full of scenes that drag on a couple minutes too long. It can be repetitive, and there are just simply a ton of moments that could have been excised and not lost any of the film’s magic. Regardless, it’s still a good movie even if its excess keeps it from greatness. If you enjoy older films, it’s easy to recommend. James Dean only has a credited role in three films (he had tiny parts in a couple of other films), and unlike say Marilyn Monroe, he is an American sex symbol/icon/film legend deserving of the title. He was just a raw, natural talent that was taken from us too soon and for fans of good acting, his performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Final Score: B

There’s nothing more disappointing than when a film has a ton of individual pieces that seem like a recipe for success but it turns out to be a near total dud instead. 2011’s Rango, directed by Gore Verbinski (which should have been the warning sign that it wasn’t going to be very good), seemed like a surefire success. It was a big budget animated feature from Dreamworks Studios (the studio behind Shrek when they were still a subversive and cutting-edge take on the animated film and not a formulaic cash cow franchise) that won the Best Animated Feature Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. It starred Johnny Depp (who had worked with Gore Verbinski when creating arguably his most iconic role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the original Pirates of the Caribbean). It was a children’s take on the Western genre. It has an astonishingly original art style and looks amazing despite the intentional ugliness of the characters. Yet, despite all of this, the plot and humor in Rango often falls unfortunately flat, and in the wake of the mature and deep characterization offered in Pixar films like Toy Story 3 and Up,ย Rangois far too shallow to be the most celebrated animated film of 2011.

Rango (Johnny Depp) lives a perfectly “ordinary life” as a lizard inside his terrarium. Along with the props in his homes, he explores his desire to be an actor by putting on low-rate theatrical productions that even he realizes are crap. His life is turned upside down though when his terrarium is accidentally jettisoned out of the car it was traveling in and he finds himself without food, water, or shelter in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s not long before he winds up meeting Beans (The Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher), another lizard, who drops him off in the ironically named town of Dirt. Dirt is suffering from a water shortage though the shady Mayor (Deliverance‘s Ned Beatty) claims to have everything under control. When his manhood is questioned at the bar, Rango constructs a series of elaborate lies to embellish his image (and to practice his acting), and after he accidentally saves the town from a murderous hawk, his legend only grows and the Mayor makes Rango the sheriff. It’s not long before Rango finds himself drawn into the investigation of where the town’s water has gone and into an adventure well beyond his control.

Let’s start with the good. The art style makes for one of the best looking and most intriguing (artistically) CGI films ever made. I love the Pixar films, but everything (and everyone) in their films has to be cute. Even Monsters Inc. was full of adorable and huggable “monsters.” Rango isn’t afraid to make its characters a little more stylized and ultimately more distinct. A lot of the characters are downright ugly, but the attention to detail (and the obvious western stereotypes they were drawing on) makes the character art seem much more lively than your average homogenized children’s fare. The characters are animal versions of iconic roles from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and more modern fare likeDeadwood, and if I forced myself to forget about the film’s forgettable story and characters (in terms of their personalities), I could just bask in how well done the film’s visuals were. There are also several explosive action sequences, and Gore Verbinski’s experience directing live-action epics really shows in how thrilling and well-choreographed those scenes were.

The voice acting is also top-notch. Johnny Depp is great in every film of his I’ve seen (except for The Nightmare on Elm Street but that was his debut and doesn’t really count. It wasn’t really a demanding role), and while his interpretation of Rango could get a little too kiddy for me at times (his voice took on the annoying high-pitched trait that I associate with poor English dubs of anime on some occasions), he was able to infuse the film’s rare dramatic moments with considerable heft. Johnny Deppy is very much a physical actor in the vein of Dustin Hoffman, but it still impresses how much he can accomplish with his voice alone. Ned Beatty made as a particularly sinister villain (and Bill Nighy disguised his voice supremely well as one of the smaller antagonists). However, the really shocking voice-acting discovery of the film was Timothy Olyphant. He essentially played Clint Eastwood’s character from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and I actually thought it was Clint Eastwood voicing the character for a minute before I realized I was hearing Raylen Givens. Who knew that Timothy Olyphant could do such a pitch-perfect Clint Eastwood impersonation?

Unfortunately, the film’s story and characters were utterly predictable and completely forgettable. Outside of Depp’s Rango, none of the animal’s made enough of an impact to be remembered as anything other than “the cat,” or “the dog,” or “the mouse.” Maybe, I’m expecting too much from a children’s film but the main cast of Toy Story 3 felt very well-fleshed out (and not just because there were two films preceding it to craft their backstories). By the film’s end, you were taken on a very specific (but still plot-driven) emotional journey that left me in tears. Similarly, think about how much character-based storytelling was accomplished in the first twenty minutes of Up when there were hardly any words spoken? Rango may serve as a passable children’s adventure and comedy (though most of the jokes for the kids fell flat), but in two or three years, no one will be speaking about this film again except perhaps to mention its dazzling artwork. In actuality, the only jokes in the film that really found their marks were meta-textual references to Johnny Depp’s career (and other Western in-jokes) such as Rango flying into the windshield of a car that was obviously being drive by a Raoul Duke stand-in from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Even with my weighty complaints, Rango still has its moments, and its surrealistic art style was a revelation. I don’t think I’ve seen a children’s film loaded with more pop culture references since Shrek 2 blew my “freshman in high school” mind with its never-ending stream of meta jokes. Still, in this Pixar age, I expect more from my children’s films especially one that is deemed the best animated film of the year by the Academy Awards. I’m a Western film fanatic, and I still couldn’t invest myself in the bare-bones plot in Rango. This film has generated a very polarizing response among audiences, and at the end of the day, I have to throw my hat in with its critics. Still, it showed a remarkable amount of potential, and I hope that it’s team of animators go on to do great things in the future. They just need a better script to truly fashion a classic.

Final Score: B-