…and the quest to see everything

Posts tagged “western

Short Take: The Hunter


The Hunter, based on director Julia Leigh‘s novel, shows us an Australia that isn’t like the desert-like outback that we’re not used to. Here we have Tasmania’s vast greenery, hiding himself among trees, silver like rock formations and caves. It’s a visual work although it has more to do with what’s in front of the camera instead of how director Daniel Nettheim frames it. Most of the movie is comprised by these sequences where Willem Dafoe‘s titular character, Martin David has two-week stints searching for a Tasmanian tiger, a species thought of as extinct since the 1930’s, because of a toxin that it’s supposed to have. This forest and the town near it are contentious places.  Martin poses as a University professor and in a way he is, the way he walks through the area makes him seem more like a civilized, thorough researcher as opposed to a ‘hunter,’ who sees the animal to feed either his survival or sadism. Outside the forest, his new life is laced with sections of contrivances. He has inadvertently allied himself with the environmentalists with whom he’s living and angering the townsfolk who depend on logging for their economy. One of those environmentalists is his temporary landlady (Frances O’Connor), a woman recovering from a prescription drug addiction. He becomes a de facto partner to her as well as a detective, trying to discover what has happened to her husband who is also missing in the forest. While watching this I’m appreciating Dafoe’s subtle performance, a departure from the crazy roles that he’s known for in mainstream movies. And I understand that Martin is enthusiastically taking on his multiple roles within his new society, but these new-found connections feel like a reach. Not even the climactic ending, great as it is, can make me forget the falsified tensions that came before it. Image via eone. 3/5.

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A Woman’s Scene: The Proposition


Then comes a scene inThe Proposition when Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) is haunted by his titular…proposition. I know he’s right but he doesn’t successfully convince two people, his boss and his wife, Martha (Emily Watson), who is listening next door. Now I know what’s she’s thinking, being mad at Stanley for releasing one of the men who allegedly has raped her friend. She later voices out ‘What if she had been me,’ giving us Lars flashbacks. In both senses, I can’t fault her. Maybe Watson’s superbly visceral portrayal of Martha’s engender the emotional distance between her and me, the viewer, and Stanley. Between opposing definitions of justice and retribution. That moment definitely made me want to reach out and try to fully understand.


Coen’s True Grit


Mattie Ross’ story is back on the movies again, and this time we hear her adult voice first while blurry yellow lights shine somewhere within the centre of the screen. Eventually the audience gets an image of her father, Frank, lying dead in front of a porch.

The camera shows Frank’s body from a safe distance. Eventually the film shows dried skin from cadavers in a mortuary where young Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) has to sleep, hollowed out eyes, a man (John Goodman?) shot in the head, bodies that become exposed on the snow, men who die because their heads will fall on rocks, a man who has long passed with a snake living where his stomach has been.

Do you want me to count the injuries too? The multiple gun wounds, the ranger Laboeuf (Matt Damon) mangling up his mouth and teeth, Mattie getting spanked, getting a boot on her head and a gun pointed at her, threats of rape directed at her at least once. And that’s not the end of her suffering. As a frank depiction of the Western, the beautifully shot True Grit honestly show the corporeal effects of a violent civilization where the dead are disrespected, some of whom deserve that fate.

We’ve seen this realism in the Coen’s No Country for Old Men, but what makes the violence more shocking is that it’s seen and experienced by a girl. Mattie, who backs up her claims in knowing the legal aspects of 1870’s Arkansas, behaves as if her father’s death has always been a possibility. In his passing, she aims to take care of his business matters, since her mother’s apparently not so good at those things. She also looks for a hired Marshall to hunt for the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who killed her father.

The sheriff gives her three choices for her Marshall and she chooses the meanest one, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges). The men she encounters already brand her as a headstrong, young woman in pursuing Chaney and going to the country with him despite Cogburn’s advice. Yet in hiring Cogburn, she concedes that she can’t do the job alone. The film exposes other symbolic manifestations of her shortcomings. A hat that’s too small for her that she modifies with a newspaper, her oversized clothing. Buying a pony instead of a horse – although she doesn’t ride side-saddle. She asks Cogburn or Laboeuf what should they do in instances like gunner showdowns, her question actually meaning what are the men going to do for her.

Going back to being unable to do the job alone, that fits not only Mattie but the rest of the major characters as well. Mattie and Laboeuf successfully petition to Cogburn and each other that they’re necessary in the journey, even if they have to do so repeatedly. Laboeuf, who has investigated Chaney, his other crimes and his whereabouts, convinces Cogburn that it takes a two-man job at the least to take Chaney. Mattie is the ethical heart of the journey, her presence in the trek a reminder of Chaney’s crimes.

Along the way, there are some  pauses and silences within the film that eventually leads to Coenesque humour. Mattie’s encounters with the men in town, their awkward if not mean-spirited treatment of her greeted with laughter and not of the nervous kind. Cogburn’s encounters with Native kids [ETA] made me feel uncomfortable. And of course, the dentist with the bear suit, taking us away from one-note solemnity that the rest of the journey could have been.

I saw this film with my sister, who lauded Mattie for being a feminist hero and Steinfeld’s fast yet smooth talking performance, besting veterans like Bridges and Damon in the Coenesque dialogue. There are also racial dynamics minimized here. Strangely enough, the black and Asian characters having fewer lines within the narrative compared to the John Wayne vehicle 40 years ago. She lastly pointed out Chaney, as Brolin adds paranoia and vulnerability to his irrational villain. 4/5.


100: Johnny Guitar


Let me just begin by saying that this is the campiest western I’ve seen so far. Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) rushes into Vienna’s (Joan Crawford) casino and accusing her of hiring the Dancing Kid for a stagecoach ambush that killed her brother. They throw empty threats about each other’s gunnery or gunship or whatever that will make Joan Collins pale in comparison. Emma throws remarks that eventually reveals her secret desire for the Dancing Kid and resentment of Vienna’s plans to introduce a train line to the insular town. McIvers (Ward Bond), who is in Emma’s team, instates a law to ban gambling and drinking outside town limits, crippling Vienna’s business. That’s just the first scene.

Then the Dancing Kid robs a bank because he thinks it’s a good idea.

This is the first time I notice the colour black in costume to pop out in a western. While Emma and her people wear the dusty browns of typical Western costume, Vienna wears black. She seems like the villain in this part of the film. She’s also more showy in her affluence, also wearing pants to show one of her employees’ endearing quips about being more manly and making him feel like less of one. The next day shows an inversion of that duality. Vienna has a few costume changes while the mob keeps wearing their mourning black and staining it while hunting for their usual suspects. Vienna’s a woman who has to transform herself because of her past, present and future, the mob keep on to old grudges and bring with them a wave of revenge and death.

After the bank robbery come the best scenes of the film, for my shallow and subjective reasons. Vienna lights the oil lamps of a chandelier, wearing a white dress that looks like she’s hosting a ball in Europe instead of closing shop in the West. Then one of the Dancing Kid’s collaborators, Turkey, totters into her saloon. Despite the hallowed Lightbox screening, I gasped loudly ‘No!’ Don’t ruin the dress.

Thank God. Vienna shows us a BAMF move, playing a piano peacefully despite of Emma’s shrill (sorry) accusations.

The lynch mob tries to finish off Vienna but she escapes. The red dust of the West doesn’t even touch the dress. My eyebrow is raising.

Vienna and the titular Johnny ‘Guitar’ Logan (Sterling Hayden) escape to a mine shaft under the former’s now burnt down saloon. A little burning wooden beam falls down on Vienna’s dress. Finally.

Despite of how well some of her contemporaries have aged, it’s still strange to see Joan Crawford try and succeed to pull off something like that. But then it’s not like the film was trying to hide her age. As Vienna, she has a history, but she knows how to take care of herself.

I’ll make a last sartorial note about the film about the final showdown. Vienna and Johnny escape through a waterfall to the Dancing Kid’s lair. The Kid offers her dry clothes – Turkey’s. Vienna shoots Emma wearing Turkey’s yellow shirt, although she looks like she cans hoot a gun better than Turkey would. In a way, she helps him get a revenge he may have asked for.

Johnny Guitar is part of TIFF’s 100, a strange choice for the campy movie being championed by critics today. TIFF’s write-up of the film touched on the movie having the two strongest female characters in film history. I agree in a way that it took me four years and this movie to know that there’s a movie out there that has two women in opposing ends of gun mobs. And yes, the men in the film are as useful as the guns themselves, rarely opposing the women who lead them. They do subvert stereotypes of good and evil, virgin and whore. And of course, Vienna and Emma are better than many female characters today. But are these female characters only strong in comparison?

Johnny Guitar, directed by pot-stirrer Nicholas Ray with a supporting cast including Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine, is on again at the Lightbox on November 20th at 6PM.


TIFF: Meek’s Cutoff


ph. TIFF

Set in 1845 and based on a real man who helped people cross the Oregon trail, the images of Kelly Reichardt‘s new effort Meek’s Cutoff leaves its audiences breathless. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and three families cross a river, where the blues and yellows of this riverside scene contrast so beautifully, the first of many visual contrasts within the film like as the bright costumes and the night and day scenes. Each actress, actor and prop is meticulously placed within the film’s full screen format. The 1.35:1 aspect ratio, an interesting choice for Reichardt, emphasize the vertical lines and shapes lost in most wide-screen films today, the latter only emphasizing the landscape and horizontal divisions within the picture plane.

We also have, in this first sequence, Thomas (Paul Dano) carving the word ‘lost’ on a rock, outlining the uncertainties of the frontier, the families becoming withered, pessimistic and doubtful of their guide. Then Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) finds an ‘Indian’ – she’s at first tries to shoot him but eventually becomes his ally and advocate in the group, thinking that the elegiac figure can help the group better than Meek can.

The movie sometimes doesn’t engage its audience, with its commitment to show the arid silences between wagon treks. However, the images and the subtle performances from a cast that includes Zoe Kazan, Will Patton and a firm Christian played by Shirley Henderson make watching this a memorable experience. 5/5, but I was balancing out the 2’s and 3’s I was seeing.


Winter’s Bone


ph. Roadside Attractions

Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) has this doll-shaped, pristine face that makes her look like a model for a Renaissance painting – she’s not in the cover of the September issue of W for nothing. Yet she evokes a working class toughness through her looks and performance. The latter can also be said the population of this heroine’s small town setting in the Ozarks, most of whom like hey could be related to Charles Manson, most of whom are distantly related to Ree.

I haven’t seen everything under the American Neo Realist canon – does The Wrestler count? Nonetheless, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone shows what we can expect from the genre – messy living spaces, our heroine Ree who has to take care of children through tough love, the heroine who knows that opportunity is difficult to reach and tries anyway. Then there’s the dangerous hurdle in front of her – having to look for her father or else she’ll lose her house. Within that major plot point comes the portrayal of an honour code in her drug-ridden community that separates her from her elders – yes, elders.

Winter’s Bone is also one of the most climactic example within a genre that chooses minimal and super subtle emotions. Don’t mistake me, there’s economical dialogue here too, but every word in the script has a kick. There are also scenes like when her own uncle Teardrop threatens her. His hand comes from nowhere and that tense moment is captured through film that I’ve probably never seen before.

Supporting cast includes Garret Dillahunt, bit player in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Dale Dickey, the hooker/Betty White’s daughter in “My Name is Earl,” in a chilling performance.


Gone Baby Gone and Genre


ph. Miramax

Last Saturday, TCM was showing “The Searchers,” the king of all westerns that I can’t blog about for my own neurotic reasons. Fortunately I can tie it into a movie that was on Bravo Canada the night/morning after – Gone Baby Gone. It did come out in a year that overflowed with proper Western films. And both have missing children and gun-toting!

So is Gone Baby Gone a western? It’s not a noir because there are hardly if ever any child abductions in that genre. Noir’s a very adult genre, focusing on an underworld that only seeps into the domestic areas in one or two instances. Dorchester’s both an underbelly and a residential neighborhood, on the other than there’s a separation between those two worlds that the precedent in both genres show. And there’s not enough shadow in the movie. Conversely, There has been a school of thought that believes that the 1970’s urban landscape, particularly New York City, was the new frontier (There’s also a documentary about the post-1967 depiction of police in cinema which I can’t find that talks about this too. It was on AMC.). Our hero Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) introduces the film by narrating about what that the people of Dorchester believe in, patriotism and family values, just like the old West. Dorchester in the 2000’s is a multicultural environment that’s a bit like the West. The film also has two bar fight scenes that involve guns, another thing it has in common with the genre. Yet it doesn’t have the newness nor the relatively hospitable feel nor the desire for purgation that the Western genre evokes. “It’s the things that you don’t choose that make you who you are, ” Patrick says, and he continues with “I’ve lived in this block my whole life, most of these people have.” The neighborhood can either only  not change or decay, and we can say the same about its inhabitants.

And it’s easy enough to compare the characters of Gone Baby Gone‘s with that of “The Searchers.” Patrick is the Martin Pawley, our dutiful moral compass. Both are hybrid characters – they are despised in one society and is a stranger to another. Both are men infiltrating a seedy environment, believe in an idealized world with order, and can pistol-whip their enemies even though they don’t look it. Patrick’s more level-headed than Martin, but both are equally capable of making tactical mistakes with dangerous strangers. And Patrick’s more hesitant in killing criminals than Martin is.

His girlfriend Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) is the domestic, moral yet brainwashed Laurie Jorgensen. Both represent the mainstream morality of their time. Both are equally prone to saying ruthlessly horrific things about the other characters and unhesitatingly condemn to those whom they think are beneath them. But obviously, Laurie will never jump into a quarry to try to save another woman’s child.

Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) is Ethan Edwards, both of whom are psychopaths who have suspicious origins and histories and are constantly abusing their powers under a badge. Both also have skewered worldviews – children might forgive, Mr. Bressant, but they don’t forget. Both also know their enemies like experts. Amanda MacCready is Debbie Edwards, both of whom fit better with those who have abducted them, who fit better in an idealized world that the protagonists are willing to destroy. Their return to their homes are open-ended, at least more so with Amanda’s. And Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman)? Spoiler, but he’s a dop-pel-gang-er!

Helene MacCready (Amy Ryan, nominated for an Academy Award for the role) is a different animal, or at least someone who belongs to the Noir tradition. The scene where she recalls her daughter’s supposed last words has revolting implications. She’s irredeemable.  The most horrifying thing about her character is that she’s only capable of promising change in times of crisis. When Patrick restores order for her benefit, she can’t even fake joy for this reunion, not even for the cameras. She leaves her daughter like she does every day, returns to her old, drug addled ways.

Also, both “The Searchers” and Gone Baby Gone tend towards deluded ethics based on wobbly rhetoric. The denouement of Gone Baby Gone, when Patrick finally confronts Amanda’s real kidnapper, he prattles on with a speech about that what’s better for the child is not right for the child. Both Patrick and the kidnapper try to speak on the child’s behalf, a dangerous thing to do. Patrick even speaks like this in front of Angie. In most of the film, I felt that its grit outweighs it sentimentality, but this scene makes both influences present, for better or worse. Both the kidnapper’s words and delivery seem more sane that Patrick’s idealism, or maybe Affleck (director or star) might be misguided during this particular stage of the character.

Lars just told me that Gone Baby Gone is the last of a series of four books in a series by pulp writer Dennis Lehane. Explains the speeches. And don’t mistake me, I like the movie. I would have loved it would those few scenes.