Joe Kidd (1972)

Joe Kidd (1972) movie poster

director John Sturges
viewed: 12/20/2017

Joe Kidd opens with a weak pseudo Spaghetti score. The Italian Westerns were having an influence their American counterparts at this point, but to a varying degree.  Joe Kidd is still quite Hollywood with maybe the least bit of Italian seasoning. It’s John Sturges so what do you expect.

More than aesthetics, Revisionist Westerns handled themes sympathetic to classes heretofore portrayed mostly villainous. Here, we have a group of Mexicans protesting the land grab that has robbed them of their ancestral homes in New Mexico. Revisionist, but with John Saxon as the populist Mexican leader.

It’s also a bit interesting where in Western history this takes place. It’s meant to be the early 20th century, by which time law and order had settled the Wild West largely. Though here the landowners are still free to make their own justice, hunting down the Mexican gang (and anyone else) to resolve their disputes.

And the villains feature some pretty good thugs, a little more gangster-like (and citified) than Old West. Robert Duvall is such a bad hombre that Donald Trump might try to deport him (just kidding, he’s white).

Meanwhile, Joe Kidd himself isn’t so well-drawn. He’s a man without a backstory who seems like he should have one.

Driving the train through the saloon, though, that was pretty funny.

Greaser’s Palace (1972)

Greaser's Palace (1972) movie poster

director Robert Downey
viewed: 11/23/2017

Less avant-garde than Chafed Elbows (the only other Robert Downey film I’ve seen) but absurdist up the you-know-what. Greaser’s Palace is comedy-cum-acid Western, with less head-trip an a little more giggle.

I was like, “Who is that gorgeous, topless Indian girl on horseback?” and the internet was like, “Toni Basil!”

Greaser’s Palace would be an interesting counterpart to El Topo (1970) as they are both bizarro renderings of Christ via whacked-out Western. Perhaps Greaser’s Palace is in some way a response to El Topo ? I’m spit-balling here.

“I was swimming with billions of babies in a rainbow. And they was naked. And then all of a sudden I turned into a perfect smile.” This is said more than once by a revivified dead guy.

A pretty young Hervé Villechaize shows up.

The Christ figure is a zoot-suited Allan Arbus (best known by me as psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman in TV’s M*A*S*H). I have to say, I always kind of liked his mellow humanism. But some dots that I never connected until watching and researching Greaser’s Palace is that he is also the Allan Arbus who was married to Diane Arbus! This fact kind of blows my mind.

How much you might like Greaser’s Palace is apt to be very hard to anticipate. I actually thought it was pretty funny, though in smallish bursts and slow burns, and mostly unconventionally.

“I can crawl again!”

Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man (1995) movie poster

director  Jim Jarmusch
viewed: 11/25/2016

Dead Man is 21 years old.  It’s been one of my favorite films for that number of years, and it has aged well.  Or not aged at all.  Though actually it had been at least 15 years since I last saw it.

Dead Man isn’t so much an acid trip as it is a grueling death trip.  Jim Jarmusch’s version of the Old West is as bleak a vision as ever portrayed in the Western genre.  It’s no place for a gentle soul.  Death and violence can erupt suddenly or numbingly slowly as the lead from a bullet leeches into your heart.

The spirituality of the native peoples can appeal to your fading senses, or not make any sense at all. Not that anything really has any sense or meaning in this brutal, brief life.  All moments of comedy are black as soot and even your one friend in the world is eliminated by the world’s most heartless and ruthless in a moment of cruel reciprocation. The harsh strains of Neil Young’s guitar wail and punctuate these passing scenes.

I’d long considered showing Dead Man to my kids (it’s essentially sat in a mental queue of films I want to watch with them).  I was very pleased to find that both of them really liked it, more so than I would have anticipated (I’m not always good at predicting these things.)  Still, very satisfying to my paternal cinéaste curation/education side.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) movie poster

director Robert Altman
viewed: 02/28/2016

My favorite Robert Altman film is either McCabe & Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us (1974).  I’ve not seen all of Altman’s films, so I’m no pure expert, but I’d stand by those two choices.

Watching movies the way I do, writing about every single one I’ve seen over 13-14 years now, I’ve tended toward new films, ones I’ve never seen, and haven’t done as much re-visiting as I might if I hadn’t painted myself into this particular corner.  McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one that I’ve wanted to re-watch for years, just hadn’t gotten around to it.

Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is sublime.  The movie set, a small town built in the rugged hills of the Pacific Northwest (actually filmed in Canada), is one of the most striking and apt, a work-in-progress, built during the duration of the filming of the movie, really captures the sense of the frontier town, rapidly constructed to serve the needs and purpose, with the raw materials of the place, amid the timber.

It represents the characters and ideas of the piece, the American ideal of the individual building business on the frontier, taming the wild, building commerce, establishing social structures.  Of course, Warren Beatty, who plays McCabe, lays the groundwork for his fancy bar, restaurant as a brothel out of a tent.  It’s prostitution that forms the basis for business and commerce (“the world’s oldest profession”).  But it takes an English woman, Julie Christie (Mrs. Miller), to clean and class the place up, varnishing the surfaces and adding quality to the product, which takes them into bigger profits.  It doesn’t hurt that she actually knows how to run a business.

The upshot, of course, is that big business already owns everything.  Or has the right to own everything.  The rich send in their minions to buy out the greenhorns, but what McCabe thinks is his right and prerogative, to hold out for more money or even just keep his own business turns out to be the quickest way to find out who really runs things in America.

The pessimism of the film’s ending, which is a really incredible sequence, drawn out over nearly twenty minutes, is what makes the film so revisionist.  In Westerns of earlier times, those villains might exist and with the same motives and representations, but here, they win out.  And the business in question might not necessarily have been trafficking in sex.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a remarkable film.  Beautiful.

The Keeping Room (2014)

The Keeping Room (2014) movie poster

director Daniel Barber
viewed: 02/14/2016

The further that we move in time from the period of the Western, the less ubiquitous it becomes culturally and the more significant it becomes as a form of commentary and understanding of history.  This is the nature of the Revisionist Western, telling stories that the traditional genre utterly omitted, giving voice and agency to peoples reduced to stereotypes or bit roles in the genre’s heyday, and shedding light on history in new ways.

The Keeping Room is a thriller, set at the end of America’s Civil War.  Three women, two sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave (Muna Otaru), are left at their homestead as men have headed off for war.  They run afoul of two rogue soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) who have taken the annihilation of war to their psyches and rape and murder and pillage like demons unleashed on the land.

I really wanted this movie to be better than it is.  You could probably say that about any number of movies, sure.  But this one has a deep kernel of real interest deep down in it, the idea is really good.  But it just isn’t that good a movie.

The is the second new generally praised Western of late (Slow West (2015) being the other) that I found disappointing but hard to pinpoint on what was wrong with the movie.  The Keeping Room isn’t as bad as Slow West.  But it nagged at me throughout, something just sort of “off”.  I don’t know.  That’s all I got.


The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) movie poster

director Philip Kaufman
viewed: 02/01/2016

Back in 2007, inspired by Andrew Dominik’s great The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I jumped down a rabbit hole of the cinematic Jesse James.  At the time, Netflix only carried so many Jesse James movies, but I pushed through all I could get my hands on, really, just trying to complete it.  I did, at the time, go through what I could find readily.

Since that time, more movies have trickled out of the woodwork.  Some new films, but probably just more complete lists of films.  Everything from the 1939 Herny King classic, Jesse James to the atrociously hilarious William “One-Shot” Beaudine flick Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).

Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist version of the James and Younger gang is quite contrary to most depictions of the famed outlaw.  The story is focused on Cole Younger, played here with great charm by Cliff Robertson.  The Youngers aren’t portrayed as the second fiddles of the gang but the real leaders and more noble hearts of the rebellious raiders.  Jesse James is played by Robert Duvall, and he’s not just a scoundrel but an out-and-out psychopath, killing unnecessarily, taking credit for things he didn’t do, and even shamed as being perhaps not as lustily heterosexual as the others.

This is a real contrast to most depictions, which tend to ennoble the gang, stealing from the banks and railroads that they felt had wronged the common man in their expansion across the States.

Kaufman’s movie is full of weird little things, like a long sequence depicting a baseball game (newfangled fad that it was), the character of the very Scandinavian stock of Northfield, MN, the “wonderments” of a steam plow, and a strange hoodoo treatment by an old lady witch.   These are the elements that give the movie character, and its true charms.

Because overall, the film has a weird character, flipping between PG comedy (those Pinkerton detectives forever on their train car, never catching their prey) and a little more seriousness.  Duvall’s Jesse James is quite unlikable, which I assume is intentional.  Robertson, though, is quite good.

It’s an odd muddle of a film, interesting in context of looking at variant depictions of the historical and yet folkloric characters.

The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant (2015) movie poster

director Alejandro G. Iñárritu
viewed: 01/10/2015 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

First and foremost, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant is a tremendously beautiful-looking picture.  As shot for Iñárritu by Emmanuel Lubezki in all natural lighting, on location in Canada, the US, and Argentina as stand-ins for Wyoming/South Dakota/not-entirely-sure?, it’s gorgeous, from the landscapes to the close-ups, to the camera movement and tracking shots.  Lubezki also shot Iñárritu’s Academy Award winning Birdman (as well as many other notable films).

It’s true that The Revenant was inspired by true events.  Adapted from a 2002 novel by Michael Punke whose story was based on events from the life of frontiersman Hugh Glass, some of the film’s most craziest aspects have connections to fact and history.  But The Revenant isn’t just about someone who fantastically cheated death after a bear mauling and being left to perish, it’s a story of revenge.

Leonard DiCaprio suffers like a super-trooper, having had his son killed by the ruthless Tom Hardy (proving again that his version of Bane wasn’t the only character he’ll play speaking as if with a mouthful of marbles and nails).

At 156 minutes, it’s hardly a lean picture, but it is lean in its story.  The film adds aspects of a more complex and empathetic depiction of Native Americans.  In this case there are the more vicious Ree who are slaughtering whites looking for a kidnapped daughter and the more peaceable Pawnee with whom DiCaprio has had a child (the one Hardy stabs).  DiCaprio is aided by another Indian when suffering a grueling infection, one he later sees hung by cruel Canadian whites.  The film is certainly revisionist but what it actually is trying to say re: first peoples isn’t necessarily clear to me.

Two of the film’s biggest shots are ironically digital.  The bear mauling, of course, is a big CGi mama bear.  And when DiCaprio takes his horse over cliff to escape a siege of unfriendly natives, that’s CGi too.  Of course these are CGi.  You’re not going to get this scene, either of them, with real animals, and they are well-done, too.  But I felt this somewhat undercut the “natural light”/”no digital manipulation” a bit for simple and obvious reasons.

The upshot?  I thought it was a very good movie, the cinematography is tremendous.  I took my kids to see it and they both thought it was good as well.  Will it win an Oscar?  Will DiCaprio?  The day we saw it it won Golden Globes as did Leo.  My guess is that it will probably do so with the Oscars as well.

I think it’s interesting that two major Westerns came out in 2015.  A genre is not a dead horse yet, CGi or actual.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/31/2015 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The latest film from pop auteur Quentin Tarantino, shot and notably projected in special occasions in 70mm, is his second Western in a row.  After his slave revenge film, Django Unchained (2012), something about the genre must have stuck with him, long as his films gestate, and he turns out a very different film, but as very typical of Tarantino, a very entertaining one as well.

In many ways, The Hateful Eight is the writer-director at the top of his game, weaving a story of eight (or more) villains stuck in an isolated cabin in a blizzard in the nowheres of Wyoming, each with their own set of backstories (or lies, but stories nonetheless), giving them ample reason to suspect that everyone else wants to kill them.

Kurt Russell is “The Hangman”, a bounty hunter with a filthy, mouthy Daisy Domergue in tow (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman with a $10,000 bounty on her head.  And Russell’s Hangman is known to “bring ’em back alive” even if that is not necessary, because he likes to see ’em hung.  Their stagecoach encounters Major Marquis Warren (Tarantino go-to Samuel L. Jackson) with a pile of dead bodies he’s bountied up, followed by running into another feller, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) who claims to be the newly hired Sheriff of the town of Red Rock, to which they are heading.

Jackson and Tarantino were made for one another.  He delivers Tarantino’s dialog better than anyone, and Tarantino gives Jackson the roles and opportunities that have turned him into such a major star over the past 20 years.

At 3 hours in epic length, the film if anything, seems to be quite simply about “storytelling”.  It’s a complex set of events and backstories that sets the characters on the stage of the cabin, unfolding in six titled chapters, zipping back and forth at times in unfolding, populated with many a dialog of reveal of a character’s past, true or untrue, uncovering motivations, acted upon or not.

And so, when suddenly in Chapter Four: “Domergue’s Got a Secret,” a voice-over narrator pops in to tell the audience something that Tarantino has chosen not to “show” us, it’s of course Tarantino himself.  Hey, it’s his movie, of course he’s going to be the narrator if there is a narrator.  He’s got to insinuate himself in there somehow.

Tarantino’s idea, which he told was to put “‘a bunch of nefarious guys… together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens’ ” is constructed tightly and cleverly.  It may be 3 hours long but he snares the viewer early on and his storytelling prowess is flowing freely.  But in a Tarantino picture, you put a “bunch of guys in a room and see what happens” you know what is going to happen: everybody is going to get shot.

As much as I looked for deeper meanings in the text, the only things that stood out was one when Jackson says, as he takes a gun from somebody that “a black man only feels safe when white men are disarmed,” followed perhaps by the title of the sixth and final chapter “Black Man, White Hell”.  I considered if there was some underlying meaning being laid out here, especially with Tarantino’s recent involvement in police protests, but I’m not sure that it’s the biggest point of the film at all.

I keep coming back to Tarantino as narrator, Tarantino as storyteller, and really, that’s where the film sings.  Now, that said, Tarantino loves his own storytelling voice so much that his voice comes through in many of the stories being told, through many of the voices telling the stories, even Jackson’s.  And that is perhaps Tarantino’s great weakness: his admiration for his own skills as a writer and director (and at times actor).

The Hateful Eight is very good entertainment, a great time at the cinema.  If you’re lucky enough to see it on 70mm, I hear that is the way to go.  Unfortunately, I wound up seeing it digitally projected (whatever).  It has its flaws and short-comings, some of them perhaps deeper than others.  But I enjoyed it.  And I’ll look forward to his next film, whatever he does.

Boss Nigger (1974)

Boss Nigger (1974) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 11/21/2014

I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title.  Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss.  And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.

Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western.  And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.

Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive.  When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.

It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.

Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart.  Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.

It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.

Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself.  On this point, I cannot say.  I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) movie poster

director Seth MacFarlane
viewed: 11/19/2014

Who am I to criticize Seth MacFarlane?

MacFarlane writes, produces, directs, and stars in the comedy Western A Million Ways to Die in the West.

That’s nothing new.  He’s been the voice star of his television show Family Guy and American Dad (the former of the two for nearly two decades).  A Million Ways to Die is not his first rodeo, so to speak, it’s his second live-action feature film, following Ted (2012), which he also voiced the titular character of the film.

What is new is Seth MacFarlane appearing onscreen in the flesh.  In this film, he himself is the star, the protagonist, the main character..  He’s right there in the center of the movie poster between Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson, two much more established “movie stars”.

And therein may well lie the rub.

MacFarlane himself as a screen presence is kind of odd.  He’s a nice enough looking guy.  He can sing.  He’s funny.  But as his 2012 Oscar hosting showed, there is something about him “in human form” that plays badly.  Whether it’s laughability or affability or whatever, I don’t know.  But starring in the film, he plays a character who is not so much a character as just the post-modern comic in the Old West, an embedded anachronism.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe in the hands of another filmmaker, MacFarlane could have played out a better part, but in his own hands, he is just oddly grating though kind of bland.

Oddly enough, MacFarlane appreciates the Western as a genre.  But outside of lovely shots of the Southwestern vistas, A Million Ways to Die in the West is the thinnest of storylines, the shallowest of cleverness, and almost entirely bereft of laughs.  It’s actually quite surprisingly unfunny.  And long.  And gross and crass.

Why MacFarlane’s screen presence is so unsatisfying… I don’t know.  What I do know is that  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a pretty awful movie, tedious, overlong, and tiresome.