Tag: western

Movie Review: The Searchers (1956)

On the recommendation of Caitlin (because, spoiler alert, this may well show up in a podcast later), I picked up the John Ford-directed The Searchers, which is only my 3rd or 4th John Wayne movie. I’m still working out how I feel about it, so this will be one of the more rambly, unsure posts. Wayne stars as Ethan Edwards, a hardened Confederate veteran who’s mysteriously been away for years since the war ended.

He comes home to his brother’s family on an isolated farm and almost immediately they’re attacked by a vengeful tribe of Comanche Indians, with the brother and his wife killed and their two daughters kidnapped. Ethan and Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), the family’s adopted orphan son, gather several townspeople together to search for the missing girls, but these men all either die or give up. The two remaining men’s quest turns into a multi-year struggle that takes them across the American West, with Martin trying to somehow control Ethan’s often cruel actions.

This is a very harsh film. Wayne’s character is downright mean and unlikable, but annoyingly he’s usually right so you sort of have to side with him. There’s a rawness to the interactions between most of the characters that makes it difficult to really get a grip on the film when coupled with several moments of levity and tenderness. I’m also not crazy about the pacing- the story spans several years but there is little indication of time passing and it seems so unlikely that these men have been trekking around for that amount of time. It feels long, and it can be a little boring at times.

However, The Searchers still manages to be a really interesting movie about the consequences of obsession and revenge. The script subtly works complexities into its characters and tries to honestly explore the relationship between white settlers and Native Americans during the period of western expansion following the Civil War. There are definitely some racist/ignorant themes, but for a movie from the 50’s it could have been much worse. The film does show them as humans- just weird ones- and often focuses more on the brutality of white men: there are several shots of slaughtered Indian villages but few reminders of white people dying at Indian hands, and Wayne’s violent outbursts stand in contrast against most of the Indian characters’ calmness.

I guess I’m still unsure how I feel about this movie. Dang. It’s certainly smart, with a multi-layered story and some great performances from Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, and Vera Miles (who is awesome in her sadly limited role). But as a whole it’s slightly unsettling, with a mean, alienating undercurrent and general Native American stereotyping. For now I remain in the middle, but we’ll see if I’m able to formulate a stronger opinion during the podcast discussion!


Movie Review: Mad Dog Morgan (1976)

This was supposed to screen at the Brattle Theatre for their Dennis Hopper series, but they weren’t able to get a print or something so it was canceled. Undaunted, we got a copy of the dvd and spent an egregiously hot night in to enjoy and ponder the strangeness of Mad Dog Morgan. This infamous Australian exploitation flick stars Hopper as real-life folk hero Dan Morgan, an Irish-Australian thief who’s toughened and embittered by a long stint in a gruesome prison.

Upon release he turns back to a life of crime after teaming up with an Aborigine (David Gulpili) who saves his life. Together they become pirate/Robin Hood figures, stealing from rich British people and sometimes helping out poor workers. As their raids continue, the county’s police force increases its efforts to track him down and take him in- dead or alive.

Mad Dog Morgan is… very odd. The dvd was released by Troma, and man does it play like an actual Troma movie but with 70’s elements. Hopper spends most of the film with a fake beard that gets more ridiculous as time passes, the effects are laden with pseudo gore, and the entire production is so noticeably low-budget it’s a wonder they finished it. The script is very loose and contains little structure or actual narrative, opting to tell Morgan’s story with short, unconnected scenes of various exploits or conversations. It sort of felt like the filmmakers had never actually seen a movie before, and weren’t sure how to fit everything together.

While I was thrown off by its poorly-executed story and sub-par direction, it’s hard not to be taken in by Hopper’s performance: he’s the true centerpiece of this movie. Spending the entire shoot drunk (allegedly to “get into character”), he is a rambling, ranting, trigger-happy anti-hero with an on-again, off-again Irish accent and wacky outbursts. He’s almost definitely doing it with Billy (Gulpilli), and their relationship is sort of sweet. Don’t expect to learn anything about any character though, this is basically just a showcase for Hopper’s trademark craziness hyped up by some zany action scenes. For the most part it’s a weird, fun time but it’s bogged down by a weak script. An interesting and enjoyable film though, especially for fans of the actor or grindhouse flicks.


Movie Review: Jonah Hex (2010)

Ok everyone, I think we all need to calm down a bit about this movie. I really don’t think it warrants such strong negative reactions, but then again what do I know? Loosely based on a DC comic that I’ve never read, Jonah Hex traces the exploits of its title character (Josh Brolin) as he travels around the iconic Wild West making his way as a bounty hunter and generally stirring up trouble. A former Confederate soldier, he was found out to be a traitor by General Turnbull (John Malkovich) and forced to watch his family burn to death while his own face was branded and he was left for dead.

This experience left him in touch with “the other side” and he gained the ability to waken corpses, a talent he sometimes uses to help him locate his targets. When the US government gets wind of the disgruntled Turnbull’s plot to construct a doomsday machine invented by Eli Whitney and unleash it on the seat of government, the army enlists Hex to find him and halt his evil plan. Of course his on-again/off-again girlfriend Lilah (Megan Fox) eventually becomes embroiled in the whole affair.

Jonah Hex combines elements of fantasy, science-fiction, westerns, and adrenaline-infused action movies into a semi-successful genre mash-up. It’s written by Neveldine and Taylor (Crank 2), which is really all I needed to know. It wastes no time in its storytelling, navigating through flashbacks and old relationships efficiently and informatively. There are some great concepts, from waking the dead to Confederate grudges to Gatling gun horses, but the execution is so-so. The characters aren’t developed enough, and the climactic battle is over incredibly quickly, and though it was nice to keep it so short (80 minutes) I actually think it could have used about 10-15 more to flesh out certain elements. Also, lose the dream battle sequence. Unnecessary.

Josh Brolin was probably born to be in westerns, encapsulating the drawling one-liners, heady stare, and cowboy cool necessary for any character in the genre. While the hole-in-the-face make-up is a little gross, he’s still pretty great in the role of Jonah. Malkovich is a decent villain, if a little bland. I liked Megan Fox as Lilah, a gun-toting prostitute who must constantly defend herself due to her line of work. Despite spending 90% of her limited screen time in a state of undress, she was convincing as a capable lady with a thing for facially scarred dudes. I was also quite pleased to see Lance Reddick, Will Arnett, and John Gallagher, Jr in small roles, even if Michael Shannon’s part was practically non-existent.

The trailer promised a highly-stylized, fast-paced, offbeat action movie and that’s basically what Jonah Hex delivers. I guess my surprise at the insanely negative reviews resides in the fact that they seem overly-critical of something that made its intentions very clear at the onset. It’s not like this movie tricked us into thinking it’d be something different beforehand. I definitely understand why it wouldn’t be everyone’s thing, but as a person who really enjoys genre mash-ups I thought the film was an entertaining way to spend 80 minutes. It would have been more interesting with an R rating, though.


IFF BOSTON: Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) (2008)

This review is part of my coverage of the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2010. (official site)

Oh yes, you’d better believe this was my one absolute must-see movie at IFF. I’ve been waiting to see it ever since first becoming obsessed with actor Song Kang-ho in last year’s Thirst, and it’s the main reason I finally got my act together and watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, on which it is loosely based. Set in 1930s Manchuria (during which time the Japanese had taken over China), The Good, The Bad, The Weird concerns the mad-cap, gunslinging antics of three men in search of a mythical treasure.

Yoon Tae-goo aka The Weird (Song Kang-ho) is a resilient petty thief who chances upon a treasure map while robbing a group of Japanese soldiers. Park Chang-yi aka The Bad (Lee Byung-hun) is a malicious assassin sent to reclaim the map, but must resign himself to hunting Tae-goo down. Park Do-won aka The Good (Jung Woo-sung) is a taciturn bounty hunter chasing after both men’s rewards who eventually teams up with Tae-goo in the search for the treasure. Sprinkle in some curious Manchurian bandits and a dedicated group of Japanese soldiers, and you’ve got an all-out chase replete with wackiness, gunfights, and thrills!

There’s a lot going on in this film, but the sheer enthusiasm that brings it together makes it all completely work. The story is fun and interesting, the action is loud and inventive, the characters are appealing, and the visuals are detailed and colorful. It’s both an homage to and appropriation of Leone’s original, but becomes infused with its own imaginative mythos and offbeat sense of humor, drawing it away from being an actual remake.

The three leads are superb, but Song Kang-ho really owns the film. As The Weird he’s hilarious, likable, and unexpectedly capable, plus he’s got a secret past! The writers did well to make him the central character, devoting the most time to him and giving him the best lines. Song is adept at wacky comedy but never slides into flat characterization, making him both engaging and intriguing to watch. Lee Byung-hun as The Bad is, well, really attractive and I didn’t focus so much on his actual performance. He spends most of his time being incredibly badass and looking sharp. Jung Woo-sung as The Good was a bit bland, but there wasn’t too much attention paid to his character, though I certainly liked him and his very large guns (the kind you shoot, not his arms). His mustache looked silly though.

There is very little about this movie for me to criticize (except perhaps the under-utilization of The Good’s character). It had the audience laughing out loud and gasping at “oh shit!” moments in equal measure, with its oft-frenetic pace, out-there stunts, and silly atmosphere. The final chase scene at the end is guaranteed to have everyone riveted, while the film itself leaves viewers instinctively smiling from ear-to-ear. I believe the technical term is “rip-roarin’ good time.” It’s opening in the US this month (FINALLY) so you should all go see it immediately! Run, don’t walk! Ride a horse if you have to!


Further Reading:
This Guy Over Here review
Rach on Film’s review

Movie Review: Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) (1966)

This has been on my to-watch list for years, but it took the possibility of seeing the referential The Good, The Bad, and The Weird at IFF Boston next week to finally push me into seeing it. It is my first spaghetti western, so bear with me as I sort through some of the things that I guess are conventions but still new to me. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly concerns three central characters whose mutual lust for a hidden treasure inextricably links their fates.

A loner known only as Blondie (Clint Eastwood) partners with infamous scoundrel Tuco (Eli Wallach) as con artists, but when a dying soldier tells them the location of a pile of gold, they cautiously search for it together, constantly fearing each other’s betrayal. Meanwhile, the assassin Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) leaves a trail of bodies in his wake as he hunts down the soldier, and eventually, sets his sights on Blondie and Tuco.

As you probably are aware, this is one long movie, and sometimes the dubbing is distracting, but for the most part it works. The three central characters are entertaining enough to keep me interested for the nearly 3-hour running time (well, we also paused halfway through for some quesadillas), and there’s a good amount of action, adventure, and intrigue to the story. Van Cleef and Eastwood seem to be fighting for ultra-cool dominance, and Eastwood sneaks by with a win mainly for rocking that poncho at the end. Their performances just ooze with smooth one-liners and charisma, truly living up to their now-iconic status. Wallach, on the other hand, is all sneers and suspicion, throwing jokes right and left and just generally living up to his “Ugly” title. His character is despicable, but Wallach is lucky that he’s enjoyable to watch as an actor. Not so sure about his (presumably?) Mexican accent though.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, filled with soaring desert landscapes and decidedly dusty sets, with a high-contrast edge and intricate costumes. Leone incorporates a range of shooting techniques for a dynamic look, but sometimes I think he gets too wrapped up in his own stylization (a few too many dramatic close-ups, for example). Though I’d say the opening titles alone are enough of a visual treat to please me for the rest of the movie. Of course the music is great, and while it’s a bit repetitive, it’s really used perfectly to fit the mood of every scene, and often serves to either create or relieve tension.

I think my main complaint with The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly rests with its story. Here’s a western taking place during the Civil War, which, while time-wise it’s appropriate, is thematically something I usually wouldn’t identify with the genre. I’m a little shaky on my Civil War history, and so admittedly I spent some time trying to figure out exactly where this was all taking place, and what the hell Confederate soldiers were doing in the desert (afterward I found out about the New Mexico Campaign). While that was frustrating, I know it’s not the movie’s fault that I wasn’t knowledgeable about its historical context.

However, the Civil War aspect still felt really out of place within the over-arching plot. There are a few run-ins with soldiers, and towards the end Tuco and Blondie are caught up in a massive battle, but every time something war-related popped up, it felt irrelevant to the actual story and just took up more time than it needed. The gold-hunting narrative seemed to be the dominant one, and the war stuff was awkwardly worked in around it. If the two had been integrated more fully, or the Civil War subplot was lost altogether, I think the script would have been much more successful.

Anyway, it’s still a really awesome film with excellent performances and cinematography, and I’m looking forward to seeing the other entries to the “Dollars” trilogy (especially since A Fistful of Dollars is a remake of that epitome of cool, Yojimbo).