Along the Great Divide (1951)

31 08 2008

Even with Kirk Douglas, who I usually cannot stand, in the lead role, this is definitely one of the best and most accomplished classic Westerns that I’ve seen. It probably helps a great deal that the narrative seems to have been a great influence on Monte Hellman for his great revisionist piece, The Shooting. Such a connection is probably loose considering that both films are essentially plotless, but that’s how Westerns should be. Gorgeous photography, snappy dialogue, and emotional backstories that unravel at a perfect pace. If this is not quite a masterpiece, than it is pretty close.

Marshall Len Merrick interrupts a necktie party hosted by an angry mob with the intention of bringing the mob’s captive to legal justice. The suspect is Tim Keith and he has been accused of murdering the son of Ned Roden, a ranch owner. His mob now shifts their focus to taking not only Tim Keith, but his daughter and Merrick as well. The latter group must now make it to Santa Loma, through the dry and hot desert, before the Roden clan catches up to them. Even if they get there, death is still awaiting Mr. Keith but if they don’t, then the body count might just be greater.

What better way to combat Kirk Douglas’ usual set-chewing persona than to place him on location? Perhaps that does sound a bit like a sad attempt at a pun, but honestly, his usual sensibility seems to take a back seat when juxtaposed with some of the most gorgeous visuals of any Western I’ve seen. The landscapes are sort of inherently astonishing, but the way in which Walsh captures them is even more impressive. There is a sense of wonder and mystery to the character’s surroundings that is reminiscent of the much more prominent (and famous) vibe in Antonioni’s trilogy. In addition, such visuals are handled a grace that rivals Hiroshi Shimizu, whose films place as much important on the natural as this one does.

Compared to the later work of Anthony Mann, or even Budd Boetticher, Walsh doesn’t seem to have all that much attention and interest in his characters. On the other hand, he does create an unbearable amount of tension that manages to squeeze some “emotional exposition” so to speak, from all the characters. They aren’t shallow like the first sentence in this paragraph may have implied, but just humans tortured by society’s own emotional expectations. Perhaps this is present in every remotely “deep” Western, since the confusion of masculine identity is inherently available in the plot description of any conventional Western from the 1950s, but here, it seems to be of particular interest to Walsh. Hopefully, all this analyzing doesn’t cloud ones appreciation of the film, as it is to be enjoyed on a much visceral level than this essay would indicate. But like all great films, there are plenty of nuanced details to be discovered on future viewings.

Team Picture (2007)

27 08 2008

I suppose anyone that bothers to read this review will be turned off by my inevitable use of the dreaded “m” word – mumblecore. It is definitely one of the more daring and offbeat entries into this “cinematic fad” of sorts, but it by no means the best, either. Like many of its peers, Team Picture suffers from the dreaded aesthetic of digital video, but credit should be given to Kentucker Audley for at least trying something that will stylistically separate him from all the other young American independent filmmakers.

David is on the cusp of adulthood, but he is far from being ready to make that certain emotional step forward. Rather than applying to college or accepting the responsibilities of being a twenty year old, he spends his time lounging around in an above ground baby pool with his eccentric roommate, Eric. Following an inevitable breakup with the ambitious Jessica, David quits his job. Now, he displays little interest in the future and instead only lives within the present, which is when he meets Sarah.

Audley isn’t winning any creativity points with the narrative here. This is a fairly textbook story about people afraid about graduating from childhood. The main protagonist here, David, even is a wannabe singer-songwriter. The setup is rather cliché and the mannerisms of the performers are rather exaggerated as well. Normally, this would spell disaster, especially for a film that relies so heavily on being spontaneous and truthful. Not to make matters worse, but the actors themselves aren’t all terrific, either. Certainly their status as “unprofessional” implies a certain lack of grace (and I mean so in a positive light) but most of the performances here seem very forced in a sense. Audley’s very awkward sense of pacing certainly doesn’t help out, though. While so many of these films rely on the superficially mundane and undramatic, this one seems to thrive on it. Sure, there’s not a plot or even dramatic turns, but it seems to chronologically jump around so much that every sequence gives the impression of a scripted sketch.

These sketches are still incredibly charming, in spite of how constructed they seem. For as terrible as I’ve bad the film out to be, it is actually quite funny. It is certainly the most outrightly “comedic” film of the mumblecore bunch, which I suppose explains all the problems I mentioned above but also its unique positive traits. Towards the end, it actually becomes almost overwhelmingly said, if only due to the fastest romantic relationship in a film this side of Il Posto. On the whole, though, this is just too fast and too short to be as powerful as it wants to be.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

23 08 2008

There’s still far too many John Ford films I haven’t seen to feel even remotely comfortable categorizing any one part of his career as his golden years, but so far, his work in the 1930s is certainly the front runner. This film only reinforces just how unstoppable he was during that time period, even though it isn’t up to the standards of his very best work. Still, it is really great, and one of the first examples that I’ve personally seen of Ford as a fantastic “action” director, even if he only was one in a very general sense. It makes me sound like an old guy on a porch, but Hollywood simply doesn’t make them like this anymore. Then again, they never really could.

Late one night, a wounded and suspicious young man bursts into the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Mudd quickly attends to the man’s broken leg and the man quickly leaves, almost as quickly as he came in. The next day it is revealed that the man is, or more accurately was John Wilkes Booth. With Booth now dead, the Police begins to look for possible co-conspirators in Booth’s assignation of President Lincoln. Mudd is a prime suspect and a quick trial sends him straight to jail where he is to remain for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his wife begins gathering information to provide reason for another trial.

Ford directs himself into something of a cinematic corner within the first few minutes by choosing to show the actual assassination of Lincoln. To make things worse, the character of Booth is revealed to us before he discovers the home of Doctor Mudd. Personally, I think the opening would have faired much better if the assassination had not been shown at all and if Booth was introduced to the audience and Mudd at the same time. Perhaps modern audience have a greater awareness of who John Wilkes Booth is, thus the opening exposition seems unnecessary. Even if movie-goers in 1936 were that uneducated, it still could have been abandoned since Booth’s crime is stated only a few minutes later. This is a very insignificant problem, though, and it happens within the first five minutes so it can easily be forgotten. Still, I think dropping all the patriotic Lincoln material would have made things seem a bit more spontaneous and interesting.

Outside of that (very) minor problem, the film is pretty much perfect. Bert Glennon, who frequently collaborated with Ford in the 30s, provides some of the greatest visual moments from any Ford film. In fact, I’d say that the seaside cinematography from the latter parts of this film is even more impressive than Gregg Toland’s much more recognized cinematography in The Long Voyage Home. The very textured-filled flourishes during the prison escape inevitably bring to the mind the similar sequence(s) in Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Remarkably enough, Ford’s film is just as subdued and controlled as Bresson’s, not to mention every bit as great.

The Ascent (1977)

18 08 2008

Of the two Shepitko films I watched, this is definitely the one that is more likely to gain some sort of following. To begin, it has a much defiant visual style than Wings, as there is a very specific and detailed attention to textures. Dramatically, it is also more “defiant” much ultimately means that it is the less subtle of the two. Like Come and See (directed by Shepitko’s husband, Elem Klimov) would later do, this is a very violent and overwhelming account of a tragic war-related story. Perhaps such description makes the comparison seem like a stretch, but the similarities are extremely apparent when one watches both.

A German force attacks a group of partisans hiking in the woods and strips the group of almost all of their supplies. Rybak and Sotnikov escape from the massacre and continue on in the cold, looking for town where they can ask for food and shelter. They reach the village, but nothing remains. Another German group beat them there, and destroyed the town, leaving behind nothing but debris. They manage to find shelter in a family farmhouse, but they are quickly found and sent to death, taking the mother of the family with them.

The film’s overall tone is, as one can anticipate, rather bleak. A majority of the film takes place in the unforgiving climate of Russia in the winter. The protagonists are often starved, on their final breath, or too bruised to continue walking. From the start, Shepitko establishes a sense of great urgency, which can be argued as being too dramatic or too extreme, or anything else to that effect. I guess I also identify with this claim, as I find such a bleak and nasty landscape to be rather one-note. Many people describe the film as harrowing, painful, and overwhelming, but from what I see, that is mostly due to the relentless nature of Shepitko’s negative outlook.

Oddly enough, The Ascent solves the aesthetic problem I had with Wings but creates a whole slew of new problems with its violently tragic tone. The extreme situations do serve one positive point: they are directly responsible for some of the film’s most poetic and moving images. There is great imagery, captured from a distance with Rybak and Sotnikov marching through the snow, but there is an intimate and attentive claustrophobic beauty to the scenes that take place inside. Visually, one cannot ask for much more but dramatically, this is a bit too self-consciously “crazy” to completely work.

Wings (1966)

18 08 2008

A wonderful, albeit no thrills, debut from Larisa Shepitko. Unlike her fellow countrymen, she lacks a very defiant visual style. While it isn’t all that much of a problem in this case, it does make the film feel a lot less personal and unique than it is suppose to be. On the other hand, Shepitko does have a knack for capturing very spontaneous moments, which go well with the frequent narrative ellipses and flashbacks. It is a very subtle and deliberate character study that slowly reveals its true intentions, but once it does, it is quite impressive.

Nadezhda Petrukhina was once a great fighter pilot, but now she is a schoolmistress. Despite the accolades she receives from others, she is still living in the past, constantly rethinking her “glory days” during the war. Ironically enough, she cannot adapt to life without war. Her current lifestyle, while it does have the occasional dramatic incident, does not excite her in the least. She is pegged down by the mundane and repetitious nature of school life, but it is there that her memories of the past begin to blossom.

While I still stand by the initial assessment of the visual style (i.e not that fantastic) there are some nice visual flourishes present throughout. Shepitko, unfortunately though, never does anything particularly interesting with the camera. Everything is rather straightforward with a “put the camera on the person talking” shooting style. Perhaps I’ve been watching one too many visually rich films lately, but Shepitko’s style definitely seems to come dangerously close to being flat-out boring. Especially when one takes into account the visual resourcefulness of someone like say, Tarkovsky, but unfortunately, she does also have the rather ponderous floating camerawork.

In Shepitko’s defense, her strengths don’t seem to lie in her aesthetics, but rather the fragmented way in which she presents the events of the film. Her protagonist isn’t the most captivating of figures at first, seeing as all the audience is originally given is the information that she is a schoolmistress. But this is what makes her storytelling capabilities so fascinating and what ultimately makes this film successful. Slowly, Nadezhda’s past is revealed to us and we begin to create a more vivid mental picture of the character herself. It’s a bit like a suspenseful take on character development as it is only when the film is over that its intentions become clear.