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.

Winchester 73 (1950)

17 08 2008

If wasn’t for the sentimental bias I attribute to Mann’s The Tin Star, this would probably be my favorite western of his. While most of his work during this period is classified as being personal and centered on a single protagonist’s psychology, this film shows his abilities to depict a large cast of complex and fleshed-out characters. Indeed, this will remind one of those multiple connecting storylines narratives that are so popular in modern cinema, but Mann handles it in manner that is far more gentle than Paul Thomas Anderson, or whoever else specializes in such pictures.

Lin McAdam has been trying to track down his brother for some time now. He is not on friendly terms with his brother, though, because it is he who killed his father. Finally, the two catch up with one another at a shooting contest. Both participate, but Lin emerges victorious and his prize is a Winchester ’73, a one-of-a-kind rifle. His brother, who now goes by the name of Dutch Henry Brown, steals the rifle and quickly escapes out of town. Lin’s interest lies more in capturing his brother than it does in retrieving in the gun, which is passed through multiple characters, all of whom are in close contact with Lin.

There is certain type of dramatic predictability that goes hand-in-hand with these connecting storylines sort of films, but whatever it is, Mann stays clear of it. It is astonishing to think that this was marketed as a conventional action movie in 1950, especially when modern audiences would most likely give in as soon as the camera strayed from Jimmy Stewart, who, by the way, delivers a great performance here. Between this and The Naked Spur, I’d go as far to say that he was really a great performer with an ability to imply a certain depth not present in the scripts of these films. Of course, much credit goes to Mann as well, who labored over most of these stock scripts and transformed them into the cinematic masterpieces they are.

The way in which Mann implies that something much more important and emotional is going on underneath the obvious drama definitely reminds one of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Arigato-san, in which the upbeat attitudes clashes with a rather tragic tale. In Mann’s case, the condition of these characters compliments the dramatic arc, which makes them all the more difficult to notice. This is what Mann has always done, though, and it is what makes his films so great. The cinematography here doesn’t have the benefit of being widescreen or being in color, but it is absolutely gorgeous. The visuals have the same sort of clarity and beauty found in many of Mikio Naruse’s films of the same time. In a way, Mann is somewhat of America’s answer to Naruse. Both filmmakers create something underneath the simple surface drama, and it is what makes their work so appealing.

El Cid (1961)

17 08 2008

So for some strange reason, Anthony Mann transitioned from being the single best Western director of the 1950s to a maker of extravagant epic period-pieces such as this film in the 1960s. The “Mann sensibility” is still undeniably present here; in spite of the formalistic attitudes of many characters, the film is just as gritty and sweaty as Mann’s best work. The main problem here doesn’t even lie in the over-the-top performance of Charlton Heston, or anyone else, but just in the film’s overall pacing. Oddly enough, the story breezes by rather quickly for the first two and a half hours, but the last thirty minutes seem painfully drawn out. The way in which the film drags to its finale is all the more disappointing since it is coming from Anthony Mann, perhaps the single most “no-bullshit” director of all-time.

The title character, El Cid, is the central focus and we are introduced to him while he is in the middle of capturing two prisoners. While the government expects the death of these prisoners, Cid, being the compassionate person he is, lets them go. Once the Kingdom gets word of this, Cid is put on trial for treason. In the middle of this mix-up, he ends up murdering Gomez, the father of his lover, Chimene. To compensate for the loss of Gomez, Cid volunteers to be the King’s fighter. He is victorious in the following duel, but Chimene is still angry and she hatches a plot to kill Cid, which fails. The result is that Cid marries Chimene.

While it is easy to get tied up and distracted by all the surface-level appearance of El Cid, Mann manages to work his way around the “epic-ness” of the picture and make it come off fairly straightforward and intimately. The film’s scope covers a long period of time but it, for lack of a better description, makes sense in the long run. Cid’s relationship with Chimene is initially confusing, what with all the extreme changes in attitudes, but it begins to make sense once the audience begins to realize the repetitious nature of their loving and hating patterns. Unfortunately, that’s not to say that there is some deep character study brewing underneath the story (like there is in Mann’s westerns) but the relationships and the characters are well drawn for what they are. This is quite a lot, though, especially considering how prestigious and “serious” such content is intended to be.

On the more positive side, Mann’s visual eye is at its best here, with some of the most gorgeous compositions in his entire career on display. While one can argue that it is difficult not to make such a large-scale production look beautiful, Mann still does it in his usual intimate and greasy way. His attention to textures is always a wonderful thing to watch unfold, especially when said textures are captured as gorgeously as they are here. There are plenty of things wrong with this movie, but it is worthwhile experience to just sit back and appreciate on a purely visual level.