Tag Archives: Peckinpah

The Sisters Brothers

5 Oct

‘The Sisters Brothers’: Hunting the chemist who can find gold – the West is rotten with it


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If the title feels like a tongue-twisting joke, it is, but the film’s anything but. Reminiscent of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) and Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962), “The Sisters Brothers” bites feverishly into the grim lawless landscape of the American Northwest during the mid 1800s mining boom. It’s quite a violent film, but also one with great emotional depth – a rare accomplishment that makes it the best American western to hit the screen since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” reimagined the notorious outlaw’s demise back in 2007. Everything about the film unfurls in smoky, dark wisps. It bears the same kind of foreboding heaviness that crowded the Coen brothers’ 2010 recasting of “True Grit.”

To land in such fine company, “The Sisters Brothers” rides out of the stable something of an anti-western, everything that John Ford and John Wayne were not – square-jawed and morally black and white. Peckinpah and Sergio Leone would certainly be pleased. For starters, the siblings of the title, Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix) and Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) are murderous souls whom we invariably come to care for just like Peckinpah’s richly drawn ruffians in “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and the film, shot largely in Span and Romania (close enough logistically to think spaghetti?) happens to be directed by the French auteur, Jacques Audiard (“Rust and Bone”). How’s that for nontraditional? Continue reading


19 May

‘Beast’: Suspicions run wild after murder, and something about Moll draws the mob


A curious yet apt title for this taut psycho-drama that plays effectively with the viewer’s sense of perception. Eerie, foreboding and profoundly disorienting, “Beast,” like many of its beguiling characters, becomes something of a shapeshifter; it revolves around the struggles of a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley), blessed with fiery red locks constantly tousled across her porcelain face by the relentless wind that whips the quaint U.K. isle of Jersey she’s relegated to – and seemingly unable to leave. The setting, so alluring and ominous, becomes an integral player in developments. Jersey’s the kind of remote, off-the-grid British burg that Sam Peckinpah might have shot “Straw Dogs” in had his location scouts stumbled upon it.

Moll lives with her controlling mother (an icy-cold Geraldine James), who stalks her progeny and questions her every whereabouts despite the fact Moll’s a mature woman with a full-time job (as a tour bus guide). Given mum’s iron glove, moving out would be a good idea, but there’s that troubled/damaged thing. Can Moll truly be on her own, or does she need constant monitoring? We get the answer to that quickly as Moll goes clubbing one night into the wee hours with a scruffy drifter/handyman by the name of Pascal (Johnny Flynn). Elsewhere, news blips on the TV tell us there’s been a recent murder of a girl nearby, and another girl is missing. The short list of suspects the film and police pursue includes Moll – she had a violent incident back in high school that haunts her – and Pascal. Moll may be somewhat lost and misunderstood, but there’s always deep down inside an ember of hopeful ebullience, and she becomes spirited at the prospect that she and Pascal might hie away together for happier destinations. Darker matters beyond legal suspicion cloud the notion, such as nightmarish incursions that come in the middle of the night or Moll’s ill-conceived insistence on showing up at one of the victim’s funerals. Ultimately “Beast” becomes a tug of war between hope and despair, with an ever-shifting emotional landscape.

First-time filmmaker Michael Pearce weaves in themes of isolation, alienation and defiance that clearly mine the essence of Roman Polanski’s 1965 psycho-thriller “Repulsion” (1965) and, to a lesser wow factor, Julia Roberts’ 1991 hit, “Sleeping with the Enemy.” It’s a subtle borrowing, as Pearce without doubt forges his own, unique authorship. Like Polanski, his true ace in the hole is his lead. Not enough can be said of Buckley’s ability to bounce palpably from a wallflower-esque ingenue to romantically ripe hopeful and later, something more disturbed and even menacing. It’s an incredible load to bear, but Buckley does it without any letdown. By the middle of the film Moll’s psychological state and Pearce’s moody ambiance become symbiotic extensions of one other, heightening the already fraught state with arthouse poetics.

As far as the title goes, there’s plenty of monsters to be had in “Beast.” The killer, for one, but also – and perhaps more to the point – the insular judgmental folk of the remote isle so willing to condemn a fellow human based on mob rage or a simple whisper from the TV.

Cartel Land

9 Jul

The documentary “Cartel Land” from Matthew Heineman – and boldfaced produced by Kathryn Bigelow – is a stunning exposé of the lawless southwest along the U.S.-Mexican border, where the crystal meth drug trade thrives and vigilante forces on both sides of the fence try to stem it. It’s nothing short of “The Wild Bunch” meets “Traffic,” sans the cathartic denouement.

070915i Cartel LandHeineman gained a perilous unlimited access to his subjects; it might be more accurate to say he’s embedded. The film begins with the steamy nighttime capture of an outdoor meth lab where the brewers wear bandannas to conceal their faces from the camera – and the noxious vapors. They do what they do out of opportunity. “As long as god allows it, we make drugs,” one offers meekly. They learned how to make their cocktail from an American chemist and his son. (Maybe Walter White is still kicking around?)

From there we meet Tim “Nailer” Foley, who leads Arizona Border Recon and is listed as an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He and his posse are well-armed, skilled and intrepid and never seem all that extreme, though some of their philosophies on other races and their intermingling might gain Donald Trump’s assent. Foley is a man’s man in every sense, lean, angular, philosophical, survivor of a hard life and tragedy, and he’s charismatic to boot.

You could see “Nailer” in a Clancy novel or Peckinpah movie, as well as Dr. José Manuel Mireles, who across the divide leads a paramilitary Autodefensas group that liberates villages from the tyranny of the drug cartels. Mireles, tall, striking, with a broad mustache, looks something like Robert Ryan in “The Wild Bunch,” and when we meet him he seems to have the popularity and adoration that followed Pancho Villa. About the only ones who have issues with his bringing stillness and order to remote outposts are the drug dealers, kidnapers and Mexican authorities, who as Heineman has it look to be complicit with those corrupting agents – a point that doesn’t get well explored.

Foley’s reflection on his troubled past and the revelation that Mireles is a surgeon by day and a grandfather give depth to the men and their community, while chaotic scenes of gunfire – with Heineman right in the middle of it all filming – fill the screen. It’s gorgeously shot and a step up for Heineman, whose last doc, “Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” was a heavy handed look at the ills of the medical/insurance industry. “Cartel Land” is much more organic and visceral, and the image cut by the two figures, both fearless and fighting their own righteous war, is legendary in scope, even if the pendulum or reality says differently.

Sam Peckinpah in Retropsect

2 Jul

Settle In For A ‘Summer Of Sam Peckinpah’ At The Somerville Theatre

The canon of Sam Peckinpah’s blood letting mastery will be on display July and August as part of the Somerville Theatre’s “Summer of Sam Peckinpah” series which will showcase 10 of the 14 feature length films the maverick director notched during his tumultuous career.

The program could alternatively be titled, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” At the height of his career, Peckinpah transformed the western genre with gritty gray depictions of morality and balletic orchestration of extreme violence that were at once, disturbing and poetic. At his nadir, Peckinpah had creative control wrested away by studios believing his vision had gone amok. And there were those later endeavors, where the director was too high on coke and alcohol to assemble competent and comprehensive results — though there were always the old flashes of brilliance. In there too, sprinkled between disaster and crowning achievement, were the quirky off-kilter oddities that bordered on cult status and defied genre while polarizing filmgoers and critics alike. Were they visionary masterpieces, or more of Sam firing off into a maelstrom of misanthropic misery propelled by a pint of tequila and contempt for his producers?

Sam Peckinpah in 1964 Los Angeles. (AP)

If you’re familiar with Peckinpah and his works, you can probably fill in the titles next to each category with relative ease. If the name is new to you, or somewhat vague, then you’re in for a taste bud awakening and cinematic treat. That said, most all of Peckinpah’s films bristle with machismo, hyper violence and perverse, sexually charged situations — not everyone’s cup of tea.

Historically, Peckinpah’s been viewed as the gateway filmmaker who set the stage for the dark, iconic works of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola in the ‘70s and more contemporarily, Quentin Tarantino. The Monty Python skit “Salad Days,” where a nice English picnic in the country turns into a blood gushing hell, got at the mainstream perception of Peckinpah and his films at the time, but what made his vision resonate with critics and audiences during the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as over time, were the visceral themes of being caught out of time and out of place. They felt dislocated, disenfranchised and desperate — but in those desolate backdrops were always soulful wafts of loneliness and the unwritten code of loyalty.

The Somerville Theatre’s program runs the 10 films in tight, near chronological order. “Ride the High Country” (1962), Peckinpah’s second feature begins the two-month-long tribute on July 1. Peckinpah had cut his teeth as a TV director with “The Rifleman” series and was also a longtime assistant to Don Siegel (“Dirty Hairy” and “The Killers”) in the ‘50s — he had five bit roles in Siegel’s conformist horror classic, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956). Peckinpah’s first feature, “The Deadly Companions” (1961) was mostly viewed as a transition piece, as it starred Brian Keith, the lead of “The Westerner” TV series, which Peckinpah also directed. The piece never quite gelled in the new format, but that theme of redemption and the notion of setting things right (Keith played an ex-army officer looking to make amends to a woman whose son he had killed) would echo loudly in “Ride the High Country” and infuse many of the director’s subsequent works.

When Peckinpah set out to make “High Country” many derided his choice of casting Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as his leads. They were aging actors but personal favorites of Peckinpah and precisely what the script called for, old school westerners confronted by the amoral corruption in a mountain high mining town impervious to the influence of outside law and custom. The movie casts shades of “Shane” and floats the specter of Robert Altman’s brilliant and yet-to-be-released, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971).

Peckinpah’s follow up, “Major Dundee” (playing July 8), a Civil War era grudge match with the Apache, was something of a letdown by comparison. Marred by heavy studio paring and a vicious on set feud with star Charlton Heston (the excellent cast also included Richard Harris and James Coburn), Peckinpah was removed from the film before its completion.

Five years later, Peckinpah would deliver his magnum opus, “The Wild Bunch” (July 15, 70mm), seamlessly weaving together the vanishing West, the onset of the First World War, the invention of the airplane and the cruel injustice spreading throughout Mexico and fought against by Pancho Villa. The cast of antihero outlaws and rival bounty hunters would factor in more of Peckinpah’s idols, Robert Ryan and Edmond O’Brien, aging Hollywood A-lister, William Holden and Peckinpah regulars, Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin (“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”), L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson and Warren Oates. The movie was as much a revelation in cinematic technique (multiple cameras shooting the same action simultaneously, the interweave of slow motion and regular speed action within a sequence and the tight, frenetic cross-cutting that brought it all together with purpose ) as it was a statement about the brutal nature of man and bureaucratic hypocrisy of society in large. The Vietnam War was raging at that time, and some politicized “The Wild Bunch” as an allegory for America’s involvements in other countries’ affairs. Peckinpah would adhere to his intent to tell a simple story about men of fixed ways caught in changing times. The eloquent score by longtime collaborator Jerry Fielding and the script by Peckinpah and Walon Green would go on to receive Oscar nods.

“Straw Dogs” (July 22), Peckinpah’s first non-western, too had the tang of Vietnam attached to it (released in 1971) as it revolved around a college professor (Dustin Hoffman) who relocates to the small English village of his wife (Susan George) in order to extricate himself from the turmoil and protests back home and to focus on his precious mathematical equations. There, conflict and tension come in other forms, the primal power of sex, cowardly acquiescence, pedophilia and class division, all driven by another hauntingly ominous score by Fielding, and culminating in the perfect storm of escalation in a remote enclave where the hand of the law is as ephemeral and effective as it was on the edge of the American frontier. The graphic nature of the pivotal rape scene sparked outrage and controversy at the time and remains equally as provocative and divisive 45 years later.  Continue reading


14 Oct

War is hell, a tried and true axiom that gets personified to the nth degree in David Ayer’s World War II epic, Fury, about a tank crew who utter a book full of cliches and live out religious allegories while quoting the Gospel. Ayer, who wrote Training Day and directed such smash-mouth dramas as Harsh Times and End of Watch, has his nose deep in male bravado and testosterone bondsmanship. The scribe-turned-helmsman could probably learn a thing or two from Paul Schrader, who penned Taxi Driver but had mixed success transitioning to the director’s seat with the likes of American Gigolo, Cat People and Light Sleeper. Schrader however, was interested in character-driven stories, whereas Ayer seeks to drop vestiges of square-jawed manliness in chaotic hell often punctuated by hyper violence. Sam Peckinpah had it covered from both sides, and the fact that he did, and that many have attempted to emulate his style and resonance, and failed, only strengthens the testimony of his unbridled cinematic genius.

Right from the get-go, Ayer lets us know that this isn’t the clean, moral war captured on black and white back in the ’40s and ’50s, but something darker and more complex. Coming across a bomb-blasted field of American tank carcasses, an SS officer on a white horse checks the carnage to make sure there are no survivors. For something to be alive doesn’t seem possible, but springing from atop one steel beast is Brad Pitt, who quickly puts a knife blade through the officer’s occipital brow and then unsaddles the horse and allows it to go free—a metaphor for the freeing of white Europe by the grubby Americans?   Continue reading