Tag Archives: Western

First Cow

14 Mar

‘First Cow’: Risks of frontier entrepreneurship go beyond financial, but milk it while you can

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For her latest collaboration with writer Jonathan Raymond, Kelly Reichardt heads back to the same Oregon frontier territory that made “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010) so narratively rich and foreboding. The time’s a few years earlier than that existential traverse; it’s the early 1820s as folks spread west, hoping for land, gold and a new way of life. Those dreams are not without hardships along the way. Take Otis Figowitz (John Magaro), a cook signed on with a rugged party of uncouth trappers who hold the threat of violence over him, even though the foraging skills of their “Cookie” are the only thing keeping them alive in the Pacific Northwest wilds. Such aggression (“When this is all over, I’m going to kick your ass for real”) don’t seem to faze Cookie, almost as if he knows something no one else does.

One night, while on a foraging run, Cookie discovers a naked man hiding among the ferns. At first he believes he’s run into a Native American, but no, King Lu (Orion Lee) harks from China and is clearly in trouble. Knowing the hostile inclinations of his fellow trail mates, Cookie provides silent aide and sustenance to King along the way. Eventually the party and King make it to a trade outpost, and that’s where Reichardt’s tale shifts from a frontier odyssey to a startup endeavor and social testament of a micro crime and macro punishment (think those affected disproportionately by drug laws). The heart of “First Cow” is the bond between Cookie and King that grows from that unselfish helping hand in the wilds to the cozy shack nearby that King invites Cookie to share and, ultimately, where they cook up a scone biz.

The “first cow” is the lone bovine on an estate outside the outpost, brought in by a wealthy bureaucrat known as Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Where there’s milk, there’s scones. Each morning Cookie sets up a cauldron of boiling oil and drips honey on his freshly fried “oily cakes” as King takes gold ingot and other tender from the line of frontiersmen hungry for a sweet taste of civilization – but to make the treats, each night the enterprising duo furtively milk Chief Factor’s cow. They’re something of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid by way of Gates and Allen, with King as the brains of the operation and Cookie as his genius creator. King knows this is a limited-time opportunity before more cows and skilled chefs make their way to the remote port of commerce. Also too there’s the prideful Chief Factor who, curious as to why his cow bears no milk, commissions Cookie to make a special cake for a visiting mucky-muck. You know something has to give, but with Reichardt behind the lens you know it’s not going to go in a pat or predictable direction. Her denouements are an art form in their own right, always subtle and never registering more then a murmur on the plot-disruption scale, yet ever resonating in their lingering emotional impact. “First Cow” is no different. It’s a classic Reichardt branding that highlights the talents of Magaro and Lee, who, like Michelle Williams after her collaboration with Reichardt on “Wendy and Lucy” (2008), should see their stock rise. What the three have achieved here is one of the most unique and palpable portraits of male bonding captured on film in recent memory.

Of all things Kurosawa

20 Nov

Brattle’s full week of ‘Kurosawa in History’ shows how West was won by East’s auteur

 

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One thing I dislike when reading about film: reviews or other critical pieces infused with the word “I.” It’s not about you, it’s about the art, and letting your words about the art convert that “I.”

That said, here “I” go – and I promise to get to Akira Kurosawa, but indulge me for a moment.

Growing up, I wasn’t really that big a film fan. Granted we had only three channels the aerial could catch, and living in a town of 3,000 you had to drive two towns away to find our single-screen theaters, which didn’t get “Star Wars” until six months after its opening. (One was just an auditorium in a town hall.) So for me as a kid, film was mostly John Wayne and Godzilla, and while I couldn’t get enough of the man in the rubber suit, I didn’t like the former much – he seemed phony and too righteous, when the world around me was a darker, less black and white place. You knew things didn’t get resolved by some beefy human with a twangy drawl riding in at high noon, guns blazing.  

The one other movie during this era that grabbed me was “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964). Not only was Clint Eastwood’s no-name badass cool and scruffily handsome, he answered Wayne with moral ambiguity; in those spaghetti westerns the good and the righteous often got their asses kicked, hard. Even with its quirk and dark, tongue-in-cheek humor, Sergio Leone’s cornerstone western felt genuine, authentic from the top down the first time I saw it – and it still does today, hundreds of screenings later. (Though over time there would become many Wayne films I would came to adore – “The Shootist,” “Stagecoach,” perhaps mostly “The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

Flash forward to college. As part of my English major at a small liberal arts school, film was on my eclectic list of elective, dubbed “clapping for credit” and quite popular with athletes (I’ll let you all guess my two sports) because the professor, a man named Roger Farrand used to lecture us for a scant half-hour, then roll film; by the time the lights came up, there was maybe five to 10 people remaining of the 30-plus people enrolled. He loved film so much and was so excited by it that if you paid attention during his preamble you could walk out and still safely get a B – he told you everything you needed to know for a quiz or paper. Continue reading

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

The Magnificent Seven

28 Sep
The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven

Courtesy Sony Pictures

The all-star lineup fails to shine through in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of The Magnificent Seven

Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Yul Brynner — that’s a pretty tough trio to beat in any context and just one half of the star-studded cast of the original Magnificent Seven. That Western classic directed by John Sturges was itself a rebranding of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) and while the cross-genre translation made sense back in 1960, the current redux by Antoine Fuqua (Shooter and Training Day) doesn’t offer much of a spin besides boasting a diverse crew (an African American, Asian, Native American, and Mexican among the mix). Even then, with the exception of one “his kind” comment in reference to Byong-hun Lee’s blade-wielding character of Chinese descent, there’s not one drop of racial tension. Had the septet been hot pink fuchsia, the bad guy’s wouldn’t take notice. It certainly wouldn’t flavor their dull backlot dialog, but it might improve their ability to shoot and hit anything, because as the movie has it, their blazing guns — sans a lone Gatling gun mounted outside the cow-poke town — couldn’t strike the broadside of Kim Kardashian’s famous posterior.

Fuqua’s posse, which features Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke, is a pretty well-armed lot, but as they team up and ride out it becomes clear that something’s off with thisSeven. Sure, the scenery’s panoramic and lovely, but after a long, bouncy canter across the prairie, saddle soreness sets in well before the first bullet’s chambered. What’s missing are personality and philosophical idealism let alone brooding, macho conflict — all requisite when telling a tale of morally ambiguous men walking in a lawless land. It’s as if Fuqua took Sturges’ blueprint, connected the dots, then forgot to bring his palette to the set. Continue reading

The Revenant

7 Jan

 

 

Throughout his career, Alejandro González Iñárritu has set his eye on struggle and the imminence of death. “Amores Perros” (2000), the cornerstone film that made Iñárritu an international commodity, featured a “Cujo”-esque canine able to rip flesh from bone with ease. In 2014’s “Birdman,” Michael Keaton’s play-staging thespian hung on the verge of ruin and suicide and hears voices too, though not to the degree Javier Bardem’s shadowy Spaniard does in “Biutiful” (2010) – he can actually see death. Iñárritu’s latest, “The Revenant,” borrows elements from all three of those achievements as it sends Leonardo DiCaprio’s imperiled frontiersman on a Jobian trek across the frozen northern plains – mostly on his belly.

010616i The RevenantThe title refers to one who returns from the dead or a long absence. Some definitions have it as a ghost or specter, and all are apt in Iñárritu’s ordeal of great suffering. Right from the start, blood gets spilled as a party of American fur trappers in the early 1800s is beset by Arikara warriors. Viewers, like the furriers, don’t see the Native American detachment coming until the visceral twang of a well-guided arrow sails across the screen and pierces the throat of an unwary skinner. Being at the mercy of a largely unseen assailant registers eerily like the band of mercenaries in “Predator” being picked off one by one by a near-invisible alien force.

DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass, the outfit’s guide along with his half-Pawnee son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), get the survivors on a boat down the mighty Missouri River, full, foreboding and a major player in the film. Ever too much the sitting duck on the water, where you can feel the presence of waiting arrows at every bend, the party lands and goes it afoot. It’s there, among the ferns and pines while scouting ahead, that Glass is mauled by a mother grizzly protecting her cubs. The scene is long, brutal and squirm-worthy as Glass’ flesh is peeled from his back and his body pulled from and flung into Emmanuel Lubezki’s impassive, ground-level camera. The orchestration of sound, imagery and the frothed grimace on DiCaprio’s face is as stomach-knotting as it is poetic perfection. Continue reading

The Hateful Eight

24 Dec

Samuel L. Jackson in "The Hateful Eight." (Courtesy Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

What’s ultimately served up is Tarantino channeling Tarantino with men of swagger caught in a mean situation waxing about righteousness and the universe in pulpy poetic verse as tensions rise. It’s what you’d expect and hope for in a Tarantino film, but by the edgy auteur’s barometer (he’s helmed eight movies to date), it’s a lesser cut.

What holds “Eight” in check mostly is its overindulgence, lack of nuance and the fact Q.T. has been to every corner of this room before — and I don’t mean “Four Rooms.” From “Kill Bill, Volume I” onward, Tarantino’s been busy reshaping the revenge flick while paying homage the quirky genres of the ‘70s, namely the cheesy b-roll (“Kill Bill” and “Grindhouse”), the Spaghetti Western (“Django Unchained”) and the chopsocky silliness of kung fu flicks re-cut with lethal seriousness for the “Kill Bill” series.  Continue reading

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