…Print the Legend.

For Marshall

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is quite an outlier from the rest of the John Ford films I have seen in an impossible to miss way: it’s the one most reliant on its screenplay to talk to us than its visuals. And that’s maybe what makes me rank it at the lowest when it comes to John Ford’s masterpieces, the fact that the writing has to be most front and center to the imagery that makes Ford one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. But it’s just as well forgivable when it comes to what a perfect piece of writing it is.

The screenplay in question by James Warner Belluh (his second script for Ford after having most of his short stories adapted into earlier movies, as we saw prior in this review series) and producer Willis Goldbeck, adapted from a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, begins with a US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie née Ericson (Vera Miles) arriving in a small frontier town by the name of Shinbone. He is ostensibly of such repute that everybody around takes curiosity to his arrival, most of all the local newspaper the Shinbone Star, who go so far as to impose in the middle of Ranse’s paying respects to a recently departed old friend to demand the story of who this man is to Ranse.

That man is by the name of Tom Doniphon and Ranse is miraculously patient enough to acquiesce to The Shinbone Star’s request, beginning from his very first arrival to Shinbone 25 years ago. An arrival that ends up extremely unwelcoming as his stagecoach is intercepted and robbed by the villainous Liberty Valance (a particularly smarmy and vengeful Lee Marvin) and his gang*. When Ranse dares to stand between Valance’s men and an old woman’s pendant, he gets himself beaten down for his bravery and then when Ranse’s response is specifically to tout the law – for you see Ranse at this point was fresh out of law school and eager to practice it within Shinbone itself – that beating becomes more severe and ends with Stoddard being left out on the road. Enter Doniphon (John Wayne), who carries him into the town and to the care of the Ericsons where Ranse is able to heal up and earn his shelter by working for the Ericson’s restaurant while also endearing himself to the town with his knowledge and planning his practice soon enough.

And for the next hour or so, the movie becomes less plot-driven and more about ideas. Explicit ideas, I’d dare to say close to didactic except that Ford, Belluh, and Goldbeck don’t necessarily provide an answer to the questions it brings up but nevertheless waste no words without shading out the tug-o-war particularly between Doniphon and Stoddard. A future confrontation between Stoddard and Valance is pretty much inevitable, given both Stoddard’s dogged devotion to having Valance dealt with by the law and Valance’s hatred of Stoddard at first sight (as well as Valance being such a notorious presence plaguing Shinbone outright to the point that the Marshal is looking for any reason to avoid crossing him). Doniphon is pretty much the only person in the world that Valance shows anything near fear towards and it’s clearly because Doniphon is a much bigger fella who has no problem flashing a big stick and puffing his chest out against Valance when necessary. And so we have at the center of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a conflict of ideals: Stoddard’s intelligent navigating around the legal system as he tries to invoke it in whatever way that might stick against Valance and Doniphon’s pragmatism towards force being used against force.

Which one can’t possibly think of two better actors to embody these two separate forms of masculinity than Stewart and Wayne, even while they both are notably a lot older than we’re meant to assume the characters are. Nevertheless, it’s a no-brainer: you take Jimmy Stewart, the very image of the moral arbiter that American cinema had in the wake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life, which somehow did not fade yet in 1962 even after his Hitchcock pictures and Anatomy of a Murder showed more of an edge. Which is of course better for his performance as Ransom Stoddard, which might be his career best, carrying just enough of that edge to his non-violent strategic rationalism to react to moments such as Woody Strode forgetting the “All Men Are Created Equal” in the Declaration of Independence and comforting him with “a lot of people forget that part” as well as the jagged way in which he confronts Doniphon’s alpha male approach to things (to the point of throwing a punch at him in one scene). Stewart imbues just enough doubt to Stoddard and his lack of familiarity with Shinbone to suggest a complication towards his convictions but yet let’s those convictions have enough presence against Wayne…

… who is basically doing a lot of the same things he’s always done with Ford: embodying the broad-shouldered, street smart, physical-minded Western hero archetype he fits on like a glove and even the melancholy he brings to the role is nothing new, given She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers. He’s less doubtful on his actions – and given the way that story develops, it’s safe to say he’s mostly validated – but he’s also got less chemistry with any of his co-stars, including Miles and Strode (Hallie is at the time of the flashback Tom’s girlfriend and that actually plays as a second contest for Tom and Ranse while Strode plays Tom’s right-hand man Pompey). And a bit of this may be based on how miserable Wayne made most of the people on set as a reaction to the way Ford made him miserable, but it gives an excellent little separation of Tom from the rest of the community as his own quiet island. And when you mix that in with Wayne’s effortless soulfulness, that just makes his lack of belonging sting a tiny bit more. In fact, the only real chemistry spark Wayne has on-screen is with Marvin as somebody for him to center all of his anger at when they stare daggers at each other waiting for a draw.

And so with those two embodying the incompatible ideals of how a man deals with the problems a man has to deal with, the story and Otho Lovering’s unexpectedly back-loaded pacing eventually uses its second half to boil all of that theory into something that requires guns be fired at the last second and the revelations regarding that explosive climax are too good to spoil, but suffice it to say… there are ways in which we learn how right and how wrong both were and in turn the way the world is starting to favor one after spending most of its development necessitating the other’s skills. It’s a movie particularly aware of politicking and image as an important element (by the beginning of the second hour, the discussion of imminent statehood and representation in the government becomes an active stake and given purple rhetorical delivery by Edmond O’Brien at his most Shakespearean and a surprise cameo by John Carradine matching O’Brien’s theatricality tenfold. It’s also the moment where Ford and Lovering see to adding close-ups that betray where the performance begin and ends when it comes to oratory politics) and the manner in which Belluh and Goldbeck’s screenplay ties all that up is certainly famous enough in its own right, but frankly I don’t want to take the chance that someone will read this and be spoiled on what is quite a poetic conclusion.

In any case, that’s a lot of time spent on the story itself and while I did say The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance has that story take precedence over the image… it is still extremely strong imagery. For one thing, it is a return to black-and-white for Ford and his cinematographer William H. Clothier, a style which honestly I think found Ford at his most comfortable and strongest as he takes interest at giving as much unglamorized realism to the Western sets, like the walls of the Ericsons’ restaurant or the cluster of machinery in the original Shinbone Star office. And then there’s still the ability for Ford to marshal the usage of shadows when necessary, particularly the heart-pounding gun duel that everybody knows is coming the moment Valance and Ranse lock eyes to render the characters in a nihilistic blackness (which only expands further when considering that, in true visual villain form, Valance is dressed specifically in black compared to all the other central players). And of course, there’s Ford’s awareness of what character blocking means in regards to those character’s relations and attitude towards each other and there has never been a movie where that was more important given what Tom and Ranse represent. It appears that Ford is just as nimble with the 1.85:1 aspect ratio as he was in Academy, whether it’s a crowd scene at a bar discussing politics or one man tearing down a building in anguish, able to have the action fit into that frame in notable ways. He even gives the framing of one moving shot between two doors late in the film a sense of gravity that adds to what is happening. Ford’s framing and usage of shadows particularly mix the best together with a shot round the middle of a character entering a frame of pitch blackness before the lighting gradually reveals the presence of company with urgent disturbance.

Ford is not sleepwalking at all in this movie. He’s deferring certainly to the writing moreso, but he feels no less inspired than anything else he’s worked on and I imagine that’s done for a reason. This is absolutely the sort of movie that is tapping into a man aware that his career is ending and what sort of legacy gets left behind once you close that door. It’s why the frame narrative essentially involves the off-screen death of his biggest star and it’s why it’s a story aware of how the culture changes within barely anytime at all. Ford still had a few more movies left in him before finally packing up but The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was certain that the end had begun and imbues a lot of gravity in its musings and themes from that awareness. And if a lot of its final conclusions appear to be borrowed from Ford’s previous film Fort Apache, Ford’s revisit of them come with a punchier and blunter manner of delivering them and when the legend becomes fact…

*One unexpected benefit of this movie’s existence: Sergio Leone saw Lee Van Cleef playing one of Valance’s henchmen and liked the way he looked so much that he cast him for For a Few Dollars More and then The Good, the Bad, the Ugly.

That’ll Be the Day.

For Marshall

“Which movie is the hardest to discuss in this week-long John Ford series?” is a question with a lot of answers, but I think his 1956 picture The Searchers might edge through for the individual reason that – as the film widely considered Ford’s best – it seems like every single thing worth saying has already been said by far more intelligent and articulate film people than myself. It doesn’t help that – as I’m sure you’ve guessed with this being a series exclusively dedicated to what I consider Ford’s masterpieces – I’m not really set to go against conventional wisdom. It’s also the case that The Searchers has been getting the mildest drop in reputation over the past few decades, some of which is understandable if also ungenerous.

Understandable on a thematic sense that is, but we’ll get back to that. On an aesthetic sense, however, I don’t get how anybody couldn’t find it overwhelming. It is Ford’s EPIC in a way that no other picture by him could be, with cinematographer Winton Hoch given the expanse of the VistaVision widescreen film to capture the most out of the Western horizon and then make it feel tired on the part of the washed-out coloring without losing one detail of that rocky and sandy expanse. And this matters all the more so when Jack Murray cuts the sequences with every bit of slack to stress that we are feeling the years pass the characters by on a journey that feels… OK, maybe this is something lost once you have seen the movie but it’s a journey that doesn’t promise any particular satisfaction at the end of it.

I’m getting ahead of myself. What is this journey that the scope in structure and image is in service of? Frank Nugent’s screenplay – adapting the 1954 novel by Alan Le May – begins with Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) riding into the Texas homestead of his brother Aaron (Walter Coy). This arrival is certainly to the pleasure of the children Lucy (Pippa Scott), Debbie (Lana Wood – played later in the film by her sister Natalie), and Ben (Robert Lyden) but less so in the case of Aaron and his wife Martha (Dorothy Jordan) for some unspoken reason. It might be because Ethan did not reach out in three years since the Mexican Revolutionary War he was fighting in ended, it might be the romantic tension between Ethan and Martha, it might be the quiet hostility Ethan shows to their adopted son Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) specifically because he resembles his Cherokee descent*. In any case, the elders are not jumping for joy to see Ethan back and when the Law shows up in the form of the Reverend Captain Clayton (Ward Bond) and his posse, there’s even further a friction between Ethan and authorities that are mostly there to recruit help for investigating a cattle theft.

That theft – which Martin accompanies them on as well as Ethan after making a point to NOT swear in – turns out to be a trap, not for the men but for one of their unsuspecting homes. And unfortunately that turns out to be the Edwards’ home, desolated in the wake of a raid and leaving the bodies of Aaron, Martha, and Ben with Debbie and Lucy missing. Something which enrages the already hardened Ethan to go on a search for the two girls with Martin in tow, but it takes very little to scratch the surface and see he’s mostly looking for blood and not for the girls.

In any case, this is a journey that spans over a decade for the two searchers and that timespan takes its toll on both of them, Ethan much more severely as he grows bitter and nastier to Martin in denying him his relationship to the Edwards’ and holding him at a distance compared to the rest of their companions that hop on and then drop off throughout the film (some of whom drop off violently). Which is where Murray’s editing does the most work to slow the flow of momentum. The Searchers doesn’t stop completely but it’s more of a grind under Nugent’s structure and the story’s shape. Certainly one can already call to mind how the iconic opening and closing shots of the movie involving the long empty desert behind a moving door, but there’s also how much of the middle is taken up by a fragmented frame narrative involving the one letter Martin sends to his beau Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) as well as how cyclical the movie’s treatment of hot yellow summers crossfading into soft white winters at least twice before it feels like the few clues Ethan and Martin have (a Comanche Chief named Scar has been seen with Debbie) are finally leading them somewhere. The Searchers is not a very long movie – just a minute shy of 2 hours – but it makes it all felt and then some.

And then there’s still the fact that we are spending it in the company of Ethan, a role embodied by Wayne’s single most caustic performance, not above smiling or having a laugh when he’s under the roof of someone (there is a lot to be said about the dichotomy between Ethan’s domestication and savagery) but whose default manner appears to be a firm scowl under the bright desert sun or the shadow of his brim (this particular rewatch having a close-up round the middle of the film truly catch my eye as a moment where Ethan looks so very vicious, not to mention being a great example of what the VistaVision 35mm does to close-ups as it brings out all the stubble and lines on an old face like Wayne’s). His antagonism towards all the many people he will encounter in that long journey within Hoch’s vista (and particularly being dwarfed by those vistas in pointed ways, just as Ford loves to do to his drama visually) is a big part of what makes The Searchers feel so dark as a story without having to try so hard.

Ethan as a character is only one such way that the movie introduces a cynical attitude about what the Western as a genre yields. Conventionally speaking, The Wild Bunch is considered the first revisionist Western and being that The Searchers was still made in the later end of the 1950s, there was only so much violence that the movie could portray. But the implication of the brutality feels so much stronger than any bloodbath could provide: just look at the wide shot revealing what’s left of the Edwards home, the blackened smokey fire in the middle of nothing. It’s not gruesome but it gives us a chill down our spine just the same in its dark fatalism. Violence is what sobers The Searchers most, whether from the things the characters refuse to say or let others see or how three instances an off-screen death that brings further exhaustion to the mission. And particularly in the manner it frames Ethan’s meting of his own violence. One of his earliest moments on this search is to desecrate a found Comanche corpses as a low-angle shot, deliberately in a manner most offensive to the Comanche beliefs. Later, we have a middle shot witnessing Ethan about to commit a heinous act of desecration mirroring an taunt displayed to him just before by Scar himself (Henry Brandon).

Which brings us to the matter of racism and The Searchers. It seems to be a continuing question brought up by both apologists and critics of the film alike: Is The Searchers commenting on racism or is it just plain racist? Not to be too flippant, but I feel the movie makes itself explicitly clear on this matter: Ethan Edwards is a bad person who does not belong in any sort of society (a hell of a reversal on the first big Ford and Wayne collaboration Stagecoach condemning society). But even the Comanche is given the sense of civilization from their organization once we see them and the part-Cherokee Martin plays as a voice of reason and understanding against Ethan’s brutal tactics and philosophies, most often when the possibility of Lucy and Debbie’s miscegenation among the Comanches is brought up and Ethan determines death is a preferable fate for the girls. When they finally meet Scar face-to-face, Scar turns out to be very eloquent and has no trouble communicating his anger towards Ethan and his people with an attitude that feels rather of a kin to Ethan’s rancor (this is maybe the only area where casting a white man as Scar feels like it pays off, otherwise one of my only two issues with the movie besides the intolerable wise fool character giving undeserved comic relief). In nearly every aspect of Ethan’s characterization, he is wrong and the manner with which the film makes the shape of shadow (from the cowboy hat) on Ethan’s face more solid than any other movie Wayne made with Ford is impossible to ignore.

But Ethan is still not just some two-dimensional surprise villain and I think it’s the ending of The Searchers that most appears to complicate its tone as well as Ethan’s character logic in a major final decision, where Max Steiner’s previously weighty score (another area of projected exhaustion from The Searchers) makes a 180 over to this soft idyllic cue that transforms to melancholy in the final moments. And it just all fits, even despite giving us no indication to expect The Searchers to go that route and if anything preparing us for the opposite by having it play as the aftermath of one of Ethan’s most vicious actions. But it still effortlessly swings into those tones of relief and sadness in the last few minutes in an emotionally consistent way before we watch that famous shot of Ethan looking through the doorway but turning around and walking away from us as it closes. Maybe it’s that humane complexity about Ethan that causes everyone to feel like it undercuts its pessimism up to that point. I don’t agree though…

… Because it still marches towards the same final observations The Searchers about the Western and its place in the world anymore. That it idealizes a lone hero who is in fact just a violent bully, that it romanticizes a landscape that has no blatant feeling of the drama within it (Hoch’s cinematography being more realist in its mythic iconography than anything Ford made before or since), that it vilifies a race and enemy that has its own pain and its own establishment and agency. Not too long ago, I was faced with someone dismissing The Searchers with the claim that “I’m sure it was subversive for its time” but I absolutely don’t subscribe to liking movies for being “subversive for their time”. The Searchers is still subversive now in 2021 deconstructing and critiquing elements of storytelling mythology that is used to this day (plus I mean… I love The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, but it’s not like we stopped having movies portray Native Americans as “savages”) and it’s a wonder that even if you’re not willing to accept how insightful it is as an amalgamation and examination of everything Ford accomplished in his career to that point, you can’t help surrendering into the shadow of a never harsher vision of that long surviving horizon in the American Southwest.

*Which like… Jeffrey Hunter, even with his tan here, resembles a Cherokee about as much as I resemble Bruce Lee. But if I’m going to meet this movie halfway…

She Wore It in the Winter and the Merry Month of May

For Marshall

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – the second entry in John Ford’s informal Cavalry trilogy – is not Ford’s first rodeo with color filmmaking or even his first rodeo with the famous early three-strip Technicolor process. That privilege belongs to Drums Along the Mohawk ten years prior to Yellow Ribbon‘s 1949 release. But that movie doesn’t yield nearly the amount of ambition with this development in cinema as our current subject, so we shall forgive She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for doing it first as it does it best. Because whoa nelly does it do it best, well enough to win the year’s Oscar for Best Color Cinematography at the very least but that’s hardly a worthy award for the sort of formidable imagery we are granted as our window to the mythic West.

One such reason is because of what it is capturing in brilliant color: John Ford’s favorite shooting location Monument Valley, the very image of the West now transformed to more immediate presence and making a great leap from Fort Apache‘s cracked texturing of that landscape into bringing more awareness to the brush and the shadow in relation to the warm colors of that mountainous desert environment. And another is the fact that as the second film of that Cavalry trilogy, now we truly get to watch the proud bright blue and yellow of their uniforms in those lovely landscapes.

But it’s not just the colors and shapes of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon but what they are representing: it perhaps moves past How Green Was My Valley as Ford’s most sentimental film but if it is not as surprisingly fatalist as that movie or Yellow Ribbon‘s earliest predecessor Fort Apache, Ford, returning co-writer Frank Nugent, and co-writer Laurence Stallings – adapting TWO Saturday Evening Post stories by James Warner Bellah – bring an awareness of the end of things to come and the place of the cavalry and their duties in the scope of the world. Nugent and Stallings’ screenplay follows the last days of Fort Starke’s Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne), which happen to overlap with the days after Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn (making this a spiritual sequel to Fort Apache is a more direct way) and so the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes are emboldened by their victory to combine forces against the US and move for war. Brittles’ order from Major Allshard (George O’Brien) for his remaining five days is to quell the Native Americans’ desire for war and in the meantime accompany Allshard’s wife Abbey (Mildred Natwick) and niece Olivia (Joanne Dru) to an eastbound stagecoach.

And so for most of the movie’s runtime, we are instead brought to watch the Fort Starke Cavalry prepare for the journey and then just move on the road alongside them as a passenger and Ford’s aim appears to be just enjoying the company and miniature dramas of each of these men, whether the rivalry for Olivia’s romantic affections between 1st Lieutenant Flint Cohill (John Agar) and 2nd Lieutenant Ross Pennell (Harry Carey Jr.) or Victor McLaglen’s boistourous default Irish drunkard now taking the form of 1st Sergeant Quincannon or Sergeant Tyree (Ben Johnson)’s reconnaissance mission or just Brittles dealing with the fact that he is going to have to walk away from this life very soon and his adventure is over.

Which seems as good an avenue as any to say that while Fort Apache is Wayne’s best performance… Brittles is a very able to challenge to that being the case. Part of that is how well the makeup – with its lines on his face and the broad white streaks in his hair – does to transform him into an aged man (Wayne was only 41 years old at the time) and the manner in which, without particularly changing his regular performance method in a big way, Wayne is able to modulate a sense of regret and looking back that anchors this movie’s fondness for the characters he finds his sense of belonging with (and I think that most of these actors had already worked with Ford amplifies that familiarity for a regular viewer of Ford’s). And particularly the level of emotion he would display according to who was his screen partner crafts together the image of Brittles of a man who is a big softie but cannot stand to let anyone see it, something performed in subtle places where Wayne can fit in honest reactions to loneliness or disappointment or tenderness… all things that will turn out to be necessarily present in Brittles’ character arc as his final steps towards retirement do not appear to go in the direction that he hopes. And in turn She Wore a Yellow Ribbon turns out to be an analysis of where warmth and gentleness belong in masculinity – the idea that it is ok to apologize, even in spite of the famous line “never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness” and to feel for a man – something that isn’t acknowledged nearly as much in this world of toxic masculinity and in which Ford was known to live by in his life despite trying very hard not to betray how easily emotional he could become.

And yet then there is all of these magnificent nature-based wideshots in all the wonder the camera was capable of providing for the painterly scenery that is the American Southwest. For even in the immortalizing of the cavalry’s soul as men, it is small in the face of this magnificent untouched desert land and Ford with cinematographer Winston Hoch never run out of ways to transform these panoramas into magnificently romantic variables of light and surface, particularly in a famous central scene set in a thunderstorm where ever hue is captured with the sort of straightforward darkness that a overcast sky could blanket upon the day but allowing each crack to make the colors burst ever so aggressively each second. The awareness of how light responds to the vistas differently in color than in black and white is something Ford and Hoch were expected to get hold of if She Wore a Yellow Ribbon was going to work, but their ambition with changing the lighting of not just each sequence but within the shots themselves is extraordinary. To say nothing of the gorgeous red-mixing sunset silhouettes that come at She Wore a Yellow Ribbon‘s most sentimental.

Even more so in the manner that while the colors of those cavalry outfits proudly call out in the vastness, the movie visual gives the encroaching Cheyenne and Arapaho confederacy the same distinguished space within this vast framing of this land as the Cavalry… maybe a manner in which John Ford did not want to roll back on all the progress of Fort Apache interrogating the United States’ history of relations with Indigenous people. I’ll confess even the most progressive Western picture – which Fort Apache may very well be among – still gets a bit dubious for me on its treatment of Native Americans, but I’d forgotten how clearly Ford seems to be willing to favor and even understand the objections of the Native Americans in this picture (giving them a blunt voice in the form of Chief John Big Tree’s performance as Pony-That-Walks). The major thesis of this movie is not that the Cheyenne or Arapaho are wrong (and while it is easy to make the mistake of Custer’s death and defeat being something that provides foreboding in this picture, the context of Fort Apache instantly disabuses that), but that war is not something favorable for anyone. Even when Major Allshard moves for war and the early third act of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon embodies a sort of resentful regret on what could not be done and what may very well be on the horizon, Brittles is looking for a way to circumvent that by any means necessary (there is other things that Nugent & Stallings’ script tries to circumvent at the last second and it leads to the ending being the single biggest mark against the movie, but it takes up so little runtime and the movie is over before I know it that the movie still remains a masterpiece in my eye).

There’s a humanity throughout She Wore a Yellow Ribbon welcome to any presence within it, no matter how big or small the part (I honestly am surprised that Johnson makes the biggest impression on me as a performance outside of Wayne), and it’s through there that Ford is able to fill this ostensibly simple color western with awe of the land, sobering reconsiderations, musings on how to be a man, and camaraderie with others. The movie that most betrays the soul of John Ford is a very tough bet to make (especially considering how much of his 100+ movies I haven’t seen and ESPECIALLY with the knowledge that Fort Apache and The Quiet Man exist) but She Wore a Yellow Ribbon seems most characteristic of Ford as a person to give the impression of a big tough guy and still break down before the picture or grave of a loved one and try to find the words to express personal failure. And it is through that personality that She Wore a Yellow Ribbon becomes more than just one of the most gorgeous films ever made… it becomes an extremely dense character study on top of it.

Here Come the Cavalry

For Marshall – Whose Unprompted Discussion on this Film Played a Huge Part in Considering the Complexity Behind John Ford, The Man.

Between How Green Was My Valley in 1941 and My Darling Clementine in 1946, America entered World War II and subsequently John Ford served in the Navy Reserve during that time as well as in the OSS, photographically capturing The Battle of Midway (the film he made out of the footage being among the 4 winners of the very first Best Documentary Oscar*), D-Day on Omaha Beach, and the conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. And based on his account of how these men he came to personally know and photograph began to die before him, Ford was shaken by the experience and the memory of his fallen comrades for the rest of his days.

I can’t help thinking that his famous Cavalry trilogy was something of an attempt to tribute the memory of these fallen men while also grappling with what his personal objections with both the history of the United States and its fascination with valorizing itself for even the most craven or dishonorable military actions on the part of men who decide the fate of people beneath them solely on the justification of rank. Maybe I’m just playing dimestore psychologist a bit too much and Ford’s longstanding memories of documenting the battlefield is seldom connected with his later reevaluated outlook on life and subsequent probing of the Western genre’s attempt at mythologizing US history are completely unrelated. But one thing that is undeniable is that Ford’s 1948 film that opened the Cavalry trilogy, Fort Apache, is the most morally complex film that I have seen out of his films yet. Even moreso than The Searchers, which is a whole lot more pure in its cynicism, and even moreso than The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which walks where Fort Apache ran.

The script – the first written by film critic-turned-screenwriter Frank S. Nugent as well as the beginning of his long working relationship with Ford – adapts James Warner Bellah’s Saturday Evening Post short story “Massacre” which in turn takes inspiration from Lieutenant Colonel George S. Custer’s infamous Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn. And if there’s one punch Ford and Nugent pull, it’s that their Custer stand-in is not nearly as repulsive a human being as Custer appeared to be, though Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda) is never anything less than an antagonistic figure among his peers with an undisguised resentment at his sending off to the Fort Apache cavalry post. This is no less disappointing to the men already stationed at Fort Apache as everyone was expecting command to be taken by Captain Kirby York (John Wayne) who is significantly more relaxed in his handling of the troops than Thursday’s obsession with image and dignity.

A good amount of the film watches York and Thursday quietly joust on what genteelness matters when it comes to treating others, where Fonda projects an elitism that is satisfied more with its façade of properness and in the meanwhile we see the ease with which York may handle responsibility with men he understands whilst making room for something like a hang out picture within the cavalry (embodied particularly by John Agar’s square-jawed Lieutenant Mickey O’Rourke and Mickey’s father Sergeant Major Michael O’Rourke, played by Ward Bond but given even more ease by the presence of Ford favorites Victor McLaglen and Hank Worden as well as Pedro Armendáriz and particularly George O’Brien as the one true bridge between Thursday’s decorum and York’s principles), where Ford and cinematographer Archie Stout keep a clear awareness of which between the two major cinematic icons Fonda and Wayne are favored in their shared coverage and the men of cavalry are covered from chaotic early sequences of indiscipline to later developments of visual pageantry with their organization within the frame.

And yet the biggest clash between York and Thursday comes about halfway through the film when they are to investigate the remnants of a ravaged supply wagon and uncover corruption on the part of government agent Silas Meacham (Grant Withers). Meacham was responsible for the supply of the Apache people on the reservation but York is pretty quickly able to illustrate to Thursday how Meacham was, knowingly and possible even with the US government’s approval, neglecting and betraying their trust. This is a betrayal and mistreatment severe enough to facilitate the wide-scale death of the Apache people and necessitate their defiance of the United States government by fleeing to Mexico. At which point, Thursday shows his true colors by addressing Meacham with his gentleman manner despite showing almost as much contempt for him as York while York speaks freely of the way the United States government betrayed and displaced the Indigenous people for its entire history. And I mean FREELY, York’s monologuing leaves no room for misunderstanding when makes clear that the United States is responsible for the near-eradication of Native Americans and continues to maintain this violence in passive-aggressive ways.

Thursday’s demeanor and posture to Meacham will particularly have its foil when the cavalry inevitably comes face to face with Cochise (Miguel Inclan) as Thursday refuses to favor even the slightest compromise with the Apache people or consider them on equal footing, calling them “savages” as the favored term of many anti-indigenous racists. A treatment of the indigenous that York outright declares to find dishonorable and potentially lethal. And those who know what happened to Custer can probably guess where Fort Apache is going with this, yet nevertheless I think I will give the courtesy of SPOILER WARNING as it’s impossible to discuss the power of Fort Apache without discussing its landing blows. But suffice it to say that the ending moments are where Fonda’s rigid arrogance and combativeness with anyone beneath him gets at its most tragic and what was already an excellent usage of Wayne’s screen soulfulness to depict a man who will find ways to bend his duty serving everyone as they should be served becomes richer and his career best performance, even beyond the obvious need to be convincing as someone who believes the Apache people were wronged and should be treated with honor**.

For one thing, the finale portrays much of Thursday’s strategically inept commands in the final battle with some detached ambiguity. We are aware that Thursday is leading men to their deaths for the “glory” of it and the refusal to accept the Apache as people but that’s specifically because York gives lip service to it. And yet Ford shoots the cavalry’s preparations and marches with no less the sort of painterly iconography as any other piece of art that rhapsodizes history, particularly taking advantage with Stout of the horizontal axis with the frame. It is the tinge of fatalism, only explicitly delivered at the very last moments of the fight in a pair of shots that is outright chilling in its desolation, that determines the dark disenchantment with how the Cavalry builds these men up only to have them die very avoidable deaths. And even in that fatalism, Thurday’s arc as a character gives just the slightest tone of nobility to his final decision when an opportunity is offered to him to return back alive to his daughter Philadelphia (former child actor legend Shirley Temple, Agar’s wife at the time, who is a perfect screen partner for Fonda’s few times where he reveals Thursday’s heart***).

And before I move on from this sequence, it is the moment where the extra textures in the infrared film with which Fort Apache was shot pay off magnificently, showing off the crags and lines of Monument Valley with more intimacy than Ford’s previous films shot there and particularly with a heart-stopping final wide shot to the scene where York marches into a miniature sandstorm kicked up by Cochise’s horse with a pregnant tension for us to watch all that grain swallow the entire frame before settling into an image that is shattering in its firm punctuation.

And then there is the true final scene – the one that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance would later absolutely remake in its own context – and Wayne’s muted responses to the reporters’ questions regarding and the neutral tired face of his when he confirms the most romanticized stories of a fight we saw Thursday lose hard with a stony two-shot close-up that just leaves me numb when I see it, insisting that there’s nothing that can be done to salvage the truth about what Thursday did. And then he moves on to take his command in a similar fashion as Thursday but not before delivering one last accolade regarding the bravery of the less-decorated men in the cavalry and a hope that York will use his power to bring the Apache back as the government orders under terms of decency and regained trust of his own accord, with a final sequence returning to that pageantry in a more optimistic tone that manages not to undercut all we just watched 20 minutes ago.

This is a movie with a lot of unexpected relevance up to the year 2020: Thursday’s actions reflecting the manner in which the oppressors are treated as opposed to the oppressed so that the cries are never heart and the status quo remains the same. The final sequence reminding us of how even to this day, the United States will pat itself on the back for accomplishing nothing except so many graves (and I almost forgot to mention how this one of the few John Ford movies where the comic relief works, specifically because of how the amicability of the characters contextualizes the horrors of watching some of them die). The maintained ego of the nation in expecting that their most disenfranchised will take their meager supplies and like it as well as how it will twist any fact to make itself took good.

One last note for what is turning out to be a much longer review than I anticipated. You have seen above myself refer to Wayne’s personal disagreements with what Fort Apache posits regarding the Native Americans and the unnecessary nature of war (which is ironic given that unlike Ford, Wayne was a draft dodger). Ford is probably a bit more complicated to claim: he has long held good relations with several Indigenous Nations (indeed, that’s how he was able to shoot in the Navajo country of Monument Valley for most of his career), used his military connections specifically to supply food and resources to Native Americans, while also fighting and enforcing equal pay among his Native American and Black actors during his career, but I also just can’t help being dubious of anyone who was even cursorily involved in The Birth of a Nation (in which an uncredited Ford was an extra as a klansman!).

Nevertheless, this feels more than anything like his reckoning with the mythologizing that the Western brings to some of this country’s darkest historical acts with an evidently immortal positive light, ostensibly for the founding of the nation but realistically at the cost of summarily killing the Indigenous people. And it’s not a straightforward reckoning – Fort Apache is pro-cavalryman but somehow anti-cavalry and certainly indulges in some classical cowboy on the horizon imagery for the heroic – but it is nevertheless a reckoning most aware of the casualties and enraged by the institutionalized and historical dishonor on the part of the United States with Ford’s willingness to indict himself. Because I don’t think it’s for nothing that the very same people Ford portrayed as stereotypical barbarity in Stagecoach are the ones that are given a much clearer light as civilized men fighting back against blatant injustice and persecution with this film. Ford did not choose the Apache people to be in this movie by accident anymore than he chose to craft a massive tragedy to reflect in scope off of what may be his sharpest auto-critique against the Western genre he had a hand in building to the esteem it was in 1948.

*Which would later be joined by a Best Short Subject, Documentary Oscar for an agitprop doc about Pearl Harbor’s attack.
**John Wayne was a fucking racist, among other things. That is an undeniable truth about the actor that may very well have been apparent before his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy magazine, but as someone who was not born until well after John Wayne was laid to rest, that was the smoking gun for me. There is no context in which the words “I believe in white supremacy” is an ok thing.
***And honestly, I can’t think of a more knowingly iconic casting of parent and child than having Henry Fonda be the father of Shirley Temple.

The Journey Is The Destination

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It is the most tempting thing to approach Stagecoach in terms of where it lands with John Ford’s career and John Wayne’s career, both of which are slightly overstated by history considering that Wayne was already trying very hard to break as a star and Ford had already been so well-established as a Hollywood filmmaker that he even had a Best Director Oscar under his belt. This IS a pair of men who collaborated on a movie that ends with the message “print the legend”, but in any case the legend has some amount of truth to it: this is, more than any other shot at stardom that Wayne took, the one that made him the face of American cinema for the next 20 years at least. And while it wouldn’t be too accurate to call this the movie where Ford came together with his own style, I am tempted to say that as John Ford’s most perfect film… it was a necessary launchpad of his legacy into further masterpieces. Indeed, why – in a chronological series where I am talking about the 7 films of Ford’s that I give five stars ratings to – this is the first movie I’m talking about.

Indeed, it would be tempting to talk about Stagecoach as a John Wayne movie but that would slightly neglect the excellent manner in which Stagecoach functions as an ensemble piece, even while it definitely favors Wayne as a screen persona (who is solely billed under Claire Trevor). In a genre like the Western that is more often than not seen as a metaphor for society and adjacent topics, Dudley Nichols’ screenplay – adapted from the short story “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox – functions efficiently in that utilisation. The characters in Stagecoach are archetypes before they are flesh-and-blood, but lived in archetypes that feel real in the confines of the story from the collected performances: There’s Dallas (Trevor), an ousted prostitute from the Arizona town of Tonto, accompanied on the coach proudly by fellow disgrace Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). As Boone is an alcoholic, he very easily takes a liking to the fretful whiskey salesman Peacock (Donald Meek), and as a Union veteran, he takes conflict with the ex-Confederate gambler Hatfield (John Carradine). Hatfield himself joins the stage at the last second-to-last second as a gentleman to accompany the Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt) as she journeys to reunite with her cavalry hero husband and secretly carries a child in her womb. That actual last-second passenger before the stage departs from Tonto ends up being the windbag banker Gatewood (Benton Churchill), attempting to embezzle money. Driving the carriage to Lordsburg, New Mexico is the unceasingly talkative Buck (Andy Devine) while riding shotgun is Marshal Curley Wilcox (George Bancroft) in the hope that he’ll have a chance to catch the recently escaped prisoner The Ringo Kid, who seeks revenge in that same destination. Very early on the road, Curley gets his wish and catches up with Ringo as his prisoner and one final additional occupant to the coach…

This is probably the only time here where I’ll talk about Stagecoach like the John Wayne show, but Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon (who worked together the same year on Young Mr. Lincoln) truly knew how to make the camera fall in love with Wayne’s face. And the introductory sequence of The Ringo Kid – which, as you can guess, was Wayne’s role – is the best example of this: we get an off-screen sound cue of a rifle blast (meant to get the wagon’s attention) and cut to a medium shot of Wayne before the frontier mountains, saddle in one hand and performing the dynamic action of spinning his Winchester to reload with the other as the camera zooms so fast into a close-up that it loses focus for a noticeable split second. It is a movie throughout excited to present Wayne among other things where Ringo ends up superseding Dallas as the movie’s ostensible protagonist by Ford’s fiat and an excellent example of how Ford is able to use the form to favor certain characters over others.

And yet though Wayne is the STAR, I maintain that this is a movie whose strengths come from the collective adoption of the ensemble storytelling. Nichols’ script has thrown several distinct personalities into a stagecoach and just let them interact with each other as the actors throw in their own personal non-verbal reactions to their interacting: the manner in which Hatfield favors Mallory but ignores Dallas when it comes to his principles on how to act before a lady, Doc’s continuous pestering of Peacock for whiskey samples to Peacock’s discontent, Buck’s endless yammering while Curley tries to maintain vigilance as the coach enters Apache country without the cavalry’s escort, Gatewood’s constant blustering to the annoyance of everyone, and so much more. This is a movie about forcing characters in spatial relation to one another and responding towards the others’ presence and seeing if the length of the ride is enough to see a change in any of them. Ford, Glennon, and editors Otho Lovering and Dorothy Spencer are excellent at keeping us aware of the spatial relation when using the frame to box the characters within the coach (mostly in sets of twos) and relying on eyelines to make it clear who is speaking to whom and TOWARDS them too, but a dinner table scene around the 1/3 mark takes full advantage of that wide open space to explore just how far of a length these characters wish to maintain between each other depending on their disrepute. It is in the moments of the stage’s stops where we are most beholden to the blocking as much as Ford and Glennon’s containment of that blocking in the frame.

It’s also the case that Ford and Glennon have no problem applying that same visual favor to the rest of the characters as they do to Wayne, given that this is also a story about the hypocrisies and gatekeeping of society. Dallas is the most sympathetically presented character – even ahead of Ringo – as we watch her being practically chased out by a hovering cluster of old women with judging eyes. Doc Boone is given no less a framing of dignity than his sober fellows. In fact, the most evidently unfavored of the Stagecoach inhabitants is Gatewood, playing as an example of the manner in which Stagecoach has a disinterest in proper society and the way it treats its outcasts. Gatewood is ostensibly the most distinguished figure there and also the most blatantly crooked and bullying. Meanwhile, Mallory and Hatfield – being the second and third most distinguished (distantly third for the gambler) – have their moments where the film looks down on their attitudes towards Dallas and Boone but also allows nuance that lends itself to the most interesting arcs for the characters.

Within the two towns where this movie starts and ends, there is nothing but dismissal for Ringo, Dallas, and Boone and the film’s shots are no less dynamic – as Ford had an eye for composition like no one else in the game – but feel less eye-catching than the actual journey that takes wide fascination with the landscape and the image of a lone coach traveling through these lands (particularly Monument Valley*, Ford’s favorite location and it is so easy to see why) and the place where Ringo and Dallas can dream of a better life together beyond the border of “civilization”. Particularly the moonlit night sequences where they stand with a fence between them as the celestial glow lands on them talking romantically, obvious in its symbolism but nevertheless striking. Personally, I find it fascinating that a director who takes care to establish Native Americans as a presence beyond white society is so eager to condemn white society as lacking any place for these characters that Stagecoach gives its heart to and if there is one wish I had, it was that Stagecoach extended that grace to its exclusively hostile depiction of the Apache people.

The only time this balance doesn’t work out is something Stagecoach gets away with because it is also the most exciting and conventionally entertaining scene: a climactic action-packed chase from the Apache warriors packed with tracking shots of fierce stampeding and several of the most mind-blowing stunts from the legendary Yakima Canutt. I imagine only someone clinically dead could not have their heart-stopped watching Canutt climb under the coach harnesses or running with the camera across this terrain trying to dodge or even feel helpless in a late beat between Mallory and Hatfield, but maybe I’m just too taken by Ford’s sense of action and adventure and character drama complimenting each other.

For Stagecoach is not Ford’s best movie in my eyes, but it gives a good argument for being my favorite Ford movie and thereby one of my favorite movies of all time. It is a good amount of so many things, all of them constructed so efficiently that you can hardly notice the time passing by you or how conventional it is at the end of it all, while many of these things are communicated with the most memorable broad strokes possible on the level of imagery, performance, and storytelling that it stands as a quintessential work of Hollywood’s most noteworthy year of filmmaking.

*Come to think of it: That’s the one “FIRST” of Stagecoach, the First Western to use Monument Valley’s iconic imagery. Look up Harry Goulding when you get a chance, as that man is responsible for the way we see the Wild West in a manner that is not appreciated enough.

For All the Cows

Back when I had the delusion that I would have the time and energy for this (though I’ll never say never to the future), I had toyed with the idea of making a retrospective of reviews for Pride of Miami Cinema* Kelly Reichardt’s movies up to First Cow, which premiered Telluride in 2019 and was famously the last major US arthouse release this year before COVID popped its ugly head stateside and shut down theaters (a release I unfortunately did not catch). If I had been able to do so, First Cow may have very well turned out to be a much more appropriate stopping point than I expected.

God forbid that Reichardt never makes another movie again (especially if First Cow ends up maintaining its awards and critics’ circles momentum that makes me quietly hopeful that Oscar attention is in its near-future, which I imagine will boost her profile in much deserved ways), but it is kind of the prime example of all the things she’s been trying to work with throughout her career. Which is funny because the very quiet and unrushed manner in which its presents its narrative to the point that the themes are less spoken by the film so much as left there for the viewer to recognize and put together is probably one of those things it shares with all of Reichardt’s previous movies. She doesn’t particularly work with urgency, even in cases within her films where peril or stress is an active presence.

And like all but two of her other movies, First Cow gets to share the world of Oregon. Oregon that was, particularly, given an initial scene that reminds me very much of The Grand Budapest Hotel in the way it temporally divorces us from the story and characters. An Oregon that Reichardt – adapting with Jonathan Raymond his novel The Half Life – presents at the very beginnings of its 19th century colonizing. Like the last time Reichardt indulged in a period piece on life in Oregon-before-Oregon Meek’s Cutoff, she and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt box the environment in Academy 1.33:1. But where that one captured the frustrating hostility of the frontier in harshly washed-out colors and cracks, this time they have allowed some measure of warmth and amiability to the environment of old… capturing all the earthy colors with enough realism to prevent undermining the memory as something inauthentic while the frame fits Reichardt’s awareness of the characters’ placement in the shot relative to their relationships like a glove.

Both that spatial placement of characters as well as the comfortable soil-based color work provide an excellent enough setting for a story of two men finding each other in the world and developing a deep platonic love for another. Those two being Maryland transplant Otis “Cookie” Figowitz (John Magaro) and Cantonese immigrant King Lu (Orion Lee), who meet briefly at first when Cookie finds King naked and hiding in the bushes from some vengeful Russians and Cookie is able to give him shelter within the tent he has separate the trapper team whom he cooks for, a team we can easily tell does not like Cookie very much and would betray King if they were aware of his presence. King of course slips away before they are any the wiser, but the two reunite later on within what appears to be the major camp in the area. From there they are able to bond over a variety of things within King’s shack on the outskirts of that society and eventually one of the things King learns about Cookie is that he has enough of a skill as a baker to take to market in the camp. Of course, the creation of their fast-selling oily cakes requires the procurance of milk and with enough caution, they are able to regularly acquire that ingredient by milking the only cow in the region late at night. This cow happens to be under the ownership of the Chief Factor (Toby Jones), who takes an interest to these popular baked goods.

There’s basically a lot to say about these conditions in First Cow – the obnoxious prioritizing of masculinity as a trait (introduced by the trappers’ antagonism towards Cookie), colonialism giving the image of sophistication without actually embodying that with dignity (best portrayed by Jones’ oblivious performance), capitalism’s reliance on exploitation and privilege and so many more things that even while shaping this mythic image of the beginnings of American society are observations that still remain relevant to this day. Not all of them as cynical as the ones I point out – alongside Lee’s presence as a co-lead, there is a charmingly small moment of him trying to communicate with an indigenous man that ends with the two of them finding a common language of Yiddish – and practically none of these are particularly stressed by Reichardt’s direction nor the way her and Raymond steer the story (I don’t know if Raymond’s novel is more explicit on these matters since I haven’t read it). They are just offhand elements of a world where the main source of solace is Magaro and Lee’s lovely chemistry together as friends. Not necessarily a perfectly ideal friendship – there’s the slightest implication that King is taking as much advantage as he can of Cookie’s friendship in a one-sided way – but one that feels sincere and deeply caring all the same, so that even in the most doubtful moments, we have that one early shot that transports us to this time period to remind us of how strongly bonded these two men are.

So outside of the central relationship, where does Reichardt particularly focus her energies on? Her love for Oregon, whether by the manner of the soft dark cinematography I mentioned before or the serene sound design letting us be aware of the life within the wilderness. And given that this is a place that Reichardt has spent most of her life and career in, her directorial hand at letting us live in that environment and takes advantage of its barely-present Western trappings to remind us of how the genre is at its best when functioning as synecdoche for America’s history while letting the story just shuffles along to its stopping point (maybe the one element that distinguishes First Cow from Reichardt’s other movies is that this does has a firm ending, albeit with an unorthodox placement). Reichardt’s marshalling of these skills she’s showcased before – the pacing, the aesthetics, and the thematic interests – with a confident simplicity is exactly what makes this feel like the ne plus ultra of her style to this date and I truly wonder where there is to go from here. But whatever her next movie is, I’m sure it’ll be likewise phenomenal without even trying.

*That wisely never returned to Miami once she could bail.

A New Hope

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Obviously “name the scene that changed the game of cinema” is way too broad an accomplishment to narrow down, but when deciding on the three major moments that totally transformed the art form in my eyes, I settle on the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, the mid-film death of Marion Crane in Psycho, and the opening shot of Star Wars. And while the other two describe a scene that impacted me on an intellectual level, only the Star Wars sequence hit me on a gut eye-widening level even when I first watched it – which was, for the record, on a TV screen in the 1990s at a toy store that probably was one of the much edited Special Editions (and obviously, I’m not a caveman… at this point, I only go Despecialized or bust).

Anyway, that shot alone to remind you if you’ve seen Star Wars, because you almost certainly have (and if not, don’t both reading this review because I won’t really try to bring you up to speed and will not hold back on the spoilers), is a rebel cruiser slowly but desperately crawling above our heads in a speed that tells us enough with its blasts that it is being followed. We see in the same shot shortly after what is following it: this Goliath prism of forebodingly bleached technology with the very appropriate name of the Star Destroyer completely eating up the screen too quickly for us to prepare for its entrance, let alone have any hope that this cruiser will escape its clutches. I mean, describing it doesn’t work, you gotta see it to believe it.

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It’s like “yep… that’s a spaceship alrigh– no wait, THAAAAT’S a spaceship.” It’s more than just an incredible opening move by writer/director George Lucas to establish the dominance and antagonism of the evil Empire in less than a minute. It is in my humble opinion the most accomplished work of visual effects to date. It’s a challenge to popcorn cinema since Star Wars first opened on 25 May 1977 to try to surpass the scale and tangibility of this fantastical moment of bleeding edge technical storytelling. While visual effects have only evolved further and further down the line, nothing in my eyes has made good on the challenge (though I will say the gap in evolution between 2001: A Space Odyssey and this doesn’t feel that large). Even the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or Gollum from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feel like distant runner-ups compared to how that Star Destroyer takes me aback if I give myself enough time between viewings of Star Wars.

I mean, one doesn’t really need to recount the ways that Star Wars had affected the filmgoing sphere since it dropped like a proton torpedoes. It’s practically a joke among “sophisticated” (read: sticks-up-their-asses) cinephilia circles that the movie killed cinema along with Jaws and, sure, the sudden focus it brought in to ambitious bombastic narratively and thematically unchallenging spectacle into the 1980s is irrevocable after the thoughtful auteur-driven 1970s New Hollywood movement. But it’s very easy to fall for that spectacle when it’s this refined and bleeding edge, capable of retaining its ability to create plausible worlds to suck its audience in even 41 years after the fact. And it is apparently even easier to forget that it gets to accomplish that by having its designs tap into the malaise of New Hollywood and the disillusion of the post-Vietnam late 1970s, making it no less a bonafide member of the New Hollywood movement than Lucas’ previous two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

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I mean, take a look at the beginnings of Tatooine farmboy-turned-hero Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) story: he lives in the middle of nowhere, just a dried desert planet so empty that just watching TWO FUCKING SUNS feels like a mundane way to vent out his boredom. And mind you, those two suns are yet another brilliant showcase of Lucas’ visual storytelling… the way Luke faces out towards the horizon telling us of the potential journeys ahead of his hopes of escape, the rising sun being the most basic of “this is the beginning of something life-changing” metaphors.

But anyway, this is diverging how Tatooine looks like it sucks, right? Because it does – the film does nothing to dress up the fatigue of the Tunisian desert it was shot in. The script by Lucas spends a little less than an hour lying inside this godforsaken sandy mass that occasionally has dunes and domes popping out from under its surface making Skywalker feel no less restless about the lack of direction in his life as any of the teenagers from American Graffiti, where Lucas seems to tap into the youthful yearning of such a hero. And mind you, the vehicles which American Graffiti revolves around (no wonder Lucas was so fascinated with having John Dykstra bring some technological logic to the models) are not glamorous but they are a sight better looking than the slim hovercraft speeder he rides around that looks more like the wheels fell off than any actual advancement was made or the rusted up massive maroon Sandcrawler from which Skywalker picks up protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) that take him onto his impromptu journey with the guiding old hermit Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the grasp of the Empire’s main enforcers, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones; physically played by David Prowse).

And I mean, from the moment he arrives, the gilded C-3PO is the best looking thing on Tatooine and his paint is practically fading off his body as is. When the escape pilots bad boy Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) unveil their bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon, it’s a bulky disc of a thing that makes Ben and Luke’s initial doubts understandable (though this is maybe not a feeling that translates well into the new generation, given how the Falcon is now the most beloved ship in the entire fandom). Even once they’re off that planet, the only other major locations in the film are either the clearly unstable Rebel Base looking more commandeered than fixtured within the ruins they seek quarter in and the Death Star. And my oh my does the Death Star look sterile and unwelcoming from the aged chrome that surrounds its hallways from top to bottom to the very designs of its space Nazi rebels, not least of all Vader himself sweeping through corners in a towering posture as Jones gives cold delivery to every single word he utters as he crushes throats in midair with the power of the Force.

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It’s a miracle the film works so well as unambiguous entertainment despite living in a world that’s not as fascinated with its own existence as we are, thanks to John Barry probably deciding to use the limited budget 20th Century Fox afforded this project to avoid glamorizing the futurism Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz envisioned and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor refusing to ease up on the grain of the film stock, practically timestamping it within 1977. And I’m sure Barry had more budget to work with than costume designer Michael Kaplan, who wisely knew how to use the texture and shade of the rags he put atop of most of the characters to signify their humble beginnings (and of course Leia doesn’t have a complex costume herself and yet the clean clarity of her white dress tells all about her hierarchy above our plucky heroes) while color-coding the alignments of our cast into good whites and evil blacks (with Vader the blackest of all, practically shining with a shadow of a cape following him). And of course, Tatooine wouldn’t be transformed without the landscape shots of second-unit photographers being the accomplished soon-to-be-household names of Tak Fujitmoto and Carole Ballard.

But my oh my, here I am establishing how accomplished visually Star Wars is as a production and I never truly got around to talking about how amazing it sounded. Because if there’s one name more attached to Star Wars than anybody except Lucas himself, it’s the incredible composer John Williams and Williams takes this opportunity to truly put the “opera” in “space opera”. Even against the “Master of Manipulative Schmaltz” Steven Spielberg, the music Williams puts into Star Wars might very well qualify as the most audience-directing work he’s done in his entire career, largely through the not-so-secret weapon of leitmotifs he adopted from the structure of operas so that we could quickly associate certain musical phrases with characters and events so that when they pop up now and again we have a sort of mapping of emotions and thoughts to guide us through story beats. Remember that duel suns thing I mentioned above and how mundane it is: we know that because of Luke’s emotions in the scene prior, the way he’s unimpressed with everything, and frankly the lack of emotiveness to Hamill’s look at the sunrise but Williams is not telling us that’s what the moment is: he’s all about driving the longing of the horizon deep into the heart of the viewer with his famous “binary sunset” theme and by god does it overpower us anyway alongside the fact that Luke may have seen a binary sunset before, but we sure as hell haven’t.

And even after Williams is the soundscape Ben Burtt designed for this universe. R2-D2 for instance famously only speaks in beeps and whistles (C-3PO is the anglicized one of the pairing) and Burtt’s intuitive enough about the range of sounds to give R2 a true identity and personality enough to recognize him as a little trouble-maker full of energy is a miracle of character creation simply from knowing what sounds can communicate that. Or the lasers, not least of which the trance-like neutrality of the fucking laser sword lightsabers or the excitement of the crackling and spitting those things make when they’re in contact, something to make the otherwise frankly boring battle between Vader and Ben feel more violent and charged. Burtt and Williams collectively are the best things Star Wars have going for it and the unsung creators of an audial world that allowed already transporting visuals to occupy our hearts in a primal invisible way, answering why 1/4 of its 6 Oscars went for its sound and music (the others being Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing).

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Which leaves the misfortune of having to recognize that these accomplishments in craft are given the task of carrying less than stellar writing and acting. The writing itself is easier to pinpoint. It is the opinion of yours truly that the scripts of every Star Wars film are always the weakest link and the 1977 original certainly gave a decent enough jump start to that tradition, but its adherence to the cliché Hero’s Journey of Campbell that Lucas espoused so highly is hardly criminal in itself and it’s certainly a broad line for which Williams to follow and amplify through his music. It’s the dialogue: excusable maybe to those who have no problems with in-universe kludges of proper nouns, but it’s all chewy and clunky when the cast has to use those nouns and unsubtle direct plot-plodding when they don’t. The fact that the majority of the cast feel unconvinced with the diatribes on the Force and the Empire that they have to deliver makes it all so much less believable and truly makes Williams’ work cut out for him.

Which may as well segue to the cast, but at least they do have their high points: for one thing, Cushing’s gaunt grey-haired skull-like visage already does well enough to communicate his somber wickedness and then he has to add a sort of smacking sneer to his threats and interrogations that blow my mind how he can accomplish that without even the shadow of a smile cracking. Then there’s all the non-verbal characters: Mayhew and Baker able to use body language in their limited roles to feel friendly and in some cases scene-stealing. And while I understand Guinness’ famous hatred of Star Wars, he’s frankly one of the best actors in the world and can turn even a expositioning old man like Ben into a viable source of guidance to what our heroes objectives are and the possibilities they can achieve with the help of the force. And frankly, between Guinness here and Hamill in the later film The Last Jedi, it’s quite possible that cynical jaded actors who have doubt about the direction of their characters make for the best aged and tired performances of long-lost heroes trying to prepare their successors for what is to come.

Sadly, Hamill does not accomplish anything as brilliant as The Last Jedi here: he is frankly wan and whiny in a petulant off-putting way, like a grown child that doesn’t make for a compelling surrogate to the audience. And meanwhile, none of his major co-stars Ford or Fisher do as well either: Fisher’s pronunciation of words between her teeth is so naggingly conscious that it feels like a college freshman trying to do an overexaggerated British accent on stage and Ford’s cockiness is quite honestly the best out of the three but doesn’t sell one bit on the moral ambiguity we’re supposed to buy from the character before his big saving return in the climax through the trenches. I’d probably prefer to say more about their performances when I get to the sequels where they improve significantly, because wallowing in a trio of amateur actors at the beginning of their careers feels quite mean.

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Let’s instead return to what makes me high off of Star Wars and choose the afore-mentioned trench run climax as a brilliant metaphor to how the experience of Star Wars shakes me as a viewer. Luke’s rushing through all these details surrounding him deep on the surface of the Death Star and there’s so much thought put into their construction and grounding them all within the same universe and yet he barely recognizes them nor do we. We’re just on the ecstasy of the speed in which we’re exploring this surface towards our destination. Meanwhile, three crooked looking eyeball-esque TIE fighters are on his tail with Vader closing in and it brings a sense of danger and urgency to scene beyond everything else. And then there’s the moment where we hear Guinness’ warm voice calm Luke and us down and re-assure us that this is a story where we know the ending and that the good guys will prevail, the certainty that gives Luke confidence to abandon the missile-guiding system, the cheeriness that accompanies Solo’s entrance as he gets the TIE fighters off of Luke, and most of all the exhilaration we have at witnessing Luke make a bullseye at the ventilation shaft, punctuated by the explosive blast of the Death Star’s destruction just as Luke zooms away.

So many different emotions communicated to us at lightning speed thanks to the factors all collected and arranged by the editors Marcia Lucas (George’s former wife), Paul Hirsch, and Richard Chew. And all with the trust and direction of Lucas, a man who probably later on invited ridicule for his overwhelming inability to tell a complex or nuanced story, but for now carried an ambitious desire to create some semblance of new worlds, even out of a limited number of locations and none of them as fantastical as one would think, and transport us there. And frankly, Star Wars isn’t a story that needs nuance or complexity. The attempt to input it feels like the failing of most Star Wars movies I’m not fond of. Sometimes, you can provide intelligent popcorn cinema simply by trusting the sounds and designs to magnify the emotions the story can barely give us and Star Wars does that in such a kinetic way that I can’t imagine how anybody could leave it feeling unstimulated.

It lifts me up and takes me back a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

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Actually, Chewbacca deserves a medal. Fuck this movie, it’s the worst.

American Vampire

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I haven’t been the first nor will I be the last to point out how Kathryn Bigelow, famed action filmmaker turned political filmmaker notable for being the very first woman to win the Best Director Oscar in 2010, got her in at the industry by focusing almost exclusively on the masculinity of genre action films and proving herself just as capable of working with that machismo as any other man behind the camera at the time. Indeed, given despite the fact that one could reasonably claim she only really made one pure action film (Point Break which might also be her best film), her ability to provide incredibly ambitious setpieces that matched or even outdid whatever Renny Harlin or John McTiernan was going around at that time sure as hell proved her to be top of the “Boys’ Club” and know how to bring testosterone to the screen in an unconscious way that ought to make other genre filmmakers really insecure about themselves.

And yet, her 1987 film Near Dark is possibly the only film that feels… aware of that masculinity – for is there any genre more manly man as the Western – existing in a very outwardly dangerous way. After all, her script co-written by Eric Red starts in an extremely libidinous way for its young Oklahoma cowpoke Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), who spots attractive pale drifter Mae (Jenny Wright) and pursues her in an uncomfortably aggressive manner. After a night of wrangling her in a very uncomfortable manner, especially in her fear of getting “home” before dawn, Caleb tries to coax her into kissing him and in frustration and attraction, she responds by biting Caleb’s neck and running off.

That bite is apparently enough to make it so hard for Caleb to walk down the morning horizon, his child sister (Marcie Leeds) and father (Tim Thomerson) witness in horror as he begins smoking and crisping black in the bright Oklahoma sun until he’s forcibly yanked into an RV inhabited by Mae and her fellow vampire drifter gang – sadistic psycho Severin (Bill Paxton), maturely sinister child Homer (Joshua John Miller), burly beauty Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), and cold leader Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen) – ready to slice his neck wide open until Mae points out he turned Caleb, saving his life and beginning their relationship with Caleb’s family racing to his rescue.

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Certainly both Point Break and The Hurt Locker are both self-aware of their masculinity, but both of them seem to be in sheer intoxication of the adrenaline rush that comes from asserting their manly selves and The Hurt Locker is an introspective study of how it’s kind of bad for the individual. Near Dark thinks that masculinity leaves nothing but a vile bloodbath and corpses in its wake. Hooker and company are essentially trying to push the reluctant young Caleb into killing alongside them, out of necessity for their survival and also frankly out of enjoyment for the bloodletting. It’s essentially a companion piece to The Lost Boys from the same year.

While The Lost Boys is a lot more light (being a semi-comedy) and the energy of the film is homoerotic between Kiefer Sutherland and Jason Patric, Near Dark is extremely harsh and unforgiving, ominous thanks to the tonal soundscape provided by Tangerine Dream, and very heterosexual in nature. Caleb’s young lust for Mae is what got him in the situation in the first place after all and it’s established very clearly that Homer is the character that hates Caleb most (his first move is to grab Caleb’s scrotum and threaten him if Homer’s name is mispronounced) and that hatred is established by Homer originally laying claim to Mae as a mate*. The juxtaposition between a child trying to claim a grown woman as his prize is unsettling enough, the knowledge that Homer’s much much older than the 11 year old body he’s in becomes more alarming when his new prey is on Caleb’s little sister. And Mae is the only source of Caleb’s relief from trying to kill others, letting him drink from her wrists rather than the truck drivers and street punks the rest of the gang find.

It’s not Miike Takeshi here, but it’s the bloodiest and most violent movie in Kathryn Bigelow’s entire corpus. And the casual manner in which bloodletting occurs in the movie only refuses to aestheticize or romanticize the chest-puffing attitude that brings an unglamorous body count with it. The blood’s dark and dirty, like nasty spit erupting that you feel like you have to wash off your screen. Adam Greenberg as cinematographer provides an unrefined duskiness to every shot that accentuates the grunginess of the gang’s attire and the darkness surrounding them – my favorite shot being an ominous backlit high-angle silhouette of the group against a wispy smoke screen – while the Oklahoma daylight horizon is at times given such a blown brightness to make it as hard to look at as it is for Caleb to walk within it. It doesn’t even need to get bloody for things to get alpha-male, for a throwaway moment of Severin and Hooker aiming pistols at each other cards feels like a joke that’s hard to laugh at in context.

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Greenberg’s texture to the visuals also grants Near Dark an tired and weary attitude that reminds us how badly it would love to be a great manly Western, but reminds us that demands blood. Henriksen’s Hooker is exactly the sort of wandering cowboy we’d expect to be full of wisdom and practicality except there’s also the clear indication that he likes killing and especially making those who he kills suffer horribly. In Near Dark‘s central bar massacre, he tries to toy and lure the server’s company signaling his sinister intentions immediately before Diamondback glibly slits her throat and Hooker fills a beer mug with her blood in excitement and informs everybody in that room they are going to die. When Hooker also charismatically declares that he was a Confederate soldier and his pride that they lost, it’s just another in a long line of chaotic evil expressions from an apparently collected individual.

Meanwhile, Severin’s the “life” of the massacre. He asserts his toxicity from the moment he steps foot into the bar, insulting everybody in the room, deliberately spilling drinks, causing fights (and goading Caleb to get into his own), and stalking the bartender on the very bar into a desperate corner (again a wonderful moment of Greenberg’s framing). It’s the most accomplished scene in the late Paxton’s life. He gives the sort of shitheel turn that feels full of danger and apathy that it’s impossible not to hate him at first appearance but it’s also just as impossible to tell him how much you hate him out of fear.

Unfortunately, as a result of Bigelow and editor Howard E. Smith’s no-nonsense action thriller pacing (which is mostly a strength), the nihilistic dive of Near Dark is cut short at the 3/4 mark when part of Caleb’s predicament is resolved, it feels like a shortcut to the climax than anything organic. Bigelow still has the sense to mostly soften the blow by using her sensibility of spectacle and newfound studio involvement to craft a great big dark Western streets showdown involving the heavy momentum and explosive outcome of a truck and preclude that with one more cowboy image of Caleb riding off tall to save the day on horseback, so Near Dark can stay on its feet until the final minutes. A couple of scenes of resolution doesn’t easily shake off the visceral nightmare that Caleb had to go through earlier.

*Funny enough, Miller – 11 years old at the time of filming – has grown up to be a successful screenwriter/show runner and is in an openly gay relationship with his writing partner, M.A. Fortin. Also coincidentally, he’s half-brothers with Jason Patric, the lead of The Lost Boys.
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The Best There Is At What He Does

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I don’t know why I held that torch out for so long but ever since the marketing for director/co-writer James Mangold, producers Simon Kinberg and Laura Shuler Donner, and star Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the beloved X-Men character Wolverine titled Logan after his common (but not birth) name, I really really thought we’d be going for a father-and-daughter road trip type of movie like Alice in the Cities (really most Wim Wenders pictures) or Paper Moon. And indeed Logan is on the run alongside a young ward by the name of Laura who shares his abilities (Dafne Keen) and a now older and more jaded psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who also announced this would be his final turn in the role) broken by Alzheimer’s and it does have a sort of focused on the tired American landscape that makes a lot of sense for the film to receive all the comparisons to a Western that it has been getting (and kind of fishing for given how often Shane pops up as a plot point). But that means nothing! Nothing at all when Keen – wonderful as she is in the role – is not anywhere near verbose as Tatum O’Neal.

Unfairly stupid expectations aside, Logan is absolutely the best of the Wolverine solo series that begin back with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green accomplish that by pulling the same “Steal Mark Millar’s general idea but leave his shitty plotting and writing behind” strategy that made Captain America: Civil War a decent movie and the sparseness and restraint of that attitude makes it the most grounded film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The crux of the story is that in 2029, the X-Men are no more and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan takes care of the mentally deteriorating Xavier with the help of mutant sensor Caliban (Stephen Merchant) when Laura falls into their laps with Xavier’s invitation and a squad of mercenaries named the Reavers headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) come bringing hell back into their lives in their hunt for Laura. Logan begrudgingly agrees to take Laura halfway across the country and while there is a bit more mythological fleshing-out (especially round the third act) than I am letting on, I don’t think that matters.

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This is essentially a better version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to me, sharing all of its strengths like an interest in trying to make the film a solo story (without the weakness of being afraid to give Logan the main anchor of the story) or the absolute restraint and low-key design of the whole film (without the weakness of looking boring or indistinct). And what really sells it to me on its R-rating (even despite more f-bombs than I think necessary and a moment of nudity that’s totally gratuitous for the sake of “hey, this is an R”) is how it’s also willing to function as a modernized version of that aforementioned Shane as Logan attempts to express to Laura the regret and weight that his violent disposition has brought to his soul. This is something Jackman and Stewart are able to jump unconsciously given how long they’ve spent inside the skin of these famous characters and, from the reactions I’ve heard before even catching the film, fans are only more willing to give gravitas to the finality of this movie’s existence to tie up the Wolverine story. And as contrived and cliche and predictable as the revelation of Logan and Laura’s connection is, the two work together so well in energy and tandem that it just seems right to find out the things we find out. Keen could easily steal the show and yet somehow opts to stay in the back of Jackman’s own development of the character. And the violence is intense and harsh enough to push Logan’s world-weariness to the edge. Hell, the movie is even stopping during its long road movie structure to have a subplot function as Wolverine’s personal Shane moment helping a family of modern homesteaders against the angry armed land barons (albeit the end of that particular subplot is extremely mean-spirited even by the standards of Logan as a film).

I guess, what I’m trying to say is when Logan, Xavier, and Laura are on the road (and it does feel more like “on the road” – thanks to Stewart’s persuasive performance being on the leisure side of the trip – than “being chased” like they truly are) is when the movie is at its best and I could have done with another hour of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last as its third act and climax turns more towards the superhero movie tropes it spent 2 hours desperately avoiding by giving YET ANOTHER PERSON involved in Wolverine’s experiments and having a very poorly edited battle. It is the very worst sign when I have all my eyes on the screen and yet completely miss the moment the main antagonist was killed. And yet the movie is wise enough to utilize its last few shots to end the saga on its best note and to lay it to rest in a manner that your mind is precisely on that final beat and the mood it sets in you as you walk out the theater.

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The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008/dir. Kim Ji-Woon/South Korea)

NOTE: This review will include spoilers, unfortunately. If you choose to read the review before you see the movie, I would like to vouch that the quality of this movie and the experience of watching it, like many other greats, is not weighted solely on the story that is told. That said, Reader Discretion advised.

I had recently taken an extreme interest into Korean cinema of the 00s. A great deal of the movies have been enjoyable and pleasing to the eye and the cinematic experience, such as Park Chan-wook’s J.S.A. and Vengeance trilogy, Kim Ji-Woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) and I Saw the Devil (2010), Kang Je-gyu’s Taegukgi (2004) and Bong Joon-ho’s The Host (2006). They have a lot more than meets the eye and I encourage anybody who’s a cinephile to take a try on whichever of these film’s styles or stories catches their eyes. That includes the picture I’m about to review, another picture by Kim Ji-woon.

Kim’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird, as its title suggests, takes its inspiration from Sergio Leone’s Italian masterpiece The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) in the sense that three different bandits in a desert land under war search for a buried treasure, in a race against each other. The similarities end there. From the very second the movie begins, it’s very obvious the story is of Kim Ji-woon and Kim Min-suk’s creation. The very paced out opening of GBU is forsaken in GBW for the sake of an intro sequence where the three leads immediately collide in outright familiarity with each other. The writers more or less probably said ‘fuck pace’…

Let me put it this way… If Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Dead Man (1995) could be called a ‘western on acid’, you may as well call The Good, the Bad, the Weird a western on cocaine. Even with two stars that are big enough for me, a non-Korean cinephile, to recognize, the movie’s star is the violence. It’s an intense in-your-face action style, utilizing CGI only in the right flourishes to make the picture look like a cartoon; Certainly over-the-top, but without succumbing to the vibrant cotton candy look ofSpeed Racer (Wachowski/Wachowski, 2008) or the camp of Stephen Chow’s action/comedy resume.

A better film connoisseur (and filmmaker) than I had once put violence in cinema as being ‘an attitude’. Well, this picture had that attitude in spades and it invested everything it had on it. You can never take a moment’s breath to follow the story (and believe me, the story is hard enough to follow) before another no-holds-barred shootout occurs or somebody is brutally stabbed, maimed or tortured, even slapped. It pulls out all the stops in action cinematography too, from wide pans and zooms (both at points sped up before you can realize this was the exact same shot you were looking at before), single-shot sequences, quick cuts and the ever-so-novel blood on the camera lens.

The two sequences that will catch your eye when you watch it immediately will be the shootout at the Ghost Market and the climactic desert chase sequence where every single entity in the picture is after our lead character, The Weird (Song Kang-ho). The former easily plays off like a little kid in one gigantic playground, albeit its completely brutal in how the children play. The latter is just an edge of your seat ride like something out of an Indiana Jones picture staring Jackie Chan.

Speaking of our characters, while nowhere near the great work of Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef or Clint Eastwood, the lead actors turn in somewhat decent performances. The Weird is very easily the most interesting character and that’s why he makes a good protagonist. That is until, out of left field, he is marked as the infamous Finger Chopper, an legendary sadist who is mentioned earlier in the film as the one who the Good (Jung Woo-sung) is hunting down.

… At that point, I just called bullshit on the picture. But I was fine by it for the time being, partly because it was the end of the

picture and also because I didn’t stick with the movie for its script. The character was still humorous and exciting before that Shyamalan move on the part of the writers.

Right after that, they make up for it by tributing the final shootout from Leone’s Italian work… and turn into one of the hardest sequences in the picture to watch. It goes fromThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly to The Wild Bunch(Peckinpah, 1968) the moment the three fire at each other. But the movie still continues for a few minutes after the aftermath of this battle (I highly suggest you find a better legal copy of the movie than on Netflix, which inexplicably cut down the ending of the picture. It’ll be a lot more rewarding).

There’s a lot more to the movie than I’ve laid out, but the violence is the main thing that remains in my mind. And I’m pretty sure that was intentional.

I give it a 6.5 out of 10. Fun but all style and little substance. Check it out.

Whether you like it or not, I insist this is only the tip of the iceberg in Korean motion pictures, let alone in the international film market. I once again insist that anybody, movie buff or not, get into pictures from other countries, because they’ll eventually find a good cinema culture to engage in. Mine is Korea, clearly (If you don’t count America for me).