The Wild Bunch (1969)

Film violence is a strange beast that has evolved rapidly over the past half-century, stretching from a time when a drop of blood would cause an outcry to now, when characters hardly have enough time for dialogue between gunshots and explosions. The Wild Bunch, which turns 45 this year, still manages to hold a vastly important place along that timeline.

The violence at play here isn’t Tarantino gore or anything you’ll see in cinemas today, really. But in 1969 The Wild Bunch caused a big commotion with the unflinching depiction and sheer number of death-by-gunshots woven throughout the runtime. The opening and closing scenes approach a cacophony that becomes like a kind of polyrhythmic music that the cowboys seem to be dancing to, a thousand gunshots fired from a thousand different directions and no one quite sure who’s shooting whom even when the dust has settled.

William Holden’s Pike leads Ernest Borgnine’s Engstrom and the rest of the Bunch across the picaresque Mexican borderlands as they are pursued by bounty hunters employed by the railroad – if this sounds suspiciously similar to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (also 1969), it certainly is. Peckinpah and Co. rushed to get the film out ahead of Butch and Sundance, but while the plot points are undeniably similar the two films could not be more different. The Wild Bunch, aptly titled, is wilder, looser, grittier, and much more violent. Butch and Sundance shoot their fair share of people in order to survive; the Bunch do the same, but they revel in nearly every man killed.

And that’s another major difference in your typical “classic” Westerns of the period (those of Sergio Leone notwithstanding) and the brutal revisionist pieces that Peckinpah crafted: the Bunch, noble as Pike may seem at times and lovable as Engstrom may also seem, are without a doubt bad men. They steal, they corrupt, they kill, and they even take note of children watching as they continue in their vice. They are fighting for survival and we’re rooting for them – why the heck are we rooting for them? It’s interesting that screenwriter Walon Green is also credited years later on the brilliant Sorcerer, in which the “protagonists” are similarly despicable.

Each Peckinpah film seems to come complete with a Peckinpah anecdote detailing his often chaotic set conditions, and The Wild Bunch is no different. Peckinpah apparently wasn’t getting all he wanted out of a particular gunshot effect, so he snatched a live revolver and fired it without warning into a wall. He then took note of the shock on the faces of the crew around him, saying, “That’s the effect I want!”

But as had become apparent by the time Peckinpah made Major Dundee in 1965, the man knew how to direct a movie. Wild Bunch was notable for the realistic violence, but the cinematic techniques at play were also lauded as before their time. Several sequences of multi-camera, fast-cut action were unlike anything seen in a Western before, and the mix of regular- and slow-motion shots within a single thread were often flawlessly executed. The gunshots themselves, too, were designed to actually sound like the gun depicted on screen, rather than just a stock “gunfire” sound applied across the board to shotguns and revolvers alike. Attention to detail in this manner almost allows Peckinpah’s on-set behavior to be written off.

The Wild Bunch marked the arrival of a director who not only knew how to direct a movie but had a very particular kind of movie that he wanted to make. A Peckinpah film isn’t just a Western – it’s a Peckinpah Western. Studios didn’t always allow all elements of this singular vision to make the final cut, but Peckinpah was able to shine through the haze of Hollywood Executive Fog more so with The Wild Bunch than with any of his films to date.

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Flame and Citron (2008)

Once you resist the temptations of masterpieces like Crocodile Dundee II and BoJack Horseman, Netflix tends to have a pretty sizable catalogue of foreign films for your viewing pleasure. Flame and Citron, while relatively well-known in Denmark (as Flammen & Citronen), passed without much notice in the States and elsewhere upon its release in 2008. Thure Lindhardt and Mads Mikkelsen star as Danish Resistance fighters Bent Faurschou-Hviid (“Flame”) and Jørgen Haagen Schmith (“Citron”), rogue assassins of Nazi officers who increasingly take matters into their own hands as WWII progresses.

Lindhardt is the real find here, as is director Ole Christian Madsen, while Mikkelsen will be much more familiar to American audiences from his roles in the ongoing Hannibal series and as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in Casino Royale. At the start of the film both men just want to serve their country by ridding it of evil men, and though Mikkelsen’s Citron certainly transforms throughout the film from a timid tagalong to a ruthless assassin, it’s Lindhardt’s Flame who goes on the real journey. “There is no just or unjust any longer,” the pair agree. “There is only war.” Flame embodies this sentiment completely – but interestingly, he does so in part by wrestling with it and ultimately defying it.

There are more than a few weak scenes throughout Flame and Citron, such as the seemingly obligatory meeting between protagonist Flame and the chief antagonist, SS Head Hoffmann, in which the latter seethes cliches like “We are the same, you and I” in snakelike tones. While the majority of the film – especially the very last scenes – feel authentic and true-to-life, moments like this feel much more like fabricated movie drama.

That ending, though, hits home in a very particular way. It’s obvious that Flame and Citron took many cues from Army of Shadows and other similarly-set WWII yarns, but there are deeper connections with more broad and classic tales of men at war – I’ll go so far as to relate Flame and Citron to Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, at risk of reading too much into things. Like Coriolanus, Flame is filled to the brim with passion about his conduct in wartime, the conduct of the men and women around him, burning with rage at the way the structures of such a time demand he act in unnatural ways. Further solidifying the comparison is the depiction of Coriolanus in Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 adaptation, in which the great warrior is last seen being tossed into the back of a truck like so many pounds of lifeless meat.

Both Flame and Citron meet the exact same demise. For all of their battling on physical and emotional and moral fronts, for the sheer scale of their cause and the colossal sacrifices they both made in order to see that cause achieved, both men end up dead and lumped into the back of a truck. Nazi officers jump into the truck bed and sit smiling with the dead bodies as others laugh and photograph the posed corpses. Can such a dark ending be the central message of a WWII film made within the last decade? What goes on after these bodies are buried?

The answer, one may take away from Flame’s final soliloquy, is that it all goes on. There is no doubt that Flame and Citron ends depressingly for the men and their families. But the flame, the fire of resistance that these men stoked in each other and in men like them, is still lit.

Major Dundee (1965)

Major Dundee may be the threshold Sam Peckinpah crossed to get from amateurish filmmaking to successful, mature directing. His breakout (in terms of “mainstream” filmmaking in the way we’d deem such international success today) came later with The Wild Bunch, but Dundee is every bit as impressive when held up against Peckinpah’s earliest film effort The Deadly Companions and his follow-up Ride the High Country. Less tangentially: Major Dundee is the first Peckinpah film that’s truly worth revisiting.

Charlton Heston stars as the titular Union Major, disgraced after an unspecified maneuver and forcibly removed from his position close to the end of the Civil War. When he and his troops happen across a camp ravaged by brutal Apache, Dundee swears to shift his personal war onto the native tribe. Captured Confederate prisoners from the opposing side – best represented by Richard Harris’s Captain Tyreen – and a few drifting recruits with no allegiance in the actual War – best represented by James Coburn’s mountain man Samuel Potts – round out the field and unite under Dundee’s cause.

What ensues is essentially “Moby-Dick on horseback”, as some have labeled Dundee before with good reason. Dundee’s cause is not dissimilar from Captain Ahab’s in that his vision is singular and unshakeable, no matter the cost or danger to those under his command. Tyreen is a near-perfect analogue for Starbuck, questioning Dundee’s motives and his methods. The young bugler Ryan provides narration for the film and is a sort of Ishmael for the journeyers, while the Apache is largely absent from the film and thus fills the whale-sized shoes of Moby-Dick himself. Analogues aside, Dundee also captures the epic spirit of such Great American Tales in rare and exciting way.

As mentioned in our opening segment of the Peckinpah Director Series on The Deadly Companions, it was not uncommon for the sets of his films to be characterized by chaotic scheduling, mass firings, and no small amount of alcohol consumption on the part of the director himself. Heston famously stood by Peckinpah and all but saved his involvement with the project, while simultaneously claiming that Peckinpah would often wander off and leave Heston to direct in his absence. The difference here is that Dundee is a great film, while Companions really isn’t – at a certain point, the reasons why become unimportant.

Still, another unfortunate thing that characterized Peckinpah’s films (and specifically Dundee) was the tendency for his original cuts to be massively edited and chopped by studio executives. The runtime of Dundee is fairly long, but it’s nowhere near as long as it would have been if Peckinpah had had his way. Regardless, even the shortest cut available is worth a watch.

The triumvirate of Heston, Harris and Coburn is a major driving force of the film, and the character of Amos Dundee is certainly one of Heston’s most underrated roles. Odds are some moron will deem it wise to remake Major Dundee someday in the near future, updating it for the modern age by setting it in a postapocalyptic wasteland and casting Mark Wahlberg as Dundee. The Apache will be replaced by CGI’d robots. Actually, everyone will be replaced by CGI’d robots.

Until then, check out Major Dundee for an early look at a filmmaker on the cusp of international success.

Locke (2013)

The past few years have seen no shortage of films structured entirely around a sole character. 2009 had Moon, 2010 had 127 Hours and Buried, and the past year alone had two Oscar nominees in Gravity and All Is Lost. Each of these films hangs entirely on the neck of one actor or actress, usually with some help from the voices of unseen characters or a well-placed flashback. Gravity was helped along by the simple fact that it has what may be the greatest special effects of any space movie ever. Also: George Clooney.

Locke doesn’t have George Clooney. In fact, Locke doesn’t have the set-up that you might come to expect from a one-man show: no outer space VFX or otherwise stark settings, no survival story in a desert or on a boat or six feet under. All Locke has is a car, a bluetooth phone, and Tom Hardy in the central role of construction foreman Ivan Locke. Despite (or because of) the bare-bones constituency at work here, Locke is still easily as engaging as any of the aforementioned predecessors.

When Ivan Locke gets in the car and takes off on a two-hour drive to London, he has a list of calls to make and things to accomplish along the way. These items include breaking the news to his wife that he cheated on her and is en route to the birth of his child by another woman; fielding distressed calls from said woman as she endures complications in labor; training an underqualified drunk to complete the gargantuan tasks his foreman position requires while he absconds; and explaining his sudden absence to his children, his boss, his boss’s bosses, and pretty much everyone else he happens to know. His singular goal, you may have guessed, is to not have all of this go to shit.

Importantly, Locke himself is an extremely well-drawn character. Writer and director Steven Knight sits behind the camera for the first time with Locke, but his writing credentials include Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things. While Ivan could have easily just been a regular nobody in a car enduring the consequences of his mistake, we’re instead treated to a man who preaches precision, practicality, logic, reason. He’s an intelligent and levelheaded worker well aware of his own faults in the situation – the question is whether his mantra of exactness will create an exit to his predicament or force him deeper into the hole.

By portraying Ivan’s work life and his family life as two very distinct parts of the same character, Knight and Hardy answer that question twice. Yes, he loses his job – but the project he abandoned still has legs due to his careful steering of the players involved after his departure earlier in the evening. The proper trucks will enter the proper gates and pour the proper amount of the proper kind of concrete into the proper place, and all will be well.

A family and a home are a tad more complicated. Again, Ivan is a man who consistently speaks (and thinks) in the most accurate terms possible – he corrects his employee at the mention of 200 trucks (“218 trucks”) and his boss at the mention of his position of the past ten years (“nine years”). Later, as his wife comes to terms with the fact that Ivan has been unfaithful to her, she can only find one response to his insistence that it only happened one time: “The difference between once and never is everything.” Ivan, trapped in his ways, can only concede the point with silence.

Steven Knight is a writer to watch after Locke, as the details are more carefully attended to in this tight screenplay than any other in recent memory. Even Ivan’s last name “Locke” and his work associations with cement and concrete play into the themes of being steadfast, solid, immovable in the face of tough odds. It goes without saying that Tom Hardy more than pulls his weight in this film, and he continues to be an absolute force in the acting world – I’ll look forward to everything he does next, and to rewatching Locke in the future.

The Deadly Companions (1961)

The first of our Director Series will focus on the films of American director Sam Peckinpah, largely known for his revisionist Westerns and his notorious depictions of violence in nearly all of his films. “Bloody Sam” achieved wider fame following 1969’s The Wild Bunch and retained a strong reputation with efforts like 1971’s Straw Dogs and 1973’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – as with all of our Director Series, we’ll take a look at some of the lesser-known Peckinpah films as well.

And more for the sake of completion than anything else, we begin with Peckinpah’s directorial debut The Deadly Companions. Brian Keith stars as a cowboy known as Yellowleg who accidentally kills the young son of Maureen O’Hara’s cabaret dancer Kit Tildon. To make amends (or to clear his own conscience, or for some unexplained reason) Yellowleg escorts Kit through dangerous Apache territory to the place where she demands her son be buried. Local bandits and murderous Apaches haunt their journey, as does a growing intimacy between the two leads.

Sorely disjointed and nearly robotic with regards to some of the dialogue, it’s certainly not Peckinpah’s fault that Companions is quite stiff. Still, while the plot and setting and characters all seem like elements Peckinpah would be attracted to, the film is devoid of nearly any of the stylistic flourishes that would become his trademarks. The director was untried with the cinematic format at this point in time, though, so perhaps Companions shouldn’t really be held up against the “good” Peckinpah movies.

Why would Kit almost instantaneously fall in love with the man who killed her son? Put aside the fact that Yellowleg killed the boy, and he’s still not offering a heck of a lot in the Lover Department. This is one of the many uneasy contrivances that could be the fault of the script but are more likely due to studio interference during the editing process.

In fact, Peckinpah allegedly vowed never to direct a film again after Companions unless he had script and editing control. The final product of this film, one would assume based on such a claim, is probably a far cry from what Peckinpah envisioned when he agreed to the project. The resistance he met with during the shoot would also come to characterize some of his later productions, and that clash is just painfully evident in the flow and pacing of his debut feature. Again, The Deadly Companions has all of the pieces of a Peckinpah classic – they just happened to be cobbled together into something that’s a lot less satisfying.

La moustache (2005)

“How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?” So begins Emmanuel Carrère’s 2005 film La moustache, a dark and heartbreaking investigation of madness and identity. Marc has worn his upper-lip rag for the past 15 years, as his wife points out, so it might be a little strange if he shaves it off. But shave he does, whimsically, excitedly – and yet no one notices, not his wife nor his friends. In fact, as Marc’s wife tells him in a state of confusion, he has never had a mustache at all in the past 15 years…

Watching La moustache descend from that point onwards is not a task that will result in immediate satisfaction (it may, however, result in an immediate WTF). Marc says that surely their friends will vouch for his facial hair…leading Marc’s wife to inform him that the friends of whom he speaks are also nonexistent. Marc references his parents…and Marc’s wife slowly and cautiously reminds him that his father has been dead for years. Marc soon runs off to Hong Kong to get away from the crumbling world around him.

My interpretation leans much more to the abstract side, as I suspect most interpretations must. You could argue easily enough that a portion (or two, or three) of the fractured film is a dream or a hallucination on Marc’s part, or that the entire thing is imagined. You could just as easily argue that Marc is eminently sane and that an elaborate ruse à la The Game has been constructed by his wife, friends, parents, whoever. It’s respectable that Carrère (who first wrote La moustache as a novel) was able to build something very obviously open to warring readings, but the film as a whole begs a more involved interpretation; it nearly demands you come up with a theory and stick to it, otherwise La mustache just sits uncomfortably like an undigested meal.

While the whole movie is perplexing, the Hong Kong Star Ferry sequence is possibly the most eyebrow-raising: Marc is shown going back and forth on the ferry, arriving, departing, paying for his ticket, moving through the turnstiles, facing one way, facing the next, over and over. Is this a part of his actual existence, or at the very least a representation of how lonely he is? If so, the first chunk of the film could act as a construct wherein Marc has a loving wife, friends, a home, a life. Changing one element of this carefully constructed fantasy (i.e. shaving his mustache off) forces the entire house of cards down. Systems resist change by their very nature, and Marc’s fantasy is upset by a simple lack of hair on his face. He tries to hold onto this – going so far as to dig through the trash to retrieve the remnants of his mustache – but the change is irreparable.

Marc writes a postcard to his wife from Hong Kong, stating that he does not trust his own eyes but only what he sees through the eyes of his wife. At the end of the film, when Marc’s wife is inexplicably present in Hong Kong as if none of the previous conundrums had occurred, Marc disposes of the postcard that he never mailed. Perhaps he has found a new way to make his fantasy work by imagining his wife with him in Hong Kong, and he discards the postcard upon the realization that the original fantasy clashes with the new one.

This could very well be a weak interpretation of the first 95% of the film, but I think it’s one that lends the last 5% a particular beauty. Fully-bearded Hong Kong Marc asks his wife “How would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?”, and when he does it this time around she smiles, compliments him on the change, and invites him into bed. His efforts at change within such a lonely existence were met with impossible resistance over the course of the first acts of the film, obstacles that he alone had to endure and overcome. His pain, his conflicted sense of self, the overpowering sense that no one in the entire world is on his side – all of it seems to melt away when his wife recognizes the change that he has enacted.

Your reading may be very different. The fact remains that La moustache is a weird little movie, and one that will undoubtedly get you thinking. Vincent Lindon is fantastic as Marc, and his performance is one of the few indelible elements in a story about transformation of the self.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Continuing our mini-retrospective on actor and director Richard Attenborough, one notices that Netflix only musters seven films with his name in the credits – three of which he directed, three of which he acted in, and one of which is a documentary. Shouldn’t there be more of a selection for a guy who acted in nearly 80 different projects and directed twelve feature films, one of which won a Best Picture Oscar? Shouldn’t he have at least half of the Netflix catalogue awarded to William Shatner? Anyway.

Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles is an interesting one to be included in that hors d’oeuvre-sized offering, and it’s a film in which Attenborough shines. Steve McQueen takes the spotlight, as Steve McQueen is wont to do from time to time, but Attenborough’s character serves as a perfect compliment to the protagonist. McQueen’s Jake Holman and Attenborough’s Frenchy Burgoyne are aboard a U.S. gunboat (The San Pablo, though pronounced by some as Sand Pebbles) in the heart of China in 1926. It’s a time of revolution and both men get wrapped up in local and national affairs during their long tour.

Attenborough has said Pebbles was the longest shoot he ever worked on, including the epic Gandhi, and that the cast and crew spent 8 months in Taipei filming. Wise spent a full four years bringing the project to fruition, and the time spent and the care taken is evident in the epic sweep of the final product.

The film is sluggishly slow in most places. McQueen’s Jake cultivates a relationship with the engine of the ship (in the picture above he’s just said “Hello, Engine. I’m Jake Holman”) while Attenborough’s Frenchy cultivates a relationship with a local Chinese woman. The characters couldn’t be more unlike each other, but they build a mutual respect and even loyalty as their tour progresses. Also, Attenborough sports one hell of a handlebar mustache.

The Sand Pebbles takes its time, but is worth watching to see McQueen and Attenborough in two of their most distinctive roles.

Sorcerer (1977)

William Friedkin’s Sorcerer had the unfortunate timing in 1977 of being released concurrently with a movie called Star Wars, which people ended up liking a little bit. Friedkin was hot after releasing The French Connection and The Exorcist earlier in the decade, but Sorcerer ultimately failed at the box office and slipped into relative obscurity in favor of his other movies. This is a shame, because Sorcerer is a monster of a film.

Based on The Wages of Fear, the first third of the film essentially amounts to four separate prologues for four separate characters from Veracruz, Jerusalem, Paris, and New Jersey (one of these things is not like the other). Roy Scheider cashes in on the success of Jaws two years earlier as lead man in Sorcerer (the New Jersey one), but the time spent with each of the characters is intimate and highly involved; the Walon Green script, too, is like a tough steak that tastes good but has to be chewed and wrestled with. It’s difficult to tell throughout this opening act where Sorcerer might turn next.

Continue reading Sorcerer (1977)

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

Lest anyone get too comfortable watching good movies, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For flawlessly and disappointingly checks all the boxes on the Sequel Checklist. Six smashed windows, fourteen severed heads, incalculable gory kills. A death from the first movie is a major plot device and a character says the subtitle of the movie in the movie. Eva Green has 42 minutes of screentime and is naked for 39.5 of them.

And while most of those stats are made up, A Dame to Kill For still ends up being one of those movies you want to like only because you liked the first one. Like the 2005 original, the sequel divides time between several main characters, most of whom are the same main characters from the first movie. Marv and Dwight are back with Mickey Rourke reprising the former and Josh Brolin taking over for Clive Owen on the latter; Jessica Alba is back as Nancy, out for revenge after the events of the first film; Bruce Willis comes back as John Hartigan, but he’s really just a ghost because he died in the first movie and cute little Haley Joel Osment hasn’t gotten around to telling him he’s dead yet.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is new as the gambling Johnny, who gets in deep with the villainous Senator Roark and provides the best scenes in the movie. Unfortunately, his story is noticeably shortened in favor of Marv’s, Dwight’s, and Nancy’s.

Basically A Dame to Kill For has the same ingredients as the first film and, despite the nearly decade-long gap between releases, it’s obvious no one spent the time to put those ingredients together. There’s probably a comparable number of death-by-sharp-thing moments, but no one we care about is ever the one being killed. There’s more than enough nudity, but it’s a blatant and tasteless display, and the kind that makes me feel the need to type it out as NUDITY because it’s virtually written in BIG NEON LETTERS. Eva Green is highly attractive but not that great of an actress, and the NUDITY very nearly distracts from that fact. NUDITY.

While the hyperstylized black-and-white occasionally lends itself to some brilliant imagery (especially in a night scene at the pool), the second Sin City just can’t hope to recapture the razor-sharpness of the first.

Enemy (2013)

A second viewing of Denis Villeneuve’s dark mindbender Enemy doesn’t illuminate the WTFs of the film in the way that most would hope. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a man who discovers and confronts what seems to be his exact lookalike, the Kafkaesque Enemy is very much experimental and very much a work of abstract filmmaking on many levels. It also happens to be one of the most spellbinding, terrifying, and downright fascinating little movies of recent memory.

Set in a concrete-and-metal Toronto draped in beautiful shadows of industrial noir, there’s really nothing poor to say about the look and tone of Villeneuve’s most recent tale (he and Gyllenhaal also teamed on Prisoners in 2013, another intense and beautifully shot film). Enemy is intercut with close-ups of the characters and wide panning cityscapes, gridlocked traffic jams juxtaposed alongside messy bedsheets, and at times the effect of the editing is truly mesmerizing.

Gyllenhaal, too, is tough to look away from, and he plays both Adam (the “main character”, if such a thing exists in Enemy) and Anthony (the doppelgänger who seems to take more and more screentime from Gyllenhaal No. 1) with subtlety and — dare I say it — brilliance. Hard to pin brilliance on the guy from Prince of Persia, but I suppose it’s equally exciting that Gyllenhaal has abandoned those moneygrab projects in favor of stuff like Enemy, Prisoners and the upcoming Nightcrawler, which looks great.

There are more than a few shots throughout the course of Enemy that are just impossible to process, I think, regardless of how many times you’ve viewed it. Like some similar moves by David Lynch, Villeneuve’s insertion of these impossible images really make the overall film more compelling. Not only will the final shots of the film leave you scratching your head, but they’ll eventually lead you to question even the “believable” elements of Enemy that came before.

So while a light isn’t suddenly flicked on by watching Enemy twice — there’s really no hope of turning all of the ?s into !s — a second viewing does shine a different kind of glow on things. The imagery, again, is just plain beautiful – but it’s also telling a story on its own, showing things that lurk in plain sight, things we’re very obviously terrified by, things we attempt to control, things that are inevitable. Whatever it is that Enemy ultimately presents is almost certain to stay in your head long after the credits roll.