The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”
The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.
Continue reading Seven Men from Now (1956)
These days, Westerns seem to either be smaller art-house fare or destined box-office flops. Michael Agresta’s phenomenal article “How the Western Was Lost (and Why It Matters)” touches on a few reasons why — see The Lone Ranger, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex, or don’t see them — and a few reasons the erosion of the genre marks a sad day for American Cinema. Agresta is mainly writing about the public perception of the Western and not necessarily about whether Jonah Hex is any good or not (it’s not), and so the commentary on the smaller art-house stuff is limited. He’d agree, though, I think, that the more limited platform of independent and small-studio filmmaking is where the majority of “good” Westerns are being produced these days.
And Slow West is somewhat of an interesting film to consider in the larger context of The American Western, a long-standing genre with a hugely important but slightly malleable history as outlined by Agresta. Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee as the young dreamer Jay and Michael Fassbender as the mysterious drifter Silas, Slow West is an undeniably style-heavy piece that takes full advantage of the fact that it’s not a big-budget tentpole. In doing so, the film retains a self-awareness that manages to be less wink-wink than you might expect.
Continue reading Slow West (2015)
I read The Pawnbroker at the wrong time. Jewish American author Edward Lewis Wallant published the thin novel, his second after The Human Season, a year before his untimely death in 1962. I wouldn’t be hitting the scene for another few decades, and by the time I did The Pawnbroker existed only in relative obscurity. I read it in college, where I sort of zipped through the little volume in between zipping through others.
In doing so, I read Sol Nazerman’s tale largely as a tale of urban woe. Those of suburban woe — by Updike, Cheever, O’Hara, and even a few guys who weren’t named John — were in great supply back then, from Rabbit, Run to Bullet Park to Appointment in Samarra. These books had protagonists that were either downright miserable or just miserable without knowing it, perhaps indifferent to the constant comings and goings or the constant stillness of life around them, and in that feeble criteria they were all grouped together. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant, about a Jewish shopkeeper in postwar New York, seemed a worthy companion to The Pawnbroker because the protagonists seemed so similar. Assistant‘s Morris worked out of Brooklyn while Sol Nazerman’s pawnshop was in Harlem, but both were simply exhausted by life.
Continue reading The Pawnbroker (1964)
Parenthood might be the first time Ron Howard really showed his talent as a director. Grand Theft Auto and Night Shift were passable as Howard found his directorial voice, and Gung Ho and Willow were larger productions that achieved different levels of success as Howard matured. I’d entertain an argument for Cocoon as the first glimpse of the great director Howard would one day become, mostly for the subtle mix of fantasy, sentimentality, humor and drama. But Parenthood, although admittedly very different, is the better film. With a burgeoning cast that can only be described as an ensemble, Howard’s brilliance lies in making that ensemble feel more like — oh no, he’s going to say it — a family.
There are the young ones — Kevin, Taylor, Justin, Patty, “Cool” and Garry (a pipsqueak Joaquin Phoenix) — each content in their kid ways to run around with head-in-bucket (in Justin’s case) or figure out the square root of 8,649 (in Patty’s case [it’s 93]). There’s Garry’s older sister Julie and her boyfriend/husband Tod. There’s the next generation, the brunt of the Buckman clan led by Steve Martin’s Gil, and the spouses of each Buckman sibling. And then there’s the patriarchal generation, with Grandpa Frank played by the great Jason Robards, utterer of the greatest line in cinema history (from Once Upon a Time in the West — either ya knowhadimean or ya don’t).
Continue reading Parenthood (1989)
Aside from the title, the majority of Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley is refreshingly original in the way it tackles a familiar story. Perhaps Das finstere Tal, the Austrian title, makes more sense in native tongue and context – but if you don’t care to brush up on your Austrian beforehand The Dark Valley is still to be enjoyed. Prochaska’s resume shows he’s been fairly prolific over the past few years, but most of his projects are horror flicks or TV shows. The Dark Valley looks to be his most mature feature effort thus far.
Sam Riley stars as the lone drifter Greider, largely the strong and silent type, recently arrived at a remote snowbound village high in the Alps. The aforementioned “familiar story” is really just that: mysterious stranger arrives in otherwise comfortable close-knit town, people become uncomfortable; secrets exist for the townsfolk and for the drifter, said secrets are exposed; drifter and young woman flirt with obligatory fling; things seem okay for a while until suddenly, one day, shit hits the fan. These by-the-numbers plot points are most at home in a Western, which is a genre that The Dark Valley is now a part of in spite of the snowy mountain setting (though, agreed, not technically a Western in the American sense – so, an Eastern?), but that familiarity is never crippling. As much as The Dark Valley resembles Once Upon a Time in the West on paper, it’s a starkly different kind of movie.
Continue reading The Dark Valley (2014)
Peter Weir’s directorial debut The Cars That Ate Paris, like a few other movies from the early career of the Australian filmmaker, tends to defy most attempts at classification and at fitting it comfortably into one genre or another. Most slap “horror-comedy”, a broad and unsatisfying label, onto films like this. While it’s certainly funny and creepily disquieting by turns, shoehorning The Cars That Ate Paris into a genre just so we may talk about it as “this kind of film” or “that kind of film” quickly becomes a useless exercise.
Set in the fictional hamlet of Paris in rural Australia, the film follows young Arthur after his brother George dies in a car accident just outside the town. The Parisians welcome Arthur and console him, but it soon becomes evident that Paris is no ordinary town. Arthur himself hardly seems to notice any questionable behavior apart from a few odd comings and goings – but we become aware very soon that the town of Paris thrives on car accidents from the dangerous outskirts roads, and that the townsfolk engineer accidents for their own benefit.
Silly set-up, no? What characterizes the tone of The Cars That Ate Paris is just that: a silly, comedic set-up that suddenly takes a darker turn, a bubbly Sunday drive turning instantly into a fiery wreck. While calling the entire thing a “horror-comedy” is too easy, it can be said that the tone of the film hinges on those two genres without ever slipping over into either for too long. The pivoting itself can provide comedy or shock, and Weir and Co. bring us back and forth over the course of the film more times than I care to count. The effect turns the film into a kind of tonal collage that’s tough to pin down at any one point in time.
Continue reading The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)