Saturday, September 20, 2014

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969)

After the disaster that was Major Dundee it would appear that Peckinpah was pretty much finished. Instead of giving in he made some television movie called Noon Wine. The thing got good reviews but I couldn’t track it down. Fuck it, I didn’t look very hard. I’m sticking with his genuine theatrical releases. So, this Noon Wine must have been solid because it gave Peckinpah the chance to direct The Wild mother-fucking Bunch. I could go into the state of Peckinpah at this time but I’m going to start sounding like a broken record. Clearly, he’s a big drinker. Clearly, he liked bringing along a cast that he could count on as drinking buddies. Clearly, he’s still got a thing against women and mirrors. Yada mother-fucking yada. That’s who he was. That’s who he’d be until the day he dies. A poet of hard drinking, occasional coke sniffing, and offensive behavior is still a god damned poet.

What can I say about The Wild Bunch that hasn’t already been said countless times? Nothing. It’s arguably the greatest Western ever made. I can’t argue that point since I haven’t seen every Western. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Period. It’s a pretty simple story told with depth of feeling. We got an iconic opening scene, and incredible train robbery, and an even more iconic than the beginning closing scene. Along the way, we got lots of little moments where men are men, women are whores, children are soulless, etc.

The Wild Bunch is nearly impossible to write about since so much has already been written (and, more than likely, read by me). I could talk about the music, especially at the beginning until William Holden utters the now famous line “If they move, kill ‘em.” I could talk about the performances (almost all note-perfect), the editing of the action scenes (quick cuts between significant moments, slow motion, sweat, blood, tears, etc). I could go on and on regurgitating the plot for a while. That’s usually the kind of shit I pull when I don’t know what else to talk about. I could talk about the Peckinpah themes, particularly the one of aging men stuck in changing times. In this case, we’re at the dawn of WWI and Holden and his men need to “start thinking beyond guns.”

I’ll just assume there are a couple pussies out there that haven’t seen the picture. Maybe you want, at least, a brief description of the plot to see if it’s something you might be interested in. Okay. See, we got this bunch of outlaws that call themselves The Wild Bunch. Or maybe the press called them that. I don’t know if it’s ever made clear. Anyway, they’re a pretty wild bunch of guys, murdering and whoring around, robbing banks and trains, etc. Except, they’re not too wild where they don’t have a code. See, these guys might shoot a man (or a woman, hell, maybe even a kid) at the drop of a hat, but they stick by their own. It’s all about loyalty. Anyway, the bunch rides into an ambush at the beginning of the picture and only six of them make it out; Pike (William Holden), Dutch (Ernest Borgnine), Lyle and Tector Gorch (Warren Oates and Ben Johnson), and Angel (Jaime Sanchez). The ambush was led by former Wild Bunch member Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) who was given the choice of apprehending and killing the bunch or returning to Yuma.

The surviving bunch eventually meet up with old man Sykes (Edmund O’Brien) who used to ride with Pike, but is now mostly just the butt of old man jokes. Also, much to their disappointment, it turns out the loot they made off with was just a bag full of steel washers. They need a job and money, fast. They do what any man needing a job would do. They cross the Rio Grande and head to Mexico. While south of the border, they encounter the revolutionary General Mapache, some whores, a train full of artillery, a couple shootouts, some whores, evil children, more whores, an automobile, lots of booze, a mirror, some campfire chatter, a throat slashing, saunas, a dying Mexican being dragged behind a car, etc. Also, a couple of whores I believe. And Deke Thornton and his bounty hunters always a step or two behind.

Shit, I don’t know. What else can I say? Well, I haven’t said much. I want to keep this short. I’ll just take a glance at my notes, maybe latch onto a point and go from there. Ok, I jotted down “wounded, blinded man – finish it.” I guess this was the scene when the bunch were leaving the town from the opening, botched robbery. The blinded man was one of their own. Unfortunately, he couldn’t see too good or even stay on his horse as they crossed some sand dunes. It’s an interesting scene. At first, the guy is acting all tough. He can continue, it’s just a little scratch, it’s not that big of a deal that his face is covered in blood and he can’t see shit. Almost immediately, the poor bastard realizes he’s cooked, can’t go on, will only slow them down. Rather than wait for the bounty hunters, law, etc to show up he just says simply “finish it”. Pike wastes no time in obliging him. Lyle and Tector would like some words said for their friend, maybe a proper burial. Dutch’s response is “maybe a few hymns and a church supper?” He’s joking. They all loved the guy but dead is dead and if they stick around to bury their friend’s corpse, sing some hymns, eat church dinner they’ll be next. Loyalty doesn’t carry on beyond this life.

I’m not sure what the following note says but it goes something like this: “Lyle, etc just interested in whoring , boobies (I drew a picture of breasts here)”. I can only assume I was talking about Lyle (Oates) and his brother Tector (Ben Johnson) who are constantly talking about tag teaming whores. Finally, once they reach Mapache’s lecherous compound we finally see them in action. Tector gets two fat ones. Lyle gets one semi-ok one. I read somewhere that Peckinpah used actual prostitutes from Mexico just so he could say he paid prostitutes to be in his picture. The scene with the three hookers frolicking around with Lyle and Tector is more mirthful than Peckinpah usually allows a scene with women to be. They dance around, the brothers shoot out wine barrels, they bathe in the stuff, breasts are shown, whores (non-offensive term for hooker) are treated as objects. It’s a good scene. It’s the only scene where women are allowed to enjoy life, not be vicious, cruel, evil, or used for target practice.

Other women in this picture do not get painted as well as those three whores. We get the innocent lady at the beginning caught in the crossfire and trampled to death by a horse. We got Angel’s former lover who has hooked up with General Mapache and is gunned down by Angel in a jealous rage. Is Angel punished for his crime? Well, he gets knocked around a bit but is eventually allowed to continue on his way with the bunch. They need him for their mission, after all. The heist of several crates of artillery from a military train. In exchange for those crates, Mapache will provide them with gold. Politics have no place amongst this bunch. Interestingly, it isn’t until Angel steals a crate to give to his people (those being abused, tortured, murdered by Mapache) that he is taken prisoner, beaten, dragged behind a car, has his (spoiler) throat cut, etc. The message being, women are a dime a dozen, I can throw a rock and bang one. Guns are much more valuable. Way more valuable than that filthy whore I was banging the other night is what I’m sure Mapache was probably thinking after Angel gunned down his woman.

Also, the woman that Angel gunned down, his former lover, was not a very nice woman. I’m not saying she deserved to be shot dead but she was clearly trying to make Angel jealous by licking the inside of Mapache’s ear while casting glances Angel’s way. I don’t think she deserved to be shot or even slapped around. Maybe a good talking to would have been in order. Possibly, she should have been sent to time out. Other women proved blood thirsty and just as capable of shooting somebody as the men. Of course, when Pike (spoiler) gets shot in the back (of course) by a woman near the end she misses everything vital and gets called a “bitch” before Pike turns around and puts her out of her womanly misery (is what Peckinpah was probably thinking when he shot that scene). Peckinpah has issues with women. I’m not going to harp on this.


I started this review years ago and never finished it apparently.  It's The Wild Bunch.  No real review necessary.  Anyway, sorry for the rampant use of the word "whore" not put in quotes.  This was the movie's view, not mine.  I should have used quotes.  I was an immature young mid 30 something at the time.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965)

Well shit. I meant to write this thing up a few weeks ago as part of my Peckinpah retrospective that I’m hoping to someday finish. Unfortunately, the latest movie I watched was a bit of an epic slog. Peckinpah was just coming off the critically lauded Ride the High Country which Charlton Heston had actually seen and liked. He was just the type of director to shoot Heston’s next project, something called Major Dundee (oh wait, the picture I’m writing about) in the style of such epics as Lawrence of Arabia or maybe Heston’s own El Cid. You know, a three hour picture complete with an overture, interlude, etc. The kind of picture that won Oscars and made millions. Anyway, watched this thing a few weeks ago. My memories a little fuzzy. Details come in and out. I think it’s about a Major or some shit during the Civil War, except it takes place in the Old West which is not where many Civil War battles were fought. Or something. Apaches figure into this thing. There’s a Scottish or Irish Captain who fought for the South. And a young bugler narrates the story, although his narration is so few and far between that we forget who he is and why he's talking over a Heston/Peckinpah collaboration. The end.

Okay, I’m just messing with you. That’d be a shitty review. Truthfully, I wrote this thing the other night and I thought it came out pretty good.  The words just flowed out of me.  Then blogspot lost it (without saving) and I nearly threw my laptop out the window. Now I’m just trying to remember it piece by piece and it ain’t working out too well. Like I said earlier, Heston hand-picked Peckinpah to direct this feature thinking he’d found some young genius filmmaker (he had) that he could control (not quite). Peckinpah was allowed to be himself on the set which is to say belligerent with the crew, drunk all the time, slapping around women, and shooting out mirrors in his hotel room (I’m theorizing here). I keep hearing/reading that Heston tried to run Peckinpah through with a saber. Not sure if that’s true or not. I think I read it in some book somewhere. So, Peckinpah was not the easiest guy to work with. And then the picture went overtime and over budget and got shut down with several scenes yet to be shot. That’s fine, they thought, we can stitch together a piece of crap and it’ll still make money.

What I managed to get my hands on is the extended edition which the DVD back cover claims to be “A Restored Masterpiece.” Well, the whole “masterpiece” thing got me thinking about what they meant by “masterpiece”. So, I decided to look it up in the ol’ dictionary.com. First thing I noticed is it’s a noun. Second thing I noticed is it’s got three definitions. Shit, when did dictionaries get so complicated? The first one defines “masterpiece” as “a person’s greatest piece of work, as in an art.” That definitely doesn’t apply here since this thing isn’t even as good as the last Peckinpah I watched. Fuck, I may have mislabeled that thing myself when I called it his “first masterpiece” since according to this definition you’re only entitled to one in your lifetime. The second definition states it’s “anything done with masterly skill.” So, I guess this one might work here.  I don't think so but if you're being a pussy I could see how you might think so.  We're getting a little too lenient in what qualifies as a masterpiece. Using it in a sentence, I guess I’d go with "Father didn’t let son help build his Pinewood derby car in the hope that it could actually be labeled a masterpiece." The final definition claims it’s “a consummate example of skill or excellence of any kind.” That last definition throws me for a bit of a loop. “ANY kind”? Farting, apparently, can qualify. Quitting, could even be considered a masterpiece. I guess you could consider it a masterpiece when I won the eagle feather at Camp Sunrise (a Cub Scout, thing) but I consider it more of a masterpiece when I quit Boy Scouts after one meeting. It wasn’t quite what I expected. Anyway, we got a few definitions of masterpiece to contend with here. Major Dundee doesn’t qualify for any of them, in my opinion. I guess this is the part where I ramble on to try and explain myself.

Major Dundee, for the most part, doesn’t even feel like a Peckinpah picture. We got here the story of a disgraced Major in the Union army named Dundee (no relation to Crocodile, far as I can tell). Dundee fought in one of the big skirmishes in the Civil War, something like Salisbury Hill or Gettysburgh. Like I said, it’s not easy remembering this shit. Well, turns out Dundee made some tactical blunder in the hopes of achieving glory and got a bunch of men killed. As punishment, he was sent out to the New Mexico territory to warden over some prison. The picture opens with the aftermath of an Apache massacre of a family on a ranch. Dundee sent in a small army and they were also massacred (we don’t see any of this shit). The Apaches don’t discriminate when it comes to slaughter except for young boys who they capture to develop into warriors. Dundee sees his chance for redemption. Gather up an army and pursue the Apaches across the Rio Grande and into Mexico, rescue the boys, get sent back into the real war with maybe a plaque or a statue or something, bed some broads, etc. It’s the perfect opportunity. 

Of course there’s a scene where Dundee has to put together his rag tag army. Some are regular soldiers; the bugler, his bookish lieutenant, etc. The majority end up being horse thieves, rapists (I’m pretty sure), drunks, etc. We got a black regiment mixed in there somewhere, back of the line-ish, and this coming 20+ years before Glory. That’s pretty impressive. We also got a scout, played by James Coburn, with one arm. It’s a decent special effect for the time. Looks like they just stuffed something in his left sleeve and tied it off where the stump would be. No CGI as far as I could tell. Coburn’s a friend of the injun, sorry Indian. He calls them his brothers. They have wrestling matches and Knife fights for fun. Typical brother shit. Most interesting, we have a few jailed confederate soldiers led by Captain Tyrese or Tyrel or whatever. He’s played by the ahab-ish (Quint-ish?) boat captain from that movie Orca. The picture where Bo “10” Derek gets her already broken leg bitten off. Anyway, Tyrell and Dundee were friends at West Point. Can’t remember exactly what happened but they had a falling out. Tyrell (an Irish or a Scotsman) went to fight with the South while Dundee fought for the North. Now, here’s Captain Tyrese in Dundee’s prison where he and his men are given the option of hanging or joining the army and taking orders from Dundee. I can’t imagine hanging prisoners of war being acceptable, so maybe Tyrese and his men did some other shit before being captured. Also, Warren Oates is one of the confederate soldiers. Moustache and all. And R.G. Armstrong plays a man of god but isn’t quite the zealot he was in the last picture. Slim Pickens is a drunken horse thief I think, but other than a few lines, he barely resonated.

Basically, this picture is a bunch of scenes of Dundee and his men riding across the countryside, having unmemorable skirmishes with Apaches, dealing with uninteresting dissension among the ranks, encountering some French assholes, bedding a couple women here and there, wrestling, eating, drinking, bugling, etc. Hell, I even forgot what they were out there looking for. Oh yeah, a couple of kidnapped boys. The Apaches are complete non characters, none more so of a non-character than their chief, Chief Sonny Chiba (I think). This guy is a legend, a nightmare of the western plains yet I don’t even remember getting a look at his face or even hearing him talk. The villain of the picture is faceless. We’re supposed to fear him because of what we’ve heard he’s done but we never see any of that shit.

I suppose we could look at the major conflict of the picture as being between Dundee and Captain Tyrone and, actually, this is where the picture comes closest to feeling like a Peckinpah picture. We got two manly men (well, Tyrone is a bit dainty, truthfully) who used to be on the same side but have been driven apart by circumstances and are now fighting on opposite sides. Friends respecting, but trying to kill one another is a Peckinpah theme (see Holden/Ryan in The Wild Bunch or Coburn/Kristofferson in the Billy the Kid picture). Unfortunately, once Dundee and whats his face have to set aside their differences for the common good it veers into more of a Hollywood cliché, rather than Peckinpah territory. The French army doesn’t really work as a source of real conflict or villainy either. Fuck, Dundee and his men storm into a French occupied town looking to pillage for supplies after their army was ambushed. Dundee and his crew are the invaders, in this scenario. Then they have a party and Dundee’s army ends up bedding some Mexican women. I think Dundee bedded a broad too, but it was never made overtly clear. Even the bugler banged a Mexican broad. Shit, these Mexican women, who can’t even speak English, are just happy as can be to get some gringo dick. Poor bugler was reprimanded the next morning when he stumbled out for revelry, or whatever it’s called, pants around the ol’ ankles.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the picture lacks conflict. It lacks resolution. It lacks a cohesive story. It lacks those unique Peckinpah touches. Oh sure, we got a bunch of men acting tough together, mistreating their women, and drinking gallons of whiskey. What it lacks is Peckinpah’s soul. The man’s an artist. His great pictures usually have all his problems thrown up on the screen for the world to see. This just feels like a picture that deserves to be forgotten. There’s almost nothing on screen that would have been presented differently if, say, Heston had directed the thing himself. Or, some other guy. Whoever. Doesn’t matter. Point is, this doesn’t feel like a Peckinpah. We got no slow motion action scenes (which admittedly, he wouldn’t use until his next picture), we got no mirror shooting, we got little sense of a character’s motivations. We know Dundee wants to redeem himself for his previous war blunders. We’re not quite sure what he did (at least, I don’t remember what he did) . We’re just kind of told he wants that glory that eludes most men. Captain Tyreke tells him something along the lines of did you ever stop to think that maybe there’s a reason you’re the warden of a prison while there’s a war going on. In other words, he’s kind of a chump. I will say Heston makes a great chump. We see his desperation, he drinks a lot, takes an arrow in the leg like a man, etc. He’s still a chump.

Unfortunately, the picture (already a great big slog) just falls completely apart at the end. Finally, Dundee and his men come face to face with Apache Chief Chiba. The battle is unexciting and too quick. Chiba is unceremoniously dispatched (with minimal fight) and his body gets pushed down a ravine. I think that’s how he went out. Before the men can high five each other one of Dundee’s men looks across a meadow and says “Oh fuck, we forgot about the French.” The French, who are coming to get their revenge, apparently. The battle takes place in the Rio Grande, on horseback. Guns blaze, swords thwack, soldiers fall into the river before they’ve been struck. It’s an appallingly incompetent scene and I refuse to believe Peckinpah had any part in it. I’ll just believe he was kicked off set before they even got to it. What comes next is even more un-Peckinpah, in my opinion. Of course, one of either Tyreen or Dundee are probably going to die. I would have gone with Dundee. Instead, Tyreen is mortally shot. The first French wave has been disbanded but French reinforcements are racing towards the river. Tyreen singlehandedly charges into their masses giving Dundee and his remaining men just enough time to escape. Like fucking cowards. What was the point of Tyreen’s sacrifice (which wasn't much of a sacrifice when you consider he was already moments from death)? He allowed for a deeply flawed and cowardly (again, not a trait Peckinpah would respect) man to escape. What was the point of the picture? The picture ends as soon as Dundee makes it to the other side of the river. Sure, they had revenge on Chief Chiba, a man the audience could give a shit about. It’s possible I dozed during the part where they rescued the kidnapped children. I’ll just assume it didn’t happen. I don’t know, it’s all a bit muddled. Could have used a better climax is what I’m saying. Also a better middle. And a better beginning. Not one of Peckinpah’s finest works, but I’m not sure it’s entirely his fault. Maybe he’ll have more luck with his next picture.

Also, Oates gets shot in the back.  By his own man.  Spoiler alert.  So, basically what I'm getting at is Major Dundee is a classic picture deserving of it's "restored masterpiece" status.  Fucking with you again.  Major Dundee is a Major Disappointment.  Fuck, who am I?  Gene Shalit?  I'm not ending with that bullshit.  Let's just say Peckinpah was really,really drunk.  The perfect catch-all excuse.

Apologies to Richard Harris.  I know who you are.  I just couldn't keep your character's name straight.  My bad.

Next Up: Ernest Borgnine makes his Peckinpah debut and gets (spoiler!) shot full of holes for his trouble.

Motifs: Um, old West setting, some drinking, a few broads get hurt (this time more emotionally, than phsyically), guy talk around a fire, lots of men, etc

Peckinpah Regulars: R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, James Coburn, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, maybe a couple others

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country (1962)

Well, here we have it.  A bonafide Peckinpah classic.  It only took him two attempts.  This one hits on some themes that Peckinpah will use throughout his career; friendship, betrayal, growing old during changing times, etc.  Also, gleefully shooting chickens for the hell of it as well as a heoine who's in constant peril.  Unlike his previous film (The Deadly Companions), Ride the High Country is eminently rewatchable and endlessly quotable.  Unlike the majority of Peckinpah pictures, it features a central character we can get behind 100%.  Joel McRea, as Steve Judd, is a good man whose only ambition is to walk into his home "justified." 

Judd's an aging ex-lawman.  A man the world is quickly passing by.  He rides into a Californian town, a town immersed in carnival atmosphere, looking for work.  Peckinpah is not subtle in this scene with townspeople referring to Judd as "old man", "old timer", "gramps", etc.  It's in this town that Judd runs into an old friend (also, former lawman) Gil Westrum, played by Randolph Scott.  Westrum has been relegated to running a carnival shoot-em-up game while dressed as Buffalo Bill.  Judd's got a job offer from the local bank.  Transport a quarter of a million dollars in gold bullion from a mining town called Coarsegold back to the bank's vault.  Unfortunately, after meeting with the bank managers, the bounty has been lowered to twenty thousand dollars.  An undertaking of great importance has suddenly become something like "eh, take it or leave it...what do we care?"  Still, a jobs a job.  He wants Westrum to be his partner, just like old times.  Westrum wants to bring along his new friend, the young, brash, and incredibly named Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).  Our introduction to Heck comes as he races a camel against a thoroughbred, wins, and then punches out the losing jockey.   That's so Peckinpah (I don't know what that means).

So, we got this threesome, two old friends and one arrogant son of a bitch, riding over the High Sierras to collect some gold and return it to the bank for forty dollars a day (split three ways).  Time's sure have changed, but it's an honest living.  At least, that's the way Judd looks at it.  Longtree and Westrum have other ideas.  Well, one other idea.  The plan, along the way, is to convince Judd to make off with the gold for themselves and retire somewhere nice.  Westrum's got a few days to convince him in his own subtle ways.  He tells him shit like "a poor man dies with only his clothes of pride on his back" while Longtree's got other, more blunt, methods: "Let's just bend the gun barrel over his head."  After all, splitting the gold two ways is better than three ways.

Like most good Peckinpah movies, this one's full of some colorful characters.  They spend one night in a farmer's barn.  The farmer, Joshua Knudson, is played by Peckinpah regular, R.G. Armstrong.  He's the kind of character that often shows up in his films.  Bible fearing, apt to quote scripture at the dinner table, dead wife, etc.  I could be wrong, and it's been a while since I seen it, but I think Armstrong plays the exact same type of guy in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.  I'll let you know when I watch it again.  Well, this Knudson fellow also happens to have a lovely,  young, tom-boyish daughter named Elsa.  If you read my previous entry in this series, you can only imagine what kind of shit she endures.

Eventually, our three gold transporters make it to Coarsegold with Elsa in tow.  Long story, but Elsa is somewhat betrothed to a miner in town and decided to run away from home after her father slapped her around.  Course, she was talking to Heck at the time, so in Joshua's eyes, she deserved it.  Slut.  Anyway, she's to marry this guy in town named Billy Hamlin.  Unbeknownst to her, Billy's got four brothers, all scum bags.   One of those scum bags is another Peckinpah regular, L.Q. Jones.  It's possible you know him as the director of A Boy and His Dog.  It's probable that you don't.  Another brother, my favorite brother, is named Henry and played by Warren Oates (yep, you guessed it, another Peckinpah regular).  Oates doesn't clean up too well.  In preparation for Billy and Elsa's wedding (to happen that very night she wanders into town) the brothers drop him in a trough.  So, Elsa's to be married and, apparently, whored out by her new husband to his four brothers.  Meanwhile, Steve, Gil, and Heck continue into town to collect their gold. 

Well, shit, sometimes the good movies are the hardest to write about.  And this one's pretty great.  The script is simple, yet fairly profound.  We got lots of great dialogue like when Judd talks about the younger generation: "Boy's now adays.  No pride, no self respect....all gall and no sand."  There's not much in the picture's technique that makes me think Peckinpah; we got no slow motion (he still hasn't worked up to that yet), we got no shooting of mirrors, we got no freeze frames.  It's all in the feel.  There's a sadness hanging over every frame.  The dying of the west, a new breed of men taking it over, things becoming more cut throat, friendship meaning less than the ever loving dollar, etc.  Also, women still getting smacked around.  Some things are timeless, I guess.

The score is nearly iconic.  Fuck, it's great and wasn't even a Jerry Fielding score.  It's by George Bassman who did things like The Wizard of Oz and The Road to Zanzibar.  The script (which Peckinpah was actually allowed to tinker with before shooting) is chock full of great little character moments.  Like the scene where Judd lectures Heck about littering on the mountain.  I particularly liked the drunken judge who, upon marrying Billy and Elsa, says "a good marriage is like a rare animal, hard to find."  Then Billy takes Elsa into the honeymoon suite to begin their, ahem, consensual consumation only to be knocked out cold by a falling bookshelf.  Of course, in to the honeymoon suite struts two of his brothers, more than prepared to uphold that value which the Hamlin family holds most dear, the value of sharing.

A late night rescue ensues, followed by a flight across the mountains, pursuit by those idiot Hamlins, betrayal, mountaintop gunfights, escape into the valley, and....spoiler....ultimate tragedy.  The very end of the film is moving in the way that most great films are.  It's legitimate.  It's earned.  The last image, of Judd looking up into the high country, should be famous.  We rode with these characters and we cared for them.  They're not two dimensional (well, maybe Elsa...and the Hamlins).  The one who surprised me the most was Heck Longtree who evolved into a god damned, fully formed individual by the time this thing ended.  And then there's Warren Oates, who, in the middle of a hectic, edge of your seat, fight for your life, climactic gun battle starts shooting the heads off of bothersome chickens.  Ah, that's so Peckinpah.

Next up:  Charlton Heston tries to run Peckipah through with a sword

Motifs: aging men in changing times, friendship, betrayal, drinking, abused women, shooting the heads off of chickens

Peckinpah regulars:  R.G. Armstrong, L.Q. Jones, Warren Oates

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's The Deadly Companions (1961)

I'm going to attempt something a little different going forward.  I'm going to trace the careers of varying directors, see how they evolve (or, in some cases, devolve).  For the most part, I'll pick directors that are not so widely known.  Maybe a guy (or gal) that only had a few films to their credit.  In some cases, I'll write up each film in their filmography.  In other cases (probably with Peckinpah) I'll only pick out some of their pictures, the ones deemed important (by me, anyway).  I'll try to pick up on things like motifs (snooty critic term for recurring themes) and other directoral touches that appear from time to time.  I don't know, we'll see how far I take this thing.  I might begin and end with Sam Peckinpah.

I'm sure we're all aware of the story of Sam Peckinpah, the barely functioning alcoholic auteur (another fancy critical term I'll be abusing) who drank like a fish, verbally and physically abused the women in his life and made sure all his transgressions ended up on screen.  Eventually, he succumbed to his drinking at the age of 59 which, considering how much he drank, should be considered a ripe old age.  Yet, despite his temper, his drinking, his physical altercations, he maintained several relationships that lasted until his death.  Some of his friends even loved him, claimed he was misunderstood, etc.  He worked with the same actors over and over.  Guys like Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, James Coburn, Kris Kristoferson, Slim Pickens, Steven McQueen, etc.  Not many women worked with him more than once though.  Not many women had important roles in his pictures.  The women in his pictures were rarely what could be considered strong.  Almost always subservient to their men.  Whores, harlots, prostitutes, rape victims, etc.  I'm getting a little redundant here.  Point is, Peckinpah apparently had a problem with women.  I'm not for advocating most of his views.  I mean, I like a little gun violence from time to time but demeaning women ain't really my thing.  It's just not a very politically correct thing to do, even for a guy like me.  I love women.  However, it doesn't change the fact that the man knew how to shoot and put together a picture.  Some of what he created are outright masterpieces.  Others, brilliantly flawed.  Some, interesting failures.  Very few can be considered mediocre.  Some might be awful, but worth a viewing.  Maybe one or two are hilariously bad.  In his later years, he was supposedly too drunk to make it to many of his sets so whichever picture he was shooting at the time had to be shot by someone else (usually James Coburn).  Eventually, the drink claimed his life.  Thankfully, he left behind some pretty great shit (I'm referring to his movies).

Anyway, Peckinpah's first film, The Deadly Companions, doesn't feel much like a Peckinpah picture at all.  It's the story of an ex-Union soldier named Yellowleg (played by Brian Keith) who comes into a typical western town with his two companions (I'm guessing they're pretty deadly), named Billy and Turkey.  Their plan: to rob a bank.  However, before they can get to robbing the joint some other hoodlum already started robbing it.  There's a shootout and amidst the chaos a little boy is shot and killed.  Turns out this little boy is the son of the town harlot (Maureen O'hara - a pretty big name since even I heard of her).  And the killing bullet was revealed to have shot out of Yellowleg's pistol.  The harlot, her name's Kit, beset by grief, decides to journey across Apache country to bury her son with his father in a small, long abandoned, town called Sorenko (or some shit like that).  Yellowleg, beset by guilt, offers to guide her safely through Apache country.  Of course, Kit isn't too thrilled with him so she doesn't accept his offer.  He follows her, determined to protect her, along with his two companions; the grizzled old Turkey (Chill Wills - heard of him too) and the young, brash Billy (some guy, can't be bothered to look him up).

Now, I'm no Peckinpah expert.  I mean, I've seen a bunch of his pictures, read his biography called "Bloody Sam", and refreshed my brain by skimming on the wikipedia.  Maybe that does make me a scholar of the guy, I don't know.  My guess is not.  What I do know is the guy had some serious issues.  He was a boozer, a womanizer, a drug user, prone to violence, fits of rage, etc.  Anyway, typical issues and shit.  This kind of shit is always showing up in his movies too.  His characters always drink, push around women, and shoot other characters, usually in artsy slow motion.  When I say "push around women" what I meant to say was forcibly have sex with them to the point where the woman actually starts to enjoy it.  See, what did I say?  The guy's a real sweetheart. 

Also, the guy (Peckinpah, again) has a thing against mirrors.  He likes to have his characters look at themselves in a mirror and then shoot out the mirror.  I guess they don't like what they see.  It's some sort of metaphor or something.  Guy shooting a mirror is a guy figuratively shooting himself.  See, that's pretty artsy.  To be honest, I only remember one other movie of his where a guy shoots a mirror.  It's right at the end of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid when Garrett shoots himself in a mirror after killing the Kid.  Sorry, for the spoiler there.  Garrett shoots, and kills, Bill the Kid.  I hope you've already seen the movie.  I'm sure there was a similar mirror scene in The Wild Bunch (but I don't remember it) and maybe in Straw Dogs.  There's no way Dustin Hoffman could have liked looking at himself in the mirror after what happens to Susan George in that movie.  Anyway, in The Deadly Companions the Billy character shoots himself in a mirror at the beginning of the picture.  They're in a saloon and he and Yellowleg have just rescued Turkey from being strung up after cheating at cards.  This mirror shooting scene is one of a few Peckinpah touches in this movie. 

From what I read about this picture, Peckinpah had no input on the script or control in the editing room (I guess that's why we got no slow motion shootouts).  Apparently, he wasn' even allowed to talk to his leading lady.  So, any of his touches probably had to be smuggled into the movie, so to speak.  I'm sure he told Billy to shoot that mirror even though it likely wasn't in the script.  Weird aside:  I remember reading that Peckinpah used to get drunk and shoot out mirrors in his house.  Not sure if this is true or not.  If it is, he really had a thing against mirrors.  Wonder if Martin Sheen drunkenly Tai Chi'ing that mirror in the beginning of Apocalypse Now was some sort of homage to the guy?   What's the subject again?  Oh yeah, those Peckinpah touches.  Let's just say that the character of Kit was a typical Peckinpah lady.  A whore, devoid of competence, constantly needing to be saved, a target of sexual violence, incapable of driving a stage coach across even the smallest of streams, etc.  Of course, since Peckinpah had no input on the script and couldn't even talk to O'hara he probably had some go between tell her what he wanted.  Or, maybe he used telepathy.  Or, maybe this type of female character was more common in the old style westerns which, let's be honest, this sort of is.

So, let's get something straight.  After Yellowleg kill's Kit's son, she eventually, albeit reluctantly, agrees to let him drive her stage coach?  She agrees to let his two deadly companions come along as well even though the younger one is constantly cracking wise about how he's going to get with her?  The old west was a strange place, a place where women were pretty much good for one thing.  Whoring themselves out, apparently.  Or gossipping in church about women whoring themselves out even though they, themselves, were probably turning tricks out behind church as soon as service got out.  Or maybe during the sermon they snuck out to give nickel handjobs or something.  The west was a fucked up and pretty great place I must confess.  Nah, I'm just kidding.  It was only so-so.  I'm sure none of the whores (the movie's word, not mine) back then looked anything like Maureen O'hara.

Well, I'm now going to talk about something that will make any women readers out there (Do you even exist?) a bit uncomfortable.  Peckinpah really, I mean really, had it in for women.  He had it so far in for them (bad choice of words?) that almost all of his sex scenes would (by modern standards) be considered rape on some level.  That's bad enough.  It gets worse.  Not only do a bunch (all?) of his female characters get raped but they usually end up getting...ahem...into it.  We're talking moaning, some oohing, some ahhing, etc.  Does Peckinpah believe that women enjoy rape?  It sure seems like he might.  Is he going to be winning any feminist of the year awards anytime soon?  Probably not, but that's because he's dead.  Also, a misogynist.  I wish I remembered more details about his personal life to provide some insight here.  I could make some shit up if you'd like?  Anyway, Kit doesn't get raped, but she does get almost-raped.  At no point does she seem to enjoy her almost-rape and then she is saved by Yellowleg.  I bet you assumed the almost rapist was a sex starved Apache?  Racist.  No, clearly it was Billy.  If Peckinpah had been able to rewrite the script we definitely would have had Yellowleg save Kit only to push her down and ravish her himself.  That's just the kind of hero he should be, is what Peckinpah probably was thinking to himself.

Well, shit, I'm running a bit long on a picture that isn't very Peckinpah and was actually pretty mediocre.  I only included it because I wanted to show how he began.  As a gun for hire.  That's pretty much the same way he ended (see The Osterman Weekend).   The picture's only interesting in showing where a legendary director began.  Otherwise, it would be forgotten by just about everyone (it likely has been).  It's poorly shot, the night scenes (of which there are many, including an absolutely incomprehensible Apache raid of the companion's camp) are horrendously lit, the acting ranges from slightly over the top (the guy that plays Billy) to homeless man's John Wayne (Brian Keith).   Speaking of Yellowleg, there's an interesting bit about his hat.  It's kind of a motif (there's that word again) throughout the movie.  Why does he refuse to take it off?  Even in church?  The reveal is pretty ridiculous and then I forgot all about it.  Also, he wanted revenge on the guy who was responsible for him never wanting to take off his hat.  Could be his barber.  I really don't recall.  The old west was known for barbers giving out bad haircuts.  That's why everyone wore hats.  Even the women had bonnets and shit.

Oh, one other thing I sorta liked.  Yellowleg had a "ball" (old west term for bullet) lodged in his shoulder.  So, his gun arm was pretty useless.  It lead to some pretty embarassing moments of him dropping his pistol when confronted by Billy, etc.  The last shootout also shows him to be a pretty bad shot.  That's one more theme in these Peckinpah flicks.  Flawed heroes.  Although, most of them can shoot straight.  I don't think many other Peckinpah "heroes" would have much time for this Yellowleg fellow.  Also, he's got "yellow" in his name.  It's pretty fucking obvious.

Anyway, this is where Sam Peckinpah started (excluding his television work).  A mostly shitty movie with only a few of his trademarks (mirror shootings, abused women).  Also, there's a church service, I alluded to earlier, that takes place in a bar.  I guess the church hasn't been built yet.  I liked how the bartender had to pull blinds over the nudie pictures adorning the tavern walls because the pastor didn't appreciate them as much on sundays as he did on other days.  Not sure if that was Peckinpah or not, but it sure felt like it was.  This one just feels small and stagey.  The score isn't by Jerry Fielding so we can surmise that it's a non-iconic, typical Westerny, middling affair.  The wide open west, in this picture, is not so wide open.  This one's on Netflix instant.  Don't bother checking it out unless you're some sorta ridiculous completist.

Next up:  Peckinpah's first masterpiece (I'll get to it when I get to it).

Motifs:  aging men in changing times, abused women, drinking, shooting oneself in a mirror, betrayal

Peckinpah regulars:  Chill Wills

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Welcome to the Jungle (2007)

Well, this isn't exactly how I wanted to get back in the game, but here you go.  A write up for a picture made within the last decade.  I'm not gonna lie.  I got extremely bored with the whole blogging thing.  If I could, I'd make my own website just so I wouldn't have to refer to myself as a blogger.  Unfortunately, I'm not that technically inclined.  On top of that, I couldn't figure out which direction I wanted to go in with this thing. I have no interest in discussing current theatrical releases.  I have no interest in writing proper reviews.  I enjoy reading reviews, but writing that shit just isn't for me.  But, that's exactly what I started to do.  Also, I was burned out...completely burned out.  Less than a year ago, I quit my second job and that helped a little, but not enough.  I was just mentally exhausted.  And, did I mention bored?  Getting rid of the second job was a good thing.  A great thing.  It just took me a while to get motivated to attempt this thing again.  I'm taking baby steps.  These things are going to stream out a little at a time, like urine from an infected tract.  Shake it off.  I'm determined not to burn out again.

Anyway, I'm back with a review of a picture from an era, an era I won't often be dealing with.  My heart lies with the 60s, 70, and most of the 80s.  Sure,  a more current movie may creep in every now and then, but don't count on it.  Unfortunately, my first write up is for just such a creeper.  It's also unfortunate that this picture is of the "found footage" genre, a genre that has pretty much run its course.  Welcome to the Jungle is the story of a couple of Australian girls who meet up with a couple of American guys while vacationing within a short boat ride of New Guinea (where exactly is never clearly explained or, more likely, I just hadn't started paying attention yet).  The foursome, after nights spent imbibing and fornicating, eventually become a pair of twosomes.  The annoyingly responsible pair (Mandy and Colby) and the obnoxiously enabling pair (Bijou and Mikey).  While at a bar, and drunk, they hear a pilot relate the story of how he saw a 70 year old white man amongst one of New Guinea's cannibal tribes.  Well, just so happens that back in 1961, 23 year old Michael Rockefeller (putting him at about 70 at the time of this picture) disappeared while canooing in New Guinea (true story).  Theories had him drowning, being eaten by a shark or crocodile, or being eaten by a local tribe.  Now add a new theory... that he was apparently made into some sort of white shaman and allowed to live out his days among them. The two couples decide to take their video camera into the jungles of New Guinea in the hopes of capturing footage of Rockefeller and selling that footage to a tabloid for millions.  It's a noble idea. 

Of course, this idea has been done.  Refer back to Cannibal Holocaust, Ruggero Deodato's 1980 film with essentially the same premise.  Deodato's film is infamous for its depiction of animal slaughter and realistically graphic violence.  Deodato was actually arrested at one point for having made a snuff film.  He was later vindicated when the cast came to his defense to show that they were actually still very much alive.  If there's ever a film where you need to take a shower afterwards, that's the one.  Welcome to the Jungle is not even close to being a film like that and, for that reason, feels slight.  A fine diversion for an hour and a half, but not much more.  It's easily forgettable.  A product of its time.

What Welcome to the Jungle does have going for it, however, is a couple of characters (in Mikey and Bijou) that become more unbearable with each passing moment.  I couldn't wait for their slaughter.  Unfortunately, it comes offscreen, after they wander off, drunkenly of course, from the other two members of their group.  We do get to see their leftovers, so there's something.  Bijou's remains are an (fortunately, or unfortunately) homage to a similar scene in Cannibal Holocaust, involving the suspension of a cadaver through a pole.  It's just a matter of which opening supports the suspension pole.  Sorry for the minor spoiler.  This version of girl on pole is much more family friendly than the Deodato version.  Of course no one gets out alive.  It's a found footage movie.

Mikey's character is a big problem.  At first I thought he was full of false bravado.  A typical preppy American.  Then he starts shit with a group of New Guinean youths, calls someone a "zipperhead", and tries to fight a policeman armed with an AK-47.  Empowered by booze, Mikey struts through the movie with a complete disrespect for everyone (including those in his group).  His demise, while welcome, is wholly unsatisfactory. 

The picture meanders along for about an hour.  After reaching the port of New Guinea, they acquire a van, and drive around for hours, relying on their GPS, and various travel advisaries.  One such advisary warns them of kids being planted in the middle of the road so men, armed with guns, can proceed to rob and likely beat the people in the car (sometimes to death).  Guess what happens about five minutes later?  Frustratingly, one of the girls is driving and refuses to drive around the kid for fear of hitting him.  Women drivers!  Get what I'm saying guys?  Lots of shit like this happens.  I expected a crocodile attack at some point based on all the foreshadowing croc talk, but I guess rigging something like that wasn't in the budget.  We do get a group of Christian missionaries in the jungle though.  Well, we see two of them and are told the rest of the group is a mile away.  Extras cost money, after all.  Mikey, predictably, makes fun of them.  At least it looked like this picture was shot on some sort of location.  I'm told Fiji.  A good vacation was had by all.

Besides being populated by cannibals, the jungle is home to another Australian.  Call him Kurtz.  He's a fat gas station attendant looking motherfucker.  He berates the kids when they mess with some sacred burial mounds or something.  Tells them to go back the way they came.  I mentioned this was a "found footage" picture right?  Well, we got one camera to this point and it's used pretty well.  The shakey cam usage seems authentic and is not overly distracting.  Lots of good shots of Mikey and Bijou frolicking through the jungle, making fun of Colby and the other broad - already forgot her name, rolling cigarettes, drinking all the booze, eating all the food, etc.  In other words, an hour of fun for the viewer.

The first reveal of a cannibal is matter-of-factly creepy.  I didn't even see the guy at first.  Then, Mikey pans the camera, revealing more.  By this point, Mikey and Bijou have completely left the other two behind.  They've taken a raft (someone just left it there, apparently) and made their way down a river.  Things end badly and then we switch to camera #2 (conveniently, the other broad had a spare in her bag).  Also, the cannibals have no interest in filming their deeds.  I don't know man.  This thing was ok.  Not every movie has to set the world on fire.  The acting was fine, for what they were asked to do (annoy the shit out of the audience).  I won't reveal what happens to Colby and the remainig girl other than to say they end up eating a "meal" with some "friendlies". 

Then they get murdered and eaten and some old white guy walks in front of the, now, unmanned camera.  How did this footage ever get found?  Why ask questions like this?  I'm sure the cannibals preserved the camera and kept it safe from the rain, other jungle elements, etc.  Maybe one of them got greedy and sold the footage to some grocery store rag.  Doesn't really matter and, to be honest, I'll forget about such questions as soon as this post is published.  If you must watch some cannibal fare, I'd suggest Cannibal Holocaust (as long as you can stomach the animal kills) or perhaps Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive (chock full of hilarious misogyny).  Both made in an era where you could show some actual nastiness while not hiding behind a lame gimmick.  Anyway, this was fun (the write up).  Maybe I'll do it again some time.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Shit, I have a blog don't I? Someday I'll get back to writing on this thing.  Someday, soon.  Someday, when they stop calling these things blogs.  Till then...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Trucker (2008)

Trucker opens with the sounds of sex.  The camera eventually reveals the sex to be between Diane (Michelle Monaghan)  and Joey Lawrence's brother.  The sex is taking place in a seedy hotel room.  It was possibly pre-arranged, maybe even paid for.  Diane certainly wants to keep it anonymous.  As soon as it's over she splashes some water on her face and leaves the room after rebuking the kid's request to stay in touch via email.  The camera follows her as she crosses a parking lot. She then gets into a big rig and hauls it out of there.  Whoaaaa (as Joey might say), this broads a trucker.  Pretty hot.  The title now makes sense.

Trucker
is one of those indie dramas that I don't review (or watch) that often.  It's a simple story about a woman truck driver who is reunited with her estranged son who she hasn't seen since he was a baby (he's now 11).   The boy's father (Benjamin Bratt) is in the hospital with colon cancer and the stepmother (Joey Lauren Adams) has to attend to her own ailing father.  Diane's their last option.  Reluctantly, she takes the kid.  The kid ain't too happy about it either.

You see, Diane is one of those independent type women.  This kid's gonna cramp her style.  All she wants to do in life is drive her rig (which she proudly owns) and get drunk with her good buddy Runner (Nathan Fillion).  There's no room in there for a kid.  Meanwhile, the kid just wants to be back with his daddy who is a pretty great daddy in the opinion of the kid.  He takes care of him, pays attention to him, plays games with him, and puts food on the table for him.  Diane isn't really willing to do any of those things.  Will she come to love the little guy?  Will he love her back? 

Basically, what we got here is a story not unlike more popular shit like The Wrestler or Crazy/Heart only the central character is just a regular Joe (or Joan) and not some former celebrity trying to reclaim past glory.  Diane's a truck driver.  That's pretty much all she wants to do.  In that regard I guess it makes sense that they got the blue collar Michelle Monaghan to play the part.  Although, if Charlize Theron or Sandra Bullock had taken it they'd probably have another Oscar on their mantle.  Monaghan just doesn't come with the same name recognition which is a shame since she does great work here.  The script is a little on the predictable side.  She and her kid don't get along.  Then all of a sudden they do get along just in time for the reveal that they're going to have to spend a lot more time together than originally planned.  Commence the tugging of heart strings.

My favorite part of the picture was when Diane has to take the kid on the road with her.  She gets tired and pulls off to the side of the road.  Kid is like "what the fuck are you doing?"  She tells him to get in the back of the cab, shut up, and go to sleep.  Kid's like "I don't think so....we're going to a hotel".  Cut to them walking into a hotel room.  Later, the kid gets pushed down by a couple of punks while trying to buy a toothbrush.  Diane runs out in a skimpy tee shirt and panties and kicks their asses.  There's more bonding like this throughout the movie as the two come to realize just how alike they are.  They play baseball together, kid hits some guy with a bat that may have been thinking about assaulting Diane, breakfast burritos with Fillion, etc.

Overall, I give this a plus rating.  Sometimes I just want to watch a little of the ol' slice of life type shit.  The supporting cast is good.  Nathan Fillion plays a guy whose wife is apparently cheating on him with some asshole but that's ok cause he's in love with Diane anyway.  Fillion's acting range lies somewhere between puppy dog nice and slightly older dog nice, but he's great within that range.  Bratt is good in his limited screentime, another nice guy.  And whoever played the kid isn't bad either.  Not too annoying.  Anyway, this is one of the better trucker type movies out there.  It could have used an orangutan but that's a nitpick.