Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Fistful of Westerns! (Brad's Picks)

A couple days ago America celebrated another birthday with the release of the much maligned, and certainly under appreciated Bruckheimer/Verbinski Western extravaganza, The Lone Ranger.  It's been a long hard road to the silver screen, taking five years and over $250 million dollars, but the world has finally been assaulted by Johnny Depp's bird-hat wearing Tonto.  It is this year's John Carter, more attention has been given to its budget and the ballooning behind-the-scenes than the final product, but those that bothered to see it this holiday mostly seem to fall on the "Hated It" half.  I was pretty much ready to go in guns blazing, but I quickly found myself intoxicated by its oddity.  The Lone Ranger is weird, gross, violent, ugly, bloated, and perverted.  I thought it was amazing, and possibly my favorite Blockbuster of the Summer so far.  I am deeply perplexed by this reaction, and will certainly have to sit down for a second viewing to check my sanity, but as of right now The Lone Ranger is my favorite Bruckheimer production since the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

That being said, this ain't your granddaddy's Saturday Morning Serial.  Those looking forward to a cartoony reinvention of their beloved characters should look elsewhere.  This is not Sam Peckinpah's West.  It's not John Ford's Monument Valley.  This is not tribute filmmaking.  It's a straight up Gore Verbinski weirdo picture, and there might be hints of the familiar, but the closest it gets to homage is the bonkers Spaghetti Western tone.  Not Leone or Corbucci, but The Lone Ranger has moments that dip into the painfully unfunny absurdity of Mario Bava's Roy Colt & Winchester Jack.  I am happy to report that there are a handful of whacko critics out there defending the film, and if you're curious to see other chipper reviews, click on over to IndieWire to experience the minority opinion.

At the very least, The Lone Ranger has reawakened the Westerns conversation.  People bemoan its demise, but even if we're not getting a dozen new Westerns a year, the genre is far from dead and I can think of at least a handful of films that made my Top Ten lists during the 21st Century (Django Unchained, True Grit, Appaloosa, 3:10 To Yuma, and The Proposition).  I am a dork for many things. I love Star Trek.  I love Planet of the Apes.  I love Hellboy & Batman.  But my all time love has to be the Western with its frontiers and outlaws, it's open ranges and the men determined to fence them in.  Picking my Top Five Westerns is a nearly debilitating challenge.  I can tell you that my Top Three have been set in stone for at last ten years, but the back two switched in and out a half dozen times before I just settled with the final result.  It really does pain me not to include Johnny Guitar, but I finally let it slide due to a lack of viewings.  However, give me a few years and 5 more rewatches, and I'm betting Johnny Guitar will fall into the number 3 or even 2 slot.  As it stands today, these are my true loves.

5.  The Proposition:  A revisionist Western (gah, it seems like all Westerns are revisionist Westerns!) set in the Australian Outback, The Proposition begins when one brother (Guy Pearce) is captured by the British government, and charged with the assassination of his eldest brother (Danny Huston).  If he refuses, the youngest Burns Brother (Richard Wilson) will be executed for the crimes he perpetrated under their demonic tutelage.  The Proposition has to be one of the angriest and meanest movies I've ever experienced.  It is absolutely unrelenting in its pessimism and critique of westward expansion (or in this case, Global expansion).  Danny Huston might as well be Satan himself, a murderous rapist so uncompromisingly vile that the audience forgives Pearce's obvious scumbag mantle.  The Duke does not ride to the rescue of the damsel.  There is only misery here.  But it's a hell of a heart-thumper, a real deal horror film minus the spooks and goblins.

4.  The Professionals:  Here is your classic adventure film.  A Texas millionaire (Ralph Bellamy) hires four tough men to venture down into Mexico to retrieve his young bride from a villainous bandit king (Jack Palance).  As is the case with most Westerns, the rich = bad men and the poor = brave revolutionaries.  Our heroes are the Man's Mans of yesteryear, real tough dudes that just don't appear in Hollywood these days.  Lee Marvin is the military might, a born leader of men aching to fight the good fight.  Burt Lancaster is his scalawag buddy, he cares less about the cause and more about the reward.  Woody Strode is the halfbreed Apache scout, a mean hombre with a bow & arrow.  Robert Ryan is the horse wrangler, and the man who struggles the most with the morality of their mission.  Directed by Richard Brooks, The Professionals very much has that Dirty Dozen vibe, but its smaller cast allows for Lancaster & Marvin to charm their way into your heart as they dismiss gold for glory.  Honor over wealth, the stuff of Legend.

3.  Once Upon A Time In The West:  Clint Eastwood's Dollars Trilogy was simply Sergio Leone practicing for this film.  As epic as anything seen in The Lord of the Rings or Lawrence of Arabia, Once Upon A Time In The West is an attempt to cram in every genre convention from railroad expansion to mysterious strangers, from saloon brawls to sunset sayonaras.  This is kitchen sink cinema at its finest.  Henry Fonda is a profit killer - men, women, children, whatever - but he's too cocky to be unstoppable.  Charles Bronson is Harmonica, the drifter who stumbles into town with an obvious agenda for death.  Claudio Cardinale is the hooker with the heart of gold, a woman who falls into the gunsights of American Rail.  And Jason Robards is the bandit with delusions of domesticity.  Over the course of three hours these four characters butt heads and get their Spaghetti Western extreme closeups.  Ultra melodrama done right.  

2:  Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid:  It's impossible to watch this film and not also witness the breaking of Sam Peckinpah's heart.  This is the end for the director.  He would have a couple of films after this one (even one great one), but Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid is his last hurrah in the genre he reinvented.  Couple that with the already emotionally devastating plot, and you have one of the most sombre films ever produced.  Kris Kristofferson is The Kid, the last of a dying breed.  The railroad has connected America, the Wild West is forever gone.  James Coburn is Sheriff Garrett, a former outlaw who knows when the show's over and takes the Government's money in exchange for his best friends capture.  Both men are trapped by destiny, or at least their perceptions of it.  During the last moments of the film you can sense Peckinpah's unwillingness to adhere to history (his tiny undertaker cameo is the silent scream), and I sometimes fantasize for his Inglourious Basterds revision.  Alas, death is there.

1.  Unforgiven:  For me, and a lot of people, Clint Eastwood is the Western.  The Good The Bad and The Ugly, The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter.  How can you pick one above the other?  Well, personal nostalgia gets part of the credit for this film's placement at numero uno; Unforgiven was the first Western I ever saw in the theater.  At the time, I remember thinking the film was a little boring and my Dad was verbally abusive towards it upon exiting the theater.  However, when I rediscovered the picture in college, after having consumed everything by Sergio Leone and John Ford, I deeply responded to the climactic switcheroo.  For nearly all it's runtime, you are on Clint Eastwood's side.  He's an old widowed gunfighter who picks up a bounty to put supper on his children's table.  But the killings he commits along the way reawaken the bad man inside.  He's not the noble High Noon white hat of the 1950s.  He's William Munny, the killer of women and children.  He's damned.  And he knows it.


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